Sunday, October 3, 2010

Reality: Augmented, Redefined

One of the fringe benefits of being a future-oriented dude is that I get the opportunity to denigrate subcultures which do not yet, technically, exist. Thinking about it now, the feeling I get is that one of the big subcultures of the future may well pivot around the use of augmented reality - a setup that can take the world and paint virtual information on it, like bringing up reviews of a restaurant when you point your phone at it. The beginnings of it are already available today, and it's the sort of thing that's not going to go away. It will likely change the world and twist existing cultural norms to an even greater degree than the ubiquitous cell phone has.

The sheer transformative potential of augmented reality is such that it should be approached very carefully... but we all know that's never going to happen. I mean, why bother sussing out the potential negative implications of an advancement and coming up with ways to mitigate them when this is such a cool thing? It's another headlong run toward the frontier and screw the consequences; just like how cell phone ubiquity leads to the assumption of 24/7 availability and encourages seat-of-the-pants activities over prior planning, or how ebooks are fundamentally far more vulnerable than physical books. Still, for many people, it doesn't matter: they'll put on their augemented reality shades because they just want to forget how much reality bites.

Not everyone thinks about it the same way I do. What really got me on this line of thought was a comment I found on a forum the other day, one that I think really gets to the core of the problem.

It's re-definitional to what it means to be a human.

My phone, if I take a picture of some french text it will translate it. If I wore that all the time, and it did it in real time. I can read french.

That is just one example, but it is a massive shift. We already see it. My car has a device that will overlay arrows on images of roads (a GPS) and I can never get lost.

The line what a person knows and what humanity knows blurs.

I think the big problem here is also the one that gives the idea of the Singularity so much of its heft: the notion that, in the very near future, technology will advance to the point where it will save us from ourselves. Religions have been preaching about humanity's need for a savior for millennia, and today there are people who believe that we're about to build electronic saviors for ourselves. One of the things that worries me is the prospect of the opinion quoted above becoming mainstream.

Look - let's say you have a universal translator linked to your phone, or your shades, or your optical implant or whatever, and that it was capable of real-time translation of a language. That does not mean that you can read that language. You are just as ignorant as you were before, and you're relying on a machine to do your work for you. What happens when it spits out a bad translation that lands you in immediate trouble? Sure, you could always flag it as "bad" after the fact, but that's little consolation if it got a few of your teeth knocked out. The idea that having a GPS means you'll "never get lost" is likewise laughable - how many times have people followed GPS instructions so slavishly that they drive right into ditches?

Sure, I know that GPS is a boon to many people. Personally I prefer the traditional way: following lines on a printed map, one that never runs out of power or needs a critical software update to continue working. Do we really want to encourage a society where people just go where their machine tells them to go, rather than learning how to translate those maps on paper into maps in their heads? Why do some people seem so eager to augment reality by discounting the one right in front of their faces?

That's not even getting into the risks of making so much of our society dependent on our information infrastructure. Events like the solar storm of 1859 aren't one-of-a-kind, and delegating things you should know yourself only makes you more vulnerable, in the end.

1 comment:

  1. Our trust in technology is made without understanding its weaknesses. I grew up in an era of slide-rules. I became a teacher (no longer) just when hand calculators were affordable. I found one that always gave the wrong answers. My students couldn't believe that the calculator was wrong! I still prefer to know where I am geographically, even if a GPS disagrees and wants me to drive into a river.