Invasive technologies define the future of Sarcology

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sarcology cover 2014Invasive technologies, by definition, tend to have the most initial resistance to their introduction to society.  It can be hard to imagine a future world in which new and sometimes disturbing, often painfully-disruptive technologies come to be accepted, even common, parts of our lives.

Sarcology, recently updated and re-released, depicts a future world full of these invasive technologies, making it easy for the reader to question the likelihood and desirability of this future reality.

But given time, and often contrary to public perception, we have seen that even the most invasive of tech can overcome initial resistance and become accepted, even ubiquitous, in society.

Historically, people have shown a consistent pattern when it comes to new technologies, especially invasive ones like the automation and security systems that are a major part of the world of Sarcology.  At first they are misunderstood and distrusted; paranoia and nostalgia often combine to assert that the old, well-understood ways are the best.  People question the need for anything “better than what we have now,” and suggest the learning curve is too steep, the cost is too high, the effort to retool is too much of a bother, the return will be too low.

But when these technologies are put in place, they solve problems that went unsolved before, and people begin to see the real benefit to them.  In cases where the improvements make a task easier, save money or, best yet, save lives, people slowly lose their initial resistance to the technology (especially when they are directly benefited); and if it performs well or returns benefits quickly, it can often be introduced to a larger segment of society by social or legal mandate.  The U.S. has enacted many laws that mandate various industrial practices, healthcare procedures, vehicle safety equipment, construction techniques, etc, that have followed this line of technological development and put invasive technologies in place around us.

Automation, for instance, has accomplished a lot in modern society, and it hasn’t reached its wall yet.  In Sarcology the advance of vehicle automation in America effectively stands in for the advances of automation in general.  Personal vehicles are learning to do more and more of the process of driving, from monitoring speed, to braking, parking, hazard detection, and soon daily steering duties. Tomorrow, we’re looking at cars that can guide themselves along highways, join convoys of vehicles to save on fuel, and choose routes to our destinations to avoid traffic jams… all without human intervention.

driverless taxiThough today’s driving “purists” cannot imagine relinquishing direct control of the car to automation—either out of a belief that no automated system can out-drive a human, or out of personal enjoyment of the driving process—we have a present environment of a vast majority of drivers who are not so accomplished at piloting a vehicle as they would like to believe, and who insist on carrying on distracting and control-limiting behaviors while behind the wheel (phone-talking, texting, eating, makeup-applying, newspaper-reading, etc); and they are causing more accidents and killing people in the process.

Automation is poised to take over driving duty, much more efficiently than most humans, and with no concern about distractions.  In Sarcology, this frees up a car’s occupants to do whatever they want while the most critical task, driving, is handled by the vehicle itself.  Motorists, now free to do other things, have come to see the value of self-driving vehicles, and are more than happy to let the car do all the work.  And like other vehicle-related safety features, effective self-driving vehicles could find themselves legally mandated on public roads, as they are in Sarcology.  (Impossible? Consider this: Many of us older drivers still remember the furor over mandating seatbelts in all cars, followed by the laws demanding they be worn at all times.  With the successful deployment of self-parking car technology, the days of you parking your own car may already be numbered.)

Security and surveillance technology is also making significant inroads into modern life.  In the television show Person of Interest, viewers are presented with a (fictional) computer that taps into all surveillance systems and aids the main characters in foiling crimes.  In real life, the cameras installed in major metropolitan areas of cities like London and Baltimore similarly protects citizens from violent crime.

Person of Interest: The Machine interfaceThough no one really wants to think that someone (or some computer) is constantly looking over their shoulder, I’d argue that the first time the system saves individuals from violent crimes, or warns them in time to escape a disaster or avoid a dangerous location, the system will have proven itself and gained acceptance by those under its watch.  Today the public argues much less about the presence of those cameras; they’ve come to accept and even welcome them.  As other cities are rolling out similar camera monitoring systems to protect its populace, we can expect to see the same initial resistance, followed by acceptance when crime or loss of life takes a significant fall.

Sarcology likewise features a network of camera security systems in place to aid law enforcement agencies and deter crime.  Safety and protection will also be behind the use of more effective security systems, including biometric ID systems to safeguard our homes, workplaces and property.  Biometrics have been of only limited use so far, because present systems generally only capture superficial data like a fingerprint, and can often be fooled or bypassed (though perhaps not as simply as television and movies would have you believe); and more effective systems are significantly expensive. But more detailed, harder-to-spoof scans of the body’s interior and autonomous functions will be much better able to guarantee our identities, and those are just around the corner.

In most areas of Atlanta, where the story takes place, citizens don’t think twice about these camera and biometric systems, as they help protect their daily lives.  The story does, however, admit to a concession for those who inevitably resist such progress, even in the face of better security, for the perceived benefit of greater freedom: The city has designated areas that legally forgo the presence of cameras and other security devices, allowing those who prefer it to avoid the technologies they reject in favor of freedom of privacy.  Although I don’t think it would be a good long-term solution, I’d bet money on the concept being experimented with in at least limited venues, right up to entire parts of town.

Sarcology also features Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and other robotic drones, used for security and for delivery duties.  Author Michael Crichton also embraced a future of ubiquitous robotic servants and drones, in his movie Runaway (certainly not the best-executed Crichton vehicle, but still worth watching for its overall premise); he saw robots and automated systems as one day becoming commonplace, and no more unusual than we’d consider a roomba today.

Sycamore droneAlthough the use of drones is presently limited to government access, private companies are already testing the idea of using UAVs for local security and for tasks like delivery duties.  Presently the public is heavily concerned that UAVs will create breaches of privacy by penetrating private properties and recording citizens in private activities; but as these concerns will most likely result in authorities writing up access and usage laws and other limitations designed to protect privacy, it’s likely that some private companies and even individuals will eventually have the right to use UAVs in public spaces under strict limitations or licensing for certain activities. Then, once they prove their worth in protecting property and providing services, such as point-to-point delivery of goods and services, their use will increase and the public will get used to drones’ being part of our daily lives.

Sarcology’s future of ubiquitous automation even extends to humanoid Semi-Autonomous Robots—SARs—remotely “piloted” by human operators and intended to be deployed in hazardous situations.  Again, technology that effectively saves lives, such as in war fronts, construction areas or other dangerous environments, can be expected to take on regular duties in society once they have proven their worth.

These SARs are highly sophisticated, and a prototype is considered valuable proprietary technology, leading to an attempt to steal its secrets.  But an accident causes the prototype to develop beyond its expected design; not only does it become as independent as any human, but its status as an independent entity, and whether it can be considered equivalent to any human, comes under question.

As incredible as the development of automation and security systems are, the development of artificial intelligence being applied to these and other systems threatens to be the most invasive technology of all, for it will eventually come into direct competition with the human mind itself.  We should expect autonomous systems combined with artificial intelligence to develop so far that we’ll eventually have to question the real difference between those automated devices and humans.

And when we get used to the idea of artificial humans living among us… that will be the biggest game-changer of all.

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