You’re living the last technological revolution right now. In fact, you’re probably reading this on it — your smartphone. It wasn’t that long ago that it didn’t exist. And it really wasn’t that long ago when only business people had them for work (remember Crackberries?). Before that it was the PC.
Most of us knew these things existed and maybe we wanted one, but it seemed like they were just out of reach. Until they weren’t. Then we all got one.
Well, we’re on the precipice of another one of those technological moments, but this time it’ll be with VR (virtual reality) and AI (artificial reality). Most people I talk to seem to have no idea about this, so let me see if I can paint the picture of how close we are to having both of these in our living rooms (or strapped to our faces), and then talk a little bit about why it’s important to know.
How close we are to VR
“Imagine 10 years ago trying to envision the way we use cellphones today. It’s impossible. That’s the promise VR has today.”
That’s Matthew Schnipper writing for The Verge, probably the biggest tech and gadget site online these days. That’s a huge claim when you think about the complete revolution of the iPhone and subsequent smartphones back in 2007. Our world has fundamentally shifted since then. Now, information is immediate. Boredom is outdated. And connection is endless.
And the biggest companies in the world know how close we are to VR entering into the mainstream. Facebook is betting $2 billion dollars on its Oculus Rift. Google just launched its Daydream View headset along with its new Pixel phones. Then there’s the HTC Vive, Playstation VR for the upcoming Playstation 4, Microsoft Hololens, and on it goes. Apple, noticeably absent from the above list, is surely going to release a VR headset or something similar in the near future. The iPhone 7’s powerful camera is poised to take VR into most of our pockets.
With names like that pushing this technology as hard and fast as they are, it’s only a matter of time before we all have one laying around in our tech drawers. It’s still a bit of an open playing field when it comes to exactly which kinds of devices will usher in the VR era, but at this point the shift is imminent.
C.T. Casberg wrote a great piece for Christianity Today recently on this, saying,
“VR is set to go from a niche tech-curiosity to a living room staple. Despite some initial hiccups, some Wall Street analysts project that by 2020 VR will reach between $20 billion and $40 billion in sales. One VR developer I spoke with noted that some projections have the virtual reality industry becoming larger than the current film, music, and videogame industries combined. While that falls on the more optimistic side of predictions, it speaks to the tremendous expectations of just how far VR is poised to go.
And that’s just VR. AI is another revolution happening right alongside it.
How close we are to AI
Artificial intelligence (AI) is nothing new. What is new is how good it is. And make no mistake, it is good. I know, Siri almost never understands you, but Apple is behind in this area. Google and Amazon currently lead the way. Instead of getting bogged down here, let’s zoom out a little bit and see the bigger picture of what’s going on.
AI is in your smartphone and most of its apps. AI tells you when to leave for your meeting based on the traffic. It tells you the weather for tomorrow. It runs Google Translate.
AI is what makes Amazon’s Echo, Google’s Home, and other devices like them work. I received an Echo for Christmas, and the thing is downright magical. It’s one of the few devices that makes you feel like you’re living in the future. Now when there’s a house full of kids and every toy in the house is out, I can simply say, “Alexa, play ‘The Clean Up Song’!” and little hands and feet spring to action.
But it isn’t simply my looking up a song to play that’s being automated by AI. It goes much deeper than that. In a recent article for Backchannel Sandra Upson wrote,
“To visit the front lines of the great AI takeover is to observe machine learning systems routinely drubbing humans in narrow, circumscribed domains. This year, many of the most visible contestants in AI’s face-off with humanity have emerged from Google. In March, the world’s top Go player weathered a humbling defeat against DeepMind’s AlphaGo. Researchers at DeepMind also produced a system that can lip-read videos with an accuracy that leaves humans in the dust. A few weeks ago, Google computer scientists working with medical researchers reported an algorithm that can detect diabetic retinopathy in images of the eye as well as an ophthalmologist can. It’s an early step toward a goal many companies are now chasing: to assist doctors by automating the analysis of medical scans.
Also this fall, Microsoft unveiled a system that can transcribe human speech with greater accuracy than professional stenographers. Speech recognition is the basis of systems like Cortana, Alexa, and Siri, and matching human performance in this task has been a goal for decades. For Microsoft chief speech scientist XD Huang, ‘It’s personally almost like a dream come true after 30 years.'”
To give you a sense of the power of what’s going on here, you have to understand that the reason for AI’s recent success is something called deep learning (which is what’s going on with Google’s Deep Mind project, if you’ve heard of that). Deep learning, as Upson writes, “is the reason we’re on the brink of a more general intelligence.” Here’s what that looked like in the case of Google’s overhaul of its Translation service, as Upson reports:
This neural net had taught itself a rudimentary new skill using indirect information. It had hardly studied Portuguese-to-Spanish translation, and yet here it was, acing the job. Somewhere in the system’s guts, the authors seemed to see signs of a shared essence of words, a gist of meaning.
Whereas AI used to require massive amounts of human input on the front end, this is now changing to where that processing of raw information and learning is able to be done by computers.
While AI drives our devices, it’s also close to driving some of our workforce. And if you think that’s alarmist, read through the White House report that starts off like this,
“It is to be expected that machines will continue to reach and exceed human performance on more and more tasks.”
Translation: the White House expects lots of people to lose their jobs soon because their tasks will be able to be completed by AI.
Why we should care
As Casberg’s article mentioned above reasons, we should first care because of ubiquity. VR and AI are simply going to be a part of the fabric of our world, so to remain in the dark is simply not helpful. As Casberg went on to say,
“We are shaped by more than our life experiences. Our media, whether television, film, or literature, also shapes us, and under the right circumstances, can help us become more Christlike. VR is now poised to join the ranks of traditional forms of media, and we must be aware of its potential.”
As parents, citizens, and particularly Christ-followers, we should have a sense of what these digital tools are and know how they affect and change the world around us. What most interests me as we approach this new world is that last part — how Christ-followers come to terms with VR and AI.
They both present interesting challenges and opportunities. For instance, VR headsets will at the very same time make it possible for you to experience simulated sex, or be immersed in a poverty-stricken country where you can empathize with the people living there. AI will automate some historically difficult tasks, and at the same time deprive millions of the only work they know how to do. And churches will begin to use VR as a way to experience their services as a fully immersive replacement to internet campuses (Life.Church has already released this in beta).
Perhaps more than anything, Christians must wrestle with what it means to have an immersive experience available in each person’s home when their Holy Book calls them to meet together in homes, not forsake meeting with one another, and expresses something unique about a Savior that chose to be incarnated as a human in the flesh. Perhaps we’ll wrestle with some of that here.
But for now, prepare yourself for the road ahead. It will surely be an interesting one.