Today, we interact with avatars in social networks on a regular basis. We debate on Facebook, like pictures in Instagram or follow interesting people on Twitter. Right now, we assume that behind every avatar is a human being, whether we ever meet them in person or not. But what about a future in which distinguishing between humans and bots becomes obsolete?

My submission to the Changing Worlds Conference, 20 to 22 November 2014 at the University of Vienna

Comic: XKCD (CC BY-NC)

Privatization of uncertainty

The neoliberal dogma of self-fulfillment inoculated our society. It promises happiness – if we only focus on performance and personal commitment. The Me Inc. (“Ich-AG”) is about making profits of time and relationships. In the background, traditional social structures are eroding. In place of long-term commitments like family and solidarity, we instead live together for shorter periods of life, ending relationships after the personal cost–benefit analysis turns negative. The dissolution of traditional values brought personal liberty to many, smashing roles and classes. But others fall into seclusion or are shattered beneath the pressure to achieve. Depression is spreading in our society, suicides an increasingly common cause of death.

“You are always on my mind”, says the robot

The human psyche may be complex, but it is quite easy to manipulate. We are appreciative of expressions of flattery, sympathy or confidence; simply put, we want to be loved. Knowing this it is possible even with today’s technology to gently establish social ties between humans and algorithms or bots. Connecting the relentless progress in computational power with smarter software, it’s only a matter of time until human- and machine-based communication is more or less indistinguishable. (Remember, there were – widely exaggerated – reports about the Turing test having been half-passed earlier this year.) A looming dystopia? It may sound scary – but for the broken ones, the misfits, the melancholy loners it could bring light into their existence. The sensation of being loved and building a relationship may outweigh the uncertainty of interacting with what one knows to be a bot.

Bot-based society

Where there is light, there is also shadow. Manipulating society with simulated empathy brings with it a high potential of abuse. The powerful will use it to form public opinion to further their goals, underground bot armies will sell trusted friendships to the highest bidder. How can we use these new methods to help individuals without destroying society in general by eradicating trust?

Thanks to Vilinthril for proofreading!