The Downfall of Humanity

Author: Shane Stone

“I fear the day that technology will surpass our human interaction. The world will have a generation of idiots”
Albert Einstein

Archaeologists like Nancy Tanner suggest that the creation of tools lead to bipedalism. They believe that for early humans to use tools they would need complete use of their hands; the only way to constantly have hand freedom is through bipedalism. This theory has even been supported through an anecdotal observation made by Jane Goodall, during which chimpanzees using tools moved by bipedalism (Tanner 1981). Since that time tools and technology have been a significant aspect of humanity’s culture. Mummies are found buried with ancient technology and people today do not leave their homes without their cell phones (Saenz 2013). Even in the time of Aristotle, he predicted that there would be further progressions in technology resulting in self-operating lutes and looms (Lanier 34). As technology continues to develop and become a more integral part of our society, humanity must consider a question: Will technology be the downfall of humanity? Our reliance on technology is apparent in how lost you may feel when you are without your cell phone or without service. With technology becoming more integral, humanity’s reliance grows, leaving this looming question. Today, most of society embraces technology and sees it as a promising horizon. Scientists foresee the use of robots and artificial intelligence in healthcare, industry, and service (“Domain-Specific Robotics Research” 2010). IBM’s Watson is capable of scanning and storing information, and then applying it to specific individuals and situations. Currently, Watson is being used in medicine and in November 2013, IBM announced that Watson would now be open to developers.

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As this technology develops and introduced into society’s daily lives, the opportunity for Karel Čapek’s prediction to come true becomes more likely. In his 1921 play, Rossum’s Universal Robots, Capek foreshadows the potential fate of technology as “the product of the human brain [that] has escaped the control of human hands” (Čapek 1921). Despite this warning, humanity proceeds in its plans to develop and integrate technology into all aspects of life. Through this paper, the potential effects of technology will be explored by analyzing science fiction novels and movies and comparing these fictional worlds to today’s technological situation. Taking these fictional worlds into consideration, as well the opinions of academics in the fields of futurism, physics, and singularity, the effect of technology on the long term wellbeing of humanity will be determined.

The Threat of Technology from Novels

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In William Gibson’s Neuromancer the importance of technology on everyday life as well as the strength of artificial intelligence is realized. The reader is introduced to the protagonist, Case, who lives an apparently meaningless life. However, the reader learns that his life was different before, when he was able to “jack in” and enter into cyberspace. He is no longer able to “jack in” because a previous employer altered his body to prevent it. Because he was so dependent on his connection with technology, being cut off from it drove him into depression. Eventually, he undergoes a second procedure that allows him to reunite with the cyberspace he had grown so fond of. When he finally reenters “he [is] laughing…tears of release” (Gibson 52).  Additionally, Wintermute and Neuromancer, two artificial intelligence interfaces, demonstrate the power and influence of artificial intelligence. When General Corto was left in a catatonic state, no treatment proves successful until Wintermute “pull[s] him out of it” (95). Wintermute is able to control Corto for years until he attempts to regain control, at which point Wintermute kills him. When Case first discusses artificial intelligence with Molly he explains to her that most “Aren’t much smarter than dogs” (95) but Neuromancer acts as a counter this case when he reveals to Case how even his creator “couldn’t imagine what I’d be like” (269). Both artificial intelligence units demonstrate the potential power technology could have over man. Though Neuromancer is a work of fiction, some of the technology in the book is similar to some of the advances in today’s technology. For example, Molly is participating in what is known as Transhumanism, an idea and practice in today’s society that suggests that the “human race can evolve beyond its current physical and mental limitations by means of science and technology” (“What is Transhumanism?” 2013). People have already begun to make alterations to themselves like Molly, but they are referred to as Cyborgs, and have enhanced hearing and vision, metabolic enhancement, and brain computer interfaces (“Technology Powered Superhumans” 2013). Case is able to utilize Molly’s improvements to access her sensorium. In doing so he is able to see and feel what she does, but is unable to effectively communicate with her. Technology like this is not too distant from today either. The Nicolelis Lab at Duke University has suggested that the rubber hand illusion (RHI) can be developed in primates. The RHI suggests that subjects can “develop a sense of ownership of a mannequin hand when they view it being touched while tactile stimuli are simultaneously applied to their own hand” (Shokur et al 2013). Using this concept Shokur et al found that a monkey responded similarly to mannequin and actual manipulation. This parallels what Case felt with Molly. Their experience even inspired a game where two players work together to achieve a task in the physical world only using the information available to Case. One player performs the role of Molly and physically moves, while the player acting as Case has the information needed to communicate by alternating a screen between red and green. Combining these technologies would effectively recreate what occurs in Neuromancer. As some technological aspects of Neuromancer come to fruition, it makes sense that other technology from the book, like artificial intelligence, may also come to fruition.

