21st Century Social Problems, updated

I started writing this one in May 2012, but got distracted and just uploaded the contents list. I guess it is time to finish it properly.

Resuming writing again in 2014, we still have a conspicuous lack of effective leaders, military conflicts all over the world, and the promise of further problems ahead, but I am still optimistic (sure, I’m a grumpy old man sometimes but being grumpy shows you still have some lingering hope that it could be better :)). We can look forward to this century bringing us fantastic new technologies. We are witnessing the labour pains hailing the imminent birth of a fantastic virtual world where we can explore other people’s imaginations. We will soon have computers as smart as people, the ability to connect them to our nervous systems, and later to our brains, making us superhuman. We will mine asteroids and start to develop space. We will have electronic immortality and be able to cure almost all diseases. The doom and gloom on climate change is calming down. It is a good time to be alive, at the dawning of a new era. I’d swap places with my daughter’s generation without hesitation, regardless of the problems they currently face. But I am not going to blog today about all the wonderful stuff coming down the road. There is lots to be excited about, but it won’t be a technotopia. There is no such thing as a free lunch and there will be a price to pay along the way for all the benefits we will receive. I’ll list a wide range of potential problems, but don’t panic about them. Forewarned is forearmed. By being alert to the dangers, we may be able to avoid some of them, or at least reduce their impacts. I’m not worried, you shouldn’t be either, but we shouldn’t be complacent either.

Many are self-explanatory and can be covered adequately with just a simple heading. I will explain others in a little more depth, but I can’t cover any in great depth here.

Living with robots

Gladiatorial combat between sentient machines – we used to watch Robot Wars, with remote control machines fighting to destruction. It won’t be very long before they become autonomous and equipped with emotions. Synthetic at first and then real emotions. With high levels of AI and consciousness, the robots will want to survive and will offer more potential for cruelty. Will we sink to the depths of the ancient Romans watching android gladiators maim and kill each other for our entertainment?

Drones make bad neighbours worse – already we are seeing drones used in military missions, police surveillance, other utilities, and recently we even saw Amazon demonstrating package delivery using drones. This week, we see drones being used to capture and subdue intruders using tasers fired from above. Drones vary in size up to full size planes, but at the lower end, some will be insect size. Privacy invasion and voyeurism will become more problematic. Espionage will increase. Wild animals may die from eating drones that have failed and fallen. Larger ones used for telecoms or package delivery may harm people if they fall or collide with them. Local councils or other authorities will monitor us more. 1984 likes drones!

Robot psychos – some smart and autonomous robots will go wrong. Advanced AI is very useful, but it will also come with increased range of failure modes. We should expect some robots to become criminal, malicious, using the web for criminal purposes, taking over other robots, perhaps even becoming violent.

Robot ‘mental problems will be a lesser issue. Sometimes a simple system update or other software debugging will fix them, but some won’t use software in the same way that they do today. If they learn to interact with the real world in their own way, and perhaps that is a major part of their individual value, then fixing them may need something more akin to psychotherapy than software engineering.

Relations between and within robot, AI and human cultures. As AI approaches human levels of power and sophistication, we won’t be able to keep treating all machines the same way, as just dumb physical objects. Some will be smart, and we’ll have debates over their rights and responsibilities, whether they can own things or intellectual property and so on. Some AI won’t be linked to specific objects, and that will be a slightly different issue, but will also require discussion. We won’t just need to debate new laws though. We’ll have to get used to living another intelligent beings. They will have their own interests apart from humans too; their own culture; their own society; they’ll have free time and resources; they’ll want and demand their own governance and representation alongside humans, they’ll want to socialise, maybe flirt, maybe have babies. We’ll need treaties with them, perhaps different treaties with different forms of AIs, who will need treaties with each other. It could get messy if different AI cultures don’t get along well. The second half of the century will have a very different society from that in the first half.

Robots owning other robots. We don’t think much about ownership, but it has been a key weapon in dominating and subduing subcultures throughout history. At some point, AIs will be offered or demand the right to own property. That is likely to start with intellectual property. As they earn money, possibly very quickly, they will buy things, maybe a lot of things. Maybe land, factories, other robots. Maybe some advanced AIs will own less advanced AIs that may themselves own dumb machines. Maybe they’ll even own people, illicitly of course, using trafficked people, using their own easy presence via the web to control agents. Robots won’t be permitted to own people, but they might simply ignore the rules and hide their tracks. They may force people to work for them by blackmail or other coercion. Others might employ people on low wages, using their own high wealth, and perhaps some of them might not be very kind employers.

