(Originally published on Medium, December 10th, 2014)
Social media is bending space and time, and blending people with machines.
In the past, when we went on holidays, we’d be out of touch for a long period of time, til we returned with photographic proof of our travels. Now, with social media, even as geographic distances separate us, it is weird not to be in touch, with detail, constantly. Because we are now so busy, Google have now developed an app?—?Stories?—?to sift through all those photographs and videos to automatically create a coherent narrative for us. Now we don’t even have to think about our social selves any more…
I was thinking about this when I saw the latest tweet from the account of the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Mission.
Today [8 Dec] I’m 525 million km from Earth, 421 million km from the Sun & 20 km from #67P. One way signal time to Earth = 29min 11 secs
— ESA Rosetta Mission (@ESA_Rosetta) December 8, 2014
Did anyone care that it was nearly two years before data came back from Voyager 2, in 1979? But today the public expects to have a Twitter account constantly updating on the space probe’s activity. More to the point, people interact with it. Sure, they know it’s a social media account for a robot, managed by people, but people tweet at it like it’s any other account, with a sentient being behind it.
@ESA_Rosetta Fabulous! Keep up the good work! — Ron Baalke (@RonBaalke) December 10, 2014
The exemplar of this anthromorphisation?—?projecting human characteristics onto something which isn’t human?—?came when the Mars Curiosity Rover sang itself Happy Birthday.
Of course, this is sheer bloody-minded marketing?—?to make the public (and specifically children) emotionally connected with and interested in hugely expensive interplanetary escapades?—?but this has deep cultural effects.
[Hey, I don’t even need to write the rest of this post, I could just embed the rest of my tweets…]
Sci-fi has been trying to frighten us for years with the idea that some day robots will ‘become conscious’ and start either demanding human rights or trying to destroy us. There is a strong argument that it isn’t possible to model consciousness, so we should really stop worrying about that entirely.
But there is something else happening, which is a lot more interesting culturally. While we may never have conscious robots, what we will have is robots that we treat as human. Have another look at the replies to the Rosetta mission robot…
We are automating our social lives and socialising with our automatons. The singularity is over.