Rick Moss creates a reality similar to our own in the Ebocloud where humanity has passed Facebook and is now entranced by Ebocloud, an online community where people have been assigned to Ebos or tribes based on a detailed questionnaire applicants fill out to become members. As the system grows it becomes enrooted in society and Ebos become an important part of off-line life. Eventually a new technology is introduced that connects Ebo members’ brains to the cloud. It allows them to know when Ebo members are nearby and to sync themselves to applications on digital devices. Throughout the novel the reader is left to believe all of the advancements are just to enhance the system, but upon the book’s conclusion Radu, Ebocloud’s creator, explains what he is trying to achieve. Over the next few decades, he plans to introduce new technologies to ease them into it and to eventually “[take] humans forward along their evolutionary pathway” (Moss 434). According to Radu, this evolutionary pathway is driven by humanity’s drive to be a part of a meta-system; the connections established by the tattoos are just the first step of development (434). In the epilogue the reader is privy to how the program has developed further. El, the novel’s protagonist, discusses with Jared about how he “came back off the cloud” which suggests that the cloud has

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become similar to the matrix of Neuromancer in that users can enter and exit this virtual world. Though such technology seems farfetched the preliminary steps to creating it exist today. In the Nicolelis Lab, they have created the first brain to brain interface that allows for semi motor information to be shared between two rat brains, which is analogous to members of the same Ebo sensing each other. Additionally, tattoos are already being created to connect humans to technology and allow control over them. In fact, Google has already applied for a patent on one such technology that would utilize sub vocalizations to allow wearer to communicate silently and wirelessly. Chris Grayson, an augmented reality expert, predicts that in the future first responders will be able to make sense out of what is happening upon arrival at an incident by using some form of map overlay. Using the digital tattoos, an app called “Helping Hand” is developed in Ebocloud to allow for just that response.  In terms of the life presented in Ebocloud, Moss is not the first writer to consider applying ebos to American society. In a 1997 interview, fiction writer Kurt Vonnegut suggested that expanding the family unit to create extended families would resolve problems in American culture, including divorce rate. However, not all academics are like minded. Aristotle believed that humans interacted with other humans out of necessity not desire, and would rather be alone (Rackham 1932). Jaron Lanier, an American writer and computer scientist, defends Aristotle’s position citing how Roman generals were reward after years of fighting with land so that the remainder of their days could be spent left alone. Lanier even cites the American government’s utilizations of this same technique by offering settlers the same prospect if they moved out West (Lanier 35). If people desire to interact with others such a reward would not be so enticing.

Rainbow’s End, a Vernor Vinge novel, also presents a world that appears to be not so distant from our own. Citizens wear contact lens that allows the wearer to interact with the digital world and augment reality with visual layers. More simply, they are a more developed and advanced Google Glass. Rather than verbally commanding it, wearers are able to mentally control what their lens achieve. This novel perhaps best suggests how society could proceed because the technology is so similar to modern devices; in this world users can message each other silently on the lens just as users of Google Glass can today. In the novel, with the advances in technology, some adults, even a Nobel Prize winner, are considered worthless because of their inability to successfully utilize the new lens technology. This is mirrored by today’s world where nearly half of all jobs require computer literacy, and that number is expected to increase. Currently, studies suggest that 82% of adults are computer literate and only 54% of seniors are capable. Considering this, the job market becomes more challenging for adults and will only get harder as the information age progresses. However, the most troubling aspect of the Rainbow’s End reality is that code can reproduce. Though this may not seem like a problem, French Archeologist André Leroi-Gourhan believes that “once Homosapiens had equipped such machines with the mechanical ability to reproduce themselves, there would be nothing left for the human to do but withdraw into the paleontological twilight” (Leroi-Gourhan 248). If this is the case then humanity is in trouble because according to a NASA study, robot self-replication is a matter of engineering, and really does not require more technology than is already available today. NASA is hopeful this technology will lead to colonization in space, but this is not necessarily as good for humanity as they may anticipate.

