Tag Archives: social problems

The future of loneliness

This is primarily about a UK problem, and I honestly don’t know how much US society suffers from it, but I suspect at least some of it holds true in many areas there too.

I’m fortunate that it doesn’t affect me directly, since my wife is all the company I need to be happy, but loneliness is arguably the biggest problem in modern UK society, certainly one of the biggest. Young people feel lonely, old people feel lonely, new mothers feel lonely, students feel lonely. Many others too. It affects a lot of people.

The British Red Cross in conjunction with The Co-op today released a new report on it saying chronic loneliness is becoming a public health issue: https://www.politicshome.com/news/uk/health-and-care/opinion/british-red-cross/81457/chronic-loneliness-has-become-public-health

&

http://www.redcross.org.uk/What-we-do/Health-and-social-care/Independent-living/Loneliness-and-isolation/Research saying 9 million people in the UK are always or often lonely

Older people are the most obvious group affected.

Some reports say loneliness increases chance of death by 25%: http://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/loneliness-research/

Another recent report from Age UK already includes some alarming figures for older people. Taking just two examples (read it for far more) 1 in 8 over-65s chronically lonely, and nearly 1 in 14 having no close friends at all:  www.ageuk.org.uk/Documents/EN-GB/Factsheets/Later_Life_UK_factsheet.pdf

Although older people are the main problem group for loneliness, it can affect anyone, with a few other highlight groups. Each year, 1 in 4000 men between 45-59 commit suicide, 5 times as high as the average rate for female suicide.

New mothers can often feel lonely. The good news (according to netmums) is that thanks to smartphone use, the number is down from 60% a decade ago to 28% today, but that still means more than a quarter of new mums feel lonely even today. I’d also note that between 2006 and today, the netmums user base has changed a great deal, so much of that drop may well be attributable to the high proportion of new mums drawn from immigrant communities, which often have different social support characteristics than the rest of the population, so the figures might not be quite so bright for non-immigrant mums.

Students too experience moving away from an established family and friends support base to a totally new environment where often they might not know anyone at first. Not everyone is expert at making new friends quickly, so many students feel lonely too. Student suicides are at an all time high as students are ‘fraught with loneliness and anxiety’ according to Professor Siobhan O’Neill:

http://www.independent.co.uk/student/student-life/health/student-suicides-loneliness-depression-anxiety-stress-mental-health-services-a7092911.html

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/wellbeing/mood-and-mind/not-just-a-problem-for-old-people-why-the-young-are-lonely-too/ discusses ‘the 7 ages on loneliness

The sick, the newly divorced, unhappy singles and recent retirees are other groups particularly vulnerable to loneliness. But enough figures and reports, with so much recent press and public discussion about it, we can’t claim that it is a new or unknown problem, but in spite of a few positives such as from netmums, we can be sure it still remains a huge and persistent problem. The organisations named above are doing their bit to help, as are many others, and still it persists.

It would be lovely to believe that improving social networking will solve it all, but it clearly hasn’t even though we could reasonably say that people are mostly familiar with it, mostly know how to use it and it is pretty mature now. As I mentioned, even the netmums good news could in part be the result of changing demographics rather than the problem actually being solved. Only in part though, as I do believe the net does have a positive impact and does let people find new friends and chat to others even when they can’t get out. It must have some benefit, but the figures still say that its impact is at best only a reduction rather than elimination.

There are other net trends that might make it worse though. One is the increasing division we have in society, and another is the increasing censorship under threat of social and economic exclusion if people say something politically incorrect. This is creating barriers between people, not drawing them together, as I wrote in: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2015/01/27/increasing-censorship-will-lead-to-increasing-loneliness/. Social networking brings people into more frequent contact with strangers, but the separation and anonymity often involved in that also brings out the worst in some people, and social media have become ideological battlegrounds that so often quickly polarise into group-think camps, increasing isolation rather than reducing it.

More evidence that the net doesn’t solve everything is that the Kindr app that was aimed specifically at helping people to be nice to each other seems to have disappeared or at least become inert after a short life, whereas I had hoped it might bring a part solution to helping people who rarely get affection or praise from others: https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/06/30/compliments/

Networking clearly helps some people some of the time, but not for everyone all of the time, and in some cases makes things worse.

Automation of shopping and increased competition from the net forces lower prices but sometimes at the expense of human interaction, and for some people, a brief exchange with a checkout assistant is the only contact they get. If we see more automation of shops with more self service tills, that will directly increase loneliness.

The solution is clearly to restore at least some of the real face to face social contact that has become depleted for many in our modern society. Face to face meeting is emotionally more valuable than net contact, and though nets can put people in touch with others or let them know what is going on, it can’t directly provide that contact. People who go to work every day or have busy social lives may not see a problem or if they do, they may feel they have too little time left in their busy lives to spend providing company to someone else.

We have lost a lot of activity that used to provide rich social contact. Many work from home instead of going to an office. Church attendance has dropped enormously, along with the social gatherings, choir practices, old people dinners and barn dances they used to organise. Communities don’t have to get together to help a farmer bring in the harvest. People with cars walk less, have more geographically distributed friends and meet fewer of their neighbours.

Many activists today seem rather obsessed with tolerance, albeit in an Orwellian doublespeak sort of way. Perhaps they should be obsessed about caring for others instead of polishing their halos on twitter. If they are eager to solve a problem to make themselves feel virtuous, this one is screaming for help. The rest of us need to be more willing to do our part too. It is easy to focus on our own lives and our own needs. Many of us are content with the friends we have and maybe we are not aware of anyone who is lonely, or admitting to it. I don’t even know the names of some of the people in my street, let alone whether they are lonely. If I did know of someone nearby who I thought was feeling left out, I think I’d be happy to meet them for coffee or a chat sometimes. But I don’t, and I don’t make any effort to find them either. So the problem remains, and I have done nothing to help. There must be millions like me, caring in a distant luke-warm sort of way about a theoretical part of society that I have no contact with. Except that it isn’t theoretical, it is a massive diverse chunk of society that feels left out. Hiding unknown, God knows where, apparently almost everywhere.