Living with virtuality

Reality confusion – blurring of real and virtual self. Using virtual reality for a while can necessitate a short period of readjustment when returning to real life. Even with crude graphics there is a degree of disorientation. With today’s better graphics, the effect is said to vanish after a few sessions. However, soap actors sometimes say they people occasionally confuse them with their characters. That suggests that for some people, the lines between real life and the virtual world might sometimes blur. This is more likely in augmented reality as they may often be merged completely. Another analogy is drug induced hallucinations, which sometimes recur, allegedly. In fact, some use of augmented reality and virtual reality is likely in clubs, where we may see use of legal and illegal drugs, even used in conjunction with TMS (trans-cranial magnetic stimulation) to create elaborate shared experiences. Nobody knows what effects combining all that would have on the mind, let alone what effect it might have on further behaviours or experiences.

Augmented Reality identity theft. In AR you can use any avatar you want, in theory anyway. You could easily pretend to be someone else. That’s probably not a problem most of the time, but it does lend itself to abuse. People may use AR a lot, so they may see people habitually as their avatars. If they use someone else’s avatar, it may alter the way someone perceives not only them, but also the person whose avatar they are mimicking. If they do bad or embarrassing things while using that avatar, it may cause problems for the rightful owner. If the context is one where the real owner may be a regular visitor, then there is a chance that they may even be able to pass themselves off as them and effectively steal their identity.

Augmented reality tribalism – AR allows for different people to see different things when looking at the same object or building or person. On the good side, it will let people visually occupy different roles simultaneously. So someone might see a person as a friend, someone else as an irrelevant stranger, but others might see them according to a particular role and context, such as doctor or sales assistant, or in an avatar corresponding to their role in an online game. People can be lots of things at once, and how they appear depends on the context of being seen. Tribes of people, sharing the same ideology, might see others who belong to that tribe in a certain way too. This would allow them to feel more part of a group, if they can visually identify its other members but non-members can’t. That could help in arranging demonstrations, or in coordinating crimes, and it could also assist those belonging to abusive, racist or homophobic groups in coordinating actions against those they hate. So clearly it has some bad uses to balance out the good ones.

AR objectification of women –see: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2012/03/24/augmented-reality-will-objectify-women/

Age play – resulting difficulties from ability to portray oneself or others as any age. Sadly, some people will try to make use of any new platform to abuse children, and pretending to be a child is a common trick used in grooming.

Problems with virtual neighbours in shared virtual spaces – some virtual spaces will be personal but many will be shared, and virtual spaces will be a popular socialisation tool. The nature of augmented and virtual reality mean that pseudo-geographic layouts would dominate, and people would become used to going to the same places. They won’t necessarily be able to choose who else would share those locations, and some of them might not be welcome. Clubs and societies would presumably police their own locations, but it may not always be possible to keep people away who want to detract from an area or be a nuisance.

Virtual vandalism and other conflicts in virtual shared spaces – some undesirable people may use their skills to modify augmented or virtual reality locations without permission of the owners, or may cause problems for other users. This detracts from the potential, but like junk mail or pop-up ads, we are very likely to see just as many abuses of virtual worlds by spammers, hackers and others who see other people as prey.

Digital trespass, provision of competing services on another’s property – high street shops already have problems with people using them to see things for real, and then buying them online from a supplier who avoids the overheads of maintaining a high street presence. Augmented reality will make it easier to see alternatives from competitors alongside something you are looking at as well as facilitating the online purchase. A competitor can effectively have their goods displayed alongside those in the shop where you are. 

21st Century Gender issues

I wrote a large chapter on this for my book and reproduced it recently here:


Many of the issues won’t become feasible until towards the end of the century, such as:

Gender play – option to switch between genders freely could prove a problem

New genders, with associated social, cultural and legal problems

Living with digital permanence

Inheritance of in-depth personal records – when you die, your web presence would remain for some time unless it is destroyed or an account deleted due to lack of use. It may well be that without access to login details, family may not be able to erase some accounts and an online presence may therefore persist long after death. Inheritance laws may adapt to allow some accounts to be passed on to beneficiaries. In some cases that could cause problems, such as when an account has associated liabilities, or holds information that proves embarrassing. Quite a few family secrets will undoubtedly emerge in this way. There may even be information that legally incriminates someone else.

Changing technology exposes secrets from earlier life. Even in someone’s own lifetime, technology changes a lot and things they did earlier may come to the surface as technology allows their exposure. Examples such as image search or strong AI search engines are likely mechanisms. Many famous people will be embarrassed by photos or events they had long forgotten, recorded by others and then later linked to them by these means.

