What Future May Come
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” — Blaise Pascal.
“The postmodernist concept of equally valid, individually constructed realities is not an arcane academic fad — it is a threat to our survival as an advanced civilization.” David Helfand. A Survival Guide To The Misinformation Age: Scientific Habits Of Mind.
A friend asked the other day what I thought of Apple’s new Augmented Reality (AR) glasses. I’d published a blog post five years ago about this class of devices as the next frontier in human-machine interaction and a pivot point, an architectural chokepoint if you will, in the industry. I further declared that AR would be more interesting and lucrative than VR (Virtual Reality) in the long run. I stand by both of those statements.
VR, and gaming in particular, will continue to push the limits of hardware — just as it did with the PC generation, bringing about trillion dollar companies like nVidia. AR, on the other hand, with its emphasis on vision and image recognition, will come to define the new GUI to our increasingly digital universe — our Visual User Interface (VUI).
Both AR and VR sets of scenarios are valid and can be effectively monetized. VR and AR are not in a zero sum game. Both will win. As they used to say on Seinfeld, “We can have this and we can have that!”
Apple will push the limits of user interface design with new and intuitive hand gestures that will feel natural. Our glasses will come to read and interpret our complex hand gestures just like our phones read our fingers today. And you can bet they’ll partner with Oakley and Gucci and come out with ever smaller and cooler (and more expensive) glasses.
The company formerly known as Facebook (maybe) will create a social media universe where people hang around in virtual worlds and enjoy immersive and hopefully positive social experiences. Oh, wait. This is Meta we’re talking about. Never mind. Well, anyway, somebody hopefully will.
Google and Microsoft will go after the engineers, the doctors, the mechanics, the businessmen… There is no shortage of customers or scenarios in which we can all benefit from a better, more intuitive, more holistic, and faster human-machine interface. That’s all granted. Whether we like it or not, this revolution will happen. I guarantee it.
What I didn’t realize at the time I made my predictions, though, was how quickly the AI revolution would also be upon us and how pervasive it would be. Both revolutions are happening right in front of our eyes and both deserve our attention. The AI one is happening much more rapidly, though, as it doesn’t depend on new form factors and consumer buying habits.
Facebook’s Quest VR headset and its headlong foray into the multiverse, followed most recently by Apple’s $3500 glasses, are just a couple of early way stations along the long and windy road ahead as tech companies compete head-on for more and more of our attention.
Whether these particular attempts are successful or not is not as important as the fact that immersive experiences are here to stay, aided by hyper-realistic auditory and visual sensory data produced by Generative AI algorithms. Just as the death of AOL, Yahoo!, and MySpace wasn’t a harbinger of the demise of the internet or social media. The information superhighway is littered with the corpses of companies past and products both good and bad. Remember Google Glass?
What interests me right now are not the technical details or even the strategic roadmaps of these companies but rather the world we’re all creating together as we collectively plunge head first into these new modalities as fast as they become available, as we become addicted to ever more immersive experiences and spend more and more time from the rest of the world around us.
The clunky and cumbersome devices will become more streamlined and chic, the experiences more immersive, the apps more interesting, the content more realistic, the gestures more natural. The Osborne-1 was not the end of the road for laptops just the Blackberry was not the end of the road for smartphones. They were just the beginning.
No one could have predicted fifty years ago that we would be so immersed, 24x7, 365, into these worlds we’ve been creating together online. What worries me is that the majority of the human race has become so addicted to these devices and experiences that it’s become the new normal, such that we’re plainly unaware of the physical world around us most of the time.
These virtual worlds isolate us from each other, from those physically closest (and hence probably dearest) to us and from the animals and plants and trees and mountains and rivers and stars surrounding us. Even AR glasses, with their attempt at blending the physical and virtual universes, put a barrier between us and the physical world.
We’ve already seen this game play out before.
Even as we stand there in the middle of an airport waiting for a flight, we have our headphones on, our phone in hand, head down, practically blocking out all auditory and visual sensory data from the physical world around us.
We’re not there! We’re somewhere else entirely.
How often have you looked over at the next table in a restaurant and seen an entire family (Mom, Dad, and kids) all heads down in their smartphones for the entire length of their dinner “together”?
How often have you listened to a podcast or an audiobook and realized that you have no idea what has transpired in the last few minutes? I bet you were multitasking at the time, which is just another way of saying you weren’t paying full attention to either task. Perhaps you were driving and hence interrupted by the GPS every ten seconds: “Blah blah blah, the rain in Spain… In 200 yards, turn left on Main Street… blah blah blah… Turn left on Main Street.” How is anyone supposed to keep focused and comprehend the incoming flow of words?
