The past couple of months we've spent some time talking about the evolving concept of privacy, with a special focus on the various forms of digital identity that defines us in our fast-paced world. Why not take a look at why this information is so important from one of the best predictors around – science fiction?
Before we look down that road, let me explain why I feel sci-fi is such a great place to look to get a sense of where we are going. In the world of digital identity, we are dealing with how we are represented in a technological world. A hundred years ago, we had to have money in order to buy something – today, all we need is some numbers in a computer system owned by our bank… money is a thing of the past. Just over 100 years ago, the Wright brothers had their first flight – today we jump on a plane to go across the country in a few hours and think very little of it, other than perhaps the money it will cost and perhaps the fun we can have with TSA. Fifty years ago, we were talking about sending men to the moon – today we have a space station in orbit around the planet, and have sent dozens of probes out into the solar system, visiting Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, even Pluto. But long before we had these realities, science fiction writers were predicting the coming of these advances in our world – albeit idealistically. Science fiction has been a great predictor when it comes to technology.
In the short-lived sci-fi series Caprica, a young girl (Zoe) created an artificial intelligence program that she could directly interact with in cyberspace. Zoe died in a tragic mishap, but the AI version of herself gained full consciousness by searching across the "net" and finding all the information it could about her – buying habits, social circles, school grades, news releases… sound familiar? The AI hit a point of self-awareness by acting as an "agent" (programs we currently have on the internet) to harvest Zoe's digital identity.
Naturally, questions of ethics arose when Zoe's father encountered the simulacrum, but before we dismiss the concept, it is probably interesting to at least look at what is being done in the real world that closely parallels the Caprica story. "Distributed intelligence" makes use of what is called "multi-agent programming" (powerpoint presentation) to create "swarms" of agents that act in unison to accomplish specific goals, based on basic instructions. These agent swarms have brought a new concept to the table – "emergent behavior". The term simply means that what our mind perceives as intelligent action may not be as sophisticated as we believe, but regardless, the behavior exists. For a good primer on agent swarms and emergent behavior, pick up Michael Crichton's book Prey, it is not just a great read, but it delves into some of the problems science is wrestling with today, based on these technologies.
It's not so far-fetched, either, that we may come face-to-face with a reality similar to what Zoe presented in Caprica. One scientist, Ray Kurzweil, is working out concepts that will allow us (people) to "upload" their entire brain to a computer. Shades of Star Trek's borg, perhaps, or possibly even Neo's Matrix. It's not just a matter of academics what information is in our digital identity when something like that comes along, it will become far more important that our digital identities be accurate, to reflect who we are. How far off are we talking here? Kurzweil predicts the technology and storage capacity will be available as early as 2040…
But figuring out that the information stored on various computers is really part of "who we are" can't wait around that long – it is important to recognize that the REAL world we live in today already interacts with us largely based on the information stored in computers around the world. If false information gets put into my bank account, I can't buy anything. If it gets into my medical record, my doctor prescribes the wrong drugs. If it gets into my criminal record, I may spend time in jail for something that I never did. This is the new frontier we refer to as identity theft, and while it may look like science fiction today, it's easy to see we are already dealing with the issues it brings to the foreground,
I can't go so far as to predict that this is the future we will see, but it's not just fantasies when scientists are working toward it, anymore than it was fanciful thinking in the 1960's when scientists started working on the technology to put a man on the moon. Either way, though, let's just hope that those visions of tomorrow painted by science fiction don't fall in place until we manage to subdue the dragons we're already facing – or we may find that our technology has grown so fast that it has rendered who we truly are meaningless.