x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

If computers ruled the world

There is a possibility that, in terms of human development, ridding ourselves of the need for practical knowledge will be a good thing.

Prince Charles is at it again. Having previously furrowed the royal brow at modern architects and fast-food outlets, he has turned his attention to computers. In Harmony, Charles's latest stab at the "stuff that bothers me" genre, he foresees a dark and not-too-distant time in which humans are so digitally dependent that they become estranged from the natural world. He has even coined a word to describe the condition: "Manchine."

But don't laugh. It appears that Britain's heir apparent might be on to something.

A few days after Charles's ominous portents made the news, tech journals were talking up a new iPhone app, called Take Five, which is aimed at - wait for it - people who momentarily pause the music on their devices then forget to press "play" and so end up sitting around with their headphones on listening to nothing. For a one-time payment of 99 cents (Dh3.5), the Take Five app will automatically restart paused music after a predetermined period, thereby sparing people this terrible fate.

There's so much wrong with this scenario, it's hard to know where to start shuddering. First, it suggests that people are too stupid to realise they're not listening to music when they'd really like to be, or that they're aware of this fact but lack the motivation and energy to do anything about it. Follow this logic to its conclusion, and we'd need apps that automatically download other apps that we didn't know we wanted. From here, we're only a step or two from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

And if Take Five didn't provide enough of a reason to despair, another i-app that was launched this month - a virtual companion that goes by the name of Alexandria - boasting such groundbreaking functions as: "Alexandria can detect exactly where you live." And this: "Hyper Advanced 3D Artificial Intelligence knows your name."

All this will probably come as a disappointment to those who've envisioned the human-computer hybrid of the future as being a kind of tragic-heroic figure, a cold and efficient being that has sacrificed its emotional and moral foundations for hyper-intelligence and super-strength. Even Prince Charles didn't go so far as to speculate that his Manchine might actually be a bit of an idiot.

But chronic stupidity seems to be where we're heading. As technology grows smarter, its users grow duller - this is becoming an immutable law, and it threatens to take us to some scary and ridiculous places. Today we need apps that tell us when to turn the music on, tomorrow we'll need them to alert us when we've forgotten to tie our laces, or to breathe.

There is a possibility that, in terms of human development, ridding ourselves of the need for practical knowledge will prove to be a good thing. After all, with Hyper Advanced 3D Artificial Intelligence at our disposal, we'll never have to bother ourselves with such trifles as who we are or where we live, which will clear space in our minds for more weighty matters, such how to get the high score playing Fruit Ninja.