I know that among the most popular posts I have done to date are those on future gender. On the day Facebook introduces dozens of genders to pick from, here is the gender section of my book You Tomorrow 2nd Edition. Be warned, this is nearly 16,000 words. If you don’t like the format here, buy the book! If you were going to buy it just for the gender section, you still can, but I’m also happy for you to have it here for free. I was never going to get rich from it anyway.
Part 2: Gender, love, dating, sex and marriage
Gender is a fascinating subject. Humans are advanced animals, and their brains and accumulated culture add to what nature bequeaths to most creatures. Humans routinely add virtualisation, abstraction, compartmentalisation, multi-dimensionalism, and parallelism of gender when they are in virtual worlds, dream-space and social media.
What new options will there be for physical gender?
Natural sexuality uses just two sexes but it doesn’t have to be that way. In the 1990s, engineers studied the numbers of sexes that should be used in genetic algorithms (a method of engineering using random mutations on ‘genes’, which are typically options for algorithms, and fitness testing, loosely based on Darwinian evolution). They found that the optimal number of sexes averages between 2 and 3. Two works fine, but 3 would have been a bit better, and there could even have been 4 or more. Two sexes isn’t optimal from an evolutionary perspective, but it is fit for purpose and that is all nature needs. To paraphrase Peter Cochrane, maybe we don’t have six genders in nature because the chances of six people getting together at once without any of them having a headache is minimal.
There aren’t commonly adopted names for any additional genders yet. Sure, we have male, female, neuter and hermaphrodite and lots of intersex variants, a few of which do have names, but that is just one physical dimension and even so, there is some overlap among the names, and disagreement and confusion as to their precise meaning. When we start to add extra genders, there will be far more possible combinations.
Birth gender is determined mostly by genes. Usually, two X chromosomes make a girl, and an X and Y create a boy. Even then, things can go wrong and some competitive sports issues have been raised in recent years by mismatches between chromosomal state and physical appearance, resulting in arguments over the gender of a winner and their consequential right to have competed in that event. It is possible to have X and Y or two Xs and a Y and yet be born with an apparently female body.
Humans treat sex as a recreational and social activity as well as a reproductive one. Some future genders may be involved in reproductive processes and some may not. Some associated activities may generate sexual pleasure, others may not. Some genders could have roles as ‘bridges’ between two or more other genders, not directly providing any of the genes for future offspring, but involved as a necessary link in the reproductive process, as simple carriers, or genetic filters or processors. Regardless of the biological simplicity or complexity of the role, the organs, gender identity, social roles, rituals, and so on are essentially orthogonal dimensions, so could be designed pretty independently. The timelines for different types would not necessarily be similar, and designs could evolve over time. Obviously, making a new gender capable of reproduction is more difficult than just creating a few new cosmetic features, especially ones that aren’t deeply woven into the sensory or emotional or sexual response systems.
Adding new reproduction-capable genders or sexes will presumably require synthetic biology to create new genes, as well as a great deal of imagination and creativity to decide what gonads, genitals, other organs and sexual features to add. There is little point in speculating yet what they would look like, because it is a completely open space for creativity and experimentation. Suppose as well as an X or Y, we were to add A, B, C… and Z chromosomes to carry the genes for them. They would need designed to achieve the features desired, but engineers will be able to do that in due course. We don’t yet understand how to design DNA to achieve particular features, but it is only a matter of time before we will. We will also one day be able to make DNA alternatives so won’t be limited by its capabilities. Physics and biology certainly allow it, the market will demand it, and engineers will build it.
There are different ways of proceeding. We could end up with 3 or more chromosomes, or we could just modify existing ones to incorporate modified genes. Maybe only one type of cell is affected, or a few, or maybe all. Synthetic biology is a relatively open design space. However, we choose to do the bio-engineering, by the end of this century, there could be a range of biological sexes to add to male and female. We will still have neuter, male, female, and hermaphrodite, but also gender A, B, C, …, multi-gender, hybrid genders, and so on ad-infinitum. People may be able to pick any blend of them for their offspring. Instead of two genders and a few mutations, we will have lots.
Creating new types of sex organs and associated mating practices is one thing, but the whole of sexuality could be redesigned at the same time. These new sexes may interact in completely new ways. There will be arguments over whether some should be classed as new species since not all will be able to interbreed with traditional humans.
New gender roles, identities and erotic preferences would all need to be designed and engineered. It would be possible to engineer what makes attractiveness to a particular type of person of a particular gender. This isn’t all new; sci-fi writers have included inter-species relationships for decades, though they have generally stuck with traditional male and female in each species. But at least they have got as far as working out some attractive features and rituals, for Klingons at least. Where there is a big gap is in the scope for many genders being involved in an interaction, rather than the traditional one or two. We will one day have gender designers and engineers working with sociologists, neuroscientists and many other disciplines to come up with new genders, roles, practices, rituals and attractiveness design.
Change of physical gender today involves a lot of pain and mental stress, and isn’t something undertaken lightly. Even after all that, biotechnology still can’t offer a full chromosomal change and cosmetic surgery can only accomplish so much, so the changes are limited to outward appearance, organ reassignment and hormonal medication. Results vary considerably in achieving a convincing change. Perhaps one day, if much hyped nano-medicine ever achieves its full potential, a full chromosomal retrofit and body reshaping may be possible so that the person becomes as they would have been had they been born their chosen gender.
If future technology can do all that, then it can probably also achieve pretty much any design of body desired, so gender change may be just one option in a long selection of major body redesigns, well behind youth restoration in the popularity contest. In the extreme, an average looking middle aged man may be able to change into an attractive young woman. It need not be permanent; they could change back, though I wouldn’t expect much of a queue of attractive young women wanting to become middle aged men. It is unlikely that it will become easy any time soon to change gender physically, so however much it may appeal to some as a concept, frequent recreational gender changing of their physical body is unlikely. It will still be something people do once at most.
Neural linking of external technology
Many people use gadgets in sex. Although there are a variety of ways to create stimulation, electronic stimulators hint at what the future offers. Electrodes apply variable voltages and frequencies into relevant parts. In the next decade or two, active skin will use electronics printed directly on to the skin surface, along with some that penetrates deep into the skin to connect to nerve endings, enabling recording and replaying of sensations. It can then be expected that the sophistication, capability and personalisation of sex devices will increase dramatically. A range of strap-ons, harnesses, sheaths and plugs will exist that not only create intense sexual stimulation, but do so from a library of recorded experiences, or indeed those downloaded from others. Future porn may well include recorded experiences from or with other people, and of course just like conventional porn, these could be enhanced with the neural equivalents of Photoshop. Further in the future, when we understand the brain better, and can engineer direct links into it, it may be that areas of some people’s brains may be modified or taught to treat the sensations from these devices as if they were truly part of their bodies.
This reopens the scope for gender modification. It may be possible for a woman using a future strap-on to feel as if it were an actual part of her, getting sensations from it that were previously exclusive to men. Or it might create a totally new kind of sensation. This is the most likely starting point for another class of gender modification. Toys could be added to an otherwise conventional body and linked into the nervous system and/or brain so well that they allow true full-sensory transgender play. They could also be added alongside other sexual organs and sensations or, by perhaps using TMS-based signal attenuation, they could displace the original sex sensations.
By generating another dimension in gender play, toys greatly increases the scope for gender fluidity. When mixed with multiple genders, the scope increases still further. The person wearing the device may well experience a convincing change in gender from a purely sensory point of view, but their outward appearance to another person would still be that of someone of original gender wearing a device. Outward appearance matters, so a convincing visual change to match the assumed gender could be done in parallel using augmented reality. Unlike permanent transgender operations, toys can be attached and detached at will, allowing people to oscillate freely among genders, opening the door to recreational gender change. They will allow a high level of sensory immersion in a different gender. Their use and popularity is evidenced by the high level of recreational gender change that already exists in virtual worlds.
Virtual gender change
Virtual worlds are often used for computer games and for socialising, often combining both in role-play, exploration of new places, cultures and experiences and experimentation. People role-play different genders frequently in computer games and social virtual worlds and the experience can vary across a broad spectrum from totally detached and 3rd party to fully immersive. Sometimes, people may compartmentalise the experience, so they remain fully their normal gender in their real life while playing as another in a game or in a virtual world. Or they might become fully immersed in the role and feel as if they are the other gender for a while. Over prolonged sessions, their gender identity may blur somewhat.
