Thursday, September 15, 2005

A g e O f T h e L i t t l e B r o t h e r

When George Orwell wrote his novel 1984, he was talking about how political systems (specifically totalitarian regimes) could bring about a disaster in the human values and human relationships in a society. But uncannily, this novel has an import to our modern times and how technology is shaping our modern society.

I have discovered this nasty joke about two years ago, while I was chit-chatting with Gokce, a friend of mine.

"So have you decided what you want to work on ? "
"I don't know. I think I'll work in computer vision."
"So you will be working for the big brother.. ;-) ?"
"eh !!?"
"The big brother as in the novel 1984. You will be helping him."

Then I understood; Computer Vision deals with pattern analysis in visual imagery. In other words, the development of tools for monitoring and surveillance of people. Till then, I haven't looked at this research as helping big brother. But it is true.

As I thought about it, I had come to notice that everything in Computer Science can be divided into either big brother research or little brother research. But this is inevitable and this is the future of our science.

My first story in this blog : Shashka's Town was inspired from this futuristic world of technological slavery.

I have written the following article for my college magazine, about three semesters ago. And the magazine has not come out since then !!! The Mag Team is busy snoring and lest I forget about this article completely, I will post it in this blog. The article reads a little like doomsday-news, but please bear with it ! I wanted my debutant article to be a bit on the sensational side :-)

A g e O f T h e L i t t l e B r o t h e r

Few people realize the absurdity of times that we are moving into. The society in which we grew up is rapidly disappearing. After another ten years, we will be battling a completely different kind of life. This will be the time when our generation takes up the mantle of social and familial obligations, and we will be totally unprepared.

The last century witnessed prolific writing in science fiction, and some trends for the later 50 to 100 years have been brilliantly predicted. But today, the pace of scientific change is so rapid that the moment you utter something, it already throws itself onto your face. In this article, I want to talk about the convergence of virtual reality and communication engineering. This will potentially change every aspect of life as we know it. I am not sure whether that will be for the better or for the worse.

"The big brother is watching you !!". Admirers of George Orwell will remember this scary line from the 1984, his celebrated novel about the ramifications of a totalitarian regime (brought in by a communist revolution). But needless of a mismanaged social revolution, that world is becoming a reality for all of us, thanks to the technological revolution.

Today is the day of cheap hard discs and small cameras. Tomorrow will be the day of much cheaper hard discs and much smaller cameras. What this means is that any moment you move or say something, you might be recorded - possibly without your notice, possibly from multiple cameras. And quite possibly telecasted to several Peeping Toms sitting leisurely at remote corners of the world. Not to mention the insecure Peeping Toms leering at you in the neighborhood. The people with maximum insecurity always happen to sit in the seat of the government, and they will be watching you as well.

This itself is scary for privacy advocates (and girls !). But there is a catch, there will be humongous amounts of data amongst the video footage captured from the cameras. The sheer size of the video makes the task of detecting interesting activity (whatever interesting might mean) impractical. Now enter the fields of pattern recognition, data mining and object recognition.

Is it any strange that the people who do research in these areas are the blue-eyed boys of Defence and FBI ? I am not exaggerating when I say that all the funds towards this research are generated from Defence budget, for applications such as monitoring passengers in railway trains or observing transcripts in chat rooms. In the post 9-11 world, every government is demanding this license to observe people in public places, sometimes even in private places. So I want to throw a word of caution to all the young researchers of these fields. Watch yourself or you might be helping the big brother.

Now let me quickly announce that the researchers working in the rest of the areas in computer science are spared no less. They are unconsciously heping in creating a bigger evil - the little brother, who is also currently known by the name of cell phone. Soon this instrument will mature into an omni-communicator and omni-computer. The omniphone (let's call it little-brother from now on) will help you watch unlimited movies, browse the entire world wide web (or semantic-web in the future) and do video-chat for ridiculously low prices. The address book in the little brother will no longer resemble the address-book of the cell phones, but will be in the likes of a GPS-enabled Friendster or a GPS-enabled Orkut. In addition to voice and pictures, the little brother shall relay the remaining 3 senses - smell, touch and taste. Research towards telepresence in these areas is being undertaken in a huge way by several research labs in Japan. In this age of the little brother, people will have to rethink about the basic definitions of ethics, psychology and economics.

