Recently Google announced it was launching a quantum artificial intelligence lab with a company associated with NASA, while, at its developer conference, it talked up seven new apps for Google Glass, the soon-to-be-available smartphone-on-a-face.
The fact that the announcements came on the same day is, I’m sure, a coincidence, but it got me thinking. Combine quantum computing with hands free-mobile devices and in, say, a decade, the lens through which we view the world could be decidedly different.
Today’s computers, with their binary approach to problem solving, look at things in simplistic terms. They grapple with information through bits, which by definition have one of two values: yes, no; plus, minus; 0 or 1 – hence the term “digital.” Quantum computers rely on quantum bits, or qubits that can be simultaneously on and off and perform many functions at once. That makes them remarkably fast and powerful. As the brainy folks at Technology Review put it, “a quantum computer with 300 qubits could run more calculations in an instant than there are atoms in the universe.”
Now, what if computers were able to learn from us to the point they could instantly draw on every interaction we’ve ever had online? You think it’s spooky when you buy a pair of Asics from Zappos and suddenly at every click you’re subjected to banner ads peddling shoes. What if the computers not only knew your social network of friends, relatives, colleagues, acquaintances better than you do, and in a blink of an eye instantly identify every person – and everything about him – out to six degrees or more?
I imagine it could be something like this. You’re away on a business trip, attending a conference, and, wearing your Google augmented reality glass contact lenses (because by then eyeglasses will be oh-so-last century), you step into a bar full of conventioneers. These contacts are outfitted with both the latest speech recognition technology but they also, if need be, beam a holographic image of a keyboard, because it’s easier to type certain things than speak everything.
What’s more, the colors of your world through these lenses are supersaturated. Virtual reality is, in many respects, more real, more immediate, than reality. And since people are so immersed in their Google worlds, you don’t overhear conversations but rather fragments of words and ideas, often commands to the speech recognition engine so you can operate certain functions on the device: ”Video,” “take a photo,” “access Yelp for a nearby restaurant that serves tapas, beer, and is moderately priced,” “send message,” “yes,” “no,” “call home.”
You’re constantly logged into Facebook and every person you’ve seen on the street and in the bar is identified along with everyone in their social networks. On your left is a woman you don’t know, but she’s a friend of a friend of your cousin Irving’s roommate’s niece. Her name is Tina, a physics professor at the local university, and she likes extreme skiing, origami and baking. Tomorrow she’ll be giving a presentation. You can view her slides and video now, if you’d like, and scan her bio. You don’t. You think it’s interesting that her favorite author is Jane Austen and thirty-seven people “liked” a post she penned on the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. She’s sipping what the computer deduces to be a green apple martini and your Google-powered submicro-computer advertises a selection of snacks to go with it, as well as a choice of vodkas and mixers, which you can order at the blink of an eye. Maybe later.
Next to her, waving his index fingers in the air like Toscanini conducting the NBC Orchestra, is her colleague, Ted. He’s playing a game only visible to him through his holographic screen. The computer has mapped out all the social connections in the room, as well as beaming more bar and food menu items (get 10 percent off a green apple martini before 7 pm), or you could access a history of the joint, Yelp reviews, or you turn on the basketball game. Ads are constant and flicker in your peripheral vision – for beer (“Stay thirsty, my Facebook friend”) while others offer discount coupons for nearby restaurants (“20 percent off when you bring a friend”) taxi services (“Friends don’t let friends drive drunk. Let us take you home”), escort services, hotels, pot dispensaries, and more.
CNN’s news crawl keeps you up to date with the latest in current events, although you know better than to trust the most trusted name in news, and your Twitter and Facebook feeds are omnipresent. You find CNN distracting, though, so you shut it off. You decide to shoot a short video of the place and send it to friends back home who are still at work – although they are not at an office, since most people telecommute. Your Google Contacts recommend that you approach a man standing in the corner, who works for a company you’d like to learn more about. It auto-creates a message that you approve, which takes away the awkwardness of approaching strangers in a bar. A return message pops up: He can’t, but sends his virtual business card and suggests another time at the conference. You auto sync your calendars and set a date, place, and time.
Meanwhile, most everyone in the place has already sized you up, the computer tools at their disposal sifting through your social network, seeking commonalities. You eye someone you think looks interesting but a red siren goes off. She’s only 7 percent friend compatible, and data shows you will likely not have a fruitful conversation. That’s okay. Messages have been streaming in, all of them auto-sent. Through this you can decide who to talk to. The biophysio meter has been gauging the mood in the room, color coding them for convenience. Personally, you’ve always found that red hot conversations give you a headache while ice blue ones bore you to tears. The computer is able to pick up all the sounds in the room and sift through the conversations. You seek a color combination somewhat in the middle, a group of people not talking about sports or fashion. Oh, a group discussing politics, and when they are plotted on a graph you see they are pretty much on your end of the political spectrum.
You catch a scene at the far end of the bar. A patron is shouting at the bartender, who refuses to serve him another drink because the glass he was holding measured his blood-alcohol level through the sweat in his fingers. He’ll have to wait at least 45 minutes before he’ll be permitted to order another scotch.
Because so many people spend so much time logged into Google World, spoken conversations have become ancillary to their engagement inside the device. You hear people in scattered sections of the bar break out into laughter, but you don’t know what the joke was, since it was shared silently over their computers. It’s as if texting, email and IM-ing have taken over, leaving little space for verbal communication. “He he, penguins,” you hear, apropos of nothing. “Oh, no,” someone else groans. A third person is humming along with a song only she hears.
A waiter appears, introduces himself, and leads you to the table where the people are discussing politics. Their conversation continues but your request to join the group has been granted and you take a seat. In front of you sits an apple martini with your favorite vodka – just what you ordered. The conversation is partly verbal and partially typed. Each person is able to present Wikipedia entries, news articles, video, and the like to buttress his or her points, which are shared with other Google and Apple eyewear computing users. There’s a strikingly beautiful couple across the table from you. You access your TruSelf app and their avatars are instantly replaced with the bodies and faces of a paunchy, middle-aged couple. That’s how they really look.
Ah, the inevitable party request. Lisa, an environmentalist and political activist in addition to working at Starbucks as a barista, suggests everyone shut off their computer eyewear and take in the room as it really is. There’s a certain voyeuristic thrill in this, as everyone is so used to being connected all the time that reality feels like an almost theoretical construct.
You command your eyewear to shut off. It asks if you are sure and you say “yes.” Suddenly you are confronted with an un-Googled world. It appears drab and colorless in comparison. The music from the wall speakers sounds tinny. The people before you are wan, washed out, lumpy, unattractive. The art, plants, wall paint, lighting and decorations had all been shaped by your own preferences, and without the distortion field your wearable eyewear provided, the world appears as a gray, lifeless template.
None of you last long without your Google eyewear, and accompanied by nervous laughter you switch it back on. The world you view through the prism of your computer eyewear has become your default setting.
You know you have free will, but don’t feel like you need it.