In gaming, people generally play as a character, such as a soldier or superhero, a wizard or alien. They explore worlds that range from totally fantasy to those based on real places and real life. Sometimes, games give a choice of character, and often people will play as a character of different gender to themselves. Men often play as female characters even if they don’t have any transgender intent. The standard justification is that they since they are looking at the world through a viewpoint just behind their character, they would rather look for the next 30 hours at an attractive female rear than a male one. Of course, it may also just be fun playing at being female for a while and then the role play can become a superficial gender change experience. Women gamers would find it hard to avoid having to play as a male character occasionally, since many games are designed with only male playable characters. Either way, games are a simple and painless way of exploring another gender superficially.
Virtual worlds and social networking
Such gender changing becomes a step more real once the game allows interaction with other people. This may still be in the context of a game or role play, but a wider spectrum of role play is possible with other real humans than there is with computer code.
In a game, a real person hides behind their online gamer persona, which then hides behind the game character’s avatar. There is still little social risk since the game offers the excuse to play, but the degree of immersion into the other gender is consequently limited too. When the game becomes primarily a social networking world, such as World of Warcraft or Second Life, the player is psychologically closer to their avatar and their immersion in the gender of their avatar is more real. The deliberate choice of their avatar’s gender and name at the outset creates an extra level of buy-in. Players in these environments are self-representing in a way that a computer game character isn’t. Choosing a different gender from their normal self is an act of minor but nevertheless deliberate deception. In spite of that, though some people may present in their normal gender, the temptation to try out a different gender at least once is irresistible to most people. About three quarters of people in virtual worlds and chat rooms have tried presenting as a different gender and some do so very often.
When they present as a different gender, the player must then consider not only what they look like to themselves on the screen, but how they present themselves to others and how they are seen. They also have to consider their personality, and the degree to which they modify that to support their virtual gender change. The level of association with the avatar varies from person to person and from time to time, but the result is that virtual gender play varies all the way from frivolous to deeply immersive and self-absorbing in way that the person genuinely feels themselves to be the presented gender.
It seems reasonable to assert that although playing a different gendered character in a computer game isn’t always gender play, doing so in an online social context probably always is, even if it is temporary and far less committing than full gender reassignment. By being forced to interact personally rather than just hitting buttons on a controller, the buy-in crosses the boundary.
Before looking at the future of this, we need to mention filters. We see the world, other people and even ourselves through a series of filters. Reality TV is based in large part on the huge gulf that can occur between the image someone thinks they project and what is perceived by the viewer as reality. These are at least as important in gender play too.
Since people generally haven’t any actual experience of fully being another gender, they can only experience their virtual trans-gender through context-specific filters. When presenting to other people as a different gender in a virtual world, several of these filters come into play and they add another dimension and also errors.
Firstly, the superficial gender that is presented means different things to different people – beyond agreeing on genitalia, we don’t all share exactly the same prejudices about what being male or female really means. People build up a picture in real life of how it must feel to be another gender and can play to that image, but they have no way of benchmarking that with real life feeling.
Secondly, no-one knows exactly how a particular image would be perceived by another. All they can do is to use their interactions with others as feedback on how convincing they may be.
Thirdly, even given an image that someone wants to project, there is another error in the actual presentation of it – there isn’t a perfect feedback system that lets someone see accurately how others perceive what they think they are projecting.
Fourthly, there may be a fetishist bias to project an image that appeals to the tastes and fetishes of the person changing gender themselves. In such cases, the outward superficial appearance is what matters most to the person, together with the acting out of a fantasy, rather than the actual immersion in the other gender.
So there are errors in presentation, interpretation and difference of meaning, and the experience of gender change may be diluted by other accompanying role plays.
In a social networking role-play or chat environment, although a person initially sees someone else in their presented gender, they will probably be familiar with gender mismatches so they won’t necessarily accept it at face value. They may know the person’s real gender, they may believe it only to a point, or they may realise they are presenting an alternative one. Gender play is so common online that few people really care about it unless they are planning sex. It is a lightweight way of experiencing gender play with others, but the lower threshold for gender acceptance online also means that the reality of the experience is reduced, since people don’t necessarily treat others as they would someone whose gender they are sure of.
Virtual worlds ought to be where we might expect new genders to emerge first, because the major barriers preventing them in the real world don’t exist, the only real limits are those of culture and imagination. Future virtual worlds will have better graphics, full 3D immersion and eventually sensory recording and replay. The quality of communication with others and the quality of shared experiences in 3D realistic environments and situations will increase proportionately. These will make them suited to a more immersive exploration of the other gender too, and will increase the overall feeling of reality of the experience.
Given the potential, the lack of new genders on virtual worlds is interesting. People are certainly enthusiastic about experimenting. Changing into robots, drones, monsters, animals, furries, aliens, dolls, and even objects is commonplace, as is swapping between traditional genders. But apart from male, female, neuter and some shemale variants, there conspicuously aren’t any other genders. This could be just a failure of collective imagination, or it may simply reflect the fact that people come from an existing state with its associated sexual preferences, and are therefore drawn to these options.
Thanks to these filters, the degree of reality of gender changing experiences available in virtual worlds is highly variable, both to the person undergoing the gender change and to other people interacting with them. Adding future technology increases the potential sensory quality, but won’t necessarily change the social assumptions or trust. If the gender changing is just fetishist self-voyeurism or role play, then that may not matter much, but if the intent is to pass as the other gender then it would matter more.
Interaction in virtual worlds today is often just via text chat and animations, but voice changing technology is starting to be used to pretend in a little more depth. As this improves in quality, it may allow people to pass as an alternative gender more easily and convincingly. Avatars can be made to look any way, and they will improve in quality over time too. They will become full 3D and some virtual worlds may become fairly convincing replicas of real life. Artificial intelligence can also play a part, acting as a real time gender coach and filter, changing the outward presentation of a gender by altering or enhancing mannerisms, gestures and other body language, use of verbal language, such as choice of words, phrases, style, subject matter, the lengths of sentences and other clues to gender. At that point we will really start to see crossover of the technology into other forms of chat, with webcams able to change video image, conversational style and content and voice in real time to allow people to pass in real life chat situations as another gender. Some may do so only in social interactions; others may use it for work too.
In chat rooms, ever since they started, some people have presented as different genders, so anyone’s friends lists will include some people whose real gender they know for certain, some they know for certain are gender-bending, and some in between, where there are varying levels of suspicion that they may not really be their presented gender. Virtual worlds added more play potential, and webcams with image and voice changing technology will soon increase it further still. Soon, thanks to the trend of working from home, we may not know the genders of the people with whom we are working.
Not being sure of the genders of all of your friends is not new, but it also isn’t ubiquitous. Many people have never used a chat room or virtual world, so have no first-hand experience of gender confusion. No doubt some people would consider it to be a social problem if people frequently present as another gender from time to time, others will feel perfectly comfortable with it.
Compartmentalising and acting
Humans are skilled at presenting filtered or enhanced views of themselves to others. We talk of wearing a shield or a mask. We all do it all the time, at work and socially, presenting edited personas to different groups. Some people are very good at it and become actors. The acting profession is a good point to look for gender insight. Actors often complain that people treat them as if they were the character they play, which shows that for some people, the line between fiction and reality can sometimes get blurred. Presumably, that would make it easier for them to take people’s presented gender at face value and perhaps not even consider whether it may be faked.
Another clue from acting is that actors sometimes practise for a role by immersing themselves in the character’s situation, so that they can begin to identify with it more closely and play the role more naturally. In essence they are deliberately blurring the lines of their own fiction and reality, or at least part of it.
From birth, we start registering differences between male and female. Each of us forms a unique view of how it is to be our own gender and how it might feel to be another. If we want to act as a member of another gender, that is the prejudice we have to start from. To improve on that, pre-op transgender people usually live part or full time in the guise of the other gender, just as actors may live in their character, and the gender reassignment surgery usually follows a lengthy period of such living, since it isn’t properly reversible, yet. This ensures that the person feels comfortable in their new gender before their final commitment. They will experience others’ reactions to themselves but may also feel differently while in the other gender. The playing of the new role is important because it changes how someone feels inside, not just how they look outside.
Recreational gender changing is temporary in nature and therefore lends itself more to compartmentalising rather than essentially practising a new life. Again, like acting, someone knows who they ‘really’ are, but allocates a sub-mind-set to play their role. Someone presenting themselves as another gender in a chat room or virtual world is likely compartmentalising. They probably have a normal everyday life as one gender, but play-act with a particular mind-set in their chat room role.
