Most technologists have little truck with words like “soul”, let alone with the notion of something that can’t be computed. Yet in a recent essay for Aeon magazine, looking at the history and the future of human enhancement, the author Steven Poole argued that an “undercurrent of misanthropy” paradoxically lurks within many dreams of improving humanity through technology, “hinting – or even hoping – that one day we could be replaced by our own machines.”
Wanting to be better, and to know ourselves and our world better, is one thing. But, if we begin to gain a sufficient understanding of ourselves and our future, do we also become obliged to try to alter it – and us? And if so, what model will tell us precisely what “better” looks like?
Philip K Dick posed an extreme example of this thinking in his 1956 story The Minority Report (later reworked as a Tom Cruise film), where a special police unit arrests murderers before they commit their crimes. This kind of predictive analysis will likely remain in the realms of science fiction, but the exponential growth of technology and data presents us with ever a practical version of Dick’s central question: given a certain level of information about our futures, how far and how fast are we obliged to intervene? Or, if we happen to be conducting a presidential campaign, how decisively can we remould this future on everyone else’s behalf?
In its way, Asimov’s short story about voting is every bit as dystopian as Dick’s. It concludes on a rousing note of patriotism from its protagonist, Norman Muller – his country’s one and only voter. “In this imperfect world, the sovereign citizens of the first and greatest Electronic Democracy had... through him!... exercised once again its free, untrammelled franchise.”
Electronic Democracy is, in this case, an oxymoron: the point at which modelling has entirely supplanted the reality it purports to represent. A society like this remains pure science fiction. From a certain angle, though, the gleeful advance of predictive and persuasive science can seem like a sincere effort to build it.