Would you rejoice at the birth of the little brother ? As for me, well, I am pretty scared. Even by today, I spot 30% of human beings glued to their cell-phones instead of talking with people physically next to them. Just watch around you and check for the validity of the 30% law yourself. Give another 10 years, and I fear 90% of all communication shall be mediated through the little brother. People might find it unnecessary to physically attend universities or work in offices. Most of the people will not excercise and find themselves turning into vegetables. Even intimate relationships such as those between a mother and a child and those between a wife and a husband will be mediated through the little brother. I am not talking about communication as in speaking, but even as in touch and smell !!!

Gone shall be the days when there was an excitement in coming across and meeting new people. All the people that you shall meet in in your life-time will be in the database of the little brother, and this database can be looked up at any time. Gone shall be the days when there was fun in visiting new places. Clicking through a destination in the virtual world will be much cheaper and much more rewarding. Gone shall be the days when there was a lot of variety in culture. In the world of tomorrow, the Americans will be no different from the Chinese and the Indians will be no different from the Germans. Everyone will speak the same language, access the same pool of entertainment, and who knows, might even eat the same food ! Everyone will become the same unidentifiable vegetable. And gone shall be the days when there was a sense of adventure in lives.

Please note that all this happens in our own lifetimes.

Is this the end of Homo Sapiens as a species ?

IMO, I would mark the end at that point in time when virtual cyber sex becomes more cost effective and more enjoyable than real sex.


Rajan said...

Hey RedPill,

This is a wonderful post. I particularly like the idea

I have'nt read the 1984 novel yet, just know the basic ideas in it.( Someday I will read it , long pending in my ToRead List :) )

Kudos it is very well drafted , here are some of my initial takes on it. At 20,000 feet level/view the opinion is that the thoughts here mirrors/discusses the idea of cyberpunk era. I think society or science fiction for that matter has mnoved past that era and now we have what is called the beginning of post-cyberpunk era. Check out Neal Stephenson,

What was predicted in 1984 . Bladerunner or other such seminals which were created by Orwell, Sterling, Philip.K.Dick and ilk(of the cyberpunk movement ) did not much happen twenty years later now. Things rather did not take
very nasty turn ( Or so do we think , does it smell like a conspiracy theory:) ) in the society.

At 5,000 feet view, the little brother (that was a fantastic coinage of the term) is something that I have been thinking & working on a lot for quite some time now.

Ofcourse as like any other technologies this one also has its
ills like voyeurism, privacy that you mentioned but according to the data that I have it is growing exponentially ( my gut feel is that it is going to be a combinatorial growth I am just waiting for more data to support to that hypothesis).

From a systemic PoV , if there is a resistance for any 'order'the resistance gains momentum and sort of reaches a self sustainable equilibirium but the data that I am getting is not indicating any such stuff. It is combinatorial growth :) , which means the benefits that people realize from this far far outwieghs the negative aspects.

At a ground level, which should get in face to face to discuss this more as I have been thinking a lot on VR, communication, Computer Vision and little brother :) .

Btw I thought that already Virtual Cyber sex was more cost effective with latest gadgets that creative people around the world come up with. ( Have you not been catching up issues of Wired ?? )
I am not sure about the enjoyable part though :)

Btw 1984 always conjuers up in my mind the famous 1984 Apple Ad.( One of the best Ads of the last century). You must check it out if you have'nt already.

Kiran said...

Thanks for the comments rajan :) I haven't heard of Neal Stephenson yet !! Would like to get hold of a book of him.

Your argument about systemic PoV is also very convincing. But I think resistance to the use of cellphones is slowly building up. Currently, you cannot use cellphones (or even skype/yahoo for that matter) in schools and in several workplaces of the software industry. The schools in Hyd have banned it on the heals of the notorious DPS MMS incidant.

I think more people will be bothered by the cell when high bandwidth web browsing becomes commonplace. When stuff like force feedback is incorporated, god knows what will happen !! I have already started to hear nasty news items about females finding alternate uses for the vibro mode of their cells.

I havent been following the Wired magazine either. I will go peek in the library if I can get a glimpse of it.

Kiran (dhol) said...

too good man..have read about such things in many magazines but the way you presented is very interesting..