Published on Dec 13, 2020

Staring into the mirror


It finally happened this week. Health Canada announced approval of the vaccine. We’re entering the second half of the story, the recovery. Life hopefully will start getting back to normal for most people. While the pandemic caused a lot of human suffering and misery, there are also many unintended consequences.

We undertook one of the largest experiments in human history. The forced confinement of millions & millions of people at home. There’s reason for optimism – yet there’s one thing that has been eating away at me, it’s hard to clearly describe yet it is constant. The feeling that we’re moving towards a world with greater isolation, not less.

Most of us turned to online tools & media during the lockdown. Yet being on video calls is not the real thing. This drastic social isolation has led to an increase in cases of mental health struggles. It’s pretty clear why; people need to be with people. Now as we can start hoping for the return to a normal world again, I’m worried that we’ve glimpsed into a post-apocalyptic reality where human emotions & connections are relegated to second place. Instead of talking to people, we’re interfacing more & more with autistic algorithms that don’t care for how we feel. Why talk to anyone when the push of a button unlocks almost every conceivable desire?

I’m from the cohort that saw the advent of the internet and I’m generally an optimist for the good that technology can do. The lack of human connection is what frightens me, but what if I’m looking at the issue the wrong way? What if we can actually understand ourselves better and ultimately be more human? This is a big question which I can’t pretend to have the answer to. I just want to pull on the string to see where it leads. Reality will of course be more nuanced. Looking ahead, we are starting to see tantalizing new possibilities emerge.

Bicycle for the mind

In the past few months, there have been exciting new developments. GPT-3 and AlphaFold come immediately to mind (not to mention the vaccine itself). GPT-3 is a language prediction model that has many potential applications. One that hasn’t been widely considered is this concept of engineered journaling. Imagine you write in your journal or diary regularly. With that data, the algorithm can generate insights about you that you never considered.

There are other cool tools like Descript that I’ve been using. I spoke to Alexandre that helped develop their speech recognition technology and the potential applications are extraordinary. They produced a video that went viral globally with a deep fake of Obama and Bush. They have a product called Overdub that allows for realistic voice cloning. One of their biggest requests? Creating a voice clone of loved ones that have passed. It’s not hard to assume that you will be able to record your loved ones’ voice and be able to talk to their digital avatars. It’s an idea that’s gaining more traction lately. Will this help people get over their grief & loss? Is this disturbing and feels weird? Probably both.

Embracing the weird

The tools have also enabled social connection particularly for isolated groups.

I was a bit of a geek in high school and I’m sure that online communities would have helped me connect with kids like me. Today, it’s pretty normal. Teenagers engage and learn online which allow them to explore sides of themselves which wasn’t possible before.

You can create alternative personalities and obtain new perspectives on what you find interesting. There’s probably a whole host of other realities and possibilities I don’t even know about – that’s what makes it interesting. There is an infinite way for people to learn & better understand themselves. There isn’t such a thing as being “weird” or an outcast because you are able to find & learn from other like-minded people anywhere.

I imagine more pro-human advocacy groups emerging in the next few years pushing for more regulation & controls around the use of technology. One thing is for sure, these tools will continue rapidly improving and will provide ways to cope with social isolation. They won’t be a replacement for human connection but might create new ways to connect and ultimately understand one another.

We’ve spent the past few months looking into the digital mirror. I’m afraid of what happens when it starts staring back at me. Maybe I shouldn’t be.

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