A near-term iteration of the IoT, or the Internet of Things – which at present includes smart sensors, thermostats, doorbells, automobiles, and voice-activated static AI assistants – is the personalized AI robot. The near-future promises a IoT robotic assistant in every home that is vaguely articulated like a friendly human, but only the robotic shell will actually “be” in your home. Its AI functions will be projected into your home remotely, from a giant server belonging to one of the major technology companies.
This type of device, and there are many variants, will sport a head, a face with big sympathetic eyes and a smile, two arms, and two legs, enabling it to move around in space, emulate human conversation and intimacy, and carry out real-world domestic functions. Experts are projecting that most people will want these devices, either as assistants, companions, or, most likely, both. They report that most people who are exposed to the prototypes respond enthusiastically, even confiding emotions and thoughts to them, as they might to a friendly stranger, or even an intimate partner.
A central attribute of all IoT or smart devices, which by definition are tethered to Big Tech, and of which the smartphone was only the first, however, is that they are “not really yours”. They belong to Big Tech. The surveillance potential that began with smartphones and social media has already increased with the new voice-activated AI assistants and other IoT devices already present in people’s homes and surrounding environments.
Surveillance of individuals and, indeed, populations, by the expanding silicate Leviathan is poised take another great leap forward with the mass deployment of the IoT robots, which like other IoT devices, will act as one-way surveillance mirrors fixed upon the rest of us for the handful of CEOs who run the Technium, but in even more comprehensive fashion than is already the case today.
Unfortunately, there are no indications that the continuous data streams of people’s lives sent back by the robot algorithms will be quarantined in the Big Tech servers, left alone and used for the sole purpose of allowing the robots to function as domestic devices. Instead, judging from past practices, the default setting appears to be that the new data streams will be stored under each person’s individual identity tag, without much meaningful security from hackers, and used for whatever purposes the technology companies deem fit.
Given past experience, it is very likely that the new streaming data will be aggregated with other fragments of that person’s life from social media, and from offline public and private data sources, to further build out and continuously update, in real time, each person’s individualized dossier. The end result, when the entire puzzle is patched together, will be the compilation of a deep, multifaceted, dynamic portrait of each individual person, of a kind that the Stasi couldn’t have even dreamed about.
Consent is meaningless, as people are not allowed to merely purchase the devices for their own use – just as they are not allowed to use ubiquitous networked technology today – without submitting to the surveillance. With no ability for people to opt out of remote data aggregation, interpretation, analysis, use, and transfer to third parties, the robots will “phone home” to Silicon Valley unbroken streams of information about every facet of people’s lives and thoughts to which they are exposed, and what happens to these human data streams after that will be unknown and unknowable by those they should really belong to.
A little further along in time, perhaps by the end of the 2020s, personalized IoT robots that look, sound, and move in ever more humanlike ways will be marketed to people to keep in their homes. Instead of a box that looks like a speaker, or a mobile IoT robot that looks like a robot with human features, these new devices will have artificial skin and soft tissues, muscles and bones, and other attributes that will endow them with the capacity to mimic human appearance and affects as closely as possible. The rationale of crafting robots to seem more human than robot is not only to make people want to engage with them, but to induce people to place their trust in them. Their inventors want people to imagine their inventions as human.
At some point down the robot’s descent into the creepy depths of the Uncanny Valley – perhaps long before its appearance could pass for human – it becomes something more than a piece of technology. It becomes a simulation of a human.
In “The Precession of Simulacra,” Jean Baudrillard (d. 2007), the philosophical inspiration behind the movie The Matrix, wrote that once a thing is duplicated, it is finished. Or perhaps the fact that it is being duplicated is a sign that it was already finished. The simulated version becomes “more real than real,” is judged better than the real, and eventually replaces the real.
Writing in 1981, Baudrillard also wrote that earlier in our history, simulations acted as representations, or representatives, of some real thing. As time progressed, he said, simulations began to take precedence over, or precede, the things once represented by them. The real versions of things began to recede into the background, increasingly hidden from view, before disappearing entirely. Afterwards, only the simulacrum remains. That’s why, he said, we were now surrounded mostly by simulacra, artificial signs that signify precisely nothing. He called this phenomenon “the disappearance of the real.”
That’s why it’s potentially checkmate on the part of Big Tech for it to now flood the human realm with lifelike duplicates of ourselves.
Baudrillard would probably say that there is no reason to create a duplicate of a human being, or, for that matter, a species – a simulation made for the purpose of substituting it for the original – unless there were no more desire to ultimately retain the original. The more aspects of people’s lives that are lived, decided, managed, or structured “for” them by the humanoid AI robots of the future, the more deeply people’s general capacities will continue to atrophy from nonuse – perhaps to the point where their irrelevance becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The same is true of people’s interactions with one another, independently of the machines. To the extent that the new humanoid AI robots take on the role of external representation, or anti-human gatekeepers for growing numbers of socially incapable humans – as the anti-social media do to a large extent today for so many of today’s youth – those humans will be in effect passing a judgement, both on themselves and on their own species.
We should just hope, for humanity’s sake, that it isn’t all of them.
Jean Baudrillard, “The precession of simulacra,” in Simulacra and Simulation (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1994/1981). Translated from the original French by Sheila Faria Glaser.
Jean Baudrillard, op. cit. For the “disappearance of the real,” see Jean Baudrillard, Screened Out (London and New York: Verso, 2002); and Jean Baudrillard, Why hasn’t everything already disappeared? (Seagull/Editions de L’Herne, 2009/2007). Translated from the original French by Chris Turner.