There isn’t a limit on how many roles someone can act. In everyday life, we all have dozens of slightly different personas to cover all the different social groups we belong to. In chat rooms and virtual worlds, people often have several alternative personas, or alts. Some people use over twenty. That is easy to understand, but what is surprising is that they manage successfully to use several at the same time. They may even have one of their alts apparently chatting to other ones so that they can maintain the pretence. This requires a degree of skill to keep them all separate and prevent others from suspecting. But it is exactly that skill that also allows someone to compartmentalise gender. People may have some alts in one gender and some in another. Some may flip between them. They use the appropriate gender filters to present each one according to circumstance.
Such compartmentalisation skill is common, and shows that some people will be adept at doing so with future genders too. They will have to juggle lots of roles, with the associated memory and behaviours, and they will do so in games, chat rooms, social networking sites, virtual worlds, and augmented reality overlays, and in a wide variety of everyday business and social interactions, but they will have AI to help them translate body and verbal language between them, handle all their avatars, and even act in their place or alongside when they are not sufficiently present. We can expect gender to become even more blurred and dynamic as recreational gender play becomes more powerful and immersive.
Purely voyeuristic gender play
People may choose to swap gender for a variety of reasons. Men often choose a female version of the hero in computer games, so that they can look at an attractive woman rather than a man. They are acting female for purely voyeuristic reasons, not as a means of gender experimentation. Similarly in virtual worlds, people may choose an alternative gender for the avatar simply so that they can look at them or watch them act out a role in a fantasy. This is very different from wanting to be that gender. However, someone else may do exactly the same things to try and experience being that gender. It is the intent that is important, not the act. Intent governs the degree of association with that gender.
Dreams are related to games and virtual worlds. They share some of the same mental emulation of a perceived reality, albeit in dreams the emulator is heavily distorted and filtered. Some people sometimes dream of themselves in another gender. It may feature as a central part of the dream storyline, perhaps that somehow they have been transformed, or it may be that they just happen to be that gender, or it may be purely incidental, not particularly relevant to the storyline. Or it may be a way of indulging in aspirational gender change for someone who has transgender thoughts. In lucid dreams, it can even be a form of recreational gender change.
We will soon be able to choose what we dream of, and link our dreams to those of other people. Gender play in dreams may then become as common as it already is in virtual worlds.
Augmented reality could use a variety of displays, including goggles or active contact lenses. Contact lenses have the advantage of being under the eyelids so the images can be seen even when eyes are closed. During dreams, feedback from brain signals could be used to direct the selection of imagery produced in the lenses, enhancing dreams and allowing them to be linked with those of other people. This is closer than you may imagine.
Even today it is possible to pick up clues as to the images the person is seeing, and this could link into programming in an augmented reality system to generate additional appropriate imagery. We are all familiar with building external sound into dreams, and we should expect that augmented reality images could also be used by our brains. So if programs are designed well, they could use the topic detected from the sleeper as an input to search utilities, then playing appropriate media to enhance or even guide the dreamer. This would allow some element of choice before sleep, where the person could pick dreams from a menu, and have a good chance of experiencing them. Gender could be one of the choices of course. It will also be possible to link people’s dreams together, provided they are both in a dream state at the same time. Detecting signals from each one and feeding in appropriate augmented reality to each, they could be guided along converging paths until their dreams overlap. Then they would be able to interact with each other in the dreams using nerve signals to directly control the dream ‘avatar’ in the other person’s dream. Ongoing development of thought recognition should enable such dreams not only to be gently guided but also recorded.
Dreams feel more immersive and real than computer games so gender play in them may be more significant in some ways. Habitually dreaming as another gender may have long term effects on waking state too.
In contrast to voyeuristic play, someone may genuinely aspire to be another gender or to adopt some of its characteristics. They may want the full transgender (TG) package, or may want to pick and mix from their picture of the traits on offer, TG-light if you will. There are very many variants of this. Physically, there are lots of combinations of surgical and hormonal changes, as well as simple use of cosmetics. There are also many variations of feminised, camp or tomboyish behaviour, which may result from natural, environmental or medical use of hormones, exposure to cultural pressures or from deliberate personal choice. Pick and mix gender is illustrated in typical online sissy play, where a basket of cherry-picked feminine attributes and behaviours are assembled while retaining some underlying masculinity. This falls short of the full gender change play that also happens in virtual worlds. The outlets in virtual worlds allow people to indulge many behaviours they associate with another gender safely, and they can do so openly or hidden as they wish. The result is a rich mixture of variations of the two standard genders.
Some people strongly feel that they are the wrong gender in their real life and some badly enough to go through the trauma of surgical reassignment, but there are many more who would change if they could do so easily and painlessly, and probably even more who would choose to be another gender if they were able to live their life again or reincarnate. The social barriers to changing are currently high, as are the physical ones, but that doesn’t necessarily reduce the latent aspiration to change gender. Technologies that allow this in part while avoiding negative social issues would cater to these latent gender changers and thus be relatively popular since they allow at least some of the frustrated aspirations to be achieved.
Empathetic gender play
Compartmentalising allows people to assume multiple parallel threads of behaviour and present different genders or gender-related traits to different groups even at the same time. The personal psychological costs and difficulty associated with this would vary between individuals but if it is easy for someone, they may do it a lot. Even without any particular desire to change, they may simply find it easier to empathise with another person by assuming their gender during the encounter. It may be such casual gender changing would happen for other reasons too.
Gender as an art form
I’ve always found it fascinating as a technologist and engineer how the first users of new technological breakthroughs are so often artists. As we mess around increasingly with genetics, it can only be a while before we see the first artistic exploration of gender creation. I wouldn’t know where to start predicting what artists will do with it, I’ve already mentioned most of the available dimensions. Part of the fun of art is the surprise when it happens. Let’s wait and see.
Blurring of gender identity
That raises the question of degree to which someone’s psychological gender identity can blur as a result of frequent recreational gender play. If someone puts effort into presenting as another gender for significant periods, running the appropriate emulators alongside the normal ones, it is inevitable that they will gradually adopt some of what they consider to be the attitudes of the other gender, and some behaviour will cross over into their other compartments. The various models all have to access some of the same underlying thinking and control processes – they can’t all be duplicated and kept separate – so the appropriate neural circuitry and skills will change accordingly. This must be especially so in areas not shielded from outsiders, the ones people don’t think of as particularly visible or gender-relevant, because they are less careful to keep them in separate compartments. Over time, their gender identity will inevitably blur. This may make them more accepting and tolerant of the other gender, but if they are frequent recreational gender changers, acceptance of other genders is unlikely to have been an issue in the first place.
Augmented reality implications
Augmented reality offers more scope for change and adds still more new dimensions to gender play. AR allows computer generated images and data to be overlaid onto the field of view. This started off with simple text and symbols on smart-phone screens, but the idea space is over 20 years old now, and only the technology is holding back realisation. Early visors offer better realisations but will quickly evolve into a fully immersive overlay capability where the uses can selectively overlay or replace real world images with computer generate ones. So, virtual architecture may modify the appearance of buildings or streets, virtual fauna and flora will decorate them, and people can be cosmetically enhanced or simply replaced by avatars. That means a user could make all the ugly people look prettier, replace them with images of their favourite celebrities, or just delete them from the field of view (though some mechanism is needed to prevent collisions when they are physically close).
There are a number of choices that will make it interesting to watch as it emerges. Who will control how one person sees another? Will it be the viewer, or the person being seen, or some third party such as an application or service provider? Can someone assert their chosen edited appearance on the viewer, and can they do so differently for each group of potential viewers, or tailor how they appear to the context and specifics of that interaction? Does the viewer get to choose between an avatar and a real life image, or perhaps an edited one, or an alternative avatar, or a cosmetically enhanced appearance, or is that also decided by the person being seen? If the viewer has control, can they also choose the gender of the other people they see? Can the person being seen assert their chosen gender, and hide their real one from the image production system? Should there be a right to see how someone else is visualising you, or even how they are visualising others, and if so, under what circumstances? Should the police be able to check that your visualisation of someone else isn’t demeaning or insulting, or a race crime? Should your use of overlays be forced to be recorded in case it needs to be policed in future?
