Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who sat next to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg in Davos in 2015, put it this way:
The internet will go away. There will be so many IP addresses, there will be so many devices, sensors, things you carry, things you interact with that you won’t even feel it. It will be part of your presence all the time.
For young people – digital natives who grew up with the phone and Facebook, whose every movement is on Insta and who want to be influencers themselves – questions about protection, privacy, content review and platform responsibility are raised by an NGO called. put 5 rights. 5Rights was founded in 2015 in the UK by filmmaker Beeban Kidron. When I asked her about 5Rights, she pointed out that over a billion teenagers are online for hours every day and treated like adults by the platforms they use.
The content is easy to access, difficult to monitor. Online grooming is a particular threat. For example, during the 2020 Covid lockdown in the UK (UK only here, folks) around 9 million attempts to display child abuse images were blocked in a month alone.
Children are tech savvy, but technically vulnerable. 5Rights wants children to be just as protected in the digital world as they are in the physical world. In the physical world, we make a distinction between children and adults – a distinction that was hard won during the industrial revolution. We don’t want our kids to work in sweatshops, but we don’t seem to care about exploitation on their phones. This includes addictive gaming and porn habits as well as the suicidal misery of “likes”.
Data collection that begins early in life is tantamount to conquering that life. And as we saw in the China-Hong Kong standoff, the forced removal of data from popular sharing sites like TikTok can be used to track or prosecute young people, monitor their behavior, and undoubtedly make their political “decisions” In the case of China, the data theft is clearly political. But that’s not the point. China is obviously doing what is quietly done every day in the “free” Western world. Our data is not anonymous. Who has a “right” to this data? To sell it? To grab it? To package it?
But what happens when there is less or no separation between the online world and the physical world? When will Eric Schmidt’s prediction of the end of the internet and the beginning of the internet of everything happen? How do we protect someone when the internet is always active and we are always there? I loved this great story of the teen addicted online whose mother confiscated all of her devices and turned off the wifi. The kid realized that she could send tweets from the home’s smart refrigerator. The whole thing may have been a hoax, but Reddit has a full guide on how to tweet from a Samsung fridge if you have one. The point of this story is that the goal of our digital masters in Silicon Valley is that there will be no offline. No need to hack your fridge. And yet…
All of this – privacy, data usage – may be a temporary issue. At present, we envision human interests and human actors as dominant in all of our scenarios. However, when AI becomes super-intelligent – a gamer, not just a tool – then the future may be irrelevant to humans. I mean, how much data is the AI going to need about one species that is sent to the history museum?
When I talk to people about the future, many believe that the world’s head-in-sand attitude towards climate catastrophe will make that other kind of sand – silicon – irrelevant, whether in the valley or out. We will fight for food and not tweet from our fridges. Others believe that developing super-intelligent AI as quickly as possible is our best chance of survival. Until 2020, none of us thought of viruses as a call for extinction. Now we are.
Ironically, although the world may become much poorer because of Covid-19, the virus offers an opportunity for the tech giants to get much richer and gain more control. And it’s not just Amazon that delivers home deliveries. Eric Schmidt enthusiastically talks about homeschooling for everyone (except the rich, you can be sure), and uses the platforms that began to replace contact during the pandemic. When we are at home we need to be connected in new ways. This is an opportunity for the connectors. Virtual reality avatar sessions are tested by Facebook. I am sure they will become as real to us as Zoom is now.
More worryingly, the persecution everywhere, including a visit to the pub, enables levels of surveillance that civil rights groups would have taken years to argue over privacy and usage. It’s all gone now. To be watched means to be safe.
But what about energy restrictions? AI is an energy hog, and even if we were to extract all of the fossil fuels left on the planet, it wouldn’t be enough for the kind of super-futures that Ray Kurzweil or Elon Musk envision. Therefore, The Matrix’s premise is that humans are just battery packs in an AI simulation.
Optimists say the energy demands of an AI future will force the world to adopt low-carbon solutions. The market will drive change because it has to.
But there are other constraints on an AI future too. Intel co-founder Gordon Moore developed his own law: Moore’s Law states that every two years the number of transistors that fit on a square inch microchip doubles. Fifty years after that first Intel chip, the computing power that once filled an entire building with hardware now fits in your handbag. And it uses a lot less electricity. That is progress.
However, progress is limited – and if we don’t switch our systems we are pretty much at the limit. Put simply, on the small scale of the laptop or phone, there is no longer any space to double the number of transistors. No matter how small they are, they still take up (some) physical space.
The next leap to faster processing speeds and more instructions will be quantum computing. There are rumors that China has already made the breakthrough. If so, don’t tell anyone. Google and IBM both claim to be nano-sized.
Transistors work according to the well-known zero-and-one principle – whether analog or digital. “Bits” of information each contain a 1 or a 0. A quantum “bit” or qubit is different. Very different. Using subatomic craziness, a qubit can be a 0 and a 1 at the same time.
Numerically, 8 bits make up a byte. Your smartphone memory could be two gigabytes – that’s 2 x 8 billion bits – but a few dozen qubits are way beyond that. According to Dario Gil, director of the IBM research unit in Yorktown Heights, NY:
Imagine you have 100 perfect qubits. You would have to use every atom on planet earth to store bits to describe the state of this quantum computer. If you had 280 perfect qubits, it would take every atom in the universe to store all the ones and zeros.
Currently, the IBM Q System One lives like a withdrawn rock star in a nine-foot cube of black glass, accessible only through 700-pound doors that are half an inch thick. Quantum computers have to be absolutely far removed from any entanglement with reality – entanglement influences the result, as anyone who has ever fallen in love knows. So we are building a god who is so remote that he has to live in an inaccessible temple that is only visited by high priests in special clothing. The high priests can ask the questions and interpret the answers. Quantum computing may be the future, but this story is like a pharaoh’s dream from the past.
Where is it all going? What is certain is that fewer and fewer people know how the systems that control us actually work. We’re not talking about repairing the washing machine here. Even if there is no consensus about the future, there is consensus that full connectivity will take place – to the Internet, to our devices, to our machines, with each other. If you customize your connectivity it will feel like yours. In fact, it will feel like you. And you will feel like you chose it. An avatar Sinatra sings “I did it my-wi”. And a whole new question about what “you” is is simmering.
My-wi is religious in its own way. Mark Zuckerberg spoke of Facebook as a “global church” that connects people with something bigger than themselves. It may be bigger – it may be smaller – but it will be connected. Here is George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four:
You had to live – lived out of a habit that became instinct – assuming that you overheard every sound you made and, except in the dark, questioned every movement.
The success story of Homo sapiens is an infinite adaptability. Adapting to the machine age was an unprecedented break with our evolutionary past. We mourn the price of planet earth, but few want to return to a world before 1800. We don’t like the intrusion of everything, but who wants a world without smartphones and Google? Perhaps we would prefer a world that could be less democratic, but also less stressful for the next phase of our development.
My-wi could leave us the way little children are: looked after, fed, safe, supervised, with lots of fun and free things, and someone else decides the big things. There is no reason to believe that the decision maker will always be in human form.
Extracted from 12 bytes: How we got here. Where We Might Go Next, by Jeanette Winterson (Jonathan Cape, £ 16.99), is out on July 29th. To order for £ 14.99 call or have a look at 0844 871 1514 books.telegraph.co.uk