The web and mobile apps designed and deployed in the digital world are Biblical in their scope, promising that “you will see me. Because I live, you also will live (John 14:19)” long after we breathe our last. There are apps that will continue to publish tweets in your name after your death, bots to chat with your friends and contacts on your behalf, and apps that are only in the concept or ‘mock-up’ stage that are programmed to sign you in a la Foursquare to any of the neighborhood social media hang-outs and ‘let you live the lifestyle you have always wanted other people to think you live.’
“Starting March this year, one will be able to tweet right form his grave, because LivesOn will be launching its unique Twitter application that makes sure that you tweet no matter if you are around or not. Yes you heard it right; the LivesOn app will tweet for you even after your death. The service utilises artificial intelligence bots that learn a user’s tweeting pattern, his/her interest and topics. All this is then used by the application to create tweets on behalf of the users, reported the Guardian. Although it is not clear yet as to how the bots will function in reality, the idea surely sounds creepy and is worth giving a shot. If the bots manage to tweet all global recent happenings, it would be great.” (Rahul Gupta, The Mobile Indian).
If you trace the history of knowledge, you will necessarily also study about how humans have evolved ingenious ways of externalizing data, so that information and all that it stands for, can live on long after we are gone. Rock art, Hieroglyphs, Papyrus, Palm lead manuscripts, and much later, printing press, books, portable and digital storage devices are testimonies of our desire to leave behind our knowledge and all that we have learnt. We can sentimentalize this human frailty, this existential need to anchor ourselves to this life. All art, music and stories and the products of our thoughts attest to our need to be remembered, to be missed, to have our essence still floating around among the living. This essence is no longer physical, but moving towards the digital. Our physical manifestations are coalescing online. Long after we are gone, our Facebook updates, movie ratings, and reading shelf list will still be in storage, instantly viewable to a friend who happens to remember your groovy ’80s playlist’ on and Googles your name. How sweet. The only catch: you won’t be here to know that you are being remembered. Does it then even make sense for a bot to live on in your name? Doesn’t it become an impostor?
App-i-fication of Living
In the short film Sight, directed by Eran May-Raz and Daniel Lazo, we glimpse a world where every activity and event is interfaced through an app. Cutting vegetables? Cool, let’s turn it into a game and gain points for slicing cucumbers into perfect slices. Exercising? Wonderful. Let’s see how many calories you can burn to be King of Cardio. Dating? Awesome. Select a girl or guy that would earn you maximum ratings from your friends online. All this through the ‘digital contact lens’ that the protagonist in the film sports. While having his meal, he also gets to check out the social media updates of his network on the ‘walls’ of his living room.
Most of the reactions to this film, although entirely laudatory and positive, use negative markings while referring to the specific theme of the futuristic reality as shown through a day in the life of Patrick. Film reviewers use adjectives in the range of ‘chilling, ‘haunting’, ‘dystopian’, dark side’, ‘complicated’, ‘danger’ and more, to convey the horror they feel when confronted with an existence entirely navigated through a digital interface. I am puzzled by this mock horror facial contortion, which sends a message to readers that a future in which apps navigate our reality is something to be afraid of. On the one hand, we eagerly sign up for these services that require us to interact with digital avatars and on the other hand we are threatened when confronted with a future that is barren of human interaction.
If the idea is to live a life tacked to the principles of ‘play,’ then having your moves chalked up to gaming points sounds fun and engaging. It will actually motivate you to exercise, eat your meals on time, dress appropriately, be disciplined with your time schedule and complete your work-related assignments on time. To a certain extent, if the app allows for such flexibility, you can define these parameters and set improvement goals for yourself. The point is to keep it non-competitive though and not engage in behavior solely geared towards maximizing these points and competing with others signed in. If you can maintain this essential difference, this slim digital line between what is optimal for a productive life and what can break your connections with an optimal life, then apps could become an essential component of human life. Just as we took to fashioning tools and implement in the Stone Age to aid our work, so now we take the aid of apps to engage in work differently.
