Last Call: Don't worry about the future; we can talk forever

Last Call

marcfrey150As a high school graduate I wrote an essay inspired by Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World.” It’s time to see if the future has caught up with us. So, if you are up for it, let’s get into some science fiction:

It all started so innocently. A person’s desire to connect to a distant person seems all so natural. Think back in time, and you will find that we always employed technology to achieve the long-distance connection. First came drums and smoke signals, then the written word allowed us to create messages and transport them via messenger on foot. Organized services like the United States Post Office (founded 1775) and the short-lived but legendary Pony Express added regular delivery schedules. The next invention made it possible to transmit electronic Morse signals via telegraph services, followed by the next breakthrough that came about 100 years later with the invention of telephone services. Then one day about 40 years ago, another quantum leap propelled humans’ ability to talk to other people to a whole new level: The age of the mobile telephone has arrived. In order to put this breakthrough into perspective, it is enough to look at the statistics: The number of U.S. mobile phone subscribers grew from 300,000 in 1985 to 300 million in 2010.


So far, all these technological achievements had only one goal: to speed up our ability to transport information quickly and reliably, thereby playing a major role in how our social interactions, commerce, politics and wars were conducted. Up to this point, technology was controlled by humans and served our increased need for speed. Long philosophical essays could be written about whether our need to share this much information instantly at all times is a real need or a perceived need, but it might be too late to wonder about that because something really terrible just happened:

The devices that were, up to this point, passive all of a sudden became smart. At first glance, that seems like just another big step forward, allowing us to gain more control of our environment, but let’s see what happens.

A smartphone knows who you are, where you are, what your preferences are and has all the answers:

“Siri, I feel like wood-fired pizza.”

“You are 3.75 miles from Il Carpaccio. Estimated driving with the current traffic conditions is 12.5 minutes. I’m showing four open tables. Would you like me to reserve one for you?”

“Siri, I’m not sure who to vote for in the presidential campaign.”

“I can help. Let’s start by asking some questions about what is important to you.”

“Siri, will Barbie and I make a good marriage match?”

“After matching Barbie’s and your data, including social habits, education, work history and DNA, there is a 67 percent chance that you will stay married for at least 15 years and make a lot of money with your modeling contracts.”

So here is the BIG question: If smart devices know more than we do, what is our motivation to learn and think? Given the fact that every time we have a chance to take the easy way out, humans take it, what is going to stop us this time? Moral fiber? A law that stipulates that you can’t own a smartphone unless you pass a test, showing that you know the meaning of the questions you ask?

It could be argued that Apple is not the most valuable company on Earth because it builds the slickest computers, but because it soon will be able to know and manipulate what we think. So, stage one of our demise is just around the corner: Smartphones, dumb people.

Let’s project this one step further, and the plot thickens. If a human mind can be captured by a smart device by learning everything there is to know about Ken—the guy who married Barbie—then the next logical question is, do we need the physical attributes of Ken and Barbie? Would the world not be a better place without the actual Ken and Barbie, and what is going to stop the smart machines from starting to have minds of their own and figuring out that the usefulness of the actual Ken and Barbie is rather limited. What started as an innocent quest to communicate might end up changing our lives once and forever. Smartphones could simply replace real people.

There is an upside to this, in that Ken and Barbie could retain their ability to communicate with each other forever if their persona was embedded in a smartphone (blue for Ken and pink for Barbie).

Does this sound like science fiction to you? It does to me. But then I’m being reminded that so far reality has eclipsed any science fiction novel… M