The Future of Real: Meaning and Social Intelligence in a Transhuman Age

[NOTE: This is a condensed version of the talk by the same title delivered at the Extreme Tech Conference on July 19, 2015 in Redmond, WA]

I remember seeing the children falling through the air, their limbs akimbo, grasping for land or any anchor that would save them from the fall. I remember the feelings of terror, panic, pity and helplessness as I watched, unable to intervene. And then I awoke – alone, scared and slowly came to the realization that it was simply a dream, though still I feared closing my eyes again too soon lest I return. That dream took place more than 30 years ago. Much of the detail has faded – how did they come to fall? Were they pushed or did they jump like lemmings? – still I remember the images, can recall the emotions. It was just a dream; it wasn’t real. But I recall the experience of the dream. The personal semiotics that the dream contained were real, telling me something about my own psyche, my own sense of self and so making it an experience with meaning.

How does the mingling of the external and the internal create our lives and how will the coming emerging technologies influence that interactive loop?

You may know more about the technology than I. Where I hope to add value is in questioning how the technology will influence our understanding of reality. So, to explore this, let’s start with what real means today.

Real is fungible and it is paradoxical.

In part it means we can trust what we see, hear, feel, taste and smell to map to imprints which have created memories for us. It is our ability to trust or rely on sensory inputs to verify or validate what our past experience tells us. It is related to purpose and function, but also to trust and value.

Today, real may imply sensory boundaries. To taste, our tongues are involved, we trust our eyes, for the most part, and screens signal where the tangible world ends. The screen serves as a frame and limits the expectation of experience.

How, then, will we react when technology has no boundary, when the experience is immersive, when it is embedded in our bodies and even our DNA reflects design? What does it mean for trust when the experience of our minds and eyes do not meet actual circumstances of our feet and arms?

Which brings us to reality as factual. This is the first essential hallmark of the transhuman age: the application of evidence-based methods to get at root causes to solve problems. It is the amniotic environment of STEM. Artificial Intelligence and Big Data are powerful in their ability to reveal factual reality. They are excellent at identifying patterns; so much so they’ve made breakthroughs in cancer research by finding patterns and identifying hypotheses missed by humans. Social Intelligence data are applying the same techniques to human behaviors, piecing together the electronic footprints of tastes and queries, purchases and posts, media consumed and information absorbed.

But not all experiences leave electronic footprints. Often the most important and indelible of human experiences are interior, absent technology altogether. Our feeling of fulfillment from connection, our sense of pride after being tested, that feeling from excitement that our skin can’t contain us, the rage we feel when threatened, the healing that comes from unearned forgiveness: all these and more are not reflected digitally.

Reality, then, is already rife with ambiguity, with paradox. And, the tectonic plates are shifting still. In the coming decades many of the external signals which we rely upon will themselves undergo changes.

That our perception of reality is shaped by the lessons we learn early in life, is an important part of culture. For most of human history, we’ve thought of culture as related to religion, politics and/or country or place of origin. Increasingly, our perceptual worlds (e.g. meaning, significance and social customs) are being shaped by technology. recently ran an essay on the various world views among transhumanists. We are segmenting based in part on our attitudes toward technology and its role in the world.

Emerging technologies such as robotics, AI, nano-tech, 3D printing, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) will alter our environments. Technology will provide digital wallpaper, allow us to select whatever view we wish to see from our windows. The opt-in visual inputs will allow for digital isolation from want, fear, and boredom. What happens when we can choose to screen out, to not even be exposed to, any sensation or bit of information which we might find jarring? At a minimum, it is a loss of collective reality.

We’re anticipating robotics becoming a part of our social landscapes. These may be humanoid and also something altogether different. We will become accustomed to dealing with a machine that simulates interaction, but which lacks empathy. Already, according to recent article in Newsweek, in Japan, a company decided to discontinue making the robotic dog it had introduced in 1999. Parts became scarce and repairs difficult to come by. People have held funerals for their robot dogs who no longer function and have formed support groups to help them deal with the loss. What then, happens when robotics begin to be used for service jobs, care-giving and intimacy? Where is the line between real feelings and projections of acceptance?

Full body sensing technology will allow our environments to adapt to us. This alone, if it were the only shift, would be a re-writing of reality. After all, what is evolution if not adaptation to our environment? Full-body sensing will put light, temperature, noise in the service of our comfort, perhaps delivered via clothing, intuited by our bodily responses, and, maybe even our thoughts. It will in effect reverse the response mechanisms which today we take for granted.

