We interact with algorithm- driven bots on a regular basis. But the idea of technology being used to recreate humans and mimic their emotions is deeply unsettling.
In one of the episodes of Black Mirror, the British anthology sci-fi series on Netflix that examines how technology manipulates behaviour, a grieving young widow logs onto an artificial intelligence (AI) service to connect with her dead husband. The AI firm has built a bot version of her husband Ash from his social media feeds.
At first, she gets a text bot to chat with, which evolves into a voice bot. Next she is offered a premium service, which is a robot clone of Ash delivered to her home. He looks and sounds so much like her husband. Happy at first, she soon realizes he does not respond like Ash in certain situations. Can a digital avatar capture Ash’s entire self? Not really, as she finds out. She feels let down and faced with the futility of holding on to what’s gone forever. Titled Be Right Back, the Black Mirror episode underscores the seductive appeal of technology and how humans are drawn to use it to outwit even a metaphysical force like death.
In reality, we are nowhere close to creating an Ash clone, say experts. ‘Grief bots’, which are crude digital versions of a person culled from online behaviour are possible, however. Indeed, bots have become an integral part of our lives today, as we routinely get them to play a song for us or remind us about a chore. They are our first line of contact on e-commerce websites. AI algorithms, which are behind these bots or personal assistants, are only getting smarter and in combination with powerful computers, are all set to pick up “nuances” in future human conversations. This was ably demonstrated by Google CEO Sundar Pichai, while unveiling the latest version of their Google Assistant last year. This one can make a hotel reservation or book a salon appointment in a completely life-like manner, even punctuating the interaction with “umms” and “aahs”.
Are we then close to getting a bot that can mimic human emotions? It is quite likely then that the plot in the sci-fi film Her (2013) is not so far-fetched anymore. It was a plot that revolved around a lonely, reclusive man falling in love with the warm, honeyed voice of an Operating System (OS) – a ramped up version of Apple’s Siri that learns from its user and interacts with him in surprisingly intimate ways.
Her and Be Right Back underline the dark and scary side of technology. Hollywood has always been fascinated with the intricate dynamics involved in a growing relationship between humans and machines. Back in the 80s, Ridley Scot’s iconic Blade Runner agonized over whether man should be playing god by creating robots and imbuing them with human like qualities. These are cautionary tales (we don’t always need Elon Musk warning us about the perils of indiscriminately adopting AI) that show us how things can go horribly wrong if we let technology into our lives in an unchecked manner.
But, there is no doubt that new technologies such as AI and even IoT have entered our lives in a big way and are changing the way we work, live and play.
Every day you hear of a new game-changing AI application. In Mumbai, a company is leveraging the brain computer interface to better understand the human brain and help people cope more effectively with mental health issues such as addictions, anxiety, depression and more. AI and IoT in the medical field are a boon for doctors as they can be used to read MRIs and make medical care accessible in remote places as well. There are doctors who check in on their ICU patients through an AI-enabled app.
It is the interest in creating digital replicas of ourselves and our loved ones where new technologies seem to be crossing some line at this point in time. An article in the Guardian says that TV series like Black Mirror highlight the modern world’s curiosity in the digital afterlife. And, it goes on to add, with growing AI and brain computer interfaces, digital replicas of humans who can live on after death are a distinct possibility. Now, that’s a thought that may give us some pause as we post. After all, who we are online may well define how we will be remembered tomorrow.
That makes you want to tuck your smartphone out of sight, push the laptop away and go out and connect with real people in real time.
Despite these concerns, most of us are not ready to join the Neo-Luddite movement although it will be interesting to see where these new technologies are going to take us. Luckily, right now humans are still very much in the picture and we are far from being part of a planet ruled by “intelligent” robots such as in one of Iain Bank’s Culture novels. We are still at the stage where we are able to recognize the flaws in us, and by default, in technology. So, the future will probably depend on the new born-to-tech generation to draw boundaries and lay down rules for a positive relationship with technology.