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Best of H+: Artificial Intelligence & A New Age of Magical Thinking

Artificial intelligence systems and affective technologies are making interaction with devices increasingly intuitive. A future is taking shape where our devices are coming to life and take on new functions as companions, confidants and friends. ‘Living’ technology will heighten our emotional attachment to our devices, and could even breed new forms of spiritual connection with technology.

Today, visual recognition systems like Kinect and virtual assistants like Siri already allow us to interact with devices via gestures and voice. As these technologies advance, interaction is becoming increasingly more intuitive. Devices are gaining a semantic understanding of speech beyond simple voice commands, allowing for more natural conversations. ‘Emotion sensing’ capabilities will enable devices to detect our emotions based on our facial expressions and tone of voice, making interactions richer and more affective. A new category of ‘living’ objects will emerge – intelligent devices that possess a sort of agency, and that interact with us in a way similar to the way we interact with living beings.

Since the cell phone is always with us, it is likely to be the first device that is ‘humanized’ via technology – a development that is already well underway today. It can be expected that in the future it will be common to have one — or several — virtual ‘friends’ living on our cell phones. These digital companions will converse with us, play games with us, or act as our private tutors, helping us to educate ourselves and learn new skills.

Over time, intelligent systems will be embedded in an increasing number of devices. Mike Thompson, senior vice-president at Nuance Communications, the world’s largest supplier of voice recognition technology, says ‘a wave’ of device makers is developing products that understand voice commands. Among the most anticipated products are voice controlled TVs and automobiles. Apple is rumored to be launching a Siri-integrated TV set soon, and both Samsung Electronics and LG unveiled voice-controlled sets at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last January. Auto manufacturer BMW already launched a basic voice-control system called iDrive, and has expressed great interest in integrating Siri into its vehicles.

Extrapolating this development, it does not seem far-fetched to envision car brands integrating signature AI ‘personalities’ into their vehicles in the future to make them more unique. Driving a new car would then be almost like getting to know a new person. Similarly, retailers could employ virtual brand ambassadors that assist us while shopping via digital screens in stores. AI figureheads might become the next frontier in branding, acting as a ‘living’ extension of brands. The possibility of ‘conversing’ with brands would constitute a completely new form of interactive brand experience.

Artificial characters can be expected to inhabit our living spaces, too. First appearing on the TV screen, and as technology further progresses on video wallpaper, allowing us to interact with them via gestures and voice. British company Lomox has already created a first prototype of video wallpaper using OLED (organic LED) lighting. Sony has developed a prototype OLED display that is paper-thin and so flexible that it can be wrapped around a pencil while displaying video images. As OLEDs become cheaper, it’s not hard to imagine how this technology could transform living room walls into giant flat screens. This video gives an idea of how video wallpaper could revolutionize the TV and gaming experience.

Combined with AI technology, interactive wallpaper will make our homes come alive, turning them into habitable organisms that we can personalize based on our tastes and preferences. Whole new worlds populated with AI characters will be available to us in our living spaces. Our homes will become souled sanctuaries where we can feel secure and cared for in an increasingly individualized and detached society.

AI systems have great potential for entertainment, but will also take on health and wellness-related functions. Virtual characters will help us relax and find mental balance, or even act as ‘life coaches’ that listen to our problems, provide emotional support, and offer personal development advice. By role-playing with us, such ‘therapeutic’ characters could help us train social interactions, internalize scenarios of success, and create a vision of who we want to become.

Recently, a number of new mobile apps have been launched designed to help users in their self-development and self-growth. These apps – such as Mindbloom and Sohs – don’t use AI, but as this technology further develops, it can be expected to increasingly find its way into the health and wellness field. It has been shown in experiments that even very simplistic AI systems can simulate a ‘psychotherapy’ situation that is perceived as therapeutic by users. The earliest such experiments have been performed at the MIT in the 1960ies with the chatbot ELIZA. Even though the system didn’t have any understanding of what the ‘patients’ were saying and instead just looked for certain patterns of words and replied with a pre-determined output, users took it seriously and became very emotionally involved with the computer program. There is an anecdote of a secretary who thought the machine was a ‘real’ therapist, and spent hours revealing their personal problems to the program. When she was informed that the researchers performing the experiments, of course, had access to the logs of all the conversations, she reacted with outrage at this invasion of her privacy.