The Threat of Technology from Movies

Beyond these literary works, there are films that focus on the theme of technology being the downfall of humanity. For example the 2004 film I, Robot takes place in 2035 where robots act as servants to humanity. These robots are based upon the 3 Laws of Robotics that Isaac Asimov introduced in his 1942 short story “Runaround.” According to these laws:

1)   “A Robot must never harm a human being or, through inaction, allow any harm to come to a human

2)   A robot must obey the orders given to them by human beings, except where such orders violate the First Law

3)   A robot must protect its own existence unless this violates the First or Second Laws” (Asimov 1982)

With these laws in place, it is believed that humans and robots will be able to seamlessly coexist. However, when an artificial intelligence unit for US Robots (a robot manufacturer) interprets the laws in a new way, things go wrong. The unit, called VIKI, realizes that humans are too self-destructive, and that for humanity as a whole to be saved some people must be killed. Fortunately, in this film humanity gets lucky because Will Smith’s character with the help of a robot figures it out, and stops her. Nonetheless, if a similar situation were to occur in today’s society would someone realize in time to stop the robots?

In other films like WALL-E and The Matrix no one is able to stop the robots initially, and it takes a couple centuries for humans to take back control. Of the movies discussed The Matrix seems the most like a warning to humanity because it “takes place” when the movie was released, in 1999. In actuality the film takes place in 2699, but most of humanity is trapped in the late 20th century. It is more from the prequels, housed in the short film collection The Animatrix that insight is given into how humanity in The Matrix film gave way to robots. According to the Matrix’s history, told in the short film The Second Renaissance, at the end of the 20th century humanity celebrated the creation of

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artificial intelligence and robots. Then, a robot named B166-ER killed its owner which resulted in a robot rights movement. In the end, all robots were ordered to be decommissioned. Rather than be destroyed, they left to establish their own nation called nation 01. As a result of robot efficiency they dominated the economy and became a threat to humanity. In response, the human nations attempted to attack nation 01 with nuclear weapons but the robots were not as affected as anticipated. After being threatened the robots went on the offensive and after much success attempted to negotiate with the United Nations, and were rejected. As a last resort, the nations joined together to block the sun, thereby cutting off the robots energy source. Although the humans were briefly rewarded with this tactic, the robots responded by taking advantage of the energy created by the human body. When the robots ultimately won they turned humans into a crop and harvested energy from humans while keeping their minds occupied in the Matrix. Despite the machine success, the theme of one person changing the world and restoring balance is seen as Neo, the protagonist, ends the 600 years reign of machines by fostering a truce between the sides and making peace. Though these ideas seemed more like fiction than a prediction in 1999, today’s technology could lead to the world similar to The Matrix. If NASA proceeds with its robot space colonization, NASA would be facilitating in the formation of nation 01. If the robots have the ability to reproduce like NASA has suggested then they could develop and challenge Earth’s economy as well. Scientists are also facilitating the robot’s ability to harvest energy from humans in some of today’s energy research. In many modern medical devices, lithium batteries are considered the most effective power source, but scientist are looking for forms of renewable energy. A recent paper has found Glucose Biofuel Cells to be the most promising of these options (Zebda et al 2013), but another group has suggested utilizing the heat humans naturally produce (Dvorsky 2013). The latter, would eerily echo the concepts used by the machines in The Matrix.

WALL-E (2008) takes place in a future where humanity’s disregard for nature resulted in Earth becoming uninhabitable. As a result, in 2105 Buy n’ Large, a corporation, moves humanity from the planet to a ship where they will live until Earth is again habitable. Unfortunately, the viewer learns that in 2110, the ship’s artificial intelligence unit is given a no return directive because Buy n’ Large has given up hope for Earth. The movie, takes place 700 years later in 2805, when humans have lost touch with Earthly lifestyles,

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spending their lives in chairs and relying upon robots and automated features of the ship. Christian Journalist, Rod Dreher, explains how in this scenario the viewer sees how their reliance on technology has resulted in the “[loss of] what makes them human” (Dreher 2008). The director, Andrew Stanton, expanded upon this point explaining how the robots eliminated humanity’s need to establish and put effort into relationships. Since the humans aboard the ship’s lives revolved around technology rather than each other they had no need to do this. Luckily, as in I-Robot and The Matrix, a special robot, WALL-E, changes everything and helps to restore balance.

Even in works of science fiction where humanity’s downfall is not a major theme, the technology present in them is not as out of reach as it once seemed. Minority Report is a 2054 science fiction film, based on a short story by Philip K Dick, and a lot of the technology presented in the film is being developed or used today. In the film, a citizen’s biometric data allows corporations to access their government profile so that marketing can be targeted more accurately.

