Homo Proxies: Beyond Income Inequality & The Digital Divide

21 Jul,2022



By Ashoke Agarrwal


Ashoke Agarrwal“As for living, our servants will do that for us.”

From the play Axel by Auguste Villiers de I’Isle-Adam. Also used by WB Yeats as an epigraph in The Secret Rose.

To my mind, the invention of money is at par with the control of fire as a seminal development of human society. Capital produced the class system, which is the bedrock of modern human society’s economic, political and cultural structure.

Many who ponder humanity’s future see the emergence of Artificial Intelligence (AI) as a development that will alter the core structure of human society.

AI’s progress over the decades has been stop-start. For decades it has been the saga of a promise fulfilled more in science fiction than reality.

Quite often, it has been a cliche with wannabe setup trying to pass off data analytics and second-order model-building as AI.

However, over the past few years, the exploits of Google, Deep Mind (a subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company) and OpenAI have once again brought the promise and perils of AI front and centre in the popular imagination.

In June 2022, Blake Lemoine jolted the world by claiming that Google AI engine LaMDA (Language Model for Dialogue Application) had turned sentient. The powers that be at Google denied the claim and sacked Mr Lemoine. Was Google upset that Lemoine pre-empted the announcement of what many would think is a seminal milestone in the development of AI? Or was Google upset by the revelation of a secret it would want to, for myriad reasons, keep from the world? Or was it simply that Mr Lemoine’s claim was hyperbolic and premature?

Whatever the case, the media attention that Mr Lemoine’s claim got is symptomatic of the widespread realisation, conscious and sub-conscious, that AI is much more than just another technological development. On the contrary, it is a recognition of AI’s power to change the very dynamics of human society.

I have been writing in this column about one aspect of how AI, as it develops, will change an individual’s life. In my January 6, 2022 column, I have written about Concierge Intelligence (CI). CI will augment the capabilities of an individual to deliver better outcomes for her – at work, in learning and in relationships. It will be the next big thing – a consumer service whose impact will be an order of magnitude higher than, say, the emergence of the personal computer or the smartphone.

CI will be an AI companion of the individual, assisting her in all her interactions with the world. CI will enable the individual to communicate better, learn more and better, work better and even shop better. It will do so by developing a deep understanding of the individual’s capabilities, biases, needs and desires. CI will combine this depth of knowledge about the individual with near-encyclopedic knowledge and awareness of the world to deliver solutions and assistance at the speed of a computer.

The overall impact of CI on society will be more or less egalitarian, as is increasingly the case with personal computers and smartphones. As the CI technology matures, most people who cross the poverty and subsistence lines will be able to afford CI.

However, there will be an aspect of CI that has the potential to further immeasurably the class divide. This divide will go much beyond the divide of being able to afford a better brand of smartphone or PC. It will even go beyond the digital divide that separates people with access to the digital world and those deprived of it.

The divide that a specialised aspect of CI can produce could be to create an almost different species of humans. Not yet Harari’s Homo Deus (as posited in his book ‘Homo Deus. A Brief History of Tomorrow’) but on the way. An era of Homo Proxies.

‘Proxies’ is the name I have given this species-creating aspect of CI. I have borrowed this concept from Jennifer Egan’s latest book, ‘The Candy House’. Egan comes to the idea of Proxies from a different technological development – the ability to download one’s memories – conscious and sub-conscious. In her imagining, Proxies are an escape hatch devised by those wanting to escape the tyranny of this technology.

In that sense, I have only borrowed the label from Egan. In my imagining, Proxies are a result of CI, and a means for individuals to distort the technology to entrench their power and pelf further.

Proxies will be a form of super CI that an individual will use to create multiple identities. As much of human society’s endeavours – economic, social, cultural and political – move online, an individual using Proxies will have the means to exist as multiple entities. Proxies will be a turbocharged CI – say a Super CI – that will enable an individual to digitally live and interact as multiple entities that multiply the time and the legal and social presence available to the individual. In that sense, Proxies go beyond the concept of fake identities.

While this Super CI will be expensive, the inequality that will result from proxies goes beyond the cost aspect of it. Instead, it will be more to do with the individual’s capabilities. For example, proxies-driven multiple identities are valuable and produce more economic and social capital only if the individual is either a knowledge worker or an entrepreneur.

Imagine a world where a class of individuals will enjoy unlimited “me-time” while their multiple proxies take care of worldly endeavours. It will create a different species of human beings way beyond the current divide driven by economic and social power.

Dig below the anxiety that the coming age of AI produces among many, and you will find that the possibility of proxies is part of it.

As the 21st century slips into middle age over the next couple of decades, a new leisure class will likely emerge. And to paraphrase Auguste Villiers, an elite who says, “as for earning fame and money, our proxies will do that for us”.


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