When does technological enhancement feel natural and acceptable?
Technology can be used and perceived in different ways. Future technology may change our lives beyond imagination. How can friendly AI technology enrich human experience in a positive way? Technology can feel like it controls us or—if it goes well—it can feel like a natural enhancement of mind and body.
I’m interested in ways future technology could or couldn’t do this. I will explore some avenues and state my opinion on these. Make up your mind. I’d like to hear your opinion.
First thing we’d like to get rid of impediments and diseases. Some might like to be immortal. But this is not enhancement but rather maintenance.
People apparently like to enhance their bodies. This starts with cosmetics and doesn’t end with doping. Strictly clothing could also count among this. We know quite well what we want here. I’d bet that people would accept body enhancements easily—esp. if it is reliable, safe and/or reversible. Fictional evidence here is the positive reception of suitably enhanced heros. Wouldn’t you like to have super strength or look like a supermodel? Such enhancement for everybody which is otherwise zero-sum could also balance against the effect that ideals in the media diminish our self-image compared to the ancestral environment where we were only one in 150 average guys.
As long as people don’t change their native preferrences this is should make everybody more happy with themselves. If preferrences are changed bets are off again.
Drugs can have not only pleasurable but also performance increasing effects. Nootropics for everybody could be acceptable—if free and safe. Actually I think that increasing brain capacity (speed and capacity) would feel the most natural—if it could be done.
Trouble with this is the inevitable return on cognitive investment. Seems like either exponential or chaotic changes (from interacting minds) result. One tricky part here seems to be how to avoid boredom once stability has reached.
Body Schema Extension
Body perception is flexible. It is known that the body schema (our body self image) can expand to encompass tools. Thus tools become part of the body (schema) and are wielded and handled and thus felt like ones own body. I got the impression that this might extend to vehicles. E.g. driving a car—or probably also flying a plane—can feel like ones own movement. One knows where the car ends. I’d guess that technology that has immediate feedback and can be mapped to a (distorted/extended) body schema will likely feel natural (after some time of adjustment).
Apparently our senses are quite flexible. Whatever input (visual, auditory, tactile, even smell) can be mapped to a 3D environment model by—admittedly long—training. This is apparently also possible for non-native senses which is called Sensory Substitution and Sensory Augmentation. There are already some projects which build actual working devices. Once this mapping has settled in the subconscious it feels natural. I wonder whether augmented reality systems can achieve this. Virtual reality systems are a dual for this—data mapped to the senses instead of senses mapped to data.
Devices and Gadgets
Devices that require conscious interaction and translation into some UI often feel clumsy no are clumsy. They break flow. They require conscious effort. I think the main attraction of having an app for that is the feeling of control over the distance we gain. We can something by invocing some magical ritual to achieve some effect other people can’t achieve (or rather only via mundane manual action). Well this is good and fine but even better if you can achieve the effect even without the interaction.
There was a recent post somewhere about the best smartphone UI being just a blank screen where you could type (or dictate) what you want the the ‘UI’ would figure out the context and intention. While googling unsuccessfully for that I found in a very relevant link about natural UIs this:
“The real problem with the interface is that it is an interface. Interfaces get in the way. I don’t want to focus my energies on an interface. I want to focus on the job…I don’t want to think of myself as using a computer, I want to think of myself as doing my job.”—Donald Norman in 1990
Commerce and esp. the internet provide lots of services which we use to reap the benefits of digital society. Amazon, Netflix, online booking… But we are at the mercy of the service providers and the power of the interface provided and the cost required. Independent of how well-integrated this is every interaction with a service either means a transaction (cost per use), freemium choice (will I regret this later) or ad suffering (paying with attention). This is bondage and discipline. I’d rather minimize this as a means of future technological enrichment.
Communication is natural—via speech and via text. Communication is natural not only with people. Most programmers value the power of the command lines—because it allows to combine commands in new ways in a—to an experienced user—natural linguistic way. Why not use language to control the technology of the future. Just utter your wishes. A taste of this could be the service offered by the Magic startup.
We are social animals. Could we deal with digital assistants who understand us and support us? Probably—if they are beyond the Uncanny Valley. But would we trust them. Only if they behave consistent with equal or lower status. Otherwise we’d justifiably feel dominated. Can this be achieved if the artificial agent is much smarter than we and unavoidably controls us thereby? Would we feel manpulated?
Societal processes affecting us in ways we (feel we) have only limited control over often feel oppresive—even if they are by some objective standard intended for our (collective) best. Examples are health care bureaucracy, compulsory education, traffic rules and above all parlamentary democracy. These processes are slow in the sense of affecting and changing over longer times than conscious effort can easily work on. Often there is no immediate or clearly attributable feedback. Such a process often feel like a force of nature and humans have adapted quite well to forces of nature—but just because we accept it doesn’t mean that we feel liberated by it. I think that any slow process that changes things in complex ways we cannot follow will cause negative feelings. And many conceptions of how FAI could help us I have seen involve masterminds setting things up. People might feel manipulated. Either this is balanced by other means or we need a correspondingly slow consciousness or seep understanding to follow this.
My Transhuman Wish-List
I’d like to look better, be more robust—even if everybody else would look better too. I want backups and autonomous real and virtual clones of myself.
I’d like to think faster, have perfect memory or even access to information from the web in a way that feels like recall. I’d like to be able to push conscious though processes into the subconscious—call it deliberate efficient reversible habit formation.
I’d like to be able to move into machines (vehices, robots, even buildings) and feel the machines as my extended self. I’d like to perceive more kinds of sensor input as natural as my current senses.
I don’t want to interface with devices but command linguistically, by thought or completely subconsciously.
I want a consciousness that can deal with slow processes. Possibly a way to think slower in parallel with normal consciousness.
There are more areas where this reasoning can be applied and I’d like to state some general patterns behind these areas—but my time for this post has run up.
Just two examples:
Incremental changes are preferrable to abrupt changes. People oppose changes for which they cannot see the consequences. But compare to slow external processes. Slow internal processes may be the best option.
Enhancements that can be used subconsciously are better than those that need conscious attention (and context switches).
I’d like to give fictional evidence for each point. But here I also just point you to the Optimalverse where some of these are played out and to The Culture which describes some of the effects.