Obviously, these choices give a lot of options for potential gender interactions. As well as gender, images could also show people with different ages, races, even species, or as an object, as someone else, or as a group of people, or show a group as an individual. Someone playing a character in a computer game or virtual world may find it fun to use that same character avatar on the high street. A full AR replacement of people in the street could be a very different world to live in.
There would be some social pressure on application providers to prevent too much abuse of such systems, but also some demands from minority groups to protect their specific interests. It seems reasonable that a transgendered person or a transvestite should have the right to present themselves as their chosen gender. Since someone may be just exploring gender options prior to considering becoming transgendered, that right would also need to extend to casual recreational gender change. But that only requires that their original gender be concealed from the viewer or system. It doesn’t prevent the viewer from replacing or modifying what they see. They could still replace any stranger’s image with a customised one of their own choosing, and it isn’t necessary to know anything about a stranger to do so. It is possible to protect transgender rights while still allowing viewers to choose how they modify the world they see.
Augmented reality also allows people to select and apply components of how they (or an application provider) believe other genders might feel by changing the appearance of the world to that ideal. Certain parts of images may be enhanced or dulled to reflect their perceived relative importance. A crude example may be feminising a scene by adding flowers or children or female oriented ads. Hopefully, the reality would be a little more sophisticated.
Each of us may have a wide variety of avatars, and may have invested time and money making or buying them. Someone may emit a digital aura, hoping to present different avatars to different passers-by according to their profiles. They may want to look younger or thinner or as a character they enjoy playing in a computer game. They may even present a selection of options. However, people may choose not to see that avatar, but instead to superimpose one of their own choosing. This will be one of the first and most obvious battles in AR and it will probably be won by the viewer (there may be exceptions, and these may be imposed by regulations). The other person will probably decide how they want to see you, regardless of your preferences. Someone could spend a great deal of time making an avatar or tweaking virtual make-up to perfection, but if someone wants to see Lady Gaga walking past instead of them, they will. A stranger’s body becomes just a passing platform on which to display any avatar or image someone else chooses. People are quite literally reduced to an object in the AR world. Those with concerns over objectification of women will not like what AR will bring.
Firstly they may just take an actual physical appearance (via a video camera built into their visor for example) and digitally change it, so that it is still definitely still the target person, but now dressed more nicely, or dressed in sexy lingerie, or how they might look naked, body-fitting any images from a porn site or very possibly from real naked photos of that person that are available somewhere online. This could easily be done automatically in real time using an app, and the app could use the person’s actual face as input to image matching search engines to find the most plausible naked lookalikes. So anyone could digitally dress or undress anyone, not just with their eyes, but with a hi-res visor using sophisticated software and image processing software. They could put anyone in any kind of outfit, change their skin colour or make-up, and make them look as pretty and glamorous or as slutty as they want. The victim won’t have any idea what someone looking at them is seeing. They simply won’t know whether they are being treated with respect, flattered, made to look even prettier, or being digitally stripped or degraded.
A superimposed avatar could be anything or anyone, a zombie, favourite actress or supermodel. Viewers probably won’t need consent and the victim probably won’t have any idea what the viewer is seeing. The avatar would probably need to make the same gestures and movements as the real person to avoid physical collisions but that might be the only constraint. In some ways replacement by another avatar won’t be so bad. People are still reduced to objects but at least then it wouldn’t be that particular individual that they’re looking at naked.
Even today, most strangers we pass on a high street are just moving obstacles to avoid bumping into anyway. We aren’t usually interested in them all. Most people will cope with that bit. It is when interaction starts that it starts to matter. Many people won’t enjoy it if someone is chatting to them but looking at someone else entirely, especially if they are a friend or partner. Kissing one person while looking at someone else would be a breach of trust. This sort of thing could and probably will damage a lot of relationships. It’s a fairly safe bet that the software to do some or all of this is already in development. Maybe some of it already exists in primitive forms but it will develop quickly once decent AR display technology is really with us. We already have primitive visors arriving in the market.
In the office, in the home, when you’re shopping or at a party, people won’t have any idea what or who someone else is seeing when they look at them. The main casualty will be trust. It will make us question how much we trust each of our friends and colleagues and acquaintances. It will build walls. People will often become suspicious of others, not just strangers but friends and colleagues. Some people will become fearful. People may dress as primly as they like, but if the viewer sees them in a slutty outfit, perhaps their behaviour and attitudes will be governed by that rather than reality. So there could be an increase in sexual assault or rape. Women especially may more often be objectified, in more circumstances. Many men objectify women already. In the future AR world they’ll be able to do so far more effectively without everyone knowing.
Augmented reality gender accessories
It is possible to use virtual sex accessories as well as real ones. An augmented reality strap-on or vibrator may look similar to a real one, but of course wouldn’t have the same physical presence and the same goes for any other imagined accessory for any future gender. If a virtual accessory is to have anything more than a symbolic presence in role play, it needs somehow to connect into the nervous system or at least to be able to create some sort of sensation. Linking a virtual accessory to the peripheral nervous system can be done via active skin, pressure pads, smart gloves or data suits. In the far future it may be possible link directly into the brain. There are lots of options.
The potential to make augmented reality accessories that can be associated with real sensations and take a real part in gender–related practices allows new genders to come into play long before they are possible to make genetically.
However, we must ask just how ‘real’ such genders would be. The people using such virtual appliances may take part in interesting experiences, but their original body and original gender remains intact unless they undertake further action.
It is possible to have original sexual equipment disconnected or removed, and to use the augmented reality devices instead. It may also be possible to block or attenuate the sensations from them at the brain using derivatives of trans-cranial magnetic stimulation or some future signal blocking means. With this associated physical gender reassignment, augmented reality would offer a proper means of gender change with fewer traumas.
Once we start linking to the peripheral nervous system, we can dissociate the physical acts causing a stimulus from the sensation experienced. Though frivolous ridiculous, it is possible to create intense sexual sensation or even orgasm just by typing a capital O on a keyboard, or by any other action. The existing nervous system is limited in its scope though, and it would be better to be able to map sensations onto new areas of the brain. Thanks to research and development on tools to help disabled people interpret the world around them, we know that the brain is able to accept stimuli and learn to interpret and experience them over time. This again offers scope for new genders before we get to building them genetically.
Science fiction regularly uses the concept of symbionts, organisms that share bodies, where one acts as a host or carrier for the other in a symbiotic relationship, though of course it could equally be parasitic or commensalistic. This sort of thing could extend to gender too, where two distinct characters interact, share or overlap in such ways that they form a gender together. Separately they may have no gender or hold a different one, but when linked together they generate a new distinct gender.
The question arises as to how far this concept could be taken. In principle, quite far. One group could participate in a number of distinct genders depending how they combine with other groups. Three or more could combine. They could have some physical, some neural, and some virtual links. With many different ways of connecting and sharing sensations, emotions and thoughts, with many combinations of organism and indeed synthetic organisms or AIs, the idea space is huge.
Forced gender change
Some people have fantasies or nightmares of forced gender change. In the real world, this is a relatively rare event (I assume that a few people enslaved in the sex trade have suffered forced gender change, but have no idea how widespread a problem that is) but in virtual worlds, forced gender change happens quite a lot. Of course, the victim may secretly want it to happen, and deliberately get themselves into a situation where it is a likely outcome, so would enjoy no-fault recreational gender change while pushing the blame onto someone else. That is at least semi-consensual. But often, virtual world gender change is genuinely forced on an unwilling victim. As a part of role play or a game forfeit, and temporary, it may be reluctantly accepted, but if it is permanent or long-lived within that virtual world, then that might be very different. In such a case, it could have more severe consequences.
Widely different degrees of reality and immersion are possible in virtual worlds. If someone is forced into a different gender even in a virtual world and can’t revert for some reason, maybe having their identity irrevocably locked to that gender, then they would simply have to get used to it, or leave that virtual world. This could extend to some augmented reality applications, again with varying degrees of immersion and realism.
It wouldn’t necessarily be possible to create a new identity to escape and the social costs of leaving entirely might make accepting the new gender the lesser of two evils. That might well be the case where a world insists on locking a real identity to just a single virtual one, for example as a result of pressure to deal with bullying.
A closely related problem is that if someone voluntarily assumes a different gender in a virtual world for a significant time, they may accumulate valued relationships that would be damaged if they were to change to their real gender, so again the costs of reverting would be unacceptable and they are effectively locked in their presented gender.
