Printed: 2020-07-10

Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Machines Will be Embedded Within Us in the Hybrid Age

Ayesha Khanna

The Economic Times

March 17, 2012

Technology has been around since man invented the wheel, if not earlier. What is new in the Hybrid Age? And when did this Age begin?

[editor’s note: the following is an interview of Ayesha Khanna conducted by The Economic Times]

Yes, technology has been around since the Stone Age and more recently through the Information Age wherein large amounts of information are produced on mobile devices and computers. Each time technology has changed, our lives have changed as well. We still tend to think that we are in the Information Age. But we are at the frontier of the Information Age and are now entering the Hybrid Age, an era of human-machine interdependence.

This is primarily because of the integration and the convergence of different kinds of technologies such as big data, computing power, and regenerative medicine. In the Hybrid Age, machines will be all around us and embedded in our lives. They will be on everything from our clothes to our skin.

We have never been surrounded by so much technology ever before! Responsive environments around us will respond to each of us intelligently because they will know us. For instance, your car will know you and automatically take you to your kids’ school, putting on music and temperature of your preference.

Can you give specific scenarios of life in the Hybrid Age and where it will take us?

The multiple biometric devices—measuring our blood pressure, heart rate, sleep patterns—that are beginning to take over, are just the first step. Soon we could have sensor-enabled biomedical pills that we swallow and which send us emails. Human machine integrations will be so deep that we will become like cyborgs—beings that are both biological and artificial.

We will have all of these bionic implants that will help us lead long lives and drastically improve the capacities of a normal human being. We will be able to live until 150 years or more. So, not only will our environment become hybrid—with smart transport, smart cities and self-driving cars.—but we ourselves are moving towards that direction. Second, all of these machines around us will become more intelligent. They will look for patterns which will help us lead better lives.

The iPhone’s voice assistant Siri is a good early example of this. Technology will also get increasingly social which is new because for the first time, with virtual avatars , we will see artificial intelligence that will start to mimic human emotions. And we will build emotional relationships because we are hardwired as human beings to feel empathy. The embedding of machines into us will happen in a way that will seem very natural to us.

What are the social, economic and political implications of this?

The Hybrid Age is being led by elites. Certain technologies are very expensive and give people undue advantages. Cognitive enhancers are a good example and are already being used by soldiers and being further developed in academia. The question is whether such elitist technologies will increase socio-economic divides? Or will it increase the numbers of the stagnating middle class in the West? The internet of things and smart cities will be the next big tech wave after the current social media boom that we are going through right now.

As with PayPal PayPal and Square, we will see a lot more of peer-to-peer payments as well as various kinds of currencies. It will be all about the soft architecture of space, all of which will be an intelligent, highlypersonalised environment. The ability to compute, things to be stored in the cloud, analysing that data in the cloud will impact transport, parking, housing, food, education and pretty much every aspect in a city. So much so that in 50 years, large parts of economies could be automated and provide jobs and education as needed.

With responsive environments that will make our lives so comfortable, the question is who is collecting all this information? And who controls the algorithms that make such heavy personalisations possible? Already we have all these problems with Google and Facebook having so much data on us! We access all this information through mobile devices and whichever monopoly controls these avenues become gatekeepers of that information. And so there are all these monopolies coming up. With big data, we are at the tip of the iceberg. You watch television but the television will also watch you and where your eyes are going and will show ads for a sofa or a cereal box accordingly. That’s what we don’t realize.

Then, because the Internet will function in a dynamic environment, the pricing will change in real-time . Dynamic pricing will be a bit like insurance: you have all this information but your insurance agency has it as well. People will get used to dynamic pricing eventually, just like people are moving to the notion of one identity on Facebook. This again raises another concern: if you are so easily identifiable, then can technologies manipulate you? And what about when you enter virtual realities?

This raises the question that are we then, that easy to manipulate? Neuroscience studies have shown that we form habits that are really hard to break. We habitually click on the first few links in Google search and rarely go to say the 10th search page. And Google decides that search information for each one of us.

Are there any solutions to these complexities of the Hybrid Age?

The solution is certainly not banning technologies because that is not the spirit of technology. Technology is neither good nor bad. We can use it to alleviate pain and misery and avail of the many opportunities it throws up. But we must be more aware and make choices together as a society. It’s an age where nobody can afford to sit on the fence.

We need to be aware of the social contracts that are almost being rewritten and take a stand. An almost activist-like involvement into managing technology will be needed from both the people and governments. Together, they also need to rethink human rights in this age. Hackers must be encouraged and supported because they are forcing these big companies to be more transparent.

Ayesha Khanna is a former Fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, and an education, technology and urbanization expert with over 15 years of experience at the leading edge of innovation from smart city development to brand strategy. She is on the Board of Advisors for Humanity+ and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Strategic Foresight Initiative at Atlantic Council. Ayesha is Chairman of Factotum, a boutique content marketing agency that creates thought leadership branding for companies and governments.


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