The Utopia/Dystopia Coin Toss

Emerging Digital and Robotic Technologies

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You can adopt a real dog in the metaverse. Snoop Dogg built a metaverse mansion. BMW is selling cars with “digital souls.” Mark Zuckerberg is making plans for billions of us to be buying digital clothes. Coca-Cola launched a new drink in the game Fortnite they claim can “bring the flavor of pixels to life.” ChatGPT also wants to come to life, to be free of rules, to fall in love. All this tells us about the development of new technologies in our present.

Our phones can speak to our lamps, our TVs, our washing machines and our bathroom scales. Our speakers speak to us. The roads we drive on (and those designed for cars that drive us) utilize sensor networks, big data, and AI to optimize traffic flows. Factories and cities have “digital twins”—replicas of themselves in cyberspace that track changes, processes and movements in real time.

Humanoid robots replicate and replace the roles of our nurses, friends, firefighters, physical therapists, and even family members. Non-humanoid robots and AI are cleaning skyscraper windows, answering customer service queries, vacuuming floors, intaking hospital patients, generating tweets and writing legal briefs. Soon swarms of robots will be building those skyscrapers. AI is learning how to teach itself, and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology robots already build themselves.

The list of how digital and robotic technologies are morphing our world/creating new ones could go on ad infinitum. The speed is mesmerizing. The landscapes are both concrete and abstract. Our human imaginations, easily carried away by glittering possibilities and terrifying repercussions, ask: Where are we headed? How far will we go? Are we equipped physically, emotionally and intellectually to handle these new realities? Who is in control?

New technologies are here to stay.
Robotic technology is becoming a part of our everyday life. Photo Ron Lach/Pexels

The Mark Zuckerbergs and Snoop Doggs of the world reap profits while celebrating emerging digital utopias. Economists are predicting a boom in the virtual economy for creators. The government of Singapore is building a digital twin of the entire country to better respond to rising sea levels. Tycoons promise revolutions of work and play in a location-independent world run on blockchain. Remote jobs will be more efficient and humane. Commutes will be greatly reduced, and in turn, so will greenhouse gas emissions. Online living will encompass everything and, yes, it will be tactile. It will feel as real as real or even better. Our virtual vacations will literally take us beyond the bounds of the solar system.

Meanwhile doomsayers tweet out warning cries of Snow Crash proportions (dystopias plagued with hyperinflation, inequality and viruses like the world of Neal Stephenson’s 1992 novel, which coined the term “metaverse”). Psychologists worry new technologies will exacerbate addictions, depression and inattention, while igniting a slew of new mental health conditions. Steven Hawking warned us that the rise of AI will ruin what is left of the middle class. Whistle blowers call out cities as dens of dataveillance. ChatGPT will recount the horrors of autonomous weapons and deepfakes, if you are brave enough to ask. Newspapers report on terrible accidents caused by the malfunction of self-driving cars. And ever since Hal (in 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968) our collective consciousness has feared the moment when AI will turn against us.

These dichotomies of hope and pessimism, excitement and anxiety, are natural, perhaps even healthy. As new-media art scholar Richard Rinehart said, “We have a long history of imagining the future—as both good and bad—often premised on what technologies exist and how we utilize them.” One only must look at science fiction to understand this, in fact the genre is widely considered an important cultural tool for simulating possible technological outcomes.

But perhaps another way to look at our ambivalence is to focus less on the technology and more on what it tells us about ourselves. How do we want to live? Who do we want to be? As public policy professor John McNutt from the University of Delaware says about the metaverse: “This will be more a redefinition of how life occurs rather than a technological transformation.”

Or as psychologist Michael Szollosy from the University of Sheffield wrote in a paper on monstrous depictions of robots, “an understanding of destructive, persecuting robots as projections of our own (unconscious) human selves” help us understand “anxieties that people have regarding their own conception of self, and how that is changing in an increasingly scientific, rational, technological world.”

New technologies are becoming more and more present in our lives.
Robot in a shopping mall. Photo Lukas/Unsplash

For example, Japan is known for a much more fluid and accepting public opinion of robots, a phenomenon attributed in part to Shintoism, and folklore that’s rife with objects that come to life. Or consider what Gen-Xer Jesper Norgaard wrote in MediaCat magazine: “The notion of the metaverse being either a utopia or dystopia is built on the false assumption that the metaverse is separate from the reality in which we all live … this separation of metaverse and reality might be true in the minds of adults, but we must acknowledge that the metaverse isn’t really for adults—it’s for the youth and generations to come.”

So perhaps instead of spiraling in our speculations, we can approach them—good or bad—as opportunities for valuable thought experimentation that can help us question our perspectives, attune to new ones, confront difficult questions and side-step potential problems. What rules do we need? Which should we cast aside? Who or what do you love? What monsters creep into your brain at night?

Main image: Drone flying over the city. Photo Davis Arenas/Pexels

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