If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him – Voltaire
What a miserable and irritating day in the office. Got out as soon as possible, pedal to the metal and switched on the vibes. Apple i-whatsit selected a good batch of loudness to blow away the office fug, kicking off with Sidewinders Sleeps Tonight (R.E.M), Walk (Neil Young) and Up All Night (Razorlight). It then started to mellow a little while remaining energising with George Michael and Aretha Franklin’s I knew You Were Waiting and by the time I hit Brighton was calming me down with a more contemplative Killing Me Softy by Roberta Flack.
How did it know what to play?
I have long suspected that there is a primitive intelligence built into i-Tunes but I have never bothered to investigate. If there is not then one day there will be. It would monitor number of plays, how far through the track you got before skipping, what other tracks were played on the same journey, how fast you were driving, how harshly you were accelerating and breaking etc. Technology is moving at breakneck speed, not so much in the invention of new technology (though this is occurring too) but in the integration and innovative use of what we already have based mainly on The Internet and Smart phones. The media bang on about how “powerful” smartphones are and they would have us believe that they “empower” humanity. Most absurdly they tell us that all this nonsense is“cool”. But is it?
A year or so ago I invented a system where the public could summon taxis via their phones. I say I invented it, I thought up the idea in a taxi after a night’s drinking but some young upstart got there first in the form of Hailocab. Upstart? Start up? What’s the difference? Good for them. Not to detract from the people who run Hailocab, as they are doubtless doing a great job, but the concept is bloody obvious and was just waiting for someone to cover it.
This is the state of much of our society. Gradually the instant communication and access to information is transforming society. Just this week I was told that one brand of smart phone can now be accessed from the touch screen control panel in my car and last week I noticed a Youtube button on my iPad and when I pressed it youtube migrated across to the telly. Then there are these bracelets which monitor your body and relay information to the phone and thence to the cloud and The (increasingly bizarre) Independent ran an article this week showing how heat maps of the human body can indicate different emotions.
Of course! Of course! Of course! Ubiquitous and seamless integration is what it’s all about. But away from the handset, in those massive data centres, two other phenomena are gaining ground. Big Data allows the system to understand massively complex datasets and Cloud Computing provides practically limitless power to crunch the data.
Put all this together and the office wallah of the future will still have a shit day at the office (probably an even more shit day) but when he gets to his car it will have much of the healing capabilities of Larry Niven’s Autdoc. The car will liaise with the person’s bracelet and embedded chip. It will access the company data and understand that the worker had spent most of the day on fucking Quarterly Reporting. Not only that but the nob-head who occasionally sits diagonally opposite had been at his desk that day talking shit like he always does. It will check the company restaurant data and realise that the fucking chips ran out and the coffee machine was broken again. It will analyse the workers bowel movements, check his diary for social engagements, check his medical records for past incidents, read the angry text messages from his girlfriend and gain a thorough and intimate understanding of our hero’s state of mind and body.
The car will then play the right music, set the right temperature, take the best route, hold the call from his mum and, as he nods off to a well earned snooze, deliver him home refreshed and with his mood much improved (MMI).
Good, good, excellent excellent!
Of course it wont stop there. All this will be going on constantly. This will not be a centrally controlled system. It will be a decentralised alliance of technology ostensibly under the control of each individual but, ah, there’s the rub. Maintaining control will be a pain and mean sacrificing functionality and oooooooohhhhh………we don’t like the sound of that do we. I bought a Smart TV last week and, after switching on for the first time, it asked me all sorts of impertinent questions and if I’d failed to agree to its Terms and Conditions “some functions may not be available” – Fuck That! – Click, Click, Click. Agree, Agree, Agree!
The system will, for example, learn that every time our man is in the same room as a certain woman the evening ends badly. It will therefore start “weighting” events which it suggests in attempt to do what’s best for him and it is in the “calibration” of such settings where things get interesting.
Our man could, of course, access some kind of life configuration screen and modify the thousands of parameters that have been set on his behalf but these could be mind bogglingly complicated. He’d attempt to tune it but would end up with a fridge full of spam fritters and taking the route through central London to work every day. “Reset it to the defaults” the help desk would advise.
Then there are the governments with their armies of techno-spooks who will attempt to rig the system either covertly, for their own ends, or overtly, for the public good. Recently the UK government considered tweaking the price of booze to stop us drinking. (Bastards!). In future this will not be guess work, it will be a science and it needn’t be the price that is modified, it could be a parameter named Tendancy2Pub which is used by all smartphones. Nudge theory and technology will coalesce and in the run up to the annual budget Jeremy Paxperson will interview a doctor on Newsnight who will advocate that the default value of Tendency2Pub be set somewhere between 12 and 17 while a representative from the British Beer and Pub Association will claim that simulations had shown that each point that the parameter drops below 25 means a loss of a thousand jobs. “Just look at Turkey where Tendency2Pub is set to 3 and which has massive unemployment. “Tosh” the doctor will scoff “studies have shown that Turkish unemployment is due to Respect4Education being set too low”.
Of course it wont stop there. The system itself will start to correlate Tendency2Pub and Respect4Education and all the millions of other parameters across all the nations of the Earth and will then consider that it knows better than the government and start tweaking the parameters by itself. Might it then be conscious? Alive? It will be interesting to see exactly when mankind realises what’s going on.
Sometimes I think that life may be no more than a lot of complexity rattling around making a nuisance of itself but the sticking point has always been self replication. It seems quite a feat for a lifeless molecule to suddenly start replicating and this is where the deities jump in to claim responsibility.
A recent TV program discussed the nature of DNA and appeared to suggest that replication wasn’t such a big deal after all and. If that’s the case, and life (and hence consciousness) is no more than the result of massive complexity, then we have to assume that the vast complexity of Internet connected paraphernalia must eventually become conscious. A Vast Active Living Intelligent System as the prescient Mr. Dick would have it.
So, rather than giving men the power of Gods perhaps the result of the explosion of technology will be confirmation of Voltaire’s aphorisms “Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer” (“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”).
Now that would be cool!
End of the World with a Poppy