What if…and the “Robot-Readable World”

This will be the first of hopefully many “What if” journal posts. My goal is to link to an article that I found interesting as a potential jumping-off point for a story. I’ll link to it, summarize it, and start asking “what if” questions. Hopefully, people will post responses, and a conversation about the ideas raised in the article or my extrapolations can develop over time. In the future, these sorts of posts will always begin with “What if…and,” so you can skip them if you don’t like them. And in the future, I don’t think these posts will be as long, but bear with me on this one–there’s a lot to unpack here.

The first article is Matt Jones’s “The Robot-Readable World,” found here. It’s a long article, stitched together from various presentations, and it’s rich with links to related materials, but it’s a very interesting read.

Jones discusses the implications of switching from machines designed to receive input from a human (either through typing or using a stylus and trackpad) to machines that are designed to see the world on their own. In other words, the machines can take in and describe reality for themselves, instead of going through a human’s perception of reality.

Of course, humans are limited by our own sensory devices (our eyes can only see a limited spectrum of light, for example), whereas machines can see the world using a variety of inputs. This leads to a world where multiple layers of reality can exist simultaneously. Jones uses a wonderfully illustrative video clip that demonstrates how we see flowers based on the visible spectrum of light, whereas bees use see completely different flowers because they use another part of the spectrum: UV light.

The article gets interesting when it begins to explore the implications of how humans and machines will interact with these different layers. For example, Jones mentions clothing with QR codes built in that can be worn by celebrities so that paparazzi will pass along the celebrities’ messages with every photo containing the QR code. Jones also mentions how devices will become hybridized, able to be seen and interacted with by both humans and machines, but because of different reasons.

We’ve seen a little bit of this in Cory Doctorow’s (@doctorow) novel, LITTLE BROTHER, where a young boy uses gravel in his boots to confuse a network’s gait analysis to ID humans in a crowd. In the movie MINORITY REPORT, characters’ irises are scanned in order to target advertisements and for identification, leading to a black market in eyeballs. In William Gibson’s (@GreatDismal) novel, ZERO HISTORY, dazzle camouflage is used to defeat facial recognition software.

What if networks of these seeing machines are put in place? What would the world look like, if the system is for security, or if it is for advertising? How will humans and machines use the systems? How will humans and machines exploit or abuse the systems? What if one system was blinded so that the other system must be employed? What if an “arms race” between systems developed either to attack or defend more effectively?

What if, in the next version of the London riots, dazzle cammouflage is used widely by rioters to defeat CCTV facial recognition? Will humans have to pour over hours of footage instead? What if augmented reality programs were used by rioters to signal one another, like a modern day hobo code? What if the cops used those signals to plant Trojan horses or false messages with rioters? What if thieves defeated the machines’ reality through technology and the human reality through social engineering? What if each person carried a device that could recognize faces in the room and prompt you with that person’s name, job, and other information relevant for the social or business situation? What if advertisers (or some other group) create images that are attractive/confusing/threatening to both humans and machines? What if machines developed a layer to reality that was independent of human designers, leading to the development of a machine culture, or used to end humanity’s?

I hope you found some of these ideas interesting or provocative. Let me know what ideas you came up with.

P.S. Mentioned in Jones’s article is the comic book “SVK” by Warren Ellis (@warrenellis). It’s a little pricey compared to your typical comic, but it’s a very unique item, and the story does overlap a little with the ideas discussed here. I highly recommend getting a copy, which you can do here. That isn’t a plug–I don’t get any revenue–I just liked the comic.