ALT! WHO GOES THERE? PART 6B by EXTROPIA DaSILVA.
THE LANDSCAPE METAPHOR
In part 6A, we talked primarily about the way socialising is changing and what this is doing to our minds. Social robots and ubiquitous computing will also change the nature of work. The economist Robin Hanson and the roboticist Hans Moravec have both used the metaphor of a landscape to describe human and machine competence in the workplace. Valleys stand for jobs where machines and computers vastly outperform people, mountain peaks stand for areas of expertise where humans excel over machines and in between these extremes are hills of various heights that stand for the varying degrees of competence of human workers versus automation.
The machine workforce is visualized as an ocean that has already flooded the valleys and plains, drastically reducing the human workforce if not eliminating it entirely. As the tide of automation keeps rising, the human workforce must climb up to the peaks where machines do not yet possess superior capability. Of course, there is not enough space for everyone to occupy a place on the peaks, because there are only a finite amount of positions to fill (perhaps, though, new peaks arise as new job types are created). How high the tide can rise depends on the extent to which computers and robots can outperform human capabilities, or change the workplace so that some job types become obsolete. Susan Greenfield believes we may soon enter an era when “each organization will focus only on what it does best, outsourcing the rest and networking synergistically with other companies…The age of just-in-time operatives, geared to meet the needs of just-in-time production will be upon us”.
TOWARD THE MULTIPLE-MINOR
In such an age, job descriptions could become so flexible as to be meaningless and there may be a frantic scramble to acquire new skills, each and every employee well aware that the rising tide of robotic workers, automated systems and IT could render their expertise obsolete. In short, change and flexibility rather than stability will be the norm. If so, this could well have a dramatic effect on brain landscapes. Depending on how uncertain the future becomes, and how adaptable the mind needs to be in order to cope with a chaotic world, perhaps the ‘Major-minor’ mindweb will no longer be the typical state of mind? Perhaps it will be the ‘Multiple-Minor’? Recall from part three that the former kind of mind arises when life is fairly stable with occasional breaks from routine, whereas the latter kind is an adaptation to a very chaotic and unstable life. It is interesting to note that some of Second Life’s most beloved residents are rather unstable people who self-confessedly do not function all that well in RL society, but are greatly valued inworld. Arguably, this is because they have multiple-minor brains which gives them great flexibility and powers of creativity which fit in well in a world where change happens very quickly. You can reinvent yourself and the landscape around you as much and as often as you like in SL. If change is going to become the norm in RL, necessitating great flexibility and adaptability, perhaps those few people who have multiple-minor brain webs will have a significant advantage over those whose brains are adapted to more stable lifestyles? If so, this kind of mind should become more widespread as brains adapt to changing environments.
The nature of employment will also change where we work. Hitherto, we have been accustomed to domestic and working life as being separated into ‘home’ and ‘office’ (or ‘factory’) respectively. But, according to some forecasts, soon a third of the workforce will work from home, conducting meetings, business negotiations and other work-related activities in cyberspace. At its extreme, this move from workplace as physical environment to a virtual one could lead to what Philip Rosedale and Ed Castronova both described as an exodus from the physical world, with financial and industrial centres becoming relics of a bygone age when telepresence was not yet an option. Meanwhile, Bill Gates’ article for a Scientific American special edition on robots imagined an office worker overseeing various housekeeping duties performed by domestic robots, using multiple webcam images beamed to his office PC. Taken together, these scenarios suggest a blurring between one’s private and professional life, with workers overseeing/performing more domestic duties from the office, and doing more work from home.
If we are to move toward a world where work is conducted mostly in cyberspace, where mental work is aided by or given over to smart software, and physical tasks are performed using tele-operated robots or delegated to autonomous robots, that could break down the traditional stages in life narratives that used to define us. Thinking positively, this could be a world where inequality is greatly reduced. Age may no longer be related to ability if telepresence robots and smart software compensate for the reduction in physical and mental health associated with growing old. If pervasive IT and the service-orientated economy does indeed make for more flexible and personalised working schedules, pregnant women and mothers could arrange their days to suit changing circumstances. If we all conduct business via avatars rather than face-to-face, maybe the workplace would be free of racial, sexual, gender or age-related discrimination? Each person could, after all, present themselves as any age, ethnicity or gender they please.
PREJUDICE AND HOW TO EXPLOIT IT
However, one has to wonder how far we can go in eliminating something so ingrained as prejudice. We know it is ingrained through a number of psychological studies and now neuroscience is also providing evidence that we meet all other ethnic, religions and political groups with prejudice. One such collaboration is the work carried out by the psychologist Mahzarin Banaji and the neuroscientist Elizabeth Phelps. In this experiment, volunteers were shown pictures of strangers’ faces, some black and some white. The amygdala (a region whose purpose includes, among other things, signalling when something emotionally meaningful is afoot) was activated by the images. But, after they were shown the images several times, activity in the amygdala was reduced- but only for faces that belonged to the subject’s own race. That is not to say that racism is beyond our control. Further studies have shown that regions of the cortex associated with evaluation, regulation, control will, if activated, repress the activity in the amygdala.
It could be, though, that subconsciously leaning towards stereotypes will influence the choices that drive individual avatar preference. Studies have shown that tallness is overrepresented in CEOS and politicians, and that people are able to distinguish high-ranking CEOS from those of lower rank, purely on how square the jawline is. Psychologist Mark van Vergt and Anjance Abuja (former science columnist for The Times) commented, “evolution might have bestowed upon us an instinctive suspicion of leaders who are short, female or who belong to a different tribe…but we need to ask whether such prejudices belong in today’s interconnected world, in which citizens of all colours and religions need to rub along”.
These are indeed important things to consider. But if we have this template of what a good leader looks like, why would we not let that influence the way we shape avatars for business purposes? Why choose the features that would reduce your chances of securing the best outcome, or fitting comfortably into meetings? If we all lean towards the evolutionary ideal of a good leader, our avatars (those used for business purposes, at least) would end up looking rather similar. Susan Greenfield called this, ‘the ultimate in political correctness, paradoxically achieved by exploiting rather than denying human bigotry”.
COMING UP IN PART C, WHAT THE PROLIFERATION OF NETWORKED SENSORS MEANS FOR OUR PERCEPTION OF THE BODY.