Thursday, February 8, 2018

Science Fiction’s Technological Dream, Less than Dreamy in Real Life

By Jerry Chandler

Technology was always going to make our lives better and make our sometimes-limited leisure time more enjoyable. At least that was always the point- when dealing with this specific form of technology -of so many of the little throwaway scenes in so much science fiction over the decades. The machines around us were in their way going to grow smarter, and thus they would be able to serve us in ways people could only imagine experiencing until recent years. One of the ways they would do this was by analyzing the things we regularly liked to hear or see or do and find similar things to that to expose us to when we asked for something to hear or see or do. 

A typical scene involving such a moment in a story would be our lead character retreating to his or her quarters or home after a stressful day, ordering the computerized controls to lower the light levels, and asking for music. Music- maybe something with a mild jazz sound to it –would start filling the room. Our character would open one eye, look up quizzically, and ask the AI what was playing. The AI would give an answer along the lines of this being a pick it found in the archives based on the character’s preferred playlists. The character would mention how it sounds wonderful; much like a favored musician the character already knows. We’d then watch the character getting comfortable before things cut away to the scene that sets up the matter that will make our lead character’s life very uncomfortable in very short order.

We’d all look at that and think about how cool it was. Everything we could possibly want was just a short voice command away, and, even better, the AI would be able to review the things we liked and find other stuff just like it for us. When we eventually got to that golden age, it would truly be a dream come true.

Then we caught up to the future and it turned out to be something less than a dream come true.

The thing that makes such examples of technology making our lives better seem so appealing on the big and small screens and in books that are one-off stories or part of a short series of novels is probably one that will get some fans’ hackles up when cited. Most of the beloved, well-developed characters in speculative fiction aren’t really all that well developed. I’m going to slightly over generalize here, but not by much.

Old Jean-Luc there had years on TV and more on the big screen. The majority of the time, what we were told about his personal tastes was plucked from a small set of likes and dislikes; some referenced so often that most fans of the show would without thinking more than a second give the same answers as everyone else to the various questions about them. He’s hardly alone on that score.

Many characters in speculative fiction share this bit of shorthand characterization. This is their favorite drink, this is their favorite food, this is their favorite music, and this is the type of place they always go to relax and get away from it all. There’s a little variation here and there, sometimes used as a gag bit for a story, but not all that much for many characters.

For characters like this, for characters that do not have the broader tastes most people actually display in life, technology along the lines of what I discussed is wonderful. It plays on a narrow set of likes, and it offers new suggestions based on those narrowly defined perimeters. It gives you something different, but, in reality, it’s largely more of the same.

People have for decades now actually wanted that in real life. They’ve talked about how cool it would be to have things that would customize themselves to their set of likes and dislikes. Then we started getting that little by little. We started getting search engines that would customize themselves over time. We started seeing machine learning algorithms, or weak AI, being written with the goal of customizing our shopping, listening, and viewing options. The interconnected nature of the internet also brought us the development of webpages displaying ads based on our last few days of shopping, viewing, and listening habits on the web.

Well, now that we’ve gotten it, it’s absolutely horrible.

I have a regular set of things that make up my day-to-day watching, listening, and activity pastimes. All of us do. We also all have a set group of comfort foods or things we regularly turn to in order to cheer up or de-stress or when we just want to have that comfortable favorite playing in the background. However, the reality is that we’re all fairly complex people with a wide range of likes, dislikes, and interests. As much as I like my old favorites and the familiar standbys, I do often get in the mood to try something totally different.

But the algorithms and ad tracking programs we see now- even as they act very much like the ones from classic and not so classic sci-fi –don’t take into account the 35% or more of our time that we like to look into something new and a little different than our favorites or our daily norm. Yet, even as the algorithms are tinkered and tweaked with to whittle down selections to an even more narrow selection of likes and favorites for our perusal, we see them being used in more and more places.

Eventually, we’re going to be moving towards technology that acts as little more than blinders. You’ll only see what it thinks you need to see because it thinks you want only that. The thing that makes such technology such a pernicious trap is that the more you respond positively to the now limited options it gives you, the more it reinforces the narrowing perimeters of the algorithm. A problem with this- and it’s a problem that becomes greater when possible new favorites to discover are something totally outside of your normal routine –is that you might not always know what it is that you may want or like.

Whenever I discuss and give advice about attending large fan conventions like Dragon Con, I always stress that you’ll have more fun if you give yourself some downtime off your schedule that allows you to explore. We all go to such conventions looking forward to seeing the cast from a favorite show and hoping to squeeze in some annual favorite acts and activities, but there’s so much more to be discovered. As I’ve said about my own personal experiences with such conventions; when people break away from doing only what they know they want to do and see they sometimes discover things- sometimes seemingly unlikely things –that they leave a convention with as a new favorite thing.

Well, everything else is like that. My collections of movies, music, and books are filled with a large number of things that you would absolutely expect to see in them if you started to get to know me. But mixed in here and there in all of those collections are things that bear almost no resemblance to anything else that’s there, but they may well be some of my favorite things. I know many people this can be said of. But as this type programming becomes more common and sought after by the various platforms that provide us our entertainment, the more it reduces the chances to accidently stumble across new favorites that are outside of our “norm” by some wide margin.

And that’s the relatively decent thing about how these programs work.

As we turn to a more computerized society and as that society spends more of its time on the internet or in front of a computer, the same algorithms are making the same decisions for us based on the information we give them by our most common choices for news and information. While computer programs trimming away things we might enjoy in our leisure time- creating something of a bland sameness of selections –can be a form of stagnation, it’s not an altogether hazardous one. However, how bad is it when the same technology is applied to our options for news and information?

People already have a bad habit of choosing to tune out information and facts that run counter to their desired opinion on things. However, as the system narrows even the options, removing from sight conflicting facts and replacing them with bias reinforcing opinions and spin; it only makes it easier to have a worldview shaped by things that are not necessarily strongly rooted in the reality-based community.

While the machine learning algorithms as we know them now and the long down the road to be perfected AI would in this process make many very dull and stagnated people with regards to art and leisure time; what it could do with news and information- what it is in some ways doing now –has a far more grave possible impact on society. It’s one thing to knowing choose to ignore information that one sees and doesn’t want to acknowledge. It’s another thing all together to slowly have such information largely removed from one’s sight so as to create a bubble that only echoes and strengthens specific biases over facts.

There are many things in science fiction mankind has made into science fact and many more things from science fiction that mankind wants to see be turned into science fact. Machine learning algorithms and AI of this nature is probably something we should be leaving to science fiction.

Jerry Chandler is a lifelong geek who, while enjoying most everything fandom has to offer, finds himself most at home in the horror, dark fantasy, and science fiction genres. When not wasting too much time on social media, he can be found writing regularly here at Needless Things, but has also written for websites like Gruesome Magazine as well as remembering to put up the occasional musings on his on blog. He’s been a guest on several podcasts from the ESO Network, Decades of Horror, and the Subject Matter. He has also recently become a regular cohost of The Assignment: Horror Podcast.

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