As you are probably aware due to the unending stream of utopian press reports emanating from Silicon Valley, three new technologies bankrolled by three of the biggest names in tech are poised to change your life for the better. Just as the computer and internet have been nothing but a positive in the lives of all people everywhere, so too will virtual reality, drones and self-driving vehicles liberate human beings from the tedium of, respectively, sensing the real world, delivering packages, and driving.
Still, in the wee hours of the night, and admittedly afflicted by the kind of doubt that will forever keep human beings from reaching the computational certitude of computers, I find myself thinking that VR, drones and autonomous vehicles sound nice in the vacuum of public relations and venture-capital funding, but may experience or even provoke real-world problems upon deployment. In fact, I can’t keep my storytelling reflex from filling in all the utopian backdrops and can’t-miss financial windfalls with scenarios in which these technologies fail or are repurposed to darker intents.
Backed by Facebook and other smaller players, virtual reality is poised to make a quantum leap from mere dream to partially realized dream in the next year or two. What is virtual reality? Well, in short it’s a pair of goggles or a headset which shows you a virtual world you can pretend to move around in. Instead of being limited by the world you see right now, you can be in a movie, in a game, in a virtual environment, including spaces that could never actually exist.
In theory, virtual reality — like interactive storytelling before it — is a mind-bending, game-changing development. Unfortunately, like interactive storytelling, getting virtual reality to work has taken a lot longer than anyone thought, in large part because the human body isn’t wired up to suddenly ignore reality just because it has snazzy new tech lashed to its face. While it may seem as if we humans have discrete senses — hearing, touch, vision, etc. — all of those senses merge in the brain in complex ways that were forged in the fire of evolution, which is why a certain percentage of people puke their guts out when they go sailing no matter how they try to compensate.
Some people get better at dealing with motion problems after prolonged exposure, and some people get relief from medication, but a certain percentage of people never habituate to sailing or other sensory gyrations. The same problem has afflicted virtual reality since its inception, for similar reasons, and it’s likely that for some individuals the problem will never be solved because that’s simply how they are wired up. Unfortunately, when it comes to VR the percentage of people who have a negative experience from looking at headsets in front of their eyes is fairly substantial, meaning it threatens the very premise of the technology.
Clever solutions abound, and claims of triumph over motion sickness are common, but the underlying problem is not trivial. For all that’s known about motion problems and how the brain organizes inputs from the senses, the brain is still a considerable mystery in that regard. Nobody really knows how the mind-brain merges sensory information and uses it to create a contextual reality. We know that it happens, but we don’t know how it happens — so making devices which trick us into believing in an alternate or virtual reality tends to cause problems we can’t anticipate. (Or prefer not to acknowledge during product development.)
While it may seem that those who cannot tolerate VR will miss out on all the fun, they will also avoid imparting sensory experiences to their brains that their minds may not be able to distinguish from reality. At root that is in fact the whole point of VR — to overwhelm the senses in ways that are totally immersive. But what happens when the mind is prevented from contextualizing such experiences? When you sit in a movie theater or watch TV at home you are still grounded in existence by objects in your periphery. You still know you are in a seat, in a non-virtual space, taking in a fiction or live event that is not happening where you are. With virtual reality your mind has to remember that — has to actively remind itself that what it is seeing is not real — which may be doable for many adults, but what about children? Given their young brains and minds, how easy is it going to be to impart experiences that cannot be distinguished from reality, and how hard might it be to negate them or come to terms with them later?
And what about VR intoxication or addiction? What about people who get hooked on VR, or who spend so much time in VR settings when they’re young that they can’t cope with or process reality when the mature? Does that sound farfetched? Well, don’t we already have millions of young smartphone zombies demonstrating those same tendencies? Messing with the mind-brain, and how it perceives reality, is not the same thing as going to the tropics on a two-week vacation. Your mind and brain are wired up to adapt, to habituate, to alter how they perceive and experience the world, meaning your ability to function in real life may actually degrade as you spend more and more time in virtual environments.