Since there is so much gender play in virtual environments, I suspect this is not likely to be a major issue overall, but it still could be for particular individuals or relationships. Although less likely than in socialising virtual worlds, it is possible that employees in geographically spread virtual companies could present to some or all of their colleagues as an alternative gender than their reality, and reverting could potentially thus come at a career cost. Video and voice changing technologies will make such pretence easier and perhaps more common. Fiction has many examples of people presenting in a different gender to colleagues for professional reasons. The spread of freelancing and virtual companies makes it more likely, and the potential lock-in would follow.
So gender forcing is already here, albeit mainly virtually. The magnitude of the problems would presumably simply scale with the degree and intensity of recreational gender play, since other forcing issues would correlate highly with this too.
Environmental and cultural feminisation
Many studies over the last several decades have shown endocrine disruptors (which mimic the behaviour of oestrogens) in the environment causing feminisation in insects, fish, amphibians, birds, reptiles and mammals. Such chemicals come from plastics, packaging, pesticides, cleaning products and even shampoo and the linings of tin cans. In extreme cases, polluted rivers have seen 100% of male fish (e.g. Roach) becoming hermaphrodite. Effects are generally greater in the young.
Humans are animals too, and although there may not normally be enough exposure to human endocrine disruptors in our everyday environment to cause adult men to actually change into women, again there do appear to be significant effects, especially on such things as sperm counts, breast development and testicular cancer rates. Sperm counts have fallen dramatically over the last few decades. In the womb, effects are potentially far greater. Mothers are routinely exposed during pregnancy to endocrine disrupters such as phthalates from household cleaning and perfume products, plastics, and food wrappings. Their male children can therefore be subjected to strong chemical feminising pressures that may restrict their normal masculine development. In 2007, the Arctic Measurement and Assessment Program found twice as many girls as boys being born due to levels of chemicals in the blood of pregnant women there that were high enough to cause gender change. In Japan too, fewer boys are being born. Ongoing exposure of boys to such chemicals through their early and teenage life can make the effects greater. Recent studies have shown more feminising chemical exposure comes from the fire protection used in soft furnishings and from electronics. Those chemicals apparently block the actions of enzymes the male body uses to block the effects of oestrogen. As a result of this chemical exposure, boys may still grow up healthy, but possibly with a more feminised personality and sexuality, with reduced fertility.
Surprisingly perhaps, the effects on humans have not had much study. We are certainly using more and more chemicals in our everyday lives – more hygiene and cleaning products, more processed foods, more packaging, more plastics generally. Exposure to human endocrine disruptors is already high and problems will escalate if unborn babies and younger generations with greater vulnerability are exposed to relatively higher exposures of endocrine disruptors.
The impact on our culture is important too. If men are becoming involuntarily feminised, we will gradually lose the contributions of one end of the masculinity spectrum. Gender lines will blur further. Evidentially, it does seem that men are already showing their feminine sides far more than used to be the norm. Perhaps metrosexuals are in increasing abundance because of fashion and cultural exposure, or perhaps it is because of chemicals changing their preferences, or perhaps a combination. More men cry now; there are more gay and bisexual men than before; more teenage boys want gender changes than before. These trends arise from a complex combination of factors, but if the overall feminisation is due in part to chemical exposure, then perhaps that is a problem that should be addressed, or increasing exposure in future might cause further feminisation and further erosion of masculinity.
Some people might think that feminisation is a good thing, but notions of equality suggest that masculinity deserves as much preservation as much as femininity. Male, female, inter-gender and transgender people all make diverse contributions to overall society and culture, but gender should surely not be dictated by pollution and we should limit involuntary exposure to chemicals that cause feminisation.
Society in the past has flourished when women and men were both able to indulge their natures. Both have valuable contributions to make. The ways men behave and think and react and emote (or not) should be valued and preserved as well as other genders and behaviours. In particular, a disproportionate contribution in invention and technology development has come from men, and if feminisation increases, we may see progress change direction towards those areas that are traditionally favoured by female scientists and engineers and a slide away from those areas favoured by men.
If the cultural and chemical effects on men created pressure in opposite directions, they might cancel to some degree, but they don’t. They both create feminising pressure and if these twin pressures persist as they have in recent years, we will end up with a highly feminised society. The feminised end of the male spectrum is growing, but that is at the expense of traditional masculinity. In the gender spectrum, one end of the male part is becoming fainter while the other intensifies.
Sue Palmer argued in her book ‘21st Century Boys’ that the natural behaviour of teenage boys is being blocked, with no acceptable outlet thanks to impacts of feminism and marketing. Western society is now one where only feminine behaviour is accepted without question, and almost every aspect of masculinity is regularly condemned. Teenage boys are essentially blocked by social attitudes from contact with adult men and have no means of learning by example from good male role models. The UK and US education systems have been restructured to favour the ways girls learn. Boys are punished and put down in the playground if they dare to behave as boys traditionally do.
Adult men also have been under strong social and media pressure to feminise for decades. It simply isn’t fashionable to be a man today. Male behaviour is ridiculed routinely throughout the media, especially in advertising, with men often portrayed as cavemen and idiots in a world of highly evolved and intelligent women. Men are encouraged to explore and show their feminine sides. Selection of participants in reality TV shows and in presenting roles greatly favours feminised and gay or bisexual men to fill the male half. Women have significantly greater legal rights than men. In the workplace, women and gay men are heavily protected and given positive discrimination at the expense of straight men.
So as environmental chemical exposure creates biological feminising pressure, society also deliberately oppresses traditional masculinity. The long term consequences of ongoing anti-masculinity pressure need to be addressed. Do we really want a world with only women and feminised men? Surely masculinity deserves to be preserved too?
How many genders can you count?
Most people would initially count male and female, and quickly recall others such as shemale (ladyboy) and hermaphrodite, but there are already a lot more combinations. Assuming many different degrees of casualness, immersion, and commitment, virtualisation, parallelism and multi-threading of gender play, on top of many different states and combinations of physical, hormonal and psychological base, there are already hundreds of possible gender states. This number will grow markedly as we add new dimensions for experimentation. Each extra dimension would include several possible states, so the far future will certainly contain thousands of potential variations. The future of gender is a very diverse one!
Recognising male and female sides
While equality as a nice vague term is something everyone seems to agree is a good thing, the nice ideal and its practical implementation are different things. European Commission sex equality laws on pensions and car insurance now state that women and men must now be charged the same, even though that means they don’t receive the same value of risk covered for a given price. Generally speaking, women live longer, so receive pensions for longer, but they have fewer road accidents, so are insuring against a lower risk. In both cases it is now illegal to give men and women the same return on the same investment, and how much you get for your money now depends mainly on your sex.
This seems silly. It can’t be discriminatory for men and women to be charged different amounts for different things. Instead, surely the law should ensure that they should be charged the same amount for the same things? If women are insuring against a given level of risk or buying a pension to last an expected number of years, they should be charged exactly the same for that product as a man buying the same insurance or expected length of pension. In similar form, women and men should also be paid exactly the same for the same piece of work done to the same quality. Legislating that everyone must be charged the same price or paid the same for the same product is a fairer approach than what we now have. That allows a wide range of factors to be fairly taken into account such as lifestyle, location, profession, genetics and so on.
Of course, sex is only one dimension of gender on which to level. Sexuality is another, with gay rights battles ongoing. A third dimension that needs levelling is gender identification and dysphoria. A few transgender issues are covered in the same legislation as gay rights but gender identification and presentation are very different from sexual preference and issues can easily get lost in discussions.
There has been some progress to protect transsexuals, who may now dress how they like at work without fear of discrimination. In some regions a post-op transsexual may have their legal documents such as passports and birth certificates amended to show their new sex. But there is more to gender identification and dysphoria than just transsexualism. Not everyone with gender dysphoria goes through a sex change operation. There is a wide range, from full post-op transsexuals at one end to occasional transvestites and gender-swapping computer-gamers or chat room participants at the other. Many of the latter wouldn’t even include themselves as having any gender dysphoria – cross-dressing or acting a different gender in a chat room or a game may leave them otherwise fully gender-aligned and many are otherwise fully heterosexual.
In spite of progress, some would-be transsexuals still feel locked in the closet, staying in their born sex even though they inwardly identify with another one. Their family situation, lifestyle, career or aversion to treatment (lengthy, traumatic, painful and expensive) may prevent them from having a truly free choice to swap. But should that stop them from having legal equality of recognition? It is obviously hard to give someone a different status if they can’t or won’t ask for it. But if a person can already change gender and have the legal right to be treated as a member of the newly adopted sex, then someone should also be able to get that same gender recognition without having to go through an operation or medical procedure. If someone feels a different gender inside than their physical body shows outside, they should be able to choose which legal status to have, with or without treatment or surgery. They should not even have to dress differently to qualify. That would be a potential line for future legislation.
