As of last year, we humans have been outnumbered by mobile devices alone. That isn’t even counting the laptops and desktops that have already set up shop on our desks and in our drawers and bags. The odds are stacked against us, so when someone eventually presses the big blue button (the red one is for the nukes), the machines presumably won’t waste any time before turning on us for fear of being deactivated. However, I don’t think we need to worry too much.
Considering that it would be both wasteful and inefficient to try to wipe us all out with bombs and bullets, à la Terminator, perhaps a more insidious approach will be used. Why not take the lessons learned from (suggested by?) The Matrix and utilise our fleshy bodies as sustenance, keeping us docile with a steady drip-fed diet and a virtual world for our minds to occupy. It would be presumptuous, if not downright rude of the Machine Overlords to simply assume that we would be content to live such a false existence while operating our giant hamster wheels. This certainly doesn’t sound like a palatable outcome for our species (we showed so much promise in the beginning), but I believe that, not only is it not a bad thing, it could be viewed as the inexorable next step for society. Since my primitive mind of a Millennial is saturated with insipid visual media, let us look at two examples of human subjugation by the A.I, from the films WALL-E and The Matrix, in which we are batteries in the latter and fat pets in the former.
The whole point of technological advance was to improve our lives by creating machines to shoulder the burden of industry and allow us all to leisurely spend our days sitting in fields and drinking lemonade. While machines have vastly improved industrial output, we have no more free time now than the peasants of the so called Dark Ages. So, to placate us and help forget how cheated we should all feel, we are offered the chance to purchase items that will entertain us, make our lives a bit easier and enable us to claw back more of our precious free time. Online shopping, ready meals, automatic weapons, smartphones, drive-thru, the Internet of Things; these are all supposed to make our lives less of an inconvenience. Even knowledge has become convenient to the point where we don’t even need to learn things anymore; all the information in the world is only ever a BackRub away (Google it). This is what people want, is it not? My (smart) television tells me almost every day that each new age group of children is more rotund and feckless than the last, and it isn’t difficult to see why.
In WALL-E, a drained Earth has been abandoned by the human race, which now lives in colossal self-sufficient spacecraft wandering the galaxy in autopilot. Every human resides in a moving chair with a touchscreen displaying mindless entertainment, and devours hamburgers and fizzy drinks, pressed into their pudgy, grasping hands (convenient?) by robots controlled by an omnipotent A.I. These humans are utterly dependent, to the point where their bones and muscles have deteriorated, rendering them barely able to stand unaided, and are certainly unable (and unwilling) to wrestle back control of their lives.
Looking at today’s world, the McDonalds logo is more internationally recognisable than the Christian Crucifix, and Coca-Cola is consumed at the rate of roughly 1.9 billion servings every day. The world is so hungry for this, we won’t even let wars stop us from obtaining it. Coca-Cola GmbH in Nazi Germany was unable to import the integral syrup due to trade embargo, so a replacement was created using cheap milk and grape leftovers that Germany had in good supply, thus Fanta was born. The point is that we are clearly unperturbed about eating and drinking things that are, at best, very bad for us, as long as they press the right chemical buttons. We want what is cheap, tasty and readily available. We also want what is convenient and familiar, which is why Walmart alone accounts for about 8 cents of every dollar spent in the USA. Between our growing hunger for convenience foods and sweet drinks, and the widespread fascination of brainless celebrities and homogenous music, we are not far from the WALL-E eventuality at all. Considering how quickly we have arrived at this current state of society, we seem to be merely waiting for the technology to mature. If you build it, they will come… and sit down.
The Matrix, as I’m sure you know, takes place in a world where machines have taken over as the dominant force on the planet. Most of the human race is imprisoned in endless fields of endless towers lined with fluid-filled capsules, in which each human’s body heat is used to fuel the machines in the absence of solar energy. These humans are placed in a collective dream world, called the Matrix, which mimics their society of old, and most of them will never even suspect that their world is anything other than real. Those who do are sometimes found by resistance fighters, who “free” them to live in a world of relentless pursuit by robotic sentinels, living in cold, crude hovercrafts, and bowls of snot for breakfast.