Finally, there’s the problem of physiological instability. It’s one thing to put on a VR headset and goof around for a half hour whether it makes you a little woozy or not. But if you train your mind-brain to synthesize visual, proprioceptive and vestibular information in a new way, you may consequently weaken your ability to function in the real world. What happens if heavy VR use provokes clumsiness, falls, or car accidents for those too poor to afford their own autonomous vehicles? Who’s paying for that damage? Will the industry be able to shield itself with a legal disclaimer or health warning?
The good news, if you’re looking forward to leaving the real world behind, is that VR technology will be coming to market. It may end up causing PTSD for a certain percentage of users, or increasing the likelihood of fender benders due to decreased depth perception, but until the lawsuits start flying there will be plenty of fun for all, provided you can stomach the medium. And of course plenty of immersive Facebook commercials to view while waiting for the next exciting adventure to load.
Compared with the complex problems inherent in VR, drones are a technological cinch. Provided your design produces enough lift and has stable flight characteristics you can make drones fly and hover just like the small planes and helicopters they are. Relying on proven science and technology, the only revolutionary thing about drones is their scalability and consequent affordability, which is now making drone technology available to the average consumer. In the commercial market drones are also poised to make a huge leap courtesy of the biggest name in product fulfillment and customer service: Amazon.com.
Though most drones are actually controlled by a human being, meaning someone is paying attention to what the drone is doing, the sexiest of all drone fantasies involves autonomous drones delivering packages all over the country. While exciting in a sci-fi kind of way, such an application has one glaring downside. Specifically, how much is a drone worth? Because if a drone is worth $500 or $1,000, and I can get one to come to any address or location I specify by ordering $7 in merchandise, then I can steal that drone when it arrives and quite literally make out like a bandit. Even better, if I want to use a drone to deliver something dangerous — say, an explosive device or chemical agent — I don’t have to factor in the cost of a drone, or worry that the drone I use will be traced back to me. All I have to do is hijack and hack an Amazon drone and I am in business.
Unlike planes and helicopters, which are required by law to display a registration number that is visible to the naked eye, drones will be indistinguishable to citizens. The benign drone delivering your much-needed medicine will look a lot like the drone your creepy neighbors are using to peer in your windows at night, streaming a live feed back to their home. The benign drone getting an overhead perspective at a football game for the local news will be indistinguishable from the prank drone about to drop a suspicious white powder on the stands. The benign drone keeping an eye out for social unrest or police abuses will be indistinguishable from the drone about to drop flashbangs on an angry mob or a cluster of nervous, heavily armed police.
While the average consumer is a benign entity, and not at all predisposed to use drone technology for nefarious purposes, what if someone wants to set up their own distribution network just like Amazon, only for illegal products? Or what if they’re frustrated by a protection order that keeps them from stalking their old flame or a celebrity? Are you interested in capturing edgy, compelling video that you can use to further your own social media empire, turning family, friends and complete strangers into views and hits? Drones are the answer to your dreams! Buy one, steal one, then fly it anywhere and everywhere, even harassing people to capture their hilarious responses! What could go wrong?
Because some people are needlessly paranoid, however, or needlessly concerned with their privacy rights, or needlessly modest about being spied on in the shower, it’s possible that some citizens may decide to fight back. And in a nation awash in firearms, that response may involve target practice. (Oh, wait. Oh, wait nine more times.) Then again, even if you’re not worried that drones are an intrusion on your right to privacy you can still use them to test your targeting skills, perhaps replicating in real-life a game that you were previously limited to playing in VR! (Such is the technological cycle of life.)
What’s so wonderful about drones is that they’re the perfect platform for everything. If you can make drones you can make anti-drone drones. If you can make anti-drone drones you can make exploding drones and kamikaze drones and drones that cut power lines or disrupt cellular phones or blare the sound or rabbits being killed. Because drones are small you can project laser pointers and cameras and microphones and physical objects into locations that a real human being might have trouble accessing, all with complete anonymity. In fact, drones are perfectly poised to become the real-world extension and tool of choice of all those trolls and griefers that you currently only battle online.
Leading the charge on self-driving vehicles is Google, the same company that previously geo-mapped virtually every road in the U.S. as well as many byways in a number of other countries. Why an online advertising agency is into autonomous cars is a bit of a mystery, unless Google plans to buy out, take over or mimic Uber, except without all those pesky, costly, passenger-raping employees.
