Are we building the future we really want?

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Virtual reality and AI have become as normal a part of our vocabulary and life as PCs and Smartphones. We tend to not think about it all too much, but as the technology is developed and advanced maybe we should!

In 2014, Facebook bought Oculus, the VR headset and gaming company. In that niche market they have done well, with 2020 being particularly good as people had to find alternative entertainment sources. Ever the innovators, pioneers, and researchers, Facebook hasn’t stuck to just VR headsets and gaming. They have recently started unveiling their ideas and plans for the future and how virtual or augmented reality will play a part in our personal, everyday lives, and how it will work towards creating a more efficient, greener planet.   

An expected foray into the next level of VR/AR tech from Facebook is their Smart glasses. Andrew Bosworth, Facebook’s VP of AR and VR, tempered people’s expectations of their smart glasses a bit in the beginning of this year and announced that it won’t even be referred to as AR tech, rather just connected, smart glasses. In other words, it will aid in capturing moments but won’t provide a virtual overlay on your view of the real world.

New announcements from Facebook’s Reality Labs, where intensive research into virtual and augmented reality is being done, have caused a stir. Their “10-year vision of a contextually-aware, AI-powered interface for augmented reality (AI) glasses,” is an attempt at creating a future where AR is included in a much more practical manner in our everyday lives.

Such technology would require a paradigm shift last experienced with the successful inclusion of the mouse and cursor into computing technology. The display of information will no longer be confined to the screen of your PC or phone, but it will literally be in front of your eyes, as well as a number of other functionalities added to it. Michael Abrash, Chief Scientist at Reality Labs, describes it as “always-available technology that’s so intuitive to use that it becomes an extension of your body.” Abrash creates a reality where you wear the glasses and soft wristband that allows you to play a podcast with the move of a finger after the virtual assistant asked if you want to. Then you wear haptic gloves to work on a virtual screen and keyboard as the assistant automatically cancels out the background noise within-ear monitors but lets the server’s voice through loud and clear.  But how exactly would such technology work? Electromyography is being researched as an option, i.e. connecting to the neural pathway between your spine and hand allowing the tech to ‘read’ the commands given. This leaves the door open to eventually reacting to just the intention of moving a finger.

Beyond this AR is also the development of contextual and personalised AI that “can make deep inferences about what information you might need or things you might want to do in various contexts.” With a single ‘click’ you can do whatever it is you want to do. The inference is further that you won’t even need to click but just have the intention of doing something. In a recent interview Mr. Zuckerberg himself envisaged a world where we help the planet by not having to physically call a friend or make our way over to them, rather “you just kind of snap your fingers and teleport, and you’re sitting there and they’re on their couch and it feels like you’re there together.”

To be clear, the technology exists, but not in small and portable versions that can be included in our everyday lives as currently envisaged. It will happen, however, that the technology advances and what seems like a far-off idea today, is the tech we use tomorrow leading to some serious concerns.

First and foremost are the safety and privacy concerns. These have actually already been addressed with Reality Labs’ principles for building the future namely, never surprise people, provide controls that matter, consider everyone, and put people first. These principles boil down to being transparent, providing people with control, including people from all walks of life, and placing the concerns of the community first. Reality Labs say that privacy is a priority and that “teams are required to include privacy goals as part of their planning process.” The reality is, we look at history to foresee the future, and Facebook’s history has not been one of providing and ensuring complete privacy. The extent to which the proposed technology would penetrate into our lives would require incredible privacy and safety protocols and we are not convinced that this would be provided in a stable and consistent manner.

There is also a looming concern that arises as to our autonomy. How dependent have we become on technology, the platforms that have been created as new technology arises, and the effect it has on our general well-being? The younger generation no longer knows a world that is not in some way dictated by likes or dislikes and we have less and less need to autonomously remember information or solve problems – all the information we need is available at the touch of a button and now that button might not even be needed. There are definitely advantages to having easy access to information but as less and less personal skills are required to get by the question remains if this doesn’t actually leave us poorer rather than richer?

This type of technology, driven by companies that ultimately have a bottom line and financial targets they want to reach, will aid them in doing so just as much as it might aid us in making our lives easier. While the physical technology might be pricy, the apps that go with it appear to be free and readily available, but they also provide a massive looking glass into our lives, behaviours, consumptions, needs, and wants. This data is what can be monetised between companies to provide in those wants and needs. In South Africa, a push against this can be seen with general privacy laws and acts like POPI, but it is not enough to ensure privacy and safety. People rather than the bottom line have to become the priority.

 Facebook’s envisaged future of truly streamlined AR and AI tech is a leap into what’s convenient and novel and in a society that is often hooked on having the latest and greatest, it will probably be adopted easily and quickly. The question is, do we only want the latest and greatest or are we really looking at what we actually need? Are we building the future we really want?