The Future is Here: The Airport Virtual Assistant

You ever walk into a Walmart, look at the greeter and think to yourself, “I bet a hologram could do that guy’s job.” Yeah, I’m guessing probably not, huh? But in all seriousness, these individuals and other members of the service industry may find themselves being declared redundant pretty soon. Thanks to the introduction of the AVA (Airport Virtual Assistant) by airportONE, the job of being the happy, smiling face that people see when they arrive and leave and get their helpful info from may soon be filled by a virtual lady. That’s right, holograms are taking our jobs!

Already, the technology has been installed in three major New York City Airports, including La Guardia, Newark, and JFK. Washington Dulles and Boston Logan are following suit, and expect to have theirs up and running soon. At present, the capabilities of the AVA are limited to reciting a 90 second loop of general airport information to anyone looking for guidance. However, airportONE is looking to expand on that by adding voice-recognition software and a fully interactive program which can answer people’s questions. They also plan to make future versions multilingual so that they can assist international travelers.

According to the company’s own promotional material, which isn’t creepy at all, the benefits of this technology are obvious:

“She works 24 hours a day, seven days a week and doesn’t charge for overtime. She never gets sick and doesn’t require a background check.”

Isn’t that exactly what Mr. Dyson, the guy who built Skynet, said in Terminator 2? Anyone remember how that out? And according to airportONE, plans are underway to create new and different models that can be used in hospitals, business offices, stores and museums. Very soon, the entire service industry could be outsourced once more… to a land of microchips and directed photons.

So far, reaction to the AVA has been a bit mixed. But I can imagine what the folks at South Park have to say about this act of technological outsourcing!

Immortality Is On The Way!

William Gibson must get a kick out of news items like these. According to a recent article over at IO9, it seems that an entrepreneur named Dmitry Itskova and a team of Russian scientists are developing a project that could render humans immortal by the year 2045, after a fashion. According to the plan, which is called the 2045 Initiative, they hope to create a fully functional, holographic avatar of a human being.

At the core of this avatar will be an artificial brain containing all the thoughts, memories, and emotions of the person being simulated. Given the advancements in the field of computer technology, which includes the Google Neural Net, the team estimates that it won’t be long before a construct can be made which can store the sum total of a human’s mind.

If this concept sounds familiar, then chances are you’ve been reading either from Gibson’s Sprawl Trilogy or Ray Kurzweil’s wishlist. Intrinsic to the former’s cyberpunk novels and the latter’s futurist predictions is the concept of people being able to merge their intelligence with machines for the sake of preserving their very essence for all time. Men like Kurzweil want this technology because it will ensure them the ability to live forever, while novelists like Gibson predicted that this would be something the mega-rich alone would have access to.

Which brings me to another aspect of this project. It seems that Itskova has gone to great lengths to secure investment capital to realize this dream. This included an open letter to roughly the world’s 1226 wealthiest citizens, everybody on Forbes Magazine’s list of the world’s richest people, offering them a chance to invest and make their mark on history. If any of them have already chosen to invest, it’s pretty obvious why. Being so rich and powerful, they can’t be too crazy about the idea of dying. In addition, the process isn’t likely to come cheap. Hence, if and when the technology is realized, the world’s richest people will be the first to create avatars of themselves.

No indication of when the technology will be commercially viable for say, the rest of us. But the team has provided a helpful infographic of when the project’s various steps will be realized (see above). The dates are a little flexible, but they anticipate that they will be able to create a robotic copy of a human body (i.e. an android) within three to eight years. In eight to thirteen, they would be able to build a robotic body capable of housing a brain. By eighteen to twenty-three, a robotic humanoid with a mechanical brain that can house human memories will be realizable. And last, and most impressive, will be a holographic program that is capable of preserving a person’s memories and neural patterns (aka. their personality) indefinitely.

You have to admit, this kind of technology raises an awful lot of questions. For one, there’s the inevitable social consequences of it. If the wealthiest citizens in the world are never going to die, what becomes of their spoiled children? Do they no longer inherit their parent’s wealth, or simply live on forever as they do? And won’t this cramp this style, knowing that mommy and daddy are living forever in the box next to theirs?

What’s more, if there’s no generational turn-over, won’t this effect the whole nature and culture of wealth? It is, by its very nature, something which is passed on from generation to generation, ensuring the creation of elites and their influence over society. In this scenario, the same people are likely to exert influence generation after generation, wielding a sort of power which is virtually godlike.

And let’s not forget the immense spiritual and existential implications! Does technology like this disprove the concept of the immortal soul, or its very transcendent nature? If the human personality can be reduced to a connectome, which can in turn be digitized and stored, then what room is left for the soul? Or, alternately, if the soul really does exist, won’t people who partake in this experiment be committing the ultimate sin?

All stuff to ponder as the project either approaches realization or falls flat on its face, leaving such matters for future generations to ponder. In the meantime, we shouldn’t worry to much. As this century progresses and technology grows, we will have plenty of other chances to desecrate the soul. And given the advance of overpopulation and climate change, odds are we’ll be dying off before any of those plans reach fruition. Always look on the bright side, as they say 😉

The Future is Here: Tupac and the Magic Hologram

Somewhere in Vancouver, William Gibson must be smiling smugly to himself. Less than an hour ago, yours truly – usually the last to hear about recent events in pop culture – was made aware that Tupac, through the magic of a holographic projector, made a comeback appearance at Coachella. This, naturally, triggered a massive reaction on twitter and just about every other form of social media. One can expect that this will add a whole lot of impetus to the conspiracy theory that states that Tupac is still alive and releasing albums that contain clues that he faked his death. In fact, there are already sites going up that are claiming that this act wasn’t an act. But for the most part, no one was fooled.

Not that they were meant to be. The hologram, despite the advanced technology behind it and the obvious skills of the technicians, looked very much like a hologram.

From the side, it looked 2-dimensional, was pretty translucent, and when it moved, the feet seemed to disappear for a few seconds at a time. But what was astounding was just how interactive the hologram was. Performing alongside headliners Dr. Dre, Eminem and Snoop Dogg, the hologram not only performed some of Tupac’s greatest hits with these veteran rappers, it also interacted with the crowd and seemed to be saying things that weren’t taken from old footage. This would imply that the hologram was not simply a recording, but a dynamic thing that the techs had programmed to act like the real-life version. Pretty cool huh?

Of course, I mention William Gibson because it was he who predicted this sort of thing. In his 1996 post-cyberpunk novel Idoru, Gibson wrote about the growing popularity of digital personalities in Japan. Apparently, they have many renditions of the Tupac hologram there, virtual beings who sing, dance, and even go on tour – which is apparently what the Tupac hologram will doing in the near future! But Gibson’s novel went beyond by dealing with a hologram that had achieved sentience. Due to advances in the realm of AI, the Idoru had developed a mind of its own, and was therefore looking for a normal life.

This sort of thing is often explored in science fiction, the line between artifice and real, but usually in the form or robots or cyborgs. But this takes it to a whole new level! Let’s face it, there’s something inherently eerie about holograms isn’t there? Beings of light with no physical presence, they appear as angels or ghosts, which is surely what the techs at Coachella were going for. If they can become real, in the sense that they have independent thoughts and actions, well… who knows? The line won’t be blurred, it will disappear entirely!

Update: Just about every piece of footage from the concert has been pulled due to copyright issues. But here’s a clip from Jimmy Kimmel live where they show a clip or two: