Tuesday 4 July 2023

Predictions for Digital Life in 2035

Predictions for Digital Life in 2035

Pew Research Center recently published the results from their 16th "Future of the Internet" research that aggregates experts' opinions on important digital issues. 

As you can imagine much of the focus was on Generative and other Artificial Intelligence applications. A fair number of the respondents were enthusianxious about the changes, with 42% being equally excited and concerned about what they expect to see, 37% being more concerned than excited. and only 18% more excited than concerned. Clearly the pessimists are currently in charge with a whopping 79% being as-or-more-concerned than excited. 

The concerns will again come as no surprise to anyone who has been following the AI news and opinion over the last year or two:

  • That the motivation will be for profit and power, leading to data collection aimed at controlling or coercing behaviour with ethics as an afterthought
  • Loss of privacy and jobs, leading to a rise in poverty and reduction in dignity
  • Human knowledge drowning in an ocean of meaningless or flat out wrong information generated by or using AI
  • Health impact as tech encourages us to become even more isolated from humans, or feeds our worst paranoia
  • Government and regulation being unable to keep up with the pace of change, with an end game of autonomous weapons and cyber warfare being waged by machines without human oversight. Essentially the first steps towards Terminators.
It's not all bad news though, with benefits expected to include:
  • Enhancements in healthcare, education, fitness, nutrition, entertainment, transportation and energy. Our digital assistants will free us up from much of the drudgery, leaving us more time to enjoy these improved offerings, which will of course be entirely integrated and friction-free.
  • Increased amplification when people speak up for their human rights, and easy collaboration with others who wish to mobilise to demand the same. Access to data and better communication tools will help people live better and safer lives around the globe.
  • Improved digital literacy, with the desire that this will see the return of trusted news and information sources. Failing that, at least an assurance that information is factual and verified.
  • A regulatory environment that promotes pro-social activities and minimises anti-social ones. 
One thing that jumps out at me from the list of negatives and positives is how much more detailed the Orwellian nightmares are - many of those that are concerned have really thought those concerns all the way through to the bitter end!

It's a relatively lengthy report at 230 odd pages, but an interesting read, and at times entertaining (especially the more extreme views, as always).  An awful lot of those canvassed expect most technological innovations to be a double-edged sword - Howard Rheingold, author of "The Virtual Community", advises us to ask of any new technology 'What would 4chan do with it?'. Jonathan Grudin, Affiliate Professor of Information Science at the University of Washington, paints a picture of "a Sorcerer’s Apprentice’s army of feverishly acting brooms with no sorcerer around to stop them." as the sheer scale of digital activities, and the incredible speeds at which they are carried out, far outpaces our ability to verify and correct, so we stand by helplessly and watch.

Louis Rosenbery, CEO and Chief Scientist at Unanimous AI, predicts that we'll be in full Star Trek mode by 2035, as keyboards, mice, touchscreen input and flat screen display output are swept aside by conversational interfaces. Like Captain Kirk, we'll just ask the computer to carry out a task in plain language (although for some reason Kirk still needed humans to change the velocity and direction of the Enterprise, and patch through a call, so maybe our jobs are safe after all).

If you have a couple of hours to spare, it's well worth a read. My main takeaway is that even those who are positive are sounding a note of caution equally loudly, and I think that's an appropriate view. It dovetails nicely with most of the work that I do in my professional life - I'm not so much looking for things that will work correctly, as a lot of that is fairly obvious. Instead I'm looking for problems - what won't work, are there unintended side effects, is it future-proof, will it scale? It's easy to get caught up in the hype and hoopla of an emerging technology like Generative AI, and let the FOMO trick you into doing something rash. With any new technology, always take a step back, a deep breath, and evaluate with cold eyes.

Will 2035 be digital heaven or digital hell? I think, like always, it will be six of one, half a dozen of the other - a constant battle that leads to an uneasy balance.

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