Fast forward ten years.
Earlier today, I went for a very slow and deliberate “walking meditation” in a large local park near where I’m staying. I was shocked by all the tall redwood trees, the tangled blackberry bushes, and the huge oak trees that had suddenly popped up out of nowhere. None of these were here last week when I went on the same walk while listening to an audiobook!
I joke, but you get the point. In a matter of a few short decades, we’ve gone from spending all of our time in the real world to spending most of it in virtual worlds that we’ve spun up out of thin air. We spend most of our time somewhere… anywhere but here!
And now we’re going to completely cover our eyes and ears and go into this thing, this virtual universe, even further from the physical world. And we’re going to do so after locking ourselves up in our homes for four years, physically isolated from the rest of society. Is this really the direction we want to be going in as a species?
Note that this is not a critique of the goggles or even the metaverse. These are just tools, just like the internet is a tool and just as ChatGPT and its ilk will be. And they are extremely powerful tools.
We live in the most amazing time in history, at the precipice of the Information Age. Within a matter of a few short years, we’ve connected the entire world together. That’s incredible, it’s powerful, and it’s empowering. And it’s only a first step in what is to come. AI will potentially be even more disruptive than the internet in how it shapes our society over the next few decades. We should welcome all these tools and we should use these tools wisely.
What we think of as state of the art today will seem clunky and old in a few years. We will have sleek and powerful goggles. We will have tons of cheap compute and storage and networking bandwidth in the cloud. We will have large language models that will make ChatGPT look like a moron. We will have quantum computers that will solve problems in milliseconds that would have taken today’s biggest supercomputers millions of years to solve. This will happen.
We should accept all of these new technologies because they’re all tools that will help us. We should not be afraid of them. And we should adjust our existing systems and models to accommodate them.
As just one example plucked from the headlines today, AI can disrupt education and I sincerely hope it does. Just because we’ve taught English or Math a certain way (an unsuccessful way, I may add, for the majority of students) doesn’t mean we should keep doing it that way. Banning ChatGPT in the classroom today is no smarter than banning TI calculators was fifty years ago.
The future I worry about is not dominated by belligerent malignant superhuman AI systems. Sentient AI is still pretty far away. The future I worry about will arrive much sooner and is filled with humans who abuse AI for their own nefarious purposes. Doesn’t mean both won’t happen; just that one is a more immediate threat than the other.
Everyone is talking about the “existential threat” to humanity from advanced AI but noone is talking about the damage we’re doing to our social norms and mental health using plain old iPhones. Fast forward ten years.
If we blow ourselves up using AI, don’t blame AI. Blame us! We’re fully complicit in the future we create together. And while we’re waiting for our robotic overlords to arrive, maybe we should spend some time healing our souls and learning to live normally again.
No, this is not a critique of these technologies. Instead, it’s a critique of the human psyche. Far worse than the bad actors lurking in the shadows and waiting to take advantage of us is the future awaiting most of the human race, the ones that are already addicted to the digital universe and will only become more addicted as time goes by and as the experiences become more realistic and immersive, more demanding of our attention.
As a species, we’ve shown that we can become addicted to just about anything. Alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex, work, sports, sugar, food, and now, our latest, digital addiction.
The problem is not the machines nor is it the software. The problem is us! The problem is our addictive tendencies and our propensity to use those addictions to numb ourselves. And we’re not going to find a solution to those problems until we face their root causes head-on.
Why do we have our heads buried into our phones all the time, an act that didn’t exist twenty years ago? Ask yourself that question and ask it again and again, brutally and honestly, and you just might come to some resolutions; but only if you’re willing to change your behavior.
I’m not saying don’t use your phone, don’t use social media, don’t buy an Apple or Meta set of goggles, don’t talk to ChatGPT. I’m saying use them for the specific tasks for which they are designed rather than allowing them to become full time obsessions (addictions) and a source of distraction. Use them like you would use any tool, then put them away, and come back to the real world.
Every minute you spend in the digital universe is a minute you’re not paying attention to the physical world and those around you. That way lies madness. Be here now!, as Ram Dass would say.
Author’s note: I’ve deleted all my social media accounts (except for Medium) and now depend exclusively on the kindness of strangers to pass the word around about my blog posts. Please share this post with others if you liked it. Thank you.