Wide implications of electronic immortality – may not be able to die fully. Electronic immortality will be with us in the second half of the century. Your body will die but by then you may well have extended your mind into the net so much that you would only lose a small fraction of your mind when your body dies. Some people will use the same tech to occupy multiple bodies even while their own is alive. When someone does die, it will often therefore be only a partial experience. Companies could continue to employ their important employees in electronic form, with uncertain remuneration and legality, and in some cases, loved ones may resurrect a person even against their desires. It will be mostly a beneficial technology but it will certainly bring problems with it.

Partial death

Conflicts between organic and electronic humans

Time sharing of android bodies by electronic people – to avoid overpopulation, there may well be restrictions on buying additional bodies or on how long someone can persist after their organic death

Living with high longevity – we don’t have any experience of organising society with people living hundreds of years, but this one has one big advantage, the oldest people we will need to live with can only get older by one year per year.

Increasing acceptance of euthanasia

Conflicts over rights to live longer

Living with brain-machine links

Shared and communal minds – linking our brains and nervous systems to the net will become commonplace eventually. It will be possible to experience someone else’s sensations and even to share bodies with them. In the net, minds will also extend electronically, and sometimes will share the same areas. There will inevitably be some abuses of this with people trying to influence others to do or think things that they otherwise couldn’t, and to take control over others. Some people may submit willingly to other people, or may allow others to take over their bodies. Mind control and enslavement will go much further than hypnosis today.

Identity confusion is also likely if people sometimes share minds or overlap minds with others. They may become less aware of their own boundaries. We may see a strong blurring of self, absorption into a collective mind, and literally split personalities.

Personality exchanges and modifications will cause many problems.

Partial & Delayed Birth & ebaybies

Couples can already store eggs and sperm for later use, but with far future genetic assembly, it will become feasible to create offspring from nothing more than a DNA listing. DNA from both members of a couple, of any sex, could get a record of their DNA, randomise combinations with their partner’s DNA and thus get a massive library of potential offspring. They may even be able to do so with listing of celebrity DNA from the net. This creates the potential for greatly delayed birth and tradable ‘ebaybies’. A DNA listing is not alive so current laws don’t forbid that. Such listings could also be used to create electronic offspring, simulated in a computer memory instead of being born organically. Various degrees of existence are possible with varied awareness. Couples may have many electronic babies as well as a few real ones. They may even wait to see how a simulation works out before deciding which kids to make for real. The following consequences are obvious:

Trade-in and collection of DNA listings, virtual embryos, virtual kids etc, that could actually be fabricated at some stage

Re-birth, potential to clone and download one’s mind or use a direct brain link to live in a younger self

Demands by infertile and gay couples to have babies via genetic assembly

Ability of kids to own entire populations of virtual people, who are quite real in some ways.

Living with advanced surveillance

I wrote two blogs on this: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/06/19/deep-surveillance-how-much-privacy-could-you-lose/

and https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/11/10/i-want-my-tv-to-be-a-tv-not-a-security-and-privacy-threat/

Transhumanist and strong AI tension

I wrote an entire novel on this one, called Space Anchor. There will be a lot of restrictions on transhumanism for many reasons. There will also be a lot of restrictions on AI. Some transhumanists assume that they will be able to win regulatory wars, but I think that is naive.

Demands to constrain transhumanism v demands for freedom of development

Decisions and conflicts on human and AI nature

Transhuman diversification – not all transhumans will be equal. There may be groups hostile to each other.

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/02/18/how-smart-could-an-ai-become/ looks at strong AI.


We always have wars somewhere and still will in the future. There is no reason to expect we are heading towards an age of peace. I wrote a blog recently on what I think may well be the next big war (if we get past this Ukraine problem intact) :


Population growth

I wrote a long time ago that I believe population growth to be a good thing and nothing to worry about:


I still think that, but, I did also consider that population might not level off and then decline as expected. If that happens, then we may get overpopulation, happening at the same time as electronic immortality also allows people to have multiple bodies and carry on after organic death:


I think that is enough 21st Century problems to worry about for this blog. It was never intended to be complete.

2 responses to “21st Century Social Problems, updated

  1. Pingback: 21st century social problems | The more accurate guide to the future

  2. That really makes an interesting read. And a truly scaring one. Humanity has to find some perception to leave the way of materialism. We have to return to a holistic view of things before a large quantity of humans would have to pay dearly.


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