In “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”, we’re told that Skynet would become self aware on August 29, 1997, thus marking the rise of the machines. As is often the case in science-fiction, the specific dates and details were wrong, but the underlying sentiment of the predictions were far more true than we realize.
While I don’t expect an impending war fought against Terminators, I have no doubt that Skynet will rise. In fact, it may have already risen. But unlike the movies, the net we face will consume our lives without our knowledge, and not only will we be unaware of our new master, but we will eagerly embrace it.
The history of man has been one of surrendering to our inventions. While most of these inventions affect a relatively small number of users, some are so ubiquitous that they become weaved into the fabric of our existence in such a way that they help define society and direct the future of where society goes.
Think about the harnessing of electric power. Without electricity, the rest of the modern world as we know it would not exist. But aside from the grand inventions made possible by electric power, consider how completely dependent we’ve become on having access to it. For all reasonable purposes, we would not be able to live without electricity, and this dependence ensures that we will fight for it as surely as we will fight for food and water.
A few weeks ago I spent an afternoon with Robert Scoble talking about the future of the Internet. Robert predicted that we are entering a period of “contextual Web” where our online identities and constant automatic access to them will define how we are serviced and what resources we can tap. Those who are not part of this pervasive connected net will be relegated to a near invisible status.
If Robert is right, and I believe he is, then “Internet 3.0” will cease being a tool of convenience and evolve into a tool of necessity. And when that happens, when we become as reliant on the Web as we are on electricity, then our surrender to “Skynet” will be complete.
Some of you may be wondering why this matters, especially since our reliance on electricity hasn’t resulted in many ill effects. If our dependence on electric power hasn’t been a problem, why should our dependence on the Internet be any different?
The short answer is that electricity and the power company are dumb. They don’t collect information about us, or store our preferences. They don’t know who our friends are, who we date, what kind of car we drive, how much we drink, our FICO score, or where we are at this precise moment. Other than providing the juice, the power company doesn’t dictate anything in our lives. Even comparing our reliance on electricity to something as relatively innocuous as the algorithm of Facebook’s newsfeed or Google’s personalized search results, we see that the “utilities” of the Internet have far more power to control what we can access than the electric company ever had.
Gerry Campbell, the former President of Search and Content at Reuters, summed it up this way: “Computers already have all of our world’s information and control over everything. Even a rudimentary AI could assemble that into a powerful control system and do it on a massive scale. If that were unchecked…” Perhaps realizing the inevitability of it, he stopped himself and added, “but, such is life. When I was a kid we were afraid of the Bomb and killer bees.”
I’m not suggesting we stone the computers or unplug the Internet. The future is inevitable, and it will bring amazing technologies that will improve our lives in many ways. But while we create the future, history has shown us that the makers of the tools rarely see the negative effects that their tools may unleash.
Scoble describes the coming world as “scary” and “freaky,” and while it’s easy to blindly embrace these inventions as technological magic, it’s important to remember that they are driven by databases and ultimately by companies that will use our information to their advantage, in all likelihood with little regard to what is in our best interest. Skynet may not have become self aware on August 29th, 1997, but it may only be a matter of time before the net rules us all.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]