Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

Archive for the category “3. Rise of the Virtual”

Social Media’s Biggest Lie


This time it was the news that made the news. This time, instead of hearing about the killer’s social media from an investigation, we heard it in real time from the killer himself. He made social media the very essence of his crime.

I wondered how a psychopath had a social media network. Then it all came back to me. News reports of senseless killings over many decades. And how, until now in the age of social media, all those killers were described as “loners.”

Maybe it began with Columbine (April 20, 1999). Although the influence of social media wasn’t as obvious there because it was a shared psychosis and seen as an extreme folie à deux. Maybe, but they were loners.

However, since Columbine, the extensive usage of social media has been the common element the news has given us in lieu of the more cryptic term, loner. Yet, for all this data we have learned nothing about how these disturbed people became out-and-out psychopaths.

Instead, we are left with a pile of meaningless social media connections. As though there was some understanding of the actions of these psychopaths that could be gained by exploring their social media movements.

Far too many people seem unaware that we become human only though interaction with other humans. This interaction is not only what makes us human, it’s what keeps us human.

It would also seem that most people are unable to distinguish the unreality of social media’s virtual interactions from actual face-to-face, one-on-one human interaction. The news media acts as though social media gives loners real connections.

What nonsense! It’s their actions, not their social media connections that identifies people as loners. It’s their lack of real human interactions that labels them. But what is real for such disturbed people?

They each have their own reality. The rest of the world calls it virtual but that has no effect since the disturbed think it’s real—just as they believe their grievances justify the use of weapons.

Social media is “… the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship.” —Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why we experience more from technology and less from each other.

Disturbed people without real friends are as likely to harm themselves as others. Using social media to deceive ourselves into thinking virtual is actual human contact will end in disaster.

We could avoid some future disasters if we remove the possibility of interrupting live broadcasts. This seven-second or profanity delay has been available for decades.

The NRA’s big lie is anyone can own a gun without any need for proper training. That is the same as saying any idiot can use one, which turns out to be true. Using it correctly is another story.

Social media’s biggest lie is that virtual friends can help with real problems. Guns don’t solve personal problems, people do. That is, real people, not virtual people.

Who Rules Reality?


The more we live out lives virtually, the less control we have over reality. This idea is not new. It is at least as old as the short story “The Machine Stops” by E. M. Forster—written in 1909!

I could rephrase the thought by substituting the word “conveniently” for “virtually.” Computers provide the convenience and do so more powerfully, and less expensively, through the virtual representation of reality.

Convenience is what we desire; virtual is just the means for achieving it. Convenience, with all kinds of promises of pleasure and power, is what the makers of glass slabs are selling.

Convenience comes in other forms, for example automated cars. These will take you from A to B and do all the work. What’s more convenient? Obviously, simply not going from A to B. That is, being able to visit B virtually, without ever leaving A.

Will virtual visits beat out automated cars? Who knows? There’s lots of money to be made selling new cars and far too many people still think cars are personal magic carpets.

On the other hand, no one has done a really good job of providing an enhanced virtual shopping experience. The software is much easier than automating cars. But who’s the client? Not malls.

Why would any chain of department stores want to obsolete its brick and mortar investment? At least not until someone figures out how to synergize virtual and real shopping. Until then, look to Amazon’s competitors to offer better virtual shopping.

If that seems unlikely, think of all the specialty stores and boutiques that could expand their potential customers by offering a more realistic virtual shopping experience. Would these combine into virtual malls?

Regardless of how much of our lives will be lived virtually, one aspect of providing that virtual access will always be real and never virtual. In word: infrastructure. This is the real world component of whatever miracles computers produce.

Whether roads for automated cars or Internet carriers for virtual experience, infrastructure must be built, maintained, and upgraded to produce real world results. Think delivery of Amazon packages.

Yet, the details of infrastructure are invisible to those of us tethered to our glass slabs. We may have convenience to the nth degree, but we don’t know who is behind the curtain, controlling the real world infrastructure that makes it all possible.

Infrastructure, being real, costs real dollars. Those costs get passed on to users of the infrastructure, to us. The rulers of reality set the prices, get government to build infrastructure, and collect from us directly and through taxation.

Virtual Shopping


Last week’s post (“Needles and Haystacks”) showed the advantages of searching structured data. These were contrasted with time-wasting searches using brute force computer power.

Such searches not only waste our time, they are incredibly wasteful of computer time and power. If providers of structured data could use just a fraction of this squandered power, how many ways could they enhance our access to their data?

