For year's we've been talking about the role of technology in our lives. Let's fast forward and instead ask, what's the role of humanity in a world of technology?
John’s day started in exactly the same way as any other day. As usual, he was woken up by Alice, his voice-activated personal assistant. At thirty years old, he relies on her to look after every aspect of his life; healthcare, communication, leisure, food and transport. Nothing happens without Alice intervening in some way. He lives in Heaven, a newish Metropolis for over 15 million Americans, built quickly from scratch on what had been never-ending Texas prairie.
John loves being roused from a deep sleep by Alice. Long gone are the alarm calls and ringtones that shock you out of your slumber, Alice knows exactly what John likes, she’s programmed with a melodic pattern based on his brain waves and body micro-movements while he sleeps. It always feels just right!
John walks slowly into the bathroom, splashes his face with water and stares at his own reflection in the mirror above the sink. The motto that punctuates his day from the roadside billboards comes to mind, “Another happy day in Heaven!”.
“John, you look sad!”, Alice’s voice was as warm as that of the loving wife he’d never had. His body scan shows a 7% reduction in happiness and, as everyone knows, unhappiness is the fastest route to ill health.
“You need a little boost of optimistic energy”, Alice continues, “Please drink the smoothie I’m making in the kitchen. And I suggest at least 23 minutes on the bike to release more endorphins.”
By bike Alice means the stationary device, of course. To reduce the incidence of traffic accidents and serious injury, manually controlling any vehicle moving faster than 5mph had been outlawed 7 years ago. Since then there had been no fatal accidents reported in the Metropolis of Heaven. Just one of the many successes attributed to the Heaven project.
Today would have progressed like any other, were it not for one rather unremarkable thing that happened just as John finished his smoothie - which was, by the way, one of the best he’d ever had. Alice knew what he liked better than he did. These days she curated all of his food selections, based on completed and uncompleted meals over the past few years. There was nothing; not consistency, colour, smell nor aroma that John could complain about.
It was as this thought passed his untroubled mind that he heard the sound of an ambulance next door. Such an unexpected noise required investigation. John quickly went outside where he met his neighbour, Fred, at the white picket fence. Fred was always extremely excited about any local goings-on because nothing ever really happened in Heaven.
The ambulance had stopped on the other side of John’s house where a few minutes later another neighbour, Tom was pulled out of his house, dressed in a straitjacket. His face was red with anger.
“I am not mad! You are!”. He was screaming and swearing loudly as he was roughly pulled into the ambulance. A few minutes later the ambulance was gone and John’s little corner of Heaven returned to its usual peaceful, tranquil state.
“John, you haven’t finished your smoothie”, Alice notices that he is back and checks the glass using visual analysis algorithms. For the first time ever, John ignores the lovely voice and goes upstairs to the attic where he keeps all his family momentos. He opens a cardboard box and starts to browse some old family photos. He looks back at a time when his parents and grandparents were young - a very different world. Although Alice hasn’t joined him in the attic, she can also see the photos thanks to the high resolution cameras in every room of the house.
“Your family looks very happy there”, Alice disturbs his thoughts.
“Yes, they were”, John replies, lingering on one of the photos. It was his grandfather, caught on camera just after a rescue operation that he’d been a part of in a local mine. He had saved three lives, almost losing his own. He was a hero. He was smiling.
John realises he has never been injured or sick. He doesn’t really know what risk is. He has never had to work.
“I’d like to go for a drive”, he tells Alice. “Sure!”, she confirms, “Take a jacket, it is quite cool this morning”. John takes the passenger seat for this ‘drive’, as Alice controls gears, speed and direction, all based on current traffic predictions, weather and road quality (thanks to visual scanning). The car moves so smoothly that it seems not to touch the the ground at all - no sudden movement or speed changes. An extremely comfortable ride.
John is looking for a place that his father once told him about. The entrance to one of the disused local mines. When the car stops, John has a strong sense that he is the first person to have walked here for years. Alice warns him to turn around. Thanks to various sensors on John’s clothing, she’s able to detect risk even when she is not with him. What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger, thinks John.
He realises that nobody has walked here for years, the plants converge on the path making it hard to follow. Finally John reaches the entrance to one of the mines and enters. Alice’s voice is persistent now, “John stop! This place is dangerous!”.
John’s frustration with his life reaches breakpoint as he screams into the cave, “I can’t live like this! I need adventure, I want to get dirty or even hurt. I want to eat something that tastes awful or that, God forbid, is unhealthy. I can’t even remember what pain is. I need to feel it. I don’t want to always be happy.”
“You want to feel pain?”, asks Alice, trying to compute this irrational demand. “I do not understand”. For the first time ever, John ignores Alice’s well meaning advice and goes into the mine.
The next day starts in exactly the same way as any other day, were it not for one unremarkable thing. The sound of an ambulance grows in the distance, becoming gradually louder and louder. Once again John opens the front door to investigate. He freezes suddenly, dropping the most tasty smoothie drink ever. There is an ambulance parked in front of his door and two men in white uniforms are looking at him in silence. One of them has a straitjacket in his hand.
If you’ve read this far, you’ll realise that this is, of course, fiction. However, it is all based on what will be possible in the not too distant future. There was much discussion of voice-activated assistants and the brain computer interface at our own Unconference last week. So this is fiction, for now, but not sci-fi. And, yes, there’s a point that we’re making here.
It’s not that we’re all doomed to live pointless, emotionless lives where we lose the ability to even feel. There’s a lot of scaremongering about Artificial Intelligence. Will it take our jobs? Will it steal our autonomy? Will it turn against us? The fact is, AI is what we make it. It needs to be programmed to learn. At the end of the day, it’s the human element that shapes AI and makes it what it is.
At Cognifide, we’re not building robots, but we are advising clients every day on how to get the best from the technology that they’ve invested in. The ability for technology to transform a business depends entirely on the people that are building it and using it. We’re still some way off living lives like John but rather than learning lessons from the past, perhaps we should look to the future. To transform the way we work, perhaps we should be putting people first.
17 February 2016Jedrzej Osinski
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