Maybe most of us we do care and would do more if we knew what, where, when, and how we could help and if it wasn’t too much hassle or too time consuming. Obviously, those last requirements depend on whether we know the person, so it’s clear that we’ve been running in a vicious cycle of lower contact and therefore caring less. By meeting people more, we’ll get to know them better and care for them more, though I can think of exceptions. I used to be involved in The Samaritans, on a phone line or fundraising to keep the lines open. I stopped doing that a long time ago as work got too busy; we often use that excuse not to get involved.  If I think about starting again, I immediately think of the traffic problems getting there, parking issues and so on. I am sure many other people might do more if someone else organised it and it was less hassle. Surely, that’s what activists are for. They organise stuff, motivate people, give them a kick up the pants and tell them to get on with it. With all the social networking and AI out there, this really should be solvable.

Now that we have the prospect of AI and automation promising to improve productivity and everyone is worried about jobs, government should work out how to maintain fair distribution of wealth as machines take over, while taking the windfall of collective spare work force hours to recover some of what we have paid for the rapid economic development to get to this point.

The existence of all these charities and organisations yelling loudly about the problem shows absolutely that a lot of people do care and want to do something about it. If time is the problem, we will soon have more time, collectively at least, and more wealth as the productivity gains hit the economy, so more money to pay for it. That will allow activists and social entrepreneurs and councils to work together to provide human resources to find those who want help, transport to get them to social gatherings of whatever kind is suited to them, and to fund those activities and the places they need. The net may not be intuitive or easy for everyone to use, but plenty of people can work it, and providing access to willing helpers will help many people to find what’s on, who might be there that they are likely to enjoy meeting and making it happen.

Red tape barriers need to be wiped away too. The compensation and box-ticking culture has done huge harm. Lots of village fetes, dances and so on no longer happen  because they mean someone now has to apply for assorted licenses, do risk assessments, buy insurances and jump through endless administrative hoops. Why would anyone want to do that? Once upon a time you rang up the hall administrator, booked it, booked a band, then sold tickets. If someone tripped and sprained an ankle, they should have watched where they were going.

The virtuous circle of increasing contact and caring will work, if we can get it going again. People do care more about people they know than someone who is just a statistic. If people with a small level of even theoretical caring for such a large social need can be dragged or otherwise motivated to join in with social activity in their area that someone else has organised, before long, people will have more friends in that area, and they’ll be happy to work together to organise more events and involve more people. Soon, we’ll be back to a proper working society again.

We have the technology. Soon we will have the time and resources to make it happen, to start a virtuous circle to rebuild missing connection in society that leave so many people out, and fix some of the other social problems we created along the way to today’s UK.

 

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The Future of Games (recycled from 2005)

I was trawling through some old documents and stumbled on this one from just over 10 years ago. The message still rings true, even if the recession has shifted the time frame somewhat compared to what I though then.

Games are getting serious

Ian Pearson, August 2005

Games are designed to be fun, but future games might be so much fun that they could start causing big social problems.

Forget the 15 inch monitor most people use today. What we are really talking about for tomorrow’s games is full immersion. Think Star Trek holodeck. Technology by 2020 will allow us to connect our nervous system to our computers, sampling nerve signals and recording every kind of sensation, replaying them in holiday memories, in communications, or in computer games. It will work using active skin, with electronics printed onto the skin, and tiny electronic components painlessly blown into the skin itself using compressed air jets. Some of these devices will link to nerve endings in our skin.

With touch, hearing and vision, computer games will be much more compelling. By 2020, another device that will be routine is the active contact lens, which uses tiny lasers and micro-mirrors to raster scan images straight onto your retina. This will give us a totally immersive 3D display.

Now imagine what people will do with this. With the massive processing and graphics capability of 2020 games machines, people could live all day in a pretty convincing full sensory virtual reality environment., and could live a fantasy life well beyond their real life means. Someone with a lousy real life, but enough pocket money to buy a games console, might effectively drop out of real life apart from eating, drinking, sleeping and going to the loo. And even in those activities, they can have a constant augmented reality overlay to make them more visually appealing.

But in their fantasy worlds, where they can kill everything or have sex with everyone they fancy, their brains might be corrupted to a point where they can no longer easily mix with civilised society. The real world will undoubtedly see more violence and more rape and sexual assaults.

But it doesn’t stop there. By 2030, robotics technology will be much more advanced. Some robots can already walk and dance. Polymer gel muscles and outer coatings will make many future robots look and feel like real people. The androids of science fiction are not long away now.

So how long will it be before the totally inoffensive (but exciting) Robot Wars is replaced by an android version of the Roman gladiator games? We would surely never stoop to using real people again, but why not androids? Even if they do have the latest AI modules with full emotions and self awareness? They are just machines, so who cares?  I really think that line of argument might well hold sway with many people. It is sad, but this century might well see the return of the lowest form of entertainment ever invented by man. Games are getting serious.

 

 

 

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:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/02/14/the-future-of-gender-2/

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.

War

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) :

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2013/12/19/machiavelli-and-the-coming-great-western-war/

Population growth

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

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2012/07/13/population-growth-is-a-good-thing-updated-july-2012/

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:

https://timeguide.wordpress.com/2014/02/05/will-population-grow-again-after-2050-to-15bn/

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