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December 31, 2012

End of 2012

Odd year. Didn't do as much travel as I had in recent years, in terms of number of trips, but I did take the longest trip distance-wise I'd ever taken, to Kazakhstan. Quite a few interviews, but no significant long pieces in the media. Not many posts here, but pieces here hit topics likely of great importance over the next decade.

My favorites from 2012:

  • The Future Isn't What It Used To Be, arguing that we pay too much attention to technological shifts, missing the critical changes in society. This is probably my favorite post of the year. If you're going to read only one of these, read this one.
  • Got the Time, about the massive challenges facing the global environment.
  • Opaque Projections, about deception and control in a world lacking privacy.
  • The Pink Collar Future, about the unexpected implications of an increasingly roboticized future.
  • Nine Meditations on Complexity, arguing that complexity is the combination of complication and interconnectedness.
  • Lies, Damn Lies, and Twitter Bots, looking at how easily social media could be used to intentionally disrupt the economy.
  • I'm Just a Love Machine, about the unintended results of the emergence of "sex bots."

    Over at The Well, Bruce Sterling is engaged in his annual "state of the world" discussion. This is always worth checking out, and this year is covering everything from art to the quantified self. My favorite bit, so far, is his piece describing why ethnic/political enclaves desiring independence might just want to rethink their goals. Here's a small(!) taste:

    However, as somebody who's spent a lot of time in a region [Serbia] where such a devolution was actually carried out in real life, I need to warn Catalans about a few consequences of such a victory.

    First, you're never going to unite all the ethnic Catalans on some definite patch of ground. You're sure to create new minorities who share your ethnicity outside whatever patch you successfully claim. These abandoned guys are going to be a lot of trouble for you. There's also going to plenty of woe from multi-ethnic families, families newly divided by new borders, and so on.

    Also, you'll have new non-Catalan national minorities inside your own area. Naturally you think you're going to be really nice to them, much nicer than they were to you when they were the majority, and ruling over you. That isn't true. In a national secession, the sweet-tempered, nice guys are not going to win. Otherwise they would have already been nice and sensible in the statehouse in Madrid.

    Your former fellow-citizens are suddenly going to become foreigners. Places that you used to visit casually, properties you own, will become alien territory. Towns and cities on the new national borders will be economically strangled. Long-established businesses will pull out or shrink in size. Expect property courts clogged for decades.

    […] As soon as you're a nation, you'll have a new "national language." You'll have to change all the names on the street-sign, the school textbooks, re-write and republish the ancient classics, harass guys who blog without the proper spelling, insist that the EU translate all previous documents into your lingo, and so forth. You will never complete this orthographic reform work. It's impossible. The more energy you waste on it, the more you're going to look like chintzy, niggling fanatics.

    Bruce is eloquent and insightful, and worth your time.

    See you next year.

  • December 12, 2012

    I'm Just a Love Machine

    Metropolis maria

    Artifice and Consent in the Age of Robotics

    The notion of robot love has a long history, and by far the dominant emphasis has been on its erotic manifestation. After all, the reasoning goes, a sufficiently advanced robot would offer all of the physical pleasure of a real partner with no emotional entanglements, personal judgments, or dissipating affections, in an un-aging body that can be sculpted to look exactly as one desires. Famous movie actors and actresses might even set up a lucrative side-business licensing their own bodily images to robot manufacturers, even long after time and nature had taken a toll.

    In this scenario, physical beauty wouldn’t be the only attraction. A robotic lover would never say no, and would willingly embrace one’s darkest fantasies without revulsion. Curiosities, kinks, and perversions could be explored safely, without the potential to harm or exploit any other person.

    Given all of this, it seems that sex with robots is almost over-determined. It’s a cliché to assert that sex is a prime driver of digital innovation, but that has certainly been true for many Internet-related technologies. It’s unclear how readily that would translate to robotics, but one indicator is the abundance of the “sex bot” trope (in both male and female forms) in popular fiction, from “Lucy LiuBot” in Futurama to “Gigolo Joe” in A.I..

    Such scenarios remain, for now, deeply embedded in the world of fiction, but it’s not hard to imagine that we’re already halfway there. A quick visit to a present-day sex toy website will find hundreds of life-like devices, for both men and women, available for physical enjoyment (although it’s interesting to note that the vast majority of life-like sex toys are built for women, not men). For those customers with deeper pockets, full-size sex dolls, with internal articulated skeletons and life-like silicone bodies—and all necessary orifices and/or protuberances—can be had for around $5,000. Admittedly, these sexual tools are only marginally robot-like; at best, some offer limited motions, or make triggered noises. Sex bots that actively participate in the encounter remain fevered dreams.