Let’s take a simple example from last week: libraries. What could be achieved by adding a relatively small amount of computing power to online access of a library’s catalog? Close your eyes. Picture yourself at the library versus their website.

The library you’re envisioning need not be confined to the imagination. With a relatively small amount of additional computer power it can be made real, that is virtually real.

If you browsed the library virtually, you could head out now because you found a book you really wanted, or you could take your time (nothing urgent). Same library, enhanced by software.

There are other advantages to virtual libraries. You can browse all the branches in a big countywide system. If your library is a member, you can do the same for all the libraries of the Interlibrary Loan Service. An infinite virtual library.

You may question additional public dollars for libraries, but the same technology can be used for bookstores. Virtual browsing enhances every online retail experience already using databases.

People forget that before computers, it was common to shop virtually—from catalogs. In fact, it was easier to browse those catalogs than today’s crude database websites. Going virtual would make those sites outperform catalogs, and for less money.

In the past twenty years, computing has transformed from a text-based box of limited application to a plethora of graphics-based devices doing everything. It wasn’t simply the increases in speed and storage; it was using the power for unimaginable graphics.

Today, power is being drained by our unstructured searches and social media meandering. All to be monetized by Big Data. Why not add power to improve graphics? Wouldn’t virtual shopping boost our economy? Don’t businesses need it? Don’t you?

Lure of the Virtual


One attraction of virtual worlds is that they look safer, less risky than the real world. But the greatest appeal of virtual is the expectation of control. All these, however, are only appearances.

The reality of the virtual is that it is never what it seems to be. You may think you’re the only human in the virtual world of a game, but you have no way of knowing if other humans are masquerading as bots or possibly observing your behavior.

You might feel you can lose yourself in an online game, but the identity of your computer (or tablet or phone) is known to the Internet. GPS tells the Internet exactly where you are (without GPS, the Internet still knows your latitude and longitude).

The biggest problem with virtual is the disconnect between what you know and what you feel. You know about GPS, but you ignore what you know and feel invisible when using your phone.

Communicating by phone (or whatever computer) may feel ephemeral and inconsequential because it’s virtual. Yet it uses the Internet, which is eternal and never free of consequences.

Speaking of consequences, many prefer texting to talking because it is more virtual, less real and therefore less consequential. Or so it appears. However, the bits of texting, like email, are easier for the Internet to save (and search) than voice.

The word “Lure” in the title of this post has the general meaning of attraction, but it also means enticement. Then there is the specific meaning of lure as bait—as in fishing, for sport or food.

Fishing lures are very specialized products, designed to deceive and ensnare fish. In sport, caught fish are often returned. As food, fish are cooked. Fishing is not about choices for the fish.

Whatever virtual may appear to be, we cannot know the extent to which it is designed to deceive and ensnare. Like the fish, what we know of virtual is only appearance. Regardless of what we know, virtual can make us feel safe even as it puts us at risk.

The greatest illusion of any virtual fabrication is that we are in control. This feeling of control is merely a construct to make us believe, to make us buy into the virtual and avoid the real world.

The Power Of Virtual


Last week’s post spoke about computers as amplifiers. What computers do, is make things more so: bigger, faster, prettier, more complex, more simple, and both easier and harder to use.

The world’s information at your fingertips could be the ultimate education—or the biggest time-waster ever. Computers can make you smarter or dumber. It’s all in how you use them.

Powerful computers affect our decisions and our behavior. The virtual world may look safer than the real world, but people get into trouble when they become too involved in the virtual.

Virtual power makes computers ideal for learning, a safe place to practice before taking it to the real world. But that power can be seductive, making you afraid to leave the safety of the virtual.

Instead of preparing you for the real world, the power of the virtual can make that journey appear too daunting. Instead of a ladder to reach greater heights, virtual can be a stronger cocoon.

People are slow to see when quantitative change becomes qualitative. When Cyberbullying first appeared, those people said it was no different than it had been before computers.

They were wrong. There is more Cyberbullying now because computer power makes it easier. In addition, the Internet readily provides anonymity, even for those who never learned to spell it.

Since the invention of fire, people have believed that the solution to problems created by technology is more technology. Those who create new technologies are usually its greatest advocates. The Latin phrase for this is cui bono (who benefits).

However, the answer lies not in what we have or what we need. It resides in how we use what we have. It always has. Do we have the will to take action or do we let technology decide?

Romancing the Bot, Final Chapter


The makers of Roxxxy, the sex robot from Part 1, called it a companion. That term is so broad (no pun), it defies description: Wilson from Cast Away, Data’s cat, The Simpsons’ cat lady.