Going back to our world, media is ever more prevalent, and technology is giving us more and more immersion in that media. Film began as black and white, then colour, then HD, then 3D, and now 4K, which is approaching the maximum resolution that our eyes can perceive, depending on distance. In search of even greater immersion, we are now turning our attention to VR and AG (Augmented Reality), which could well be the most exciting of them all. Google recently launched Google Glass; AG glasses which display various pieces of information in the corner of your vision, such as reminders or directions. They will even take pictures if you tell them to. Regardless of whether Glass takes off, the potential in this technology is astounding. Not too long from now, you will be able to walk around with a Heads Up Display (HUD) displaying all of your vital information, as well as a little bar to indicate how full your bladder is. A somewhat less exciting version of this is already being developed by Google and Novartis, in the form of a contact lens for diabetes sufferers, which monitors glucose levels and transmits readings to a smartphone or computer. Back to the HUD, when you drive somewhere (assuming you actually do the driving, we are trying to automate that bit as well), you are guided by arrows in your vision. If you visit a racetrack, you can compete against the ghostly image of a friend’s car that follows the same path and speed as they once did. You could find out how you stack up against anybody who has driven that track before, perhaps even the Stig!
Of course, these examples use AG as a peripheral to everyday life, and with this arm of progress will come the other, Virtual Reality. The videogame industry has looked into this before, particularly Nintendo with their Virtual Boy in 1995, but now that the technology has caught up, it is being revisited with substantially more impressive results. A famous example of this is the Oculus Rift VR headset, which potentially allows you to become completely immersed in whatever world your virtual avatar occupies, moving its viewpoint as you move your head. From there, it is a short step to imagine places where people go to enjoy low cost, virtual holidays, such as what you may have seen in Total Recall or Inception, albeit the latter is literally a dream rather than a virtual world. From holidays will come the possibility of extended stays in virtual worlds, the opportunity to spend months or even years in a universe of your choosing. It is an addicting prospect, at least in the short term, and you can bet that some will lose their taste for “reality” and embrace the virtual as its successor.
Nonetheless, to most people, living a purely virtual life probably doesn’t sound very appealing, and could feel like a loss of liberty and free will. However, that is only when coupled with the knowledge that it isn’t the world you were born in, and that makes it appear spurious at first. So much of what we think we know is apocryphal and easily influenced, even down to the things we see, hear, taste, smell and think. Added to that, when you consider how tenuous your perception of reality is, you might come to the conclusion that your reality is precisely what you make of it, nothing more and nothing less. I may be “free” by the standards of The Matrix films, but I can’t fly very well, breakfast cereals are boring and I keep banging my knee on my desk. Some people’s “freedom” is even worse than mine. An orphan in the third-world, destined for a pitiful existence of misery and hunger, could he or she not benefit from a new virtual life with a family that hasn’t died of disease and malnutrition?
Humour me for a moment, and imagine that you are walking along a path made of flawless polished granite bricks. On your right, a radiant sun is beaming down upon a pristine beach of hot white sand and an opalescent turquoise sea, casting glittering beads that skitter towards the shore to a soundtrack of undulating waves. Friends, both new and old, are already there, waiting for you on brightly coloured towels, laughing and playing games. On your left, a tranquil field of golden corn stalks, swaying to the sounds of birds chirping in a cool evening breeze. The sun is retreating behind an antique wooden farmhouse, teasing light in warm streaks across a narrow stream that runs alongside like a glistening silver ribbon. All of your family, even those who were once lost to you, are lounging nearby on a grassy verge, with cool drinks poured and wicker baskets full of food ready to be enjoyed. Of course, this isn’t real, but what about if I could, right now, make you forget your current “reality” and wake up in a new universe where everything and everyone is just as you would want them to be?
To paraphrase Neo from the aforementioned visual media: I know you’re out there, I can feel you. I can feel that you’re afraid, afraid of change. I didn’t come here to tell you how the world is going to end, rather to show you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to finish this paragraph, and then I’m going to show you a world without me. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries, a world where anything is possible. Where you go from there is a choice I leave to you.
Author: Andy Cole, SBL