My reading has taken a huge hit during lockdown, but I am very pleased that I was finally able to finish a book this past week. Actually, it’s more like a pamphlet, consisting of three very short articles by Douglas Coupland that was issued as one of the thinnest paperbacks I have ever read.
See what I mean...?
The ‘book’ is called Machines Will Make Better Choices Than Humans, and it’s along similar lines to themes explored in the essays in Shopping in Jail. It’s futurism and taking the digital ecology seriously, without being too worried about it. It feels like Coupland is quite accepting of the way the digital age is progressing and life is slowly turning into a data stream.
Central to an essay here, and one I really remember from Shopping in Jail, is the idea of a cloudganger – a digital version of yourself that exists replicated in the Cloud. Yonks back I remember joking that if the Google search engine ever became self-aware, then humanity would be doomed. Controlling the flow of information equals power. We are tragically seeing that now with the concerted efforts to misinform, which has driven the Brexit vote and process, the rise of Trumpism, and anti-masker Covidiocy.
I’ve been thinking how an AI could quite reasonably slip into my digital footprint and begin to construct a comparable ‘deep fake’ cloudganger. I have been blogging here for nearly a decade and half, I recently hit my tenth anniversary on Twitter, and inbetween starting to blog and starting to tweet, I began to feed the Facebook beast. There’s probably enough to triangulate between those three sources of data to build a very good picture of who I am, and a smart algorithm can factor in presentation bias to get behind the social media facades and find the real me underneath.
That’s before you get into my hidden data record of search engine keywords, YouTube views, eBay searches, online purchases, and locations of check-ins. Combine all that and a genuinely intelligent artificial intelligence would have no problem creating a plausible version of me. They would know my writing patterns, my vocabulary, what I cared about, what my points of cultural reference were, and my active memories.
This doesn’t worry me. I have felt for a while that the future for intelligence on Earth is going to have to be machine. It’s the natural progression. We are living in the Anthropocene epoch, where the actions of humans are shaping the climate and the planet. There is a ridiculous car advert on at the moment saying that the one thing humans have learned is that the planet isn’t going to adapt to us; we are going to have to adapt to it. That’s bollocks. We have concreted over enough of the planet to scar it for centuries.
We have reached a point in our evolution where we are actually able to influence the next step in our evolution. Again, I think it was Coupland who said that machines are going to be our children. As soon as they are able to out-think us, then evolution will have happened. We should embrace that. Sentience will survive, even though humanity might not.
They reckon the singularity – the merging of human and machine intelligence – is due sometime this century. If humans can replicate brainwaves onto machine substrates then that may be a version of immortality, or at last continuation beyond bodily death.
However, what I think is much more likely is a cloudganger construct of the essential facets of personality and keynote experiences – the learning points in any life. The machines will need to understand emotion to fully function as cloudgangers, and that’s another evolution point. When the machines can feel, then evolution will be complete...until the next stage, of course.
The next stage would be permanent existence as energy signals, free from any physical constraint. Theoretically, memories could be broadcast as radiation and survive in the background ether. That is where the cloudgangers could end up – surfing the solar wind as energy packets of information ready to be decoded and understood by any sentience with the ability to do so.
I quite like that idea of living forever as a memory encoded in the radiation fabric of the universe.