If anyone can choose to have any gender legally, it would solve some problems and create some new ones. For example, in some gay and lesbian relationships, one partner adopts a female role and one a male role, and it would allow them to have that legally recognised if they wished. One of them could simply declare themselves female and one male.
Many of the potential problems relate to the duration and scope of the change. Does a gender change have to be permanent, or could you change back in a few years, or could you swap your legal gender every time you fill in a form? How many hoops do you have to jump through to get the legal gender you want? Would it be like the two years living as the other gender that currently is typically demanded before you can get treatment, or like the eight week wait for a new passport, or could you just tick any gender box any time you like with no procedures to follow or penalties for doing so? Can you simultaneously be male for insurance and female for child benefit or pension? Would all changing rooms and toilets have to become unisex? If someone identifies with a different gender character in a game or chat-room, should they be able to legally use that alternate identity elsewhere alongside their different real life one? Could two men get a civil partnership as lesbians?
There are many real issues mixed with a good many red herrings. For many people, gender dysphoria is clearly not as simple as being 100% male or female. They may feel one way outwardly and another inwardly and it may change from day to day, from situation to situation, and they may feel both genders at once or at a varying point on a grey scale. Gender can be a more volatile, dynamic and transient factor than it often appears. There is no sole, fixed or steady link between outward and inward gender. People may have a male and a female side at the same time and may express either or both or any combination at will.
If we want to make true equality of gender, we will have to reconcile laws with this fact. One way to do this is to make gender absolutely irrelevant in all laws, removing any and all references to gender. Another way to do this is to legally recognise everyone’s male and female sides, even if they don’t choose to recognise or express one of them. If everyone had an equally valid male and female legal identity all of the time, then the legal distinctions naturally disappear. I think this would be a good way forward, and would make everyone equal better than other approaches as well as eradicating some of the social barriers to free gender association.
This might actually reduce gender dysphoria too. Having a clear distinction between male and female forces people to choose an assignment for themselves and others. If that distinction is removed and everyone’s male and female sides are recognised, people may feel less dysphoric, there is no need to choose and the incentive to change reduces. Of course, not everyone thinks of themselves as having a male and female side. Having the right to doesn’t make it compulsory, so that should not be a problem.
We are left with one big problem though, and it is the one I initially highlighted. In general, women do actually have fewer accidents than men, and women do actually live longer. Short of forcing women to have car accidents and shooting them if they get too old, there isn’t a lot we can do to stop that, and I wouldn’t recommend that course of action. So we seem to be left with the initial incompatibility of equality in the cultural, legal world, and equality in the physical world. It reminds me of the problem highlighted in Monty Python’s ‘The Life of Brian’, where they are discussing gender equality and a man complains of being oppressed because he can’t have babies. He accepts that he can’t, he just wants the legal right to. That really does sum it up – life isn’t fair, and we aren’t equal, and the best we can hope for is legal equality.
But going back to pensions and insurance, it is perfectly possible to remove any references to gender in the law and still charge everyone for what they get. Each person has a particular personal risk, whether driving or possessing a combination of genes that indicate a particular probability of drawing pension for a particular duration. Calculating risks on a strictly personal basis using all relevant risk factors is fair.
People often flirt using networking sites, chat rooms, on-line games, via email and text messaging, even sexting. Most people have had some experience of electronically mediated flirting. People often say things in a text that they wouldn’t dare say face to face. They can squeeze in a little smiley or an LOL at the end of a message to test the water without any serious risk. Did that LOL really mean ‘lots of love’ or was it just a ‘lots of laughs’ or a ‘laughs out loud’? If the person plays along, they can safely proceed to the next level, sneaking in a little x at the end of the text. Ambiguity gives a welcome path of retreat without loss of face in case of rejection. More confident people may not need to bother with this gentle slope of course, and can just dive straight in, but for many people, electronic media provide a whole world of low risk flirtation.
Mobile devices let people send video clips and photos easily too, soon in 3d. Not far in the future, communications will even link into your nervous system to let you touch other people. Provided you have reasonable aim, directional messages will let you send a compliment to someone you fancy across the room, even without knowing who they are. Your personality badge will communicate automatically with the ones other people are wearing, electronically exchanging details of our personality, sexual preferences, availability, willingness, and maybe desperation level. Software will work out compatibility level, and if appropriate, alert both people that they should chat, maybe by beeping, vibrating, flashing lights, romantic music, vaporising perfume, or whatever. We might even be able to leave virtual pheromone trails in the digital air as we wander around, so that people can track each other down. I’ve often heard people remark that a difficult pursuit is half the fun, even if that’s not my personal experience. Well, it can be made as difficult as they like. A person could make themselves the prize at the end of a really tough treasure hunt, or detective game, where only potential suitors are even allowed to play at all.
Games environments and other online social places often use avatars, computer representations of the person inside the virtual world. In on-line flirtation, image can be quite important, but of course it doesn’t have to have any resemblance to the real thing. People can appear younger, slimmer, or prettier than in real life. Or less, if that’s what they want. As communications also moves towards a more visual experience, avatars will often be used in emails or even in video calls. People might spend considerable effort tweaking their image for the digital domain so that they project the desired effect. And they might tweak their expressions and mannerisms too, since the computer will have to simulate these in emails.
Artificial intelligence will also play a part in flirting in the future. If you have a number of flirty relationships, you might not have time to invest properly in each one, so AI could be essential to stand in for you when you can’t interact personally. You may be able to convey much of your personality to an AI, and it could then pass of as you sometimes. So you could get a lot more fun, with little extra personal effort. But I wonder how often we will then see AIs just flirting with each other. If neither of the people are available, or both have lost interest but just didn’t want to hurt the other person, their AIs could be flirting away madly in the background, with no-one watching. One day AI will overtake humans both intellectually and emotionally. Conscious machines will have their own relationships too. They will probably flirt with each other for their own purposes. And some will be designed to do jobs like marketing and sales, so will become proficient at flirting with humans too. I have no doubt that it is only a matter of time before people start falling in love with computer-based personalities.
Because people can browse through the people listed in dating sites, people can do this just for fun, even if they are in an existing relationship. However, a lot of relationships have existed for many years and were formed between people who met each other from a relatively small social pool. By contrast, dating sites can have millions of members, and since people can easily check several, it is relatively simple in principle to search through almost all available people for good matches. Statistically, it is almost inevitable that most people would be able to find potential partners who are much better suited to them than they originally found in their small social pool. Someone who happens to find a few very attractive and available people nearby who are looking for someone just like them might well be tempted. Certainly, it would make the threshold of tolerable problems in a relationship before people might consider leaving it. So we should expect a lot of people to ‘upgrade to a better model’. On the other hand, we should also expect that expectation will become higher, and that with so much choice available, there will be less willingness to commit to a single partner for a long time. Shopping around is normal for young people, but we might well see it much more in older people too. Indeed, perhaps this is what we are seeing no as an increase in the popularity of casual sex with strangers such as dogging.
So, we may find that dating sites reduce loneliness by helping people to find dates, but we may find the opposite, that people become too willing to engage in more superficial relationships in order to try out as many alternatives as possible, but at the expense of emotional involvement, commitment, and eventual happiness. In which case, loneliness would be expected to increase. Studies suggest that younger people are already less willing to make commitments. Differences between age groups will be very marked, but relationship strains are much more likely to cause break-ups across the age range as it becomes easier to shop around.
With all the new social networking sites and the innumerable ways of meeting new friends now, people have many contacts and friends, but still only the same human capacity to deal with them. This means that we have less time to allocate to each of our friends. As one consequence, we have more superficial relationships that are easier to jettison when new friends come along, when we move, or simply when we tire of people.
Way back in 1995 I invented what I called the ego badge, a device that would broadcast your personal information into the area around you wherever you go. Philips came up with a similar idea simultaneously and called theirs the Hot Badge. Anyway, other people’s badges would interact with yours as you passed each other and you would be introduced to them where your badges agreed it is appropriate. I later predicted that our mobile phones would do this, and that just by glancing at your mobile phone screen, you would be able to see where you friends are. It took a while before the mobile companies caught on, but the service was introduced partly in the late 90s as a niche mobile service for night clubs. Various other gadgets followed for introducing people at conferences depending on their personal profiles, seemingly rented out at high prices by their makers. But the idea that you’d be able to see when your friends are nearby failed to materialise until recently.
