The following video is Google’s soon to be ex-CEO, Eric Schmidt, presenting to IFA 2010 a vision to create an ‘age of Augmented Humanity’; it also features demos of then new GoogleTV and various new automagical apps for Android. It goes for an hour, if that’s too long, there’s the cliff-notes version over on GIGAOM.
Now I love Accelerando and other such SF novels as much as the next post-cyberpunk, so the idea of my own personal AGI has its appeal. And so long as we don’t up with the world’s most annoying Microsoft Paperclip, I’m cool with that. BUT.. there’s a few holes in this vision, at least the way I see it.
Primarily, that it’s based on a nice smooth vision of the future, projected from an ideal yesterday.
Foremost being that these automagical apps they’re demoing seem to be designed to solve middle class problems. And, if you’re paying attention, the middle class is vanishing. Which leaves the over-educated and/or under/un-employed on one side and the global elite on the other. Neither of which need help buying shoes while visiting Berlin (the example given for Conversation Mode of Google Translate.) The Favela Chic (as Sterling calls them; soon to be, if not already, us) will gladly take the free OSs and services, but won’t be clicking on ads. Nor will the Global Elite (see: The Rise of the New Global Elite, if you haven’t already). If they want translation services, they’ll hire a human with 100% accuracy.
And it’s advertising that Google are and shall continue to use to monetize their system. Maybe I’m the only one that find the ads before popular YouTube clips (and nearly every other video streaming service) highly annoying.. a tax, no less, that I refuse to pay. Just as I never click on the ads that appear in search results or gmail, I don’t even see them. But then I don’t use loyalty cards either, and all of these things are apparently popular. For the moment.
So, point number two. The mythical always on high-speed network, the various flavours of delicious mobile and wired broadband. Which it is. Mostly. In cities (where we’re told the population will continue to centre themselves in). In what we used to call the first-world. Which have largely been under-invested in infrastructure thanks to widespread implementation of economic rationalism. So that a tiny, weany little thing called the weather breaks it. Snowed under, cables freeze and snap. Floods shut off power stations. Hurricanes and tornadoes etc etc. Life in the 21C. All the supercomputers are still there in the Cloud, but inaccessible.. useless. Also, there’s the little thing of being in a country that decides to just shut off the internet. That too.
So, think a few years ahead. You’ve all read about the potential of biocomputing and have been pirating tv shows and movies for years (partly because they have the advertising already chopped out of them) thanks to.. what’s that? Peer to Peer technologies. What if the Favela Chic-types figure out how to homebrew, say in 5years, in DIYbio labs, their own supercomputers and seed their own clouds? Google.. you say? I remember them.
Even this year we could see open-source phones that can create and communicate across their own mesh network; it’s not hard to do this with the Android platform, and the openmoko project also has a lot of potential. There’s a reason WalMart busted ass to be the first help out the victims of Katrina. That because there’s no reason that leaderless, self-organising groups couldn’t themselves pour into the next city or area that is the next victim of heavy weather, with just this tech to distribute, donated from hackerspaces local and abroad. Because everyone’s connected now; if they don’t know someone directly affected, they know someone that knows someones that is.
Now, I’ll jump back into this from another angle, in another post, shortly, but suffice to say: a top-down, device to network to cloud computer and back again, automagical friendly (not in any way censored.. oh no, heaven forbid) solution looks awful nice yesterday; but in today’s world, which is just a preview of tomorrow’s.. it’s already looking like wishful thinking. Yes, I’m being dramatic, but these are increasingly dramatic times.
Third and finally, do we really want to merge with the Googleplex? To become Google’borgs? Because that’s what this ‘Age of Augmented Humanity’ amounts to. Now, believe me, I’m all for the continued co-evolution between man and his tools, BUT.. I’m also, clearly, emphasising the importance of questioning and critiquing this. And doing it ourselves, with full control.
Fundamentally, it comes down to two questions: how much trust will you place in an Algorithm? and how much is your data really worth? To be continued..