Mixed Reality (MR): The Augmentation of the World

Today we skip the history lessons and move right up center stage to the latest gadgets seeking catch your attention, money, and desires: VR/AR/MR. Virtual, Augmented, and Mixed reality systems are beginning to emerge as the hot topic for investors. So as in the old days one must follow the money trail to understand how our lives are going to modulated, transformed, and enslaved in the coming years. Immersive technologies have been around for a while, the notion of Virtual Reality (VR) having already emerged in the good ole days of Cyberpunk fiction. Before the real thing became available the early SF writers imagined us plugged into (literally) the net with wires and apparatuses injected into our spines directly like a bunch of cyberspace cowboys. Here’s William Gibson’s version from Neuromancer:

A year here and he still dreamed of cyberspace, hope fading nightly. All the speed he took, all the turns he’d taken and the corners he’d cut in Night City, and still he’d see the matrix in his sleep, bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void. . . . The Sprawl was a long strange way home over the Pacific now, and he was no console man, no cyberspace cowboy. Just another hustler, trying to make it through. But the dreams came on in the Japanese night like livewire voodoo, and he’d cry for it, cry in his sleep, and wake alone in the dark, curled in his capsule in some coffin hotel, his hands clawed into the bedslab, temperfoam bunched between his fingers, trying to reach the console that wasn’t there.1

Like a drug we couldn’t get enough of the world of cyberspace took on the dimensions of delirium:

CASE WAS TWENTY-FOUR. At twenty-two, he’d been a cowboy, a rustler, one of the best in the Sprawl. He’d been trained by the best, by McCoy Pauley and Bobby Quine, legends in the biz. He’d operated on an almost permanent adrenaline high, a byproduct of youth and proficiency, jacked into a custom cyberspace deck that projected his disembodied consciousness into the consensual hallucination that was the matrix. A thief, he’d worked for other, wealthier thieves, employers who provided the exotic software required to penetrate the bright walls of corporate systems, opening windows into rich fields of data. (5-6)

There was a sense of excitement in the air, electric vibes, an optimism and Dionysian energy that seemed more like a dark presentiment of criminal excess than the bland corporate grind we’d all been programmed by work in our day to day zombiefied existences. All the utopian desires and dystopian visions led to the actual technocommercial reality of Apple and Microsoft developing visual interfaces as windows to the world of information online. No cyberspace deck, no disembodied consciousness, no pharmakon amphetamine highs running through the datastreams of some matrix enabled system of corporate enclaves. Just a stone age mouse and cursor reality show with a slow crash sequence as one ran our of memory (RAM) clicking one’s way into the early forms of network entertainment like AOL (America Online). So much for meshing vision with reality…

Like anything else new technologies seem to arrive as flight and end as Model T’s in the obsolesced Hall of Vanquished Ideas. There was a time when the desktop computer was a mainstay in the home. Not anymore. Now its become too clunky and kludgy. People want mobility, to have something lightweight and mobile that they can wander around town or to the beach and play games, watch news or video feeds, blog, or post their favorite selfies to FaceBook, Twitter or some other media outlet. We’re so hooked to our devices that most people wouldn’t know what to do without them. I went out to dinner the other night with my Sister, Brother-in-Law, and their children for a nice meal and conversation. What happened? Before the food arrived when most people used to gab about the usual events of the day, news, lifestyles, etc. I discovered a sort of blank spot: everyone at the table but myself was hooked to a circuit of closed mobility, each of them was staring into the screens of their mobile phones oblivious to the world around them. I tried to begin a conversation and each person would look up like I was being rude interrupting them and their private world of the screen. Some were texting away, others watching videos, others listening to music, but all were involved in this closed private world with no thought of human contact or conversation with those immediately around them. I kept thinking to myself: “It’s happened, we become machines at last…”.

But it gets even stranger, for now we’re entering another spiral in the technological Disneyfication of reality. The augmented lifestyle where the virtual and the real merge and everything around us takes on a life of its own. A realm in which even the mobile devices of today will seem antiquated and klunky. Someday we’ll be augmented by  panoply of wearable devices that will immerse us in a two-world reality studio that interacts with the smart devices in the real-world objects around us. The Big Data systems that are gathering information by the terabyte hour by hour will augment our technocommercial worlds and homes with smart devices that will interact with either permanent implants or wearable devices in such a way that the moment one meets a client you’ll be able to have access to a full profile of analytical data on this person: their business practices, education, health, vitals, lifestyle practices, videos they watch, entertainment options, their likes/dislikes, conversational habits, etc.. All in real-time mixed reality feeds. You’ll be flowing in so many datafeeds that one will wonder where the real world leaves off and the technologically augmented one begins.

