One 26-year-old says more than half his memories come from his online life. A Japanese man marries a voluptuous digital avatar. A corporate laboratory implants memories in 7-year-olds, convincing them they swam with dolphins. In their minds, they even got wet.
Even for our greatest philosopher of the surreal, Sigmund Freud, reality remained rooted in the personal and social. A century on, however, technology is granting us the ability to alter our perception of reality, construct multiple representations of ourselves like avatars, and have relationships with artificial agents like robots. All of these are simultaneously expanding and destabilizing our sense of self.
Technology is a “second self,” as MIT professor Sherry Turkle has explained: a new interface between us and others. Debates over whether social technologies cause “detachment” from reality miss the point that we are entering a new hybrid reality in which assumptions about authenticity are fundamentally challenged: Who is real? What is the line between physical and virtual? Do we each get to live our own version of the truth?
Let us begin with technology’s growing ability to manipulate how much information we have about the world around us. Google glasses and soon pixelated contact lenses will allow us to augment reality with a layer of data. Future versions may provide a more intrusive view, such as sensing your vital signs and stress level. Such augmentation has the potential to empower us with a feeling of enhanced access to “reality.” Whether or not this represents truth, however, is elusive. Consider the opposite of augmented reality: “deletive reality.” If pedestrians in New York or Mumbai don’t want to see homeless people, they could delete them from view in real-time. This not only diminishes the diversity of reality; it also blocks us from developing empathy.
The possibilities for new physical (rather than just visual) self-other relationships are emerging through haptic (“touch”) technologies that enhance intimate sensations. Adrian Cheok of Singapore has coined the emerging field of “Lovotics” at the intersection of love (philosophy, psychology, biology, neuroscience) and robotics (artificial intelligence and engineering). His “Kissenger” device is a matching pair of plastic lips pre-shaped to match you and your loved one. The porn industry is promising tele-dildonic devices that convert interactive virtual behavior into real-life sensations as well. Technology can even insinuate itself into our most intimate psychological spaces by awakening invisible neuro-chemical bonds with one another. UCLA professor Dan Siegel’s research uses fMRI technology coupled with neuro-prosthetics to allow people to share the “state of mind” generated in the frontal cortex of the brain. We could actually create a pluralistic soul out of our most individual essence.
The more time we spend in virtual environments, the more the distinction between real and digital blends away. Of the eight hours a day children today spend online, one and a half of those are using avatars (compared with only 30 minutes reading print). Microsoft’s forthcoming Avatar Kinect features photo-grammatic technology that creates near perfect digital replication of facial features including animation of your expressions. The allure of constant 3-D virtual life with our real companions will prove irresistible. As this converges with technologies like Wii and 3-D TV, which already give us the foundations for mass hands-free (and glasses-free) digital immersion, we create an interactive virtual universe. The way we navigate the Internet will evolve in step, moving from text-based Wiki to multi-media Qwiki. At Keio University, engineers are developing a system best described as tele-existence. Called the “Twister,” a room replicates any background scene in 3-D, while Twisters in different locations could allow multiple sets of participants to feel as if collectively teleported to the same setting.
The radically improved realism of immersive technological experience has propelled the purpose of our online life from social escapism to professional tool to parallel life to eventually two sides of the same coin. As the texture of the online aesthetic is becoming rich enough to rival the real one, which will we prefer? In hybrid reality, both are equally important.
We may attempt, then, to transcend our most finite commodity—time—by multiplying ourselves to maximize each moment. Initially our avatars are a direct expression of ourselves, but eventually, with the advent of AI+, we may use multiple avatars as expressions of various facets of our personalities. We may even imbue them with certain preferences that they can pursue in cyber-life, potentially creating deep entanglements on our behalf. Such an autonomous avatar isn’t just a direct representation of our real selves, but actually shapes our individual psychology and behavior. The digital mirror has a subliminal voice.
The combination of cloud-based data, devices, and software that allow us to search and share, and artificial intelligence capable of semantic understanding heralds the rise of a collective intelligence. The Internet, Jeffrey Stibel argues, is not just becoming like a brain. It is a brain: It ingests data, processes them, and “provides answers without knowing questions.” As our cognitive processes are increasingly shared with devices, networks, and the physical environment, our sense of self increasingly morphs to become the sum of our connections and relationships. Rather than one single identity, we each have a personal identity ecology combining our real and virtual selves and our semantic links floating in the global mind (“Noosphere”). Google’s Sergey Brin calls this having “the entire world’s knowledge connected directly to your mind.”
This does not have to be done sitting in a chair. Microsoft’s Gordon Bell conducted a decade of “LifeLogging,” which can now be replicated by anyone using Zeo’s portable recording devices, which can capture just about everything we do and see. Eventually we might be able to upload this knowledge to our own parallel portable brain such as that being developed by IBM’s SyNAPSE team, a life-size carbon-nano-cortex of circuitry that will mimic the architecture and efficiency of the human brain while potentially exceeding its speed. Through such “cognitive computing,” we could potentially control all our identities simultaneously. Today your official identity converges around a national ID or Facebook login, tomorrow perhaps your DNA, but beyond that there are few if any limitations.