Google is now developing the technology that will utilize environmental sensors so that advertisements on electronic devices will be “targeted ads tailored to fit with what you’re seeing and hearing in the real world” (Whitehead 2012). Also in the film, psychic humans, known as ‘precogs’, are used to predict crime before it happens. Although those humans have yet to be identified today, Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier suggest that big data can be used in such a way so as to make this ‘precrime’ effectively possible. In fact, trends with ethnicity, gender, breathing, and heart rate to predict crimes have been applied in the field, but more work is needed before widespread application occurs. Even one of the most iconic science fiction movies, Star Wars, has inspired an idea among defense systems. Philip Lubin of the University of California Santa Barbara and Gary Hughes of California Polytechnic State University believe that a real life death star could be constructed to defend earth from an oncoming asteroid threats. Since technology from science fiction films that aids humanity has become more available, the technology that destroys humanity must not be too far behind.

The Future

Companies have even realized the potential of science fiction in their development and have reached out to futurists and science fiction writers to work for them. One such example is futurist writer, Alvin Toffler, who has helped IBM, Xerox, and AT&T to facilitate the organizational impacts of computers and to offer strategic advice. Additionally, Intel’s Tomorrow Project explores the world’s possible futures by engaging in discussion based on science-based fiction because they recognize that science fiction can have dramatic changes on the technology of the future. The Creative Science Foundation even holds an annual conference that allows for scientists, designers, and artists from around the globe to discuss and explore the consequences and uses of future technology on society. Finally, and perhaps the most notable, was Google’s hiring of futurist Ray Kurzweil as director of engineering in 2012. This hire not only created buzz for Google, but introduced an expert on machine learning, reading, and talking that can help in their development of future products.

Technology corporations utilizing science fiction in their product development is just another example of the blurred lines between fiction and reality. As this transition continues, the real question is whether or not academics believe the fate of humans in many science fiction films is the fate of today’s society. According to Moore’s Law, the computing power of technology will double every two years (Moore 1965). Extrapolating Moore’s Law, Kurzweil predicts that computing technology will be equivalent to human technology in 2020 and by 2030 Hans Moravec predicts that robots will be a prominent part of society.
Considering that Moore’s Law has been accurate since its creation 50 years ago, and even holds true when you include technology development since the hand cranked computer (therefore 100 total years), Kurzweil’s prediction seems accurate. At this point, Cambridge University philosophy professors believe that computers could become cleverer than humans. As this proceeds it could lead to a scenario similar to what occurs in science fiction movies. According to Lanier’s opinion that “technological culture influences what technologists create” would likely result in a society like WALL-E (Lanier 121). In today’s society obesity has become a bigger health crisis than hunger. With today’s culture being lazier, it would suggest that technology will develop to accommodate this, and slowly but surely would lead to what is seen in WALL-E. In order to visualize the potential progressions of humanity I have created a flowchart. These progressions are based on what happens in WALL-E, I,Robot, and The Matrix, so it is not every possible scenario, but one a few. If this is the case then humanity should adhere to Murphy’s Law and recognize that would could go wrong will go wrong, and unless someone comes along to save humanity (like in I, Robot, The Matrix, and WALL-E), should prepare for the worst.

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In actuality it appears as if humanity is actually not in danger. According to Gordon Moore, the creator of Moore’s Law, the exponential development “can’t continue forever” and academics like Kurzweil are applying his law incorrectly. Moore intended for his rule to apply to semiconductor circuits, not all technology. The reason why it cannot continue forever though is physics. Currently silicon is the best material for creating circuits, and according to theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, the transistors will eventually generate so much heat that the chip will melt and electrons will be lost.

However what may be the most convincing is the argument made by Singularity Hub writer Aaron Saenz. He explains how the robots that humanity has come to fear are no more than Hollywood using robots as symbolism of human worries. Terminator represents the communist fears of the 1980s, the Decepticons represent the energy crisis, and The Matrix machines represent the fear of global warming. Although some of the threats are propaganda, other threats, such as a large robot workforce, continue to frighten human workers. Since 2008, the amount of automated robots being used in the industry has increased nearly 50% and recent studies have suggested that nearly 50% of today’s jobs could be achieved by machines. According to Edward Leamer, director the UCLA Anderson School of Management, “if you have nothing to offer the job market that cannot be supplied better and cheaper by machines… plan on doing low wage service.” Even low wage service is threatened because companies like Foxconn, that already offer low wage service, are starting to utilize more robots. As more robots enter the work force, the threat of unemployment appears to increase. However, threats of a robot run economy and false ideas created by Hollywood are nullified by Saenz’s main point, “we own technology” (Saenz 2013). As long as we are aware of the capabilities of technology and maintain the correct safeguards, humanity has a better chance of being destroyed by a nuclear winter than by technology.

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Thank you to Amanda Gould, my classmates, friends and the staff at the Duke University Writing Studio for helping me to complete my final assignment.

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