Thomas Wolfe (1900-1938) wrote, “… loneliness … is the central and inevitable fact of human existence.” Interact with a virtual being and you won’t be alone—unless you want to be.

We know life is hard and then you die. People have always sought to escape reality’s pain. Why not virtual if it makes you feel better? It offers unlimited choices—many out of this world.

We grow up toys: reality in virtual form. We play with dolls and action figures: things without will, unable to resist our wishes. How many adults seek this lost control from their childhood?

To separate real from virtual, we compartmentalize. Some don’t manage this disconnect well. At best, they become addicted to any of virtual’s pleasures. At worst, they are bullied into suicide.

These confused people seem to be the market for David Levy’s proposal to marry robots. Knowing history, you know some men married prostitutes and many women were treated as chattel.

Why not marry a robot prostitute? For one, sex robots aren’t alive and aren’t being paid for their favors. We need to be reminded, again and again, that robots are things, not people.

Robot is a relatively recent term, not yet 100 years old. It comes from the Czech word, robota, meaning compulsory labor or laborer. Despite this origin, actual robots are gadgets, not slaves.

When robots perform functions for humans, it’s not slavery. We anthropomorphize them, but not TVs, cars or toasters. Robots are not human. Our feelings don’t entitle them to human rights.

Adding maid skills to a sex robot does not make a wife. Today’s marriage does not permit unequal partners. Because wives are no longer chattel does not raise a robot to the status of a woman.

In the long term, marriage is about companionship. And anyone can have this with any being or thing they choose. What they can’t have is legal marriage. We need laws, e.g., age of consent.

But this problem is bigger than legalities. Laws vary and are often the basis for inhumanity. Whenever people are regarded as non-human, history records horrors, like slavery and genocide.

We must draw the line between human and non-human. We can’t continue devaluing some people as non-human, while fatuous twits seek human rights for robots. Or dolls. Or cats.

Romancing the Bot, Part 3


A 2009 survey asked, if you had a personal robot that could do only one thing, what would it be? Sex came in second, narrowly losing to housecleaning. Add cooking, errands, and a few miscellaneous chores, and you’ve got the complete caregiver.

A caregiver robot is the title character in Robot & Frank (2012). Vaguely humanoid, it is realistic and believable. The human/ non-human relationship works, and stays, at that level. Not a faux human, the robot is always addressed as “Robot.”

What about sex? you ask. I suggest you look up the Stephen Sondheim song, “Everybody Ought To Have A Maid.” What could be more caring to give than sex? And yet the robotics industry is split, building devices for either sex or caregiving.

Robotic housekeeping may be boring, but more uses (for young and old) are in the pipeline. TV and film sex robots are just teasers. Real bots are coming faster than the Internet can count.

Instead, let’s look at history. Prostitution has always been about virtual sex. It reduces a normal human sexual relationship to two things: sex and money. (Sometimes three, if you count the law.)

So why not virtual sex with virtual, i.e., robotic, prostitutes? Ironic that the world’s oldest profession is now at the forefront of the world’s newest industry? Here’s a glimpse of that future.

Speaking of robotic futures, caregivers like Robot from Robot & Frank are essentially here. Sex robots aside, there is a massive push to replace all minimum wage jobs with robots.

In addition, the robotic car has been legal in Nevada since 2012. The way is clear for commercial robotic vehicles: trucks, buses, limos, and taxis. If Amazon can deliver by drones (or ADPVs suggested here on 16 Dec 2013), what about the Post Office?

If the person behind the wheel is replaced by robotic technology, what’s next? If that’s a robot barista behind the Starbuck’s counter, can RoboCop be far behind? Whose job is next?

These robotic devices take jobs from people. Factory jobs came first, but service jobs are now squarely in the sights of the robot makers. I don’t know what’s next, but I do know people without jobs won’t be buying any sex robots. Or much else.

Romancing the Bot, Part 2


Movie robots don’t have to be sexual objects to be considered sexy. Take Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927). A robot is created with the face of the heroine, Maria. Although built for evil, the robot is also erotic, with a Madonna-like armor-plated look.

There were plenty of hot bots in Westworld (1973), Michael Crichton’s view of a future Disney-like adult playground. If you have the technology, sex bots aren’t just for vacations. The Stepford Wives (1975) replaced everyday spouses with robots.

In 1982, Blade Runner gave us replicants, genetically engineered organic robots. (I guess “clone” wasn’t popular when Philip K. Dick wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in 1968.) But the movie did give a Pleasure Unit named Pris.

Arguably, the most human of the screen’s artificial creatures was Data of Star Trek: The Next Generation. I submit the believability of this character owed more to the scripts and Brent Spiner’s acting than to any plausible future science.

