For Your Consideration: Hijacking Minds, Chinese Robot Army, Tomorrow’s Internet, and Multiple Realities

Two pieces by Kevin Kelly this week and both are components of his new book (required reading if you plan to be around in the future) The Inevitable.

1. How Technology Hijacks People’s Minds – from a Magician and Google’s Design Ethicist

I’m an expert on how technology hijacks our psychological vulnerabilities. That’s why I spent the last three years as a Design Ethicist at Google caring about how to design things in a way that defends a billion people’s minds from getting hijacked.

When using technology, we often focus optimistically on all the things it does for us. But I want you to show you where it might do the opposite.

Where does technology exploit our minds’ weaknesses?

I learned to think this way when I was a magician. Magicians start by looking for blind spots, edges, vulnerabilities and limits of people’s perception, so they can influence what people do without them even realizing it. Once you know how to push people’s buttons, you can play them like a piano.

And this is exactly what product designers do to your mind. They play your psychological vulnerabilities (consciously and unconsciously) against you in the race to grab your attention.

I want to show you how they do it.

#1 [of 10] If You Control the Menu, You Control the Choices

Western Culture is built around ideals of individual choice and freedom. Millions of us fiercely defend our right to make “free” choices, while we ignore how those choices are manipulated upstream by menus we didn’t choose in the first place.

This is exactly what magicians do. They give people the illusion of free choice while architecting the menu so that they win, no matter what you choose. I can’t emphasize enough how deep this insight is.

When people are given a menu of choices, they rarely ask:

  • “what’s not on the menu?”
  • “why am I being given these options and not others?”
  • “do I know the menu provider’s goals?”
  • “is this menu empowering for my original need, or are the choices actually a distraction?” (e.g. an overwhelming array of toothpastes)

2. China Is Building a Robot Army of Model Workers

“The system is down,” explains Nie Juan, a woman in her early 20s who is responsible for quality control. Her team has been testing the robot for the past week. The machine is meant to place stickers on the boxes containing new routers, and it seemed to have mastered the task quite nicely. But then it suddenly stopped working. “The robot does save labor,” Nie tells me, her brow furrowed, “but it is difficult to maintain.”

The hitch reflects a much bigger technological challenge facing China’s manufacturers today. Wages in Shanghai have more than doubled in the past seven years, and the company that owns the factory, Cambridge Industries Group, faces fierce competition from increasingly high-tech operations in Germany, Japan, and the United States. To address both of these problems, CIG wants to replace two-thirds of its 3,000 workers with machines this year. Within a few more years, it wants the operation to be almost entirely automated, creating a so-called “dark factory.” The idea is that with so few people around, you could switch the lights off and leave the place to the machines.

But as the idle robot arm on CIG’s packaging line suggests, replacing humans with machines is not an easy task. Most industrial robots have to be extensively programmed, and they will perform a job properly only if everything is positioned just so. Much of the production work done in Chinese factories requires dexterity, flexibility, and common sense. If a box comes down the line at an odd angle, for instance, a worker has to adjust his or her hand before affixing the label. A few hours later, the same worker might be tasked with affixing a new label to a different kind of box. And the following day he or she might be moved to another part of the line entirely.

Despite the huge challenges, countless manufacturers in China are planning to transform their production processes using robotics and automation at an unprecedented scale. In some ways, they don’t really have a choice. Human labor in China is no longer as cheap as it once was, especially compared with labor in rival manufacturing hubs growing quickly in Asia. In Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia, factory wages can be less than a third of what they are in the urban centers of China. One solution, many manufacturers—and government officials—believe, is to replace human workers with machines.

3. You are not late

But, but…here is the thing. In terms of the internet, nothing has happened yet. The internet is still at the beginning of its beginning. If we could climb into a time machine and journey 30 years into the future, and from that vantage look back to today, we’d realize that most of the greatest products running the lives of citizens in 2044 were not invented until after 2014. People in the future will look at their holodecks, and wearable virtual reality contact lenses, and downloadable avatars, and AI interfaces, and say, oh, you didn’t really have the internet (or whatever they’ll call it) back then.

And they’d be right. Because from our perspective now, the greatest online things of the first half of this century are all before us. All these miraculous inventions are waiting for that crazy, no-one-told-me-it-was-impossible visionary to start grabbing the low-hanging fruit — the equivalent of the dot com names of 1984.

Because here is the other thing the greybeards in 2044 will tell you: Can you imagine how awesome it would have been to be an entrepreneur in 2014? It was a wide-open frontier! You could pick almost any category X and add some AI to it, put it on the cloud. Few devices had more than one or two sensors in them, unlike the hundreds now. Expectations and barriers were low. It was easy to be the first. And then they would sigh, “Oh, if only we realized how possible everything was back then!”

So, the truth: Right now, today, in [2016] is the best time to start something on the internet.

4. Hyper Vision – A survey of VR/AR/MR

One of the first things I learned from my recent tour of the synthetic-reality waterfront is that virtual reality is creating the next evolution of the Internet. Today the Internet is a network of information. It contains 60 trillion web pages, remembers 4 zettabytes of data, transmits millions of emails per second, all interconnected by sextillions of transistors. Our lives and work run on this internet of information. But what we are building with artificial reality is an internet of experiences. What you share in VR or MR gear is an experience. What you encounter when you open a magic window in your living room is an experience. What you join in a mixed-reality teleconference is an experience. To a remarkable degree, all these technologically enabled experiences will rapidly intersect and inform one another.

The recurring discovery I made in each virtual world I entered was that although every one of these environments was fake, the experiences I had in them were genuine. VR does two important things: One, it generates an intense and convincing sense of what is generally called presence. Virtual landscapes, virtual objects, and virtual characters seem to be there—a perception that is not so much a visual illusion as a gut feeling. That’s magical. But the second thing it does is more important. The technology forces you to be present—in a way flatscreens do not—so that you gain authentic experiences, as authentic as in real life. People remember VR experiences not as a memory of something they saw but as something that happened to them. 

…Not immediately, but within 15 years, the bulk of our work and play time will touch the virtual to some degree. Systems for delivering these shared virtual experiences will become the largest enterprises we have ever made. Fully immersive VR worlds already generate and consume gigabytes of data per experience. In the next 10 years the scale will increase from gigabytes per minute to terabytes per minute. The global technology industry—chip designers, consumer device makers, communication conglomerates, component manufacturers, content studios, software creators—will all struggle to handle the demands of this vast system as it blossoms. And only a few companies will dominate the VR networks because, as is so common in networks, success is self-reinforcing. The bigger the virtual society becomes, the more attractive it is. And the more attractive, the bigger yet it becomes. These artificial-reality winners will become the largest companies in history, dwarfing the largest companies today by any measure.

“My interest is in the future because I am going to spend the rest of my life there.” – Charles Kettering

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I hope that you’ll read these articles if they catch your eye and that you’ll learn as much as I did. Please email me questions, feedback or raise issues for discussion. Better yet, if you know of something on a related topic, or of interest, please pass it along. And as always, if one of these links comes to mean something to you, recommend it to someone else.

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