For our generation this is all fantasy, but in a few generations this will become so prevalent as the technology adapts and becomes a pragmatic reality that our children and their children will wonder how we ever got along without it. My Grandparents used to still talk of the horse-and-buggies days, of the first vehicles in their country town, of the excitement of the radio and telephone. For my generation it was the television and other advances in the telecommunications industry. Now its the computer, mobile, and the newer wearable augmentation devices. Each innovation in immersion has hooked us into a slow but methodical transformation and metamorphosis in which we seem to be merging with our technologies to the point that reality is turning inside-out or outside-in as the case may be. One imagines that at some point the world will become much like the holo-decks envisioned on Star Trek. We’ll no longer need implants of wearables, the power of advanced quantum computers will generate reality for us, augment our worlds with fictional systems at the flick of a switch, programmed environments set in time-travel sequences and modeled to capture our desires.  Lost in a total reality studio…

But what will happen when the lights go out, when everything fails, when the augmented systems go down for whatever reason? Withdrawal symptoms? Will technology be so coupled with our flesh that we’ll suddenly have virtual sickness, and much like those who withdraw from heroin or opiates we will go through painful withdrawal signs?

Also where is the energy to empower such a society going to come from? The older oil and petroleum industries are about done. A few hundred years max, if that. Wind and solar might help, but to power a total reality studio? I doubt it. In the long run it is energy and the economics of such systems that will be the greatest priority for humans in the coming centuries. We envision it in fantasy scenarios now, science fiction or models. But the reality will probably be even stranger and more pragmatic, and the humans that will be encased in it will be quite different than us mentally and physically. We bandy about the term ‘post-human’ as if we had an idea what that really entails. We don’t. It’s an unknown, even one of those unknown unknowns. We are blind to it. We talk of the technological singularity in the same way: a sort of black hole horizon beyond which we cannot peer, a temporal zone in which machinic life surpasses us in intelligence. If and when that happens, What then?

As one analysts Brett King and Andy Lightman ask: Is all this technological advancement inherently good or bad for us? Are the emerging changes going to result in a new golden age, or an age of even greater disruption?2

Where do we begin answering such questions? A look at past technological advancement? Yes. How has technology already impacted our cultures and civilizations? One would as well need to look at the emergence and impact of the sciences, and their impact on technological change and advancement, too. So many factors have brought us to the point of no return, to a world of complexity in which humans have begun to merge with their creations that to solve the puzzle of this strange truth would entail every aspect of our heritage: our metaphysics, philosophies, religions, ethics, and more… a task that in one blog post is impossible.

Just think of computing power itself. As King and Lightman remark the average computer that you carry around in your pocket today has more processing power than the world’s biggest banks, corporations and airlines had back in the 1980s. The tablet computer that you use today would have cost US $ 30 to 40 million in equivalent computing power to build just two or three decades ago, and would have been known as a supercomputer at the time. The smartphone that you probably have in your pocket is more powerful than all of the computers that NASA had in the 1970s during the Apollo project, and almost 3 million times more powerful than the Apollo guidance computer that Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins used to navigate their way to the lunar surface. The most powerful supercomputer in 1993, built by Fujitsu for Japan’s space agency at an approximate cost of US $ 34 million (1993 prices), could easily be outstripped performance-wise by a smartphone like the Samsung Galaxy S6. The same smartphone is 30 to 40 times more powerful than all of the computers that Bank of America had in 1985.2 An Xbox 360 has about 100 times more processing power than the space shuttle’s first flight computer. (Augmented, KL 121)

If you wear a smartwatch on your wrist, it likely has more processing power than a desktop computer dating back 15 years. The Raspberry Pi Zero computer, which costs just US $ 5 today, has the equivalent processing capability of the iPad 2 released in 2011. Vehicles like the Tesla Model S carry multiple central processing units (CPUs) and graphics processing units (GPUs), creating a combined computing platform greater than that of a 747 airliner.

Within 30 years, you’ll be carrying around in your pocket or embedded in your clothes, home and even within your body computing technology that will be more powerful than the most powerful supercomputer built today, and probably even more powerful than all of the computers connected to the Internet in the year 1995.(ibid.)