    Unsurprisingly, there are plenty of critics of the very idea of a sex robot. Most focus on sexualized gynoids in fiction, arguing (fairly convincingly) that most non-parody uses of female-appearing sex bots embody larger social biases about women’s roles. But some critiques attack the potential reality of sex bots, not just their use as metaphor. Here, the fears focus on the possible disruption to social norms arising from the availability of artificially “perfect” sexual partners.

    At minimum, critics claim, the presence of sex bots would begin to alter expectations for how members of the appropriate sex would look and behave. This follows from similar arguments about how present-day popular culture shape desires, often through images manipulated to portray an almost inhuman level of attractiveness—only now, this once unattainable beauty has an entirely attainable physical form. Even more troubling for critics, sex bots are inherently willing to do whatever a person may want; real mates would never be as agreeable and as submissive to one’s desires as a machine you programmed yourself.

    In these fearful scenarios, the appeal of human sexual partners can do nothing but wither in comparison to the lust-made-”flesh” of a sex bot. The inevitable result of people foregoing real relationships in favor of perfect (but non-reproducing) partners is, of course, the End of Civilization. It’s as if these critics see sex as the only driver for human relationships, and are all-too-ready to abandon any other form of intimate connection. Fortunately, there are strong drivers for bonding that go beyond physical coupling.

    But even if the critics exaggerate the possibility of a “sex bot apocalypse,” there is a more subtle cultural complication that would arise along with LoveMakerBots. Our fundamental laws and norms around sex come down to consent: entities that are incapable of giving true consent are off-limits. A robot can be programmed to be constantly willing, but—absent the emergence of self-aware artificial intelligence—cannot be programmed to give true consent. This isn’t something many of us worry about when it comes to, say, vibrators, but when the design of the robot elicits an empathic, emotional reaction, intentionally or otherwise, an inability to give consent may for some move unexpectedly from irrelevant to deeply disturbing.

    As the robotic devices we build trigger our emotional sensitivities in more and more complex ways, some of us will find it difficult to simply dismiss sex bots as nothing more than advanced models of sex toys. Sex play with a lifeless device is one thing; sex play with something that acts as if it has feelings (no matter how artificial), but inherently cannot say “no,” is quite another. And the more that these artificial feelings replicate and generate human responses, the more difficult this problem will become.

    This is where we may see the first signs of a real dispute over the ethics of how robots will be treated. Sex bots offer a dilemma that overlaps issues of sexual norms, non-human rights, gender, technology’s social role, religion, even economics (for example: if inexpensive sex robots exist, what would happen to women who had been working as prostitutes for economic survival?); as such, it will be a conflict that will swiftly escalate in intensity and rancor.

    Early debates on the treatment of robots may be driven, at least in part, by a sense of “wrongness” about the treatment of something that looks—and increasingly feels—human. What does it do to us, as humans, to treat something that looks and acts as if it is human in every important way as little more than a toy to be shoved under the bed? This argument may end up being the first shot in a larger battle over where autonomous devices fit in our society.

    It’s an ironic scenario: the sex bot, conceived of as little more than a vibrator that talks, may end up being the catalyst for the fight for true robot rights.

    December 11, 2012

    AI Yes, Zombies No

    I spoke with Adam Bluestein of Inc. for about an hour a few weeks ago on a wide array of topics. The resulting article is now out: three questions. Ah, media.

    Here's the last question. Of the three, it has the most interesting reply (IMO):

    You've done some work in the gaming and entertainment industries. What developments are you tracking there?
    The advances in artificial intelligence in gaming--with nonplayer characters behaving more and more like humans--are just incredible. Any real breakthrough in AI is going to come from gaming. In entertainment, zombies are so played out. I have a gut sense that people are getting tired of apocalyptic scenarios. I expect we'll see more TV and movies, like Star Trek, that show a world that actually looks like a good place to live.

    Note that this conversation took place before the release of the trailer for the latest Star Trek movie, which appears to include lots of grim destruction of Earth cities. Again, I say: ah, media.


    I've been unusually quiet here of late. I knew that I was heading into an especially busy period work-wise, but I wasn't planning on a few non-work-related crises appearing all at once. Above and beyond reasonable expectations kind of stuff. Anyway, I'm trying to get focused again.

    Jamais Cascio

    Contact Jamais  ÃƒÂƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚ƒÃ‚¢Ã‚€Â¢  Bio

    Co-Founder, WorldChanging.com

    Director of Impacts Analysis, Center for Responsible Nanotechnology

    Fellow, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

    Affiliate, Institute for the Future


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