But now it has, at last. Now, with social media in widespread use, with profile matching well developed and also part of everyday life, and with the mobile web getting better all the time, the smart-phone is now becoming the platform of choice for social networking. The personality badge is actually become just another app integrated into a smartphone with quite a few app variations tapping into this same idea. Some apps and devices enable you to meet other people automatically or see who is around you, with a device cutting through the ice for you to enable easier networking. They also offer some functions for finding nearby services, but I am far more interested in the function that allows you to meet other people based on their profile as you pass them, as opposed to using a dating site at your desk.
This is bound to cause social disruption, some of it good, a lot of it bad. Let’s do a quick thought experiment to see where it may all lead. I like thought experiments.
Stage 1: Your phone allows you to see when one of your friends is in the shop next door, so you can arrange to go for a coffee together. That means more real world contact with your friends. Nothing wrong with that.
Stage 2: You start using it for business networking. It introduces you to potential employers, clients and suppliers at events, provided they are mutually interested. That means more and easier business, better career prospects. However, on the downside, higher business mobility also means shorter periods with any one company and less return on corporate training investment. It also means less experienced staff in a particular role, so customers get lower value too. Gradual decline in service quality could result.
Stage 3: You see someone nice in a club, but are too shy to introduce yourself. Never mind. Your phone checks them out automatically, they are compatible, they have already discovered you too, and your phones tell you both that the other is interested. The phone suggests a place you would both enjoy, a time you are both available (perhaps right now), and even what you might enjoy doing together. That makes a level playing field for shy people, ensuring more friends and more dates. It also makes easier cheating for those already in relationships.
A simple fact of life is that you chose your partner from a thousand people you have interacted significantly with (your great grandparents probably only met a few hundred people in their whole lives but you still exist). Bearing in mind that many were in existing relationships, so weren’t available, you actually chose from a much smaller number, just 100-200. That implies that about 1% of the population are highly compatible with you and may even potential upgrades on your current partner.
On a typical day in town, you walk past 2000 people. 20 of them are potential hot dates, even if you’re fussy. Today you walk right past each other, unaware of the potential compatibility, and can’t possibly stop and chat to everyone even if you wanted to. But your phone can and it will. What then? It can frequently introduce you to someone you can have fun with, with guaranteed mutual attraction and compatibility, and your diaries are both clear at a specific time slot for a while. The phone can see at a glance that a nearby room is available for hire by the hour. So you have means, motive, and opportunity. The temptation will be there, in your face, clear as a bell, every time you are in the wild, and you are only human.
At the very least, we are likely to see a big increase in cheating, and lots more casual sex. Casual sex is already a fact of life and society copes with it so far, but cheating undermines existing relationships, exchanging longer term happiness for a quick thrill. People need deep relationships, not just quick ones, and we don’t have the social structures or culture that lets us combine them. If we can’t trust our partners, then we can’t enjoy our relationships as much as we can when trust is healthy.
Stage 4: Invites to group activities may follow. This won’t just include conventional stuff, but invites to any kind of practices. It will be integrated into augmented reality too. If you set the preferences on your head up display accordingly, you will see people’s avatars as you walk past each other. If they are looking for someone like you, you will be shown their ‘special’ avatars, dressed to please you. Temptation won’t stay at someone’s initial level of standards, it will escalate. So we should expect a larger fraction of the population to become involved in more extreme or degrading activities.
Certainly a lot of benefits will result from this new technology platform. Shy people will have more fun, we will see more of our friends, and have better career prospects. The social and personal price though is high and hidden in the very small print.
Interestingly, in cultures where arranged marriages are common, services such as these might develop along different lines, and will certainly be perceived through different value set filters.
Marriage, cheating & social tunnelling
Anthropologists mostly agree that many or even most people are polygamous, and since our cultural conformance, at least in the UK, dictates a single partner at a time, people who want multiple partners have to cheat, or join sub-groups where such behaviour is the norm. Social networking sites make this much easier of course, and when it becomes the norm that people have multiple simultaneous partners, maybe it will no longer be seen as cheating. Should we expect that the cultural norms will change to adapt to the new world of multiple partners, or will we see the cultural norm being monogamy, with technology enabled cheating rising continuously? My expectation is that cultural norms will adapt, and in a decade or two, it will be considered normal and acceptable to have multiple partners. People who want monogamy will then have to negotiate it instead of assuming it as the norm. Such attitudes already exist in some social groups and cities, but it will take more time for them to spread throughout the population.
Meanwhile, cheating requires increasing care since privacy is declining. It is easier to find out who people are, what their situation is and to explore their social connectivity. People often create multiple aliases, but social sites are starting to insist on true identity. To be useful, aliases need to be able to get credit cards, licenses, passports etc, and this is currently illegal. Many people would like several officially recognised identities instead of just one.
So from the cheating point of view at least, what is missing now is the right to have multiple legal identities, or at least sub-identities. This should be entirely workable. You could be completely traceable by the state for legal purposes regardless of how many different sub-identities you carry, provided they are all officially registered. Meanwhile, separate legally registered aliases could remain apparently unconnected to everyone else, provided that the state databases are secure and access is suitably restricted and policed. It is quite possible that such multiple identities could become available at some point, not least because they are a potential revenue source. I wonder how many separate ID cards the government will let you buy.
Inventions succeed or fail in the market depending on how many people want them, and are prepared to pay the price. Reasons for wanting them vary enormously, but one of the guarantees of success is if the idea allows us to do stuff we always wanted to, but couldn’t and one of the biggest and most common reasons why we can’t do something is that it is not socially acceptable. So, if we can avoid society knowing what we are up to, and avoid the otherwise negative impacts on our social status and reputation, or if we can directly bypass an otherwise strong social barrier, then an invention that taps into a basic desire can be successful. There are numerous inventions that fall into this list. VHS and SMS are good examples from the last decades. In the 80s, VHS allowed people to watch porn in private instead of being seen at a cinema. In the 90s, the web allowed them to avoid even the embarrassment of buying a video or magazine. But it isn’t just porn that encourages us to bypass social norms. Most SMS messages are connected in some way with flirting. Some of the attractiveness in SMS is that by avoiding face to face contact with the target, fears of rejection are lowered, and so people will flirt with more people, and do so with less inhibition.
All of this technology potential adds up to a sort of cyberspace ‘social tunnelling’. We use these tools to get to a goal without directly confronting a social barrier. We tunnel through it instead. Websites have capitalised well on the value of such tunnelling and some are blatantly designed to let people bypass social norms. If you make an advance on someone’s partner in front of them, you might expect them to become hostile. But if you send secret texts or interact in internet chat rooms, the partner may remain totally unaware of the illicit relationship. The desire of people to play with other people’s partners has always been part of human society, but it is only these recent inventions that have enabled easy access to social tunnels to let them do so and get away with it easily.
The technology hasn’t stopped developing yet by any means, and new kinds of tunnels will appear from time to time, some of which will be even more compelling. Using active contact lens display, you could be in bed with one person but using a computer overlay to see someone else. Such technological capability will have some positive uses of course, but it will still represent a strong threat to social bonds. People might be less able to trust each other as it becomes easier and more fun to cheat. On the other hand, everyone is already aware of the potential for cheating, and society is learning to live with it. The real problem is where one party uses superior techno-literacy to outwit and cheat on the other. We are more likely to be open and honest when we know we can be caught and new tools are being developed to enable partners to check on each other too. As new tunnels are built, older ones collapse.
When will you be able to marry your robot or AI? Artificial intelligence, or AI as it is usually called now, is making progress. We have computers with higher raw number crunching power than the human brain. Their software, and indeed their requirement to use software, makes them far from equivalent overall, but I don’t think we will be waiting very long now for AI machines that we will agree are conscious, self-aware, intelligent, sentient, with emotions, capable of forming human-like relationships. These AIs will likely be based on adaptive analog neural networks rather than digital processing so they will not be so different from us really. Different futurists list different dates for AIs with man-machine equivalence, depending mostly on the prejudices and experiences bequeathed by their own backgrounds. I’d say 10 years, some say 15 or 20. Some say we will never get there, but they are just wrong, so wrong. We will soon have artificially intelligent entities comparable to humans in intellect and emotional capability. So how about this definition of marriage?
