February 06, 2011

Welcome to the future!

My fascination with androids started in junior high school when I read Isaac Asimov's "I, Robot". Then a few years later "The Terminator" came along and suddenly robots were the bad guys. Here we are almost four decades later and for some reason there are more people in today's world who fear robots than those who embrace them, especially in America. So I was not the least bit surprised when RoboEarth starting showing up in scattered blog posts with wild rantings about Skynet and the end of the world. Well, I have bad news for the technophobes, the future is here and Skynet is already a reality. Now that wireless internet connections require nothing more than a circuit board smaller than a human thumb, it is only a matter of time before everything in our house is directly connected to cyberspace.

Personally, I don't fear Skynet or anything like it. True, it is always a possibility, but anything humanity can create must also incorporate as many of our weaknesses as it does our strengths. Without humans to maintain components that burn out, burn up, and oxidize, a global brain would sooner or later fail. Even a self-aware Skynet could not risk destroying the humanity it depends upon to survive.

On the other hand, there is one thing that bothers me. All of the most innovative robotics companies are in Asia! Kokoro Dreams, for example, is in Japan. They make everything from toys to full-size dinosaurs. Another Japanese company making robots that will eventually be aimed at the consumer market is Honda with their ASIMO robot. ASIMO performs at events ranging from weddings to trade shows, thrilling audiences from all walks of life. Yamaha's HRP-4C robotic girl both sings and dances, opening the way for a near-future in which a robots beats out human competitors for Golden Globes and Oscars. Rather than "The Terminator", it seems to me that "Bicentennial Man" might be right around the corner. Better yet, perhaps even "Futureworld". After all, when it comes right down to it, all it will take is for some bright entrepreneur to combine an Actroid-F with a Real Doll and "presto!" Mustang Ranch will have a new option for their already exhaustive menu of adult pleasures.

I know there are a lot of people out there who are completely repulsed by the idea of sexbots and android prostitutes. Keep in mind that Real Doll has already sold over 10,000 silicone love dolls to customers from all over the world. Although their dolls are beautiful, they don't interact in any meaningful way. Once some whizkid figures out that wireless datalinks mean the hardware and software to control interactivity can be downloaded to a mainframe and RoboEarth can be used to link an entire amusement park of robotic entertainers together in a real-time feedback loop that prioritizes customer desires, all it will take is a group of venture capitalists with deep pockets to build Futureworld followed by a top-flight marketing campaign to get the word out.

The future is here. All the pieces are now in place. Sooner or later somebody will secure the funding and put them all together. I don't know if culturally we are ready for a Westworld/Futureworld amusement park or not. I do know that there are almost seven billion people on planet Earth. Around a billion, maybe two billion, have the resources and the free time to indulge such a park once someone builds it. Even if only one percent of those who could afford such an extravagance actually partake in it, the investors will make their money back tenfold, maybe a hundredfold.

There are, of course, a couple of concerns. Perhaps most important of all is that the rich keep getting richer while the poor keep getting poorer. The economic gap between the top and bottom one percent of the world's people is more vast now than it has ever been and it is expanding expotentially every year. Social unrest created by this gap has already plunged a dozen nations into chaos with "people power" movements shattering the hold of nations as different in character and composition as the old Soviet Union and the deeply entrenched Marcos regime in the Phillipines. Just in the past few weeks Tunisia, Jordan, and Egypt have all been rocked with grassroots revolts against oppressive governments. Nations like Saudi Arabia and Myanmar have existed on the brink of similar upheaval for decades, just waiting for the right spark to set them off.

How will all this social upheaval play out as the next decade unfolds? Will capitalism and free trade expand until they truly engulf the world or will jealousy and international rivalry shut down the success that has inspired these movements? Will groups like the Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood, and Al Qaeda plunge half the world into a new dark age of religious fundamentalism? Will adultery be a stoning offense in some of the richest nations on the planet while public executions and honor killings become a daily occurence in countries fueled by oil wealth? Whose moral and ethical values will control global culture ten years from now? What about twenty years from now? Will genuine individual freedom be the norm with some people indulging their wildest fantasies while others live austere lives of self-discipline and denial of earthly pleasures and most of us tread a path somewhere in between?

I have a fairly strict personal value system. If a corporation arises that builds a Futureworld-style amusement experience I probably would not patronize it. Unless, of course, they did it right with a variety of experiences available from simple robot servants for those of us who don't need a sex slave to every whim imaginable for those who do. Such a park might tempt me to part with my hard-earned dollars. If I can have something similar to Disneyland while someone else can venture into a robotic Mustang Ranch and neither of us is allowed to impose on the other then an astute park creator could maximize their potential customer base. After all, a truly free market means that every possible non-destructive choice is available provided a price that be set to meet the costs of that experience while allowing a reasonable profit for the provider.

I, personally, advocate maximum individual freedoms. I want our global culture to be a place where religious fundamentalism and wild materialism live side by side in peace and acceptance. I do not want to see the world fall into either a Marxist utopia, an atheist paradise, or a theocracy with roots deep in Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions. No, quite the opposite. I want to see a global community where all these worldviews live together, work together, and play together in tolerance and understanding. Our future needs to be a place where children grow up to be adults who make their own decisions based on both the values their parents teach them and the values they develop on their own.

If we can survive the next decade that is. And in all honesty, I am not optimistic.