In your story, “The Perfect Match,” Sai needs Tilly the AI to make decisions for him. Tilly can find him the perfect date, can suggest the best place to go for dessert, can organize his daily tasks from beginning to end, effectively removing his decision-making from the equation. This matching of the perfect product for the perfect consumer reflects a growing trend in our daily lives. Is this evolution of algorithms making decisions for us something to embrace or something to be concerned about?
First, thanks for having me again, Lightspeed!
I suppose the answer to your question depends on one’s perspective. The Age of Big Data is upon us, and the externalization of our inner life and the outsourcing of our mental processes to technology are long-term trends. Do these trends free us to be more creative, more caring, more human? Or do they make us more dependent, more isolated, less human? Different temperaments and vantage points will lead us to give different answers.
I’m not so concerned about AIs doing our thinking for us—that’s a matter of technological advancement, which in itself is morally neutral. I’m far more concerned about the power these trends towards ubiquitous computing—especially the constant collection and accumulation of data about each of us—give to particular companies and individuals. This is especially so when the collection of data occurs within frameworks that appear voluntary. Those who are in possession of such data have the potential to know our innermost secrets, to shape our thinking, and to generally wield far more power over us than the totalitarian regimes in traditional dystopias.
Ultimately, I am not afraid of machines and databases, but those who hold the keys to the databases.
Human reliance on machines has been accelerating at an astonishing rate. With even more machine-man integration in the future, with nanobots, artificial organs, smart tissue, etc., do you believe this progression is inevitable?
I wouldn’t call any projected technological trend “inevitable.” The history of technology is full of examples where paths once imagined to be inevitable turned out to be the roads not taken.
But our growing dependence on technology and integration with technology do appear to be broad, accelerating trends that have been true at least since we began using stone tools.
At the 2012 Olympic Games, much was made of the tens of thousands of CCTV cameras that were used by the UK government to monitor its citizens and visitors. (There are 12,000 cameras in the London Underground alone.) Recently, Mayor Bloomberg announced that a new system called the Domain Awareness System was monitoring the streets of Manhattan with upwards of 3,000 cameras. Do you feel this type of surveillance is healthy?
Many of us are alarmed by instances of surveillance by governments. But there seems to be a conceptual block where intrusive surveillance and tracking, done in the name of private, commercial exchange, are typically seen as benign.
But data is data, and having data gives one power. As for whether such concentration of power in a government or a company is a good thing, I think there is no simple answer.
With the ever-increasing sharing of our lives with others through social media, and corporations prying more and more information from us, do you see a day where privacy is a thing of the past?
I view privacy as one aspect of the general problem of information control: who, what, how much? (Censorship, free speech, copyright, etc., are all aspects of the same problem.)
There’s some information about each of us we consider “private” and believe that only the individual should control such information—though what is considered “private” differs from person to person, society to society.
Technology’s role in this, as usual, is to act as a force multiplier. Information that used to be hard to get is now easy to get. Information that used to be scattered in many places can now be aggregated in one place. When information can move faster and more cheaply, it becomes harder and harder to maintain control over it.
At the same time, technology also makes it easy to encrypt secrets, or to hide them in the open by making it easy to lie and spread false information to make searching for the secrets harder.
So, I don’t know if privacy will disappear. Perhaps it’s more likely that our expectation of privacy will change to suit this new environment.
Your story is a cautionary tale, but like Sai, most people are so firmly entrenched in technology that they have a hard time pulling away. Do you see any reversal of this dependence, or is this just a runaway train now?
As I indicated above, I think our growing dependence on technology is part of an ancient trend that has been going on for many, many generations. That we have not reversed this trend so far seems to me to suggest that it cannot be reversed, but I also know that the past is no map to the future.
Being dependent on technology may be either a good thing or a bad thing. I expect that many of us would find Tilly a valuable part of our lives. But Tilly is going to be created by people. And people, when given a chance, always want to shape the world to be more like their vision, and we do not all agree on a vision of the world that we all want.
Finally, do you have any new projects you’d like to announce?
I’m working on a few short stories that I’m really excited about, and there’s also the epic fantasy novel that my wife and I have been working on for a while now. I’m hoping that we’ll finally be done soon. The end is in sight.