Data’s technology is straight from Isaac Asimov’s 1950’s science-fiction, not current research in Artificial Intelligence. Data not only has Asimov’s imaginative but undefined “positronic” brain, he obeys Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics.

Why was Data based on old fiction rather than current state-of-the-art AI? Because in the late 80s, AI had nothing better to offer as a basis for a believable future android. Nor does it now.

Artificial Intelligence is still struggling with machine intelligence distinct from human intelligence. The latter requires a self, consciousness, and emotion among other qualities.

Intelligence is meaningless without decision-making. Yet AI fails to grasp that human decisions depend upon meaning and meaning does not exist in a vacuum, i.e., without emotion.

If we seek the equality of other, even artificial, creatures, intelligence is only a starting point. To get from there to a shared morality is a formidable task. Can fiction offer any shortcuts?

In one episode, Picard argues Data’s right to self-determination is not limited by being a machine. Surely Data has more rights than a toaster, but how—and where—do we draw the line?

Data is human enough for sex, rights, and fatherhood. As to how human he is, I’ll let Shylock answer: He may have hands and dimensions, but no organs, nor will he bleed. Grant him senses, but affections? Passions? And if we tickle him, will he laugh?

Romancing the Bot


You probably missed it, but back in 2008 International Chessmaster David Levy wrote a book titled Love and Sex with Robots. Not just a chess expert, Wikipedia says Levy has written over 40 books, mostly on computer chess.

I missed it, probably because even though I was heavily into the links between computing, consciousness, artificial intelligence, robots, and mind/brain, I saw nothing of his book or work. (Or even his 2005 book, Robots Unlimited: Life in a Virtual Age).

When I learned of this book last week, I wondered why I hadn’t heard of it in any book I’d read. Its Amazon page gave no references to any current work in the above-mentioned fields.

Last week was when I began Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together (2011) and found mention of Levy’s book. Since I was posting about real versus virtual, why not add human and non-human?

I’ve known sex robots were around the corner, but love? Is he kidding? Anyway, these sex devices are much closer to their blow-up predecessors than anything human-like. Or they were.

The makers of “the world’s first sex robot,” Roxxxy, say it’s no more than a “life-size rubber doll . . . designed to engage the owner with conversation rather than lifelike movement.”

Introduced at the Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas this month, for less than ten large, Roxxy sounds far less satisfactory than the eponymous Her, of the new Spike Jonze movie.

No robot or real woman could compete with the fictional, idealized Her. This is a computer not only “designed to meet his every need,” but one that is also “human and intuitive.”

Human and intuitive software? Why put it in anything less than artificial humans? For “companions” you can touch and vice versa, see 1987’s Cherry 2000. So why talk with a computer?

The real question for us is, are we becoming less human by romancing the bot? Every year, we retreat further from the world. Can we continue and not become slaves of the machine?

Oh, did I forget to mention that David Levy believes these robots should not only be loved and laid but married! If he has his way, what’s next? Toasters going on strike for their rights?

Virtual Rising


The fourth book in the Digital Minefield Series is Triumph of the Machine. The book is divided into three stages: Rise of the Machine, Fall of Humanity, and Rise of the Virtual.

All three are concurrent, but the sequence describes the dominance of each in its turn. That dominance is the necessary precursor to the ascendancy of the next stage.

The first stage is the Rise of the Machine. Many technology observers think this is inevitable, but it is not. The machine can triumph only if we lack the will to prevent it.

Once the Rise of the Machine is irrefutable, the Fall of Humanity is inevitable. Our species’ ability to adapt is both good and bad news. We will survive as long as the machine needs us.

While the Rise of the Virtual follows the Rise of the Machine and the Fall of Humanity, it also enables them. By accepting the machine’s version of reality, we lose control of the machine.

The virtual is as old as history, literally. Early virtual replicas (dolls, cave paintings) were crude and passive. Technology brings not only a more realistic virtual but an interactive virtual.

As technology advances, more and more people choose the virtual over the real. Today, the virtual is becoming more than a representation. For many, it’s not as good as reality, it’s better.

Once the virtual is preferred, the real no longer has value. The fact of reality, the authenticity of the real, cannot complete against the protection, the insulation, the isolation of the virtual.

Why bother with the potential humiliations of actual human contact when you can have risk-free virtual relationships? And because they’re virtual, they’re wholly under your control.

Why not avoid the confusions and ambiguities of real interactions? Why endure arguments and negotiations? There is never any need to compromise inside your virtual world.

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