As we’ve already seen with drones, however, there’s a bit of a problem with self-driving vehicles, which is that such things are quite pricey. If you can get a $15,000 self-driving taxi to pick you up anywhere you want, including a deserted road or abandoned factory at three in the morning, then for the price of a phone call you can have $15,000 in black-market car parts delivered to your transitory door. Sure, Google will probably build all sorts of geo-locating technology and anti-theft measures into their autonomous vehicles, which an able thief will be able to disarm, remove or transfer to another vehicle in less than ten seconds.
If you don’t want to tip your hand by making a phone call you can simply wait until a self-driving car comes your way and stand in front of it until it stops. Or unfurl a banner of a parked car, or a tree, or a child. Anything that tells that safety-conscious vehicle that something is in the way. Once stopped you can strip the vehicle, or steal it and hack its software, then load it with whatever cargo you want. Between drug shipments or bombs that are too big to strap to a drone there are plenty of profit-making and life-taking ventures that a self-driving car might be perfect for, and they’re all about to become viable when autonomous vehicles are free for the taking.
If you steal self-driving cars without any humans aboard you also won’t have to worry about steep prison sentences due to injury or death, which often happens during a messy carjacking. Sure, Google will pressure politicians to make the penalty for stealing an autonomous vehicle worse than manslaughter, but thieves of good conscience will still flock to the relatively easy pickings — and generally newer vehicles. One obvious deterrent to such attacks would be fake drivers and passengers designed to confuse thieves, but such decoys would probably also lead to a protracted legal battle in which Google insisted that vehicles with more than one fake passenger qualified for use of the high-occupancy-vehicle lane. (At least until Google builds its own exclusive autonomous highways.)
If all that carjacking seems like too much work, and there aren’t any drones flitting around nearby, you can also turn self-driving vehicles into handy targets. Can you disable a self-driving vehicle with one shot? How about slowly crowding one off the road? Or into a vehicle parked along the shoulder? What happens if you paint out the lines on a road and paint new lines leading to a nearby cliff? Think that will get a lot of views on YouTube? (Don’t forget — if any of this sounds complicated you can practice all of these pranks first using VR, until you’re satisfied with your performance.)
If self-driving cars are good then self-driving trucks must be better, right? Well, good news — they’re on the way! As you might imagine, the possibilities are virtually (there’s that word again) endless. If you’re tired of boosting self-driving cars, what could be better than a semi trailer loaded with brand-new 4K monitors or LED TV’s, or ammonium nitrate? Sure, it’s going to take some nerve to stand in front of a forty-ton monster bearing down on you at seventy miles per hour, but if you’re the nervous type you can substitute a mannequin, a cactus, or that rolled up picture of a child you have lying around from your car-boosting days.
To be fair, current plans for autonomous semis include a ride-along human who will be notified if a problem arises. How that human might respond when an autonomous semi stumbles on an impromptu accident, or road construction, or a sudden change in the weather — while said human is taking a nap or playing with a VR headset — isn’t quite clear, but don’t worry. In a worst-case scenario the truck will bring itself to a stop after five seconds! (That a semi traveling 60 mph will travel 440 feet before braking and another 300 feet or so under braking — roughly 250 yards in total, or one seventh of a mile — may be a problem for humans or vehicles in its path, but because semi trucks are robustly designed the ride-along human and cargo in tow will probably survive.)
Chose Your Own Topia
There you have it. Three new technologies from three tech giants, each making the world better and safer for you and me. At least until a stolen, self-driving truck laden with a twelve-ton bomb follows Google’s geo-mapping coordinates to your school or place of work and blows your idyllic life to smithereens. Or a crazed drone pilot disperses anthrax over your block party or favorite amusement park. Or a kid who spends sixty hours each week jacked in to a virtual reality murder simulator has a power outage and decides to keep playing at your house.
Too dire? Well, maybe, but those are the breaks when you’re looking into the future. You say utopia, I say dystopia. And yes, while a few malcontents have taken potshots at drones, that doesn’t mean all of the above will come to pass. For the time being you’ll probably see most of it play out in the fiction you read and the TV shows and movies you watch, if it hasn’t already. Whether it ever shows up on the news remains to be seen, but if human history is any clue it won’t be for lacking of trying.
Update: Burn, baby, burn.
— Mark Barrett