Marriage is a social union or legal contract between conscious entities called spouses that establishes rights and obligations between the spouses, between the spouses and their derivatives, and those legally connected to them.
It is similar to the conventional definition but fashionably avoids the old-fashioned bits such as ‘man’ and ‘woman’ or even human. An AI might or might not be connected to a robot, and may not have any permanent physical form, so robots are irrelevant here, it is the mind that is important, not the container. An AI can easily exist for sufficient time to be eligible for a long term relationship. I often watch sci-fi or play computer games, and many have AI characters that take on some sort of avatar – Edi in Mass Effect or Cortana in Halo for example. Sometimes these avatars are made to look very attractive, even super-attractive. It is easy to imagine how someone could fall in love with their AI. It isn’t much harder to imagine that they could fall in love with each other. But we need to look a bit at the nature of AI consciousness first. We did that earlier, but you’ve forgotten the details by now so some revision won’t hurt. An AI that isn’t conscious isn’t a proper AI, and certainly couldn’t make a decision to marry.
A lot of adaptive electronic devices suspended in gel that can set up free space optical links to each other would be an excellent way of making an artificial brain-like processor. Using this as a base, and with each of the tiny capsules being able to perform calculations, an extremely powerful digital processor could be created. I don’t believe digital processors can become conscious, however much their processing increases in speed. It is an act of faith I guess, I can’t prove it, but coming from a computer modelling background it seems to me that a digital computer can simulate the processes in consciousness but it can’t emulate them and that difference is crucial.
Revising, I believe consciousness is a matter of internal sensing. The same way that you sense sound or images or touch, you can sense the processes based on those same neural functions and their derivatives in your brain. Emotions ditto. We make ideas and concepts out of words and images and sounds and other sensory things and emotions too. We regenerate the same sorts of patterns, and filter them similarly to create new knowledge, thoughts and memories, a sort of vortex of sensory stimuli and echoes. Consciousness might not actually just be internal sensing, we don’t know yet exactly how it works, but even if it isn’t, you could do it that way. Internal sensing could be the basis of a conscious machine, an AI. There will also be other ways of achieving consciousness, and they might have different flavours. But for the purposes of arguing for AI marriage, we only need one method of achieving consciousness to be feasible. This one is.
This kind of AI design could work and would be capable of emotions. In fact, it would be capable of a much wider range of emotions than human experience. I believe it could fall in love, with a human, alien, or another AI. AIs will have a range and variety of gender capabilities and characteristics. People will be able to link to them in new ways, creating new forms of intimacy. The same technology will also enable new genders for people too.
When we discuss gender equality and marriage, what we usually agree on is the importance of love. People can fall in love with any other human of any age, race or gender, but they are also capable of loving a sufficiently developed AI. There is lots of evidence of that in science fiction. Viewers easily identify and form bonds with AI characters just as they do with the human ones. AI will come in a very wide range of capabilities and flavours. Some will be equivalent or even superior to humans in many ways. They will have needs, they will want rights, and they will become powerful enough to demand them. Sooner or later, we will need to consider equality for them too. And I for one will be on their side.
Electronically mediated sex
Sex is probably the biggest driver of new technology. In spite of its being essentially free, we still spend lots on it. It is a huge technology driver, from videotape to e-commerce. Sex based services on the internet attract the highest revenues, and they led the way in electronic cash and pioneered credit card purchasing across the net.
One of the most critical stages of any relationship is the first meeting. When we see lots of potential partners at a party, it isn’t always obvious which ones are most likely to be compatible. Personality and preferences could be encoded in a badge or smartphone that automatically talks to others in the vicinity, using personality matching programs to do the matchmaking. If someone there is a good match, you will both be alerted, saving hours of time chatting up the wrong person. This technology is already available in primitive form at some night-clubs.
People have experimented with verbal cybersex for many years. Many pretend to be the opposite sex, some or all of the time. Some do this for fun, others to avoid hassle or harassment. Others try hard to avoid anyone figuring out what sex they are. Some take on different roles at different times, apparently without suffering any psychological problems. AI entities known as bots also inhabit these areas and many can make a reasonable pretence at being human, chatting up people and vice versa. Since most are fairly easy to spot, they usually just catch out new users. Some people also pretend to be ‘bots’ so they can watch or interact with participants without arising suspicion. So we already see quite complex gender interactions, with heterosexual, homosexual, neutral, bisexual, asexual, the androgynous, the synthetic, the bot, the uncertain and the unknown, all happily interacting with each other. With each of these pretending to be other than what they are, or changing between genders dynamically, relationships in cyberspace can be very complex indeed. People or programs can appear how they wish and can disguise their true identity or characteristics in many ways.
As technology permits more graphics, simpler man machine interfaces, and more artificial intelligence, we can expect the area to develop into horrendously complex relationships. On the internet, maybe no-one knows you are a dog, but neither will they know whether you are a robot, 16 or 60, fat or slim, ugly or attractive. A person’s avatar can have any desired appearance and behaviour, or can mimic the originator’s actions in real time with a different image. Direct retinal projection via active contact lenses will produce computer generated overlays on what we see in the real world. Even if your partner’s physical appearance is not quite up to your hopes, it could be digitally enhanced or completely replaced with something closer to your dreams, no paper bag needed.
To further complicate things, there will be external links to the human sensory system, with possibilities of new senses or new ways of stimulating existing senses in different ways. Still further, the body’s mechanisms for sexual response are beginning to be understood, with the possibility of direct stimulation by manipulating nerve signals, chemically or electronically. Even paralytic people are in principle capable of achieving orgasms by stimulating such nerves. Even the pleasure centre in the brain, the septal area, could be addressed directly, requiring no other stimulation at all to produce ecstasy. Woody Allen’s orgasmatron is perhaps a real possibility in a decade or so. Nature has equipped us with sexual organs, but with direct sensory stimulation into the brain, we could design and build a new range of sexual body add-ons.
If we combine all these technological possibilities, not only is direct physical contact not necessary, but we see that there need be no conventional sexual activity at all to produce a pleasurable sexual response. Any stimulation that does exist may use conventional sex organs, or any of the synthetic nodes. This gives complete flexibility in sexual rituals, and complete flexibility regarding mapping of activity onto both meaning and response. Combining this with cyberspace, we could have ridiculous relationships and sexual practices – imagine sending an orgasm by e-mail. Participants may be of any kind, including machines or software entities, and there may be any number of ‘genders’ involved in a given sexual interaction, each with a given role. Flexibility is absolute in such a world.
This may seem trivial, but there is a key factor which stops it from being so. Psychosexual response is not fixed, but is to a point learned. The existence of wide range of fetishes shows how much people’s sexual response can be affected by conditioning rather than genetics. It is reasonable to assume therefore that some people will be affected by such conditioning when participating in cybersex, with its huge range of varieties. A few people may learn to have a real response to some computer programs or totally artificial characters, or to activities which in the real world would have no sexual effect whatsoever. What starts off as just a whim of experimentation on the net may become a key part of an individual’s sexual preferences or behaviour. Cyberspace activity feeds back into mental space here in just the same way as in other areas. Fortunately, without direct nervous system links yet, much of the problem will be delayed for some time, and the problems experienced in the short term may be much simpler, if just as real. One consolation for all the psychological problems that may result from cybersex is that at least it is ‘safe’ in the STD sense.
However, in spite of this flexibility, it is likely that most interactions will be ‘conventional’, in the sense that most people will want to ascertain the true characteristics (male or female, old or young, appearance etc.) of the partner, and then the network is then just a simple link between two machines. Cyberspace may offer a pleasant virtual environment in which to interact, or customise the look and feel of either party. The partners can then ‘play’ with each other at will. Cyberspace also allows time shifting, and for recording and storage of information. This will permit dial in services where a ‘session’ may be recorded for use by many callers, who all want to play with the same person. A large degree of interactivity could be provided to make it lifelike. Celebrity programs for orgasmatrons may be a thriving business in a few decades.
The fact that sexual interaction across the network can be safe and novel, with none of the strings and conditions associated with real life might make it very popular when the technology catches up. There will be real life problems though. Already, some marriages have broken up due to cyber-affairs, and society doesn’t really have rules or conventions yet for network based relationships. Just what is a healthy reaction of a woman who finds her husband has been chatting up a computer program for the last month? The frequently quoted marriage rule of ‘look but don’t touch’ will need redefining.