Sunday, January 27, 2008

Androids - AI + Telepresence = Sleep Dealer

Blade Runner's vision – a world built upon the work of disposable humanoids, designed to serve "real" people for a few years and then die – may never come true, but the combination of technological progress and social inequality remains a fertile source of inspiration for distopic science fiction works. The most recent goes by the title of Sleep Dealer, and has earned an article on Wired.

The film explores some far away technologies (such as the "mental blog" where people post their memories, read directly from their brains), but the movie's main speculation – unqualified workers remote-controlling robots – may be closer to reality than we would like. After all, between the progress of mechatronics and AI's comparative stagnation, it is quite possible that we'll soon have a highly functional android body, but no mind to animate it. And even if Jeff Hawkins is on the right track, there may still be a gap of some years during which the richer nations, with their shrinking economically active populations and ever-growing surplus capital, adopt mass-scale telepresence as an alternative to immigration – at least until synthetic substitutes become available for minds as well as bodies.

If this scenario seems unlikely to you, know it is already real – even if, for the time being at least, only in the Internet. Services such as Amazon's Mechanical Turk essentially allow on-demand creation of sweatshops, while in the virtual worlds of Massively Multiplayer Online RPG's (MMORPG's) "gold farms" contract players to gather valuable game items (money, weapons, items) and resell them to other (presumably wealthier and lazier) players.

Twenty years on, the story of Rick Deckard and his artificial antagonists remains more of a metaphor than scientific speculation. Node worker's Memo world, on the other hand, is much closer to our reach, both in technical and social terms – and is only slightly less gloomy. What does this say about our future, and our present?