Social robots, social space & the collectivist advantage: long term future predictions, beyond 2019
At the beginning of 2019, everyone is eagerly looking forward, trying to figure out what goodies, or nightmares (society’s polarization or fake news, anyone?) it will bring us. I love to read, see or hear the predictions that come with this, sometimes with amusement, sometimes with awe (Read Steven Van Belleghem’s 2019 predictions on customer experience. You won’t’ regret it.)
However, true to nexxworks' Day After Tomorrow philosophy, I’ll try to take a longer-term perspective by making some more far out forecasts, that go beyond 2019.
(Wait? What? … Ok, bear with me. I’m not talking about boring social media. But robots! And AI! And IoT! And automated rockets! And all the fudging buzzwords in the fricking universe!)
I remember when social was “hot”. Fifteen years ago, we were talking about Web 2.0, the Participative or the Social Web. The internet was transmogrifying from a rather static information “showcase” into a chatty ecosystem of thoughts, ideas and a whole lot of opinions. We were excited, overwhelmed and had no idea how Big this was going to be. Today, nobody bats an eyelash at ‘Social’ anymore. If anything, it has become a redundant word, just as happened with the word ‘digital’. ‘Social’ became the equivalent of a washed up fortysomething wearing tragically tight skinny jeans; a person who “used to be something” but ended up becoming a manipulative narcissistic liar.
This “social web” was never really social, though. It was a platform that enabled social behavior, but it was not social in itself. That is about the change in what might very well be one of the biggest paradigm shifts of the 21st century. (Sidenote: whenever I hear the word paradigm shift, I tend to hear this sound. So from now on, I’ll put that in a link beneath it, whenever I use “paradigm shift”. It seems only fair.)
The thing is, you can only talk about “social” if there is a form of intelligent communication involved. And that’s where today’s most overused Deus ex Machina enters this story: artificial intelligence. Thanks to massive evolutions in computing power and storage, everything is becoming smarter. And if that intelligence reaches a certain high point, smart ‘things’ will become social, too.
Social robots, social space
I loved visiting Shenzhen-based UBTech earlier this year. It seemed like a pretty straightforward toy company at first but nothing could be further from the truth. They sell robot toys but are cunningly using the revenue from the sales of these 'dumb' play tools to invest in R & D for smarter and more advanced robots. Their ambition is to “put a robot in every home”, mirroring Bill Gates seminal quote about computers. But the sheer beauty of this approach is that they are familiarizing an entire generation with robots and thus preparing them for the next paradigm shift: when robots will enter our homes, recognize us, help us, listen to us and talk to us. This will be the actual point when our technology will become social. The other social wave was just kid’s stuff.
But it’s not just the (ro)bots that will become social by becoming smarter, our entire environment will follow suit. Remember the Amazon Go stores or Tencent, Alibaba and JD.com fully automated stores? What are they but social (possibly even slightly stalkerish) spaces that welcome us, recognize us, follow everything we do and then take our currency? Smart cities and their smart houses are nothing more than ecosystems of devices with brains (AI) and senses (sensors and camera’s) that - again - recognize us, follow us, listen to us and interact with us.
The smarter these devices will become - possibly even sentient at one point - the more social our interactions with space will become. We will form complex relationships with bots, robots, fridges, rooms, cars, rockets, traffic lights, and everything that will have some form of intelligence. About 100 years ago we learned from Einstein that time and space were irrevocably connected: that “when” and “where” were actually part of the same question. In a near(ish) future, with artificial superintelligence surfacing, maybe we’ll find “when”, “where” and “who” to be connected.
Fast forward to the past
I absolutely love how this futuristic evolution of "everything social" is the embodiment of beliefs from ancient religions like animism or philosophical theories like panpsychism. That, instead of going “back to the future”, we are actually moving “forward to the past”. (As a side note: it is theoretically possible to time travel back the past but not to the future. That is if we can believe Einstein. Which I’m inclined to do. But that’s just who I am.)
Let me explain this seemingly insane statement: animists believe that objects, places and creatures all possess a distinct spiritual essence and that all things - animals, rocks, rivers, weather systems & perhaps even words - are animated and alive. Panpsychism is the philosophical view that consciousness, mind, or soul is a universal and primordial feature of all things. Panpsychists (like Thales, Plato, Averroes & Spinoza) see themselves as minds in a world of mind.
It's utterly poetic that as the intelligence of our species and its tools is evolving, we seem to be retroactively fulfilling ancient magical or philosophical beliefs. It's not the first time that we've seen this happening. Democritus for instance, formulated an atomic theory of the universe around 400 BC, long before we were able to analyze the fabric of reality. Or, say that we will be able to develop an artificial superintelligence by 2045 (that’s Ray Kurzweil’s projection), this will come very close to the concept of an all-knowing, all-seeing God. We could even say that VR, once it’s perfected, can help us emulate Paradise, Walhalla, Nirvana, Elysium or whatever people are calling it these days. These evolutions are taking the claim that “technology is the new religion” to a whole new level.
If Matthew S. Leifer’s (Chapman University in California) and Matthew F. Pusey’s (Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics) physics hypothesis of retro-causality would turn out to be right, this weird connection could actually make sense. They are investigating the idea that causation can run backwards in time: in other words that the future can influence the present, and the present can influence the past. In all honesty, it’s just an intriguing hypothesis for the moment. A hypothesis by some very smart guys. But still a hypothesis, though very intriguing.
Individualism will become a weakness in the social space age
In 2014, Peter Hinssen wrote that companies would need to become a network if their environment was evolving into a network. It’s survival of the fittest 101: if your environment changes, you adapt. Of course, if your character or your culture is already inclined towards that evolution, then you’ll definitely have a head start. In this case, things might very well be looking up for the East.
The West has always been more individualistic than the Eastern cultures, which tend to be a lot more collectivistic, community-driven and systems-oriented: countries like China realize that the individual is nothing without his or her context and thus it values relationships and group as much as personal gain, if not more. Religions like the group-driven Confucianism lie at the basis of these preponderances.
We westerners, on the other hand, are defined more by what we’ve accomplished than by group membership. And the (social) internet bubble, feeds our beliefs and our confirmation bias in a very subtle and natural manner. On top of that, our tendency for individualism has furthermore been warped into hyperspeed by smart technologies: brands use personalization to incite us to buy more, which feeds our belief that we are unique individuals who deserve every last bit of the things they consume. Trust me, we’re not unique. The Spotify, Amazon and Netflix algorithms are only able to tailor recommendations to our tastes, because they are so similar to a very large group of “people like you”.
Collectivistic societies, on the other hand, like the Chinese, could very well be a lot more suited to thrive in this thinking, seeing, hearing, maybe even ‘living’ (if you define life as a principle or force that is considered to underlie the distinctive quality of animate beings) social context. It’s probably why they for instance feel a lot more at ease being followed by camera’s with facial recognition, seeing less difference between a person or a camera seeing you. (That has probably also to do with the fact that they think a lot less in compartments, and that tech ‘eyes’ are not so very different from real human eyes.) If this age of hyperconnected, smart and social new ‘species’ - cars, robots, even rooms – will finally come to be, Western hyper-individualization could very well turn out to be a flaw: a weakness, that will catapult us back (and not forward) to the past.