We are taking a break from our ongoing discussion of education and technology to talk about the interpenetration of the digital world and the real one. Since before the Web actually began, we have had a concept of a virtual space in which one could do things you can’t in reality. This virtual space was sometimes called “cyberspace.” When the Web started becoming more and more of our common experience, we tended to map these concepts out onto it.
There were, we thought, separate realms with separate rules. Obviously, shooting someone in an online game is not the same as in real life. But what about having a virtual romance in second life? Is that cheating? The rules were fuzzy. Many Internet regulars began using the term “IRL” to mean “in real life.”
But this distinction is breaking down. There is a growing interpenetration of digital and physical reality. This takes many forms, from autonomous devices to databases full of images that can identify faces or objects in the real world. One common expression is the “Internet of Things,” sometimes called IoT.
These changes are producing anxieties of all kinds. People are worrying about autonomous killer drones, the potential liability implications or morality of decisions made by self-driving cars, and what happens when the IoT breaks. But there is also a lot of anticipation. Drones that deliver your latest purchase from Amazon, artificial intelligences that diagnose illness.
Predictions are invariably wrong, but we think it’s worth talking about where things might go, especially as we are going to be responsible for many of the decisions that could change the course of how humanity relates to the digital world in the future.