“I think we’re all slightly put out to not to have our hoverboards.”

From the Terminator franchise to Alex Garland’s critically acclaimed new blockbuster Ex_Machina, cinema is full of bold and troubling visions of what might happen when the machines get a mind of their own. Should we live in fear of our future robot overlords, or feel optimistic about our utopian Star Trek future?

In tandem with the two talks presented by AXNS as part of Southbank Cantre’s Web We Want festival, AXNS were asked to give some answers…


Is social media killing the conversation?


2_2Miranda Marcus: Throughout history, new technology has been met with fear and the suspicion that it will somehow rob us of our humanity. Socrates was of the opinion that the groundbreaking technology of writing would rob humanity of the ability to achieve knowledge. He argued that exposed to writing, people would become “hearers of many things, and will have learned nothing; they will appear omniscient and will generally know nothing.”

The suspicion of the digital age is that the instant access to the world around us will remove the need to interact in an interpersonal manner, and rob us of the ability to engage with our fellow humans in complex, subtle and emotional communication that are longer than 140 characters. It is a human instinct to arrange ourselves into communities, so the fact that this behaviour is transferred online is only an extension of our natural inclinations. The digital age has opened us up to a huge increase in the volume and frequency of communication, which is now global and instantaneous. But has it led to a qualitative change in the nature of those communications?

The answer at this time is it might do; we will have to wait and see. A must-quoted statistic is that 93% of all daily communication is nonverbal. Whether or not that is accurate is irrelevant, but it demonstrates how multi-faceted personal communication is. When interacting in person, the brain uses data from all five senses – even taste – not only to build a cognitive understanding of what is being said, but the context it is being said in. While digital communication can utilise words, pictures and sound, it exists in a digital vacuum, giving rise to behaviour such as trolling, in which people interact in wildly aggressive ways.

The field of Digital Sociology is developing at a huge rate, with researchers monitoring our behaviour and communication across the internet. Artists like Mark Farid are undertaking art projects such as Seeing-I, in which he will wear a Virtual Reality headset to experience life through another person’s eyes and ears, 24 hours a day for 28 days, in order to see if he will lose his sense of self.

The answer at this time is it might do; we will have to wait and see. In the past, however, it hasn’t mattered how much our environment changes, our behaviour tends to remain the same. To believe that technology is able to alter us fundamentally is to forget that machines are human creations that reflect our needs and desires.



What future should we strive for?



Rachel Bedder: One of the best favourite things about reading and watching sci-fi is seeing what they got wrong – and what they’re getting right! It’s wonderful to read William Gibson’s 1984 novel Neuromancer, which constructs cyberspace as a fully immersive virtual reality experience – “a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation” – and think how close we are to this with things like Oculus Rift and Google Glass.

Science-fiction loves to explore what goes inevitable wrong so it’s hard to chose one thing without being reminded of the possible cataclysmic consequences. The prospect of 3D printers and their potential for being self-replicating is incredibly exciting. Possibility their most famous portrayal in sci-fi is the Replicator machines inStar Trek, which could produce any inanimate matter on file. 3D printers are beginning to be used for all kinds of ingenious and humanitarian exploits, making cheap and quick designs in environments that would be difficult to transport a diverse range of resources to – we have even printed new tools in space!OpthalmicDocs have developed a printable device that converts a smartphone into a retinal camera device allowing early diagnosis of inner eye defects and thus preventing further costly problems in areas of the world without access to regular optical healthcare.

However, the archives of science fiction shout ‘what if it becomes self-aware?!’.Philip K Dick has written on several occasions on the dangers of self-replicating AI. In 1955’s Autofac, self-replicating robots end up controlling all resources and the means of production. We hope the When Science Fiction Becomes Reality: AI in the Digital Age panel discussion will explore these ideas of whether sci-fi is given too much credit for its doom prophesying.

Choosing one thing, maybe I would settle on intergalactic travel. Whether it’s aMillennium Falcon’s jump to hyperspace or the (arguably) more sophisticated travel of Interstellar through theoretical passages in space-time. Having an academic interest in neuroscience, I am curious to see if Emily Dickinson was right when she said “the brain is wider than the sky”. Ignoring the odd Xenomorphthere’s very little that could go wrong.

Saying all that – it is 2015, the year of Back To The Future 2, so I think we’re all slightly put out to not to have our hoverboards.



Will artificial intelligence make humanity lose control?


Rachel Stratton: The simple answer to this question is no, we should not worry about losing control of our lives. Over the last 50 years the amount that our lives have been devolved to computers has increased tenfold but that hasn’t reduced the amount of ‘control’ we have over our own lives, at least not to any greater extent than before. Humans are adaptable creatures, hence why they have been so successful evolutionarily. People have and will continue to adapt to the changing rate of technological change.

In many ways, the digital age has empowered human beings further. Now more than ever, the individual voice can be heard. Take the Arab Spring, for instance, a series of popular uprisings that would not have been possible without widespread access to digital media. In developing countries, rural areas are getting better access to health advice and childbirth mortality rates are dropping thanks to increased connectivity brought by mobile telephones. In our own society, every person has the power to curate and manage his or her own public relations and create networks previously opaque to them. There are, of course, dangers with large conglomerates such as Google and Facebook monopolising the market. However, my personal view is that humans are still the most dangerous force on this planet, not AI.

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