As with most technological revolutions, a great leap in benefiting society can also create a new platform to threaten it. Traditional automobiles bring both easy travel and deadly pollution; social media helps to connect people by selling their data to the highest bidder; the internet enables seemingly instant content gathering, including illegal content. The point being, disaster scenarios often arise when technological progression acts faster than the institutions who regulate it.
1) Long live the rich
First up in our list of disaster scenarios is the class divide problem. A common among many societies is that the poorest members often find themselves unable to live healthy lives or ever afford some of the luxuries that many Westerners see as common. Historically, though, they eventually meet the same fate as everyone else on this planet: death. Often given the great title of ‘the great equaliser’, death has been something nobody has been able to overcome. However, as is clear from ‘digital immortality‘, death needn’t affect us forever.
‘How does this tie into class?’ you may wonder. Well, if immortality has a price, it would probably have a high price. The top percentages of society would easily be able to afford it, the middle percentages may have to be extra smart with their financial lives, but for most of them and the poorest percentiles, their labours would bear no fruit, metaphorically speaking. With immortality being almost exclusively for the rich and the vast majority being left to suffer, a stronger glass ceiling would form than has ever existed. Disaster scenarios such as this only act to breed an ‘us vs them’ mentality, which in turn breeds civil unrest and riots. Unfortunately, for our biological freedom fighters, it is a fight they would doubtlessly lose unless they unleash an even bigger threat: superintelligent AI.
2) Copied cognition
In concise terms, when a person’s brain is uploaded, their cognition is stored in a digital form. This data, like any file, can be copied an unlimited number of times, which is necessary to maintain the ‘immortality’ part of digital immortality. However, in the hands of the average Joe, this would be more than problematic.
Part 1: Too many ‘me’s
In such disaster scenarios, we can consider when a person creates self copies for recreational reasons. Following the activation of said copies, there would be a plurality of digital people all claiming the same identity. Anything that defined the original person would be shared in the mind of the copies. There would be no private information, such as a PIN, password, security question or location kept from the copies. As such, any of the copies could extract money from the original person’s bank account, close the account and put the money into a new account. This wouldn’t be identity theft in the traditional sense as the identity assigned to the copy would be identical to the original person.
Building on this, if one copy were to commit a crime, who is liable? As it stands, the system relies on the sense of the individual. If Mr Smith kills his boss, Mr Smith is arrested, trialled and sent to prison. However, if there are multiple Mr Smiths, all with the same identity, appearance and metadata, which one, if any, do you imprison? This dilemma can only be solved in two ways: the unjust imprisonment of innocent people or a complete overhaul of the entire system. To be unjust is easy but a systematic change carries so much baggage and compromise. Without individuals, you cannot have fair votes and cannot have fair democracy, which we will come back to.
Part 2: The unstoppable force
Aside from civil disobedience and confusion, there is also a more direct danger to come from self-copying. Provided someone has access to the resources required to manufacture artificial robotic bodies, there is no technological reason why they couldn’t make as many as they want. This could get so extreme, to the point where people could literally print an army. With access to their own private militia, who knows what people would do? Now, if a terrorist regime was ever low on soldiers, they could quite easily replicate the ones they have many times over, without having to deal with training, supply lines or bad hygiene.
3) The exploitable backdoor
Typically in the internet world, a backdoor is a way to gain access to a product or service not available through the normal user experience. Backdoor ‘keys’ often grant the holder access to decryption keys, file privileges and diagnostic tools. However, as with all things, if you leave your keys lying around, anyone with the right skills and motivation can copy them. Conceivably, if a company or government organisation created such backdoors, hackers could find a way in. The existence of backdoors would already be a huge privacy failure, as we’ll talk about in disaster scenario 4, but access to backdoors in the arms of anonymous hackers with hidden agendas could be even more concerning.
Many disaster scenarios can be imagined from this point. In one case, a particularly controversial leader may be hacked by hacktivists and subsequently exposed in some way. Beyond this, said leader could even be controlled, either through suggestions the person believes are their own or directly like a puppet. Moving further, the same thing could happen to a group of individuals. A politically motivated hacker group could, supposedly, artificially create a race war and then use it to oppress specific ethnic groups. This particular scenario may make more sense for a neural lace disaster scenario as digital beings wouldn’t necessarily have a ‘race’. Overall, with direct access to anyone and everyone’s digital existence, there is a hell of a lot that a motivated hacker could achieve.
4) 1984, version 2
We have just talked about how hackers could achieve practically anything feasible they wanted. However, as alluded to, this needn’t be by hackers. Anyone with backdoor access could do such things and that is no less true of government. Whether by paranoia, greed, malice or foolishness, governments can and would order the insertion of thought trackers into every one of their digital being citizens. They could even make such trackers a necessary component to the function of the digital brain. At this point, with full control of everyone, things like thought crime would likely become the biggest crime in the world. Trackers might also be implanted by other governments and shared in a Five Eyes style spy network. The only way to completely protect yourself from such a system would be to constantly live in a Faraday cage, routing all internet traffic through a direct proxy operating system which anonymises all of your traffic.
5) The death of democracy
The death of democracy is something I’ve talked about in considerable depth before. In short terms, due to copied cognition, brain hacking and the loss of the ‘individual’, democracy may no longer be able to exist in a fair manner. Personally, I see this scenario as being so extremely likely that the question becomes ‘when will it happen?’. Unlike movie series like ‘The Purge’ would have you believe, law and order don’t disappear as soon as the government disappears. Most people will still want stable leadership, which is where the case for alternative systems comes in. One such viable solution is a benevolent dictatorship, with the dictator having no backdoor whatsoever. However, a system like this places a lot of trust in one person and the ease with which that person could abuse trust is palpable. Indeed, finding a better system than democracy not reliant upon its subjects would be a harder challenge than most could even imagine.
6) DIY Matrix
Lastly on our list of potential disaster scenarios is a ‘do-it-yourself Matrix‘. This scenario is more philosophical debatable as it asks the question of whether or not happiness is the only thing we should go after. In our Matrix, life would be idealistic, free from suffering and entirely imaginative. If a person wanted to play a simulated reality version of Minecraft, Soma or even Pacman, they could. All of this sounds wonderful, and for the large part it is, but it’s perhaps too wonderful. In comparison to a near-perfect simulation, reality is boring, painful and tedious. Large swathes of people would ditch the real world to live entirely as 1s and 0s in their own Matrix. Innovation would be dead, societal progression would be null, any kind of advancement would simply not exist. We would think we were in some sort of heaven, only we would actually be imprisoned by choice, chasing after artificial goals. We would have solved all of life’s problems by ceasing to have a real life. Truly, we will have built our own Matrix.