It is possible visual technologies will change our understanding of what it means to see. A common example is additional light spectrum, for example, night vision. While the first generation of users may find the experience novel, over time, it is more likely to just be taken for granted. Our competency becomes extended over more hours, provides us with a sense of security in dark places, adds to a feeling of invulnerability, enables us to better modulate our activities so we are no longer at the mercy of daylight. In short it changes our understanding of what “darkness” means. This is the second hallmark of the transhuman age: our ability to transcend the limits of our biology. Each generation may become progressively endowed with, not simply a reduction of deficit, but an expansion of enhancement.

AR will add fantasy elements to our “real” worlds and VR will allow us to step into immersive imaginary environments. Put another way, they’ll make the conceptual experiential. Overlay sight may create a sense of an “anything is possible” world. That may be a third hallmark of the transhuman age. How readily will we distinguish between the various kinds of applications to which we have access? I saw the Magic Leap demo video at the top of this post. It shows a first-person shooter game of “aliens” overlayed onto a workplace setting. It gives me chills because public mass shootings have already become all too common. We, coming from a time when the technology is not “always on,” will easily be able to distinguish the images as illusions. We’ll know it is a game. What happens, though, for someone who is already delusional? Or, what happens to a generation growing up where AR is normal vision and overlay sight is not the exception? Without the boundaries of a screen to differentiate to what extent do real and imaginary blur? Will it be like a dream, where the experience of the dream has characters and logic and a reality of its own beyond our waking consciousness?

How does the technology influence a developing sense of empathy? It easily could. What if we could literally see things from another person’s vantage point? What does it mean when the “selfie” is actually seeing what our loved ones see, hearing what they hear, or perhaps via haptics, even feeling what they feel?

As we move further into the transhuman age, the rate at which “normal” changes will likely quicken. This aspect of expecting variability over stasis is another aspect of the future of real. The coming technologies from genetic re-assembly to nano-assembly to VR will reshape our ability to be surprised. What will be the meaning of the familiar? What will stillness mean?

What will it mean for interpersonal attachments? How will it influence our sense of objectivity? What will shortening the learning curve mean for our expectations of others? Part of maturity is greater and deeper levels of self-awareness and sensitivity to the perspectives of others. How can the technology be designed to help us to become wiser, sooner?

Just as I am a digital immigrant, so too all of us will eventually be cyber-reality immigrants. We will be the ones who remember what it was like when people had a shared reality, experienced gradual adaptation, anchored in external stimulus and limited by what was technically possible. Imagine the people who grow up as immersed in AR as some of you have been immersed in your array of screens? In the future of Real, reality may be defined by meaning alone.

At risk is each previous generation becoming increasingly obsolete at faster and faster rates. What does that mean when combined with radical life extension? While people may live healthier, for longer periods of time, will they also be able to keep up with constant sensory and cognitive upgrades? Will a nostalgia for youth be replaced with a longing for future tech? What does it mean for a sense of self-esteem? Already it is difficult (the work of a lifetime really) to develop a sense of fluid identity. What happens when the changes are both more rapid and less gradual? Does it become easier or more difficult to forgive ourselves for being human?

It is likely that for AR and VR, gaming will be the powerhouse applications that get the technology rolled out. Perhaps, they may eventually become the standard for tutorials. But it would be a squandering of power if the technology stopped there or if compassionate uses were relegated to B-corporations. The great potential is to help us build intimacy, establish fictive kinship and provide a powerful tool to boost kindness competency. They can increase our awareness of others, teach us empathy, train us in inter-personal relationship skills, heal our traumas and psychic pain, and perhaps even trigger transcendent experiences and guide us toward awe.

In the future of real, among the most pressing of challenges will be sustaining a sense of social intelligence. Not social intelligence in terms of AI’s ability to farm us as consumers, but social intelligence in terms of our interpersonal skills.

Ensuring that the advantages of technology are shared, if not equally at least minimally, will require intention. How do we engineer for crossing the digital divide? How do we engineer for bridging points of view? How do we engineer for experience and meaning?

There's talk among transhumanists about taking evolution into our hands and evolving into different species of humans. Thinking about the coming changes in terms of radical life extension, genetics, and how technologies are likely to extend our capabilities and alter our interior sense of ourselves, I can absolutely understand the rationale. I get it. Still, I argue for “humans” being a social term and do not wish to see the language of evolution and species applied. It will be all too easy to see the differences, all too simple to apply value judgments, all too common to not even notice those who are left out of the technology-advantaged world. In the future of real, the hard part will be maintaining a sense of compassion and continuing to keep the doors between worlds open.