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We’ll all become mangroves in the OMO society


Mangroves are unique plants in the natural world. They live in brackish water at the precise point where rivers join the sea. This is the only place they will grow: it’s an environment that cannot be understood by studying it in the context of “freshwater” or “saltwater”, but it’s the ideal environment for mangroves. This truly spot-on analogy for the way we exist in advanced information societies, neither online nor offline, was suggested by Luciano Floridi – professor of philosophy and ethics of information at Oxford University – who has coined a new term: onlife. A new existence, therefore, in which the dividing line between real and virtual life becomes like the brackish water of the mangroves – it no longer exists.  

We’ll all become mangroves in the OMO society


Almost without realising it, we’re heading towards an OMO society, in other words one in which “online merges with offline”, to use another definition – this time by Kai-Fu Lee, who has been a senior executive with – brace yourselves – Apple, Microsoft and Google in China. He then created his own venture capital firm specialising in hi-tech companies that invest heavily in artificial intelligence. I was fortunate enough to talk to Lee at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos in 2018. He approaches artificial intelligence (AI) with the precision of a scientist, the passion of a child and the lucidity of a businessman with a global perspective.

Everyone is talking about AI but we need to consider the fact that it has arrived in “waves”. Two of these waves are already an established part of our daily lives, while another two are about to arrive and will change us forever: the human race – and there’s only one – will never turn back. Let's see what these four waves of AI look like as laid out by Lee.

First wave: Internet AI

The first wave is our own personal use of the internet. As the recent collapse of the 178-year-old travel group Thomas Cook suggests, many of us no longer use a travel agency to book our holidays; we book them ourselves on our home computers. For many years the best way to meet your soul mate was through mutual friends, at work or on holiday.

In 2017, the most popular way to meet your partner became “digital”: about 20 per cent of couples get to know each other this way, using apps with which they can make contact with people looking for partners. This business is growing at a rate of 30 per cent a year – and is currently worth $2 billion – to the extent that there is now talk of the “Tinder-isation” of relationships, in which people decide whether or not they are interested in meeting a person within the space of a few seconds.

Our daily usage of the internet leaves a digital footprint of our visits online. Did you know that on average we leave between 4,000 and 6,000 digital footprints a year? This data is then used by companies to create ever-more sophisticated and complex algorithms to try to influence our behaviour. And so the game continues. 

Second wave: Business AI

Have you ever watched a video on YouTube and then realised that you’ve watched 10 in a row almost without noticing? Or after you’ve bought a history book, that Amazon suggests you also buy other similar books? Have you ever watched a film on Netflix and Netflix itself then suggested others you might like, using words such as “since you’ve watched 007, here are 20 more spy thrillers”? Around 2011, companies started perfecting their “recommendation engines” – that is, algorithms that are specifically calibrated to our preferences. The power of this engine-algorithm comes from the data that the algorithm has at its disposal. The more data it has, the more powerful and accurate it becomes. In other words, the more we use the internet, the more the algorithm gets to know us: therefore, the quality of the suggestions improves. But are they suggestions or – to put it brutally – fully-fledged manipulation? 

The behaviour of Cambridge Analytica – the British political consulting firm that worked for Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign – has come under the spotlight for exactly this reason. Facebook has admitted that the data analytics company used an app to collect private details of 87 million of its users without its knowledge. The firm then targeted these individuals with political messaging that allegedly helped win Trump the White House. 

During the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, we read reports that were ready for publication two seconds after the end of a race. They were produced by an AI writing robot created by the Chinese news aggregator Jinri Toutiao.
The first wave is therefore connected to the activities – or abuses – implemented by companies in order to influence our actions, purchases and votes. This subtle form of manipulation is changing our way of thinking and acting.

These two waves – Business AI and Internet AI – have already arrived and are familiar to us. The next two are well on their way. Fasten your seatbelt, because they’re set to change our lives and our very selves. 

Third wave: Perception AI 

A baseball match in South Korea  in March: a few minutes before the game starts the spectators see a winged dragon spitting fire as it flies past, just a few metres from their seats. Many of them love it, some are frightened, and others laugh nervously. The image – a hologram created by a specialist company – makes a big splash; videos are posted on YouTube and viewed millions of times. Other industries and sectors are investing considerable sums in pushing human boundaries a little further out; like the pornography industry, which continues to thrive. While just a few years ago these were generally visual experiences, with virtual reality applications such as those used in video games, in the future they will also include our other senses.

Soon, when I enter my local supermarket and take a trolley, I will hear a voice saying: “Welcome back Paolo,” because the sensors in the trolley have detected my fingerprints. At that moment, the trolley will connect to my fridge at home via the internet of things, and inform me whether I have nearly run out of milk… or chocolate ice cream. But if my latest blood tests have shown raised cholesterol levels, I might receive a message on my phone reminding me that it would be better to buy some fresh fruit rather than ice cream. As I near the end of my shopping the trolley warns me that I’ve bought lots of proteins but not enough fibre and vitamins. I go back and buy foods high in fibre and vitamins, and then pay for my goods simply by putting the trolley back in its place. There’s no cashier to be seen. “Goodbye Paolo, see you again soon,” pipes up the familiar voice I’ve chosen from 1,282 options. Science fiction? Let's talk again in five years’ time. 

Perception AI will blur the boundaries between the real and the virtual world until, like mangroves, we find ourselves living in a world with no borders.

Fourth wave: Autonomous AI

Autonomous AI, in other words AI without humans guiding its functions, is the culmination of the other three waves. Not only will machines be able to understand the world around them, they’ll also define its shape and contents. Let’s reflect for a moment on the difference between “automatic” machines and “autonomous” machines. Automatic machines can repeat an action an infinite number of times, whereas autonomous machines can make decisions whenever we give them the power to see, touch and feel: in other words, they can think. Currently, as Kai-Fu Lee writes, China has won a dominant position in the production of ever-more sophisticated and intelligent drones, that can have multiple purposes, even in war.

One of the most-watched videos on YouTube in 2018 was of an elderly woman travelling in a self-driving car. She screams in fright, while her son, who is sitting alongside her, stays calmer. The video raises a smile, but we also need to stop and think. What does it feel like to lose control of activities that we’ve handled ourselves on a daily basis for decades? Yet every year an estimated 1.25 million people lose their lives in road accidents. Some 94 per cent of these deaths are the result of human error and studies suggest self-driving cars could reduce that number by automating driving.

Other questions spring up in our minds. Routine jobs are disappearing, and other jobs are being created: do we have the abilities and skills that we need in this new economy? 

Four waves of AI are reshaping our society, making it radically different to the one that preceded it. Will we end up being overwhelmed by these waves or will we learn to manage them for the good of humanity? The answer lies in our sense of ethics, in the moral compass guiding the decisions that will be made –hopefully by well-meaning people with a sense of responsibility and integrity.

The real challenge, if we think about it, is not technological but moral, and it depends entirely on us. 

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