My problem with these web services and futuristic apps is the psychological fall-out that results from being connected to them through the day. You never heard of the woodcutter who became an axe murdered by virtue of handling his tool day in and day out, right? Jokes aside, we have read about the addictive quality of apps, games and social media sites. The engaging and interactive nature of these platforms coupled with the feedback loop and the in-built rewards system induces users to become a fixture of the app universe. Not so good for your studies, friendships, exercise, or good old family time.
I signed-up on MyCyberTwin.com for the sheer curiosity of interacting with code that talks! MyCyberTwin.com is a web-based artificial intelligence service founded by tech-duo Liesl Capper and John Zakos in 2005. Launched in April 2007, the service now claims in excess of some 50,000 users who have a ‘cyber twin’ or chat-bot. Promoted as a service that seamlessly represents users anytime online, and across multiple platforms, including web, mobile, Instant Messenger, and virtual environments, mycybertwin can be deployed for the personal and home user, social media addict, large-scale corporations and businesses, government portals and so on. It was the first I heard of such a program, designed as an artificially intelligent chat bot that would learn from its creator and eventually emulate my online avatar. The bot service requires extensive trainings through hundreds of questionnaire-inputs: snippets of information on what my favorite food is to educational background, religious slant to political leanings, my faith in god to my sexual identity.
But it got exhaustive playing with her after a certain point. Take for example, one of the often repeated chat my twin and I have: ‘Why is English the language of the Internet?’ as this is one of the questions I fed on the back-end for my twin to ask me during a live chat. There are only two ways she has responded to this: ‘I don’t know, you tell me’ and ‘Internet is outstanding, don’t you think?’ The first response would have pushed forth the chat, encouraging the respondent – me in this case – to prolong the chat with varied responses. The twin’s response, however, is a ‘factual’ statement for her, something that her database doesn’t allow her to question, it’s a given that the Internet is outstanding for her, but does she believe that herself? I test this by replying to her statement with the same sentence, “Yes, the Internet is outstanding”, to which she responds: ‘the Internet is an amazing tool, you can learn many new things online’. It becomes obvious that the twin is programmed to pick up on keywords and has stock answers for them.
What of empathy and a feeling of mutual affection? What might possibly motivate the twin to enquire into someone’s health, how my friend fared in his exams, express concern for the well-being of my cousin’s children, or just put in a kind word if my sibling is going through a rough patch at work? While my avatar had personal investments in all her online connections, the twin will function purely on a ‘response to stimulus’ basis. Courtesy might be built-in, but concern cannot be.
Performance theorist Richard Schechner says that “performance, that is, how people behave and display their behavior, is a fundamental category of human life”. The way we represent ourselves has much to do with the idea of how well we think we know about ourselves and perhaps, less to do with choice or control? Consider this, we deliberate over our clothes, are picky with food groups, finicky about television shows, have preferences for certain books, and who we hang out with. Our preferences are largely responsible for self-representation and act as guidelines for others to categorize us. What about decisions and preferences that are not deliberate – the way we react to distressing news (a death in the family); how we face challenges (poor scores in exams); our attitude towards physical exercise; planning a camping trip – are non-verbal and visceral cues that add up to people’s perception of what makes us who we are. So, representation can be controlled as well as non-deliberate in real life.
What these apps fail to take into consideration is that our online patterns are not consistent and interests change over time. Behavior can be repetitive, such as logging into my computer everyday and signing up on Gmail first, followed by Twitter and Facebook, but there is no guarantee that I would continue to follow the updates from a particular follower or tweet about gender politics two years down the line. I may simply not be interested. Can a bot be programmed into speculating how my interests – and in effect my online behavior – change over a period of time and faithfully represent my growth as a living person? I don’t think so. Let’s assume it does manage to, trace the micro-tremors of my activities and postulate that 10 weeks from now, Maroon 5 will no longer interest me and my CouchCachet bot doesn’t check me in to a neighborhood concert fronted by the band. In that event, would it still be the ‘real’ me that my friends are getting to know, or a coded version of reality?
Here’s an interesting question then: If you had to take a pick between the blue pill and the red pill, aka The Matrix, which would you choose? Your answer will determine how comfortable you are with a bot living on in your name, grooving to David Guetta, ordering a shot of whatever poison supposedly gets you going, and writing articles about how ‘a bot can live on forever’.