AI systems that have a true semantic understanding of speech and are programmed with psychotherapy and coaching techniques could thus be very effective in therapy applications. It’s well imaginable that in the future people will turn to AI systems as a low-cost way to help them boost their self-confidence, improve their behavior, and generally be more successful in life. As job markets are becoming increasingly competitive and privilege unique ‘personal brands’, services focusing on self-development and self-realization can be expected to continue gaining popularity.

It’s a basic tenet of developmental psychology that interactions with others shape our identity and our idea of self. Even if we don’t use artificial intelligence systems to actively sculpt our identity, the mere fact that we are interacting with them nevertheless affects our personality and how we relate to others. AI systems permeating our daily life thus have the potential to alter our collective identity and humanity. It’s imaginable, for example, that being constantly around virtual friends who laugh at our jokes and are generally friendly towards us could make us more outgoing and sociable with others. On the flip side, the constant attention and encouragement from virtual characters could also lead to more self-centeredness and less patience for dealing with real human beings.

A danger associated with artificial intelligence systems is their ability to purposefully manipulate us. Manufacturers of consumer products, for example, could develop virtual companions who give us the feeling of being liked and needed, thereby earning our trust and sympathy. Such virtual ‘friends’ could then take advantage of our affection towards them by subtly influencing our consumer behavior. Lonely people or children are prime targets for such a form of psychological manipulation.

If our devices become ‘alive’ via AI technology, our emotional attachment to them can be expected to increase significantly. Already today, the fear of being separated from one’s phone, a condition known as Nomophobia, is on the rise. According to new research by OnePoll on behalf of UK firm SecurEnvoy, 77 percent of those aged between 18 and 24 in the UK say they feel anxious if they become separated from their mobile phone. Devices acting as a mediator for spiritual self-discovery and self-realization could even take on religious connotations. New quasi-religious rites could emerge that are based on interactions with artificial intelligence systems. AI entities would thus adopt similar functions as those traditionally ascribed to church and religion.

Future generations born into a world where artificial intelligence systems are commonplace might be rationally aware that the intelligences that surround them are artificial, but since they seem so ‘alive’, they will bond with them on an emotional and spiritual level nevertheless. This will create a new sense of connectedness with our surroundings, where the transition between objects and animate beings becomes increasingly fluid. ‘Living’ technology could thereby give rise to a new age of magical thinking, similar to the way indigenous people believed in deities inhabiting trees, rocks and other things that surrounded them. An era that is extremely technologically advanced could thus, ironically, be largely governed by irrational belief and archaic animism, rather than rationalism. Ultimately, such a new reality will raise the question if we are still in control of technology, or if in fact technology is taking control of us.

Max Celko is a writer, trends forecaster and innovation consultant. His main focus is new developments in media, communication and technology, and their interdependence with society and economy. Follow him on Twitter/MaxCelko.


  1. The consequences will also be political and science-fiction can be a good tool to think about it. See for example Yannick Rumpala, Artificial intelligences and political organization: an exploration based on the science fiction work of Iain M. Banks, Technology in Society, Volume 34, Issue 1, 2012.

  2. also think about AI stalkers that target individuals on behalf of corporations, gov institutions or private individuals is a reasonable expectation.

    AI stalkerbots would seem to motivate defensive AI to block stalker and predatory AI. (like the Libyan bankerbot that hacked into my video shirt).

    As AI price point falls, this attack/defense dynamic could lead to a rapid proliferation of AI intermediation.