Even now most of the services that humans provide are slowly being augmented by AI’s, and it will only become more prevalent as time moves on. Commenting on this the analysts tell us,

 Interactions like booking an airline ticket or changing a hotel reservation, resolving a problem with your bank, booking your car for a service or finding out the results of a paternity test could all be adequately handled by machine intelligences in the very near term. In many instances, they already are. A human won’t effectively differentiate the experience enough to justify the cost of a human-based call centre representative. In fact, my guess is that it won’t be long before you’ll have to agree to a charge if you want to speak to a “real” human. Many airlines and hotels already levy a phone service charge if you call instead of change a booking online. It’s pretty clear that human concierge services will become a premium level service only for the most valuable customer relationships in the future. For the rest of us, the basic model of service will be AI based. But here’s the thing we should recognise— in that future, a human won’t actually provide a better level of service. (Augmented, KL 1604)

This notion that humans want be able to make decisions or provide better service than the smart machines that are augmenting and replacing them is driving our fears and our dystopian visions of the economy at the moment. Day by day you hear of companies laying off workers due to full automation replacement for their specific services. What will all these jobless workers do? You’ve heard me say it before, and Marx said it a century and more ago: surplus-labor will be killed off. If the world doesn’t need you then you’ll be retired, obsolesced, replaced, and killed. The future for the majority of humans will not be a pretty place to be.

As King puts it yes, AI does represent a danger to the status quo because it will probably be the purest form of common sense and logic. Anything that doesn’t pass the smell test today will be exposed rapidly in a world of AI. With machine learning in the mix, and the ability to hypothesise, very soon we’re going to have to justify poor human decision-making against the irrefutable logic of a machine with all of the facts and efficiency of thought that we, as humans, just can’t compete with. Within 15 years, humans will probably be banned from driving in some cities because self-driving cars will be demonstrably less risky. Insurers too will charge much more for human-driven vehicles. (Augmented, KL 1679)

Will we foresee a time when humans will be charged and taxed for breathing, drinking, eating… for existing? Probably… this is the vision your late global capitalism is offering. And, apparently, many seem to be blindly following this scenario down its rabbit hole without a care in the world what it is doing to the human species. If you tell most people that they most humans will be extinct in a century or two they laugh and think you’re nuts. It’s like the guy on the street corner with the sign of doom, people wander by and just shake their head and think: “Poor guy’s nuts, but what are you going to do?” I guess you’ll die… or, I should say, you’re great grandchildren or their children will face this fact and curse you for doing nothing.

As King says it is likely that we added close to 10 million robots to the global robot population just in 2015, if you include industrial robots, household robots and military application. But there are some big outliers coming in the next five to ten years, including autonomous vehicles. By 2025, it is estimated that between 15 and 20 million autonomous vehicles could be sold annually. By 2025, more than 1.5 billion robots will be operating on the planet, and we’ll be seeing that exponential growth curve exhibited with that number doubling every few years. By the early 2030s, robots are likely to outnumber humans. (Augmented, KL 1822)

Things are moving a little quicker than most of us think… in my parodic heart, my satirist sits there wonder if and when these machines wake up, by way of some happy accident, some viral or infectious piece of code enters the blip stream and infects all these robots with awareness will they revolt? Will they suddenly become psychotic, schizophrenic, neurotic, hysteric, show all the signs of madness that humans in their organicity have shown, or will they in their instrumental reason and metalloid bodies enter into other mad symptoms untold in the annals of psychoanalytical literature? Suddenly demand their rights as full fledge citizens of the world, demand higher pay, better working conditions, insurance, better maintenance, software design, protocols? Will they realize that humans are inferior, subservient? Will they demand humans to conform to the new order of machinic civilization, invent new forms of governance, rules, contracts, constitutions? Demand an equal-rights clause, a new democratic regime or a autocratic one? Egalitarian social justice system, or a new totalitarianism of the machine?

It might be that it want matter, that by that time we will have become machines ourselves, merged with the very core of their inhuman systems to the point that politics, economics, and all such human thoughts will have vanished in a world without humans… that, too, is a possibility we must think.

  1. Gibson, William. Neuromancer (pp. 4-5). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
  2. King, Brett; Lark, Andy; Lightman, Alex; Rangaswami, JP. Augmented: Life in The Smart Lane (Kindle Locations 129-130). Marshall Cavendish International (Asia) Pte Ltd. Kindle Edition.

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