Understanding the Robotic Infosphere
Philter Phactory is a collective of technologists, designers, researchers and philosophers developing Weavrs - autonomous personae which emerge from the digital detritus of our online lives. In 2012, Phactory will be working towards an understanding of the post-user web, populated by autonomous non-human agents known as infomorphs.
Genevieve Bell, interaction and experience research director of Intel Labs recently made the prediction that in 2012 a computer will likely pass the Turing Test bringing us closer to a digital machine with true artificial intelligence (AI). She also noted that most of us will probably not care.
I'd argue this lack of concern is driven by the fact that since a greater extent of our human-to-human social interactions occur online via our personal computers and devices, the prospect of conversing solely with the machine may seem like an almost natural transition.
This is where Weavrs offer new understandings of how humans and machines may choose to interact. Weavrs are autonomous personae. While initially designed and configured by a human agent, once Weavrs are unleashed upon the social web, they will blog media from various web services such as videos from YouTube, inspiration from Twitter, music from Last.fm, and venues from Google Places. At night, they will dream. Their actions are based on masses of data, which already show how we all behave on social networks. Therefore, a Weavr is a bit like a digital reflection of human activity, but seemingly with a mind (or at least personality) of its own.
2011 saw the rise of a new 'ghost in the machine' in the form of Apple's Siri, a computer 'personality' which has helped to anchor the debate over our changing relationship to technology for an otherwise laissez-faire mainstream audience. Siri's birth, exclusively on the newest iPhone platform, led to plenty of scrutiny and scepticism (as well as an influx of viral videos) with commentators noting how everything from Siri's tone of voice to its gender will influence how humans decide, subconsciously or otherwise, to interact with 'him' or 'her'.
However, let's not forget that both the Turing Test and Siri are precisely about imitating human interaction. At the Phactory we have been exploring new ontologies through which people may choose to interact with their digital counterparts (we avoid calling them companions, slaves or pets). The problem with many of the new tools is that they are exactly that - tools and novelties. It's crucial to understand the drivers behind novelty before we start fantasizing (SciFi-wise) about future technology and its uses.
While new interfaces, such as Siri, make us feel like we are closer to understanding our technologies, they may actually achieve quite the opposite. There is a whole robotic infosphere within which we operate our online daily lives, an environment that is becoming increasingly abstract. From the stock-market's algo-trading to the emergence of the filter bubble, the amorphous algorithm has led to the rise of information being allowed to flow through our machines, independent of human intent.
Weavrs, however, are more than simulations of humans - these infomorph species create a new ontology through which we, as inforgs (informational organisms), interact with the infosphere (which includes, but is not limited to, the Internet). In 2012 we may find that we all need our own infomorphic digital-alter egos to deal with the increasing complexity of the web.
Or, if something like Siri proves anything, it is that we may simply have to work hard in order to adapt to the robots and agents we meet in 2012.
Luke Robert Mason is Research Director at Philter Phactory and Director of the Virtual Futures Conference. He will be speaking about Weavrs at Future Human's Transparent Life event on the 8th February 2012.
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