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Most of us seem to be hardwired to imagine what could go wrong in the future. And this way of thinking about the future has certainly served humanity well, allowing our ancestors to anticipate possible dangers and survive long enough to procreate, the very reason why we are here.

Since I have started learning about the futures of justice and its many weak signals and most often unnoticed or neglected expressions in the present, I have been having mixed feelings if fair, equitable, inclusive, and just futures are possible. What keeps me going in my quest to learn about its many possibilities and articulate the future that I aspire to, is the very role of the futurist. Futurists have to be aware of what possibilities might emerge and use these images to course an emergent pathway to a desired future.

Game developer and futurist Jane McGonigal urges us to be urgent optimists; to respond positively in addressing challenges and having a reasonable optimism for success. Subscribing to this idea, I have done a conscious exercise to wipe my lens clear in looking at a couple of emerging issues that might negatively impact possible futures. I have used a question provided by Jane in a course I am taking to deliberately focus on what could go right: based on the issues at hand, what actions might people try to make these future worlds better?

Futurists, of course, should never replace multiple scenarios with rose-colored glasses to only consider positive futures. That would be a betrayal of the profession. What I am doing in this article is trying to balance the slew of negative anticipation going around, focusing on the issue of deepfakes and imitation bots.

Deepfake combines the words deep learning and fake to refer to a synthetic media, an image replaced with somebody else’s likeness. The generated visual and audio content is used to spread pornographic videos, fake news, and other forms of fraud. The current use of simulacrum could be combined with auto-tuning to improve the speaker’s voice, and in the future will be made language agnostic, wherein the person’s voice is used to speak in another language, and the video synchronized to avoid the awkward timing when doing translated voice-overs.

Bots, on the other hand, are software applications that run automated tasks. Imitation bots mimic human behavior expressed in conversation. They are extremely helpful for websites when there is no human to answer inquiries and provide additional information. However, they receive a lot of flak from people who prefer to converse with humans.

Current versions of deepfakes and imitation bots are yet young versions of these technologies, that in the Internet of Actions (IoA) are used as a means of altering perception, especially in visual communication. As such these technologies are very prone to misuse, reason enough for many to be wary of them. However, the potential for it’s beneficent use should not be discounted either.

It’s a bit of a stretch - and in no way an easy task - to think of multiple optimistic possibilities for these technologies that are being seen in negative light and being marred with ethical questions on their use. My motivation is to flex my anticipation muscles towards positive imagination.

Here are ten things that could go right for the more pervasive use of deep fakes in the future:

  • Psychologists and therapists could design a method of using deepfakes as prompts to help people with amnesia and memory problems to recall some memories, if not to totally regain them.

  • In the same way, psychologists and therapists could use deepfakes in therapy to help address trauma and other deep-seated psychological issues.

  • Event planners could make use of deepfakes to create personalized avatars for online or holographic family and corporate celebrations, making the event “complete” with people who are not actually able to come.

  • Coaches and mentors could use deepfakes to inspire the youth for the future by creating an avatar for their future self to converse and reflect with.

  • Governments could use deepfakes in criminal justice, using it to elicit responses from criminals, witnesses, and victims that might bring light into certain cases.

  • Academic institutions could use deepfakes to deliver complex lessons, making inventors, experts, and innovators come alive explaining their ideas and inventions in a light, understandable, and demonstrative manner. Imagine Einstein explaining the Theory of Relativity.

  • Local governments could use deepfakes in tourism where famous people from their locality can come to life as holograms to give a tour, virtual or not, of their hometown.

  • Coaches and gurus could use deepfakes to teach people about empathy in immersive virtual reality learning experiences where they could converse with animals and understand their plight.

  • Pre-school teachers could use deepfakes to enable children to step in other people’s shoes so that they would better understand other people’s circumstance and where they are coming from.

In exploring optimistic possibilities on the ubiquitous use of imitation bots in the future, I have imagined these images:

  • Youth workers could use imitation bots to help young people who feel dejected without the need to call for external help or a therapist. Mental health professionals might make a person feel more of a psychological case rather than themselves. Imitation bots might be used as a safe means to have somebody who could offer sound and impartial advice while also being empathetic and funny.

  • Imitation bots are currently being used to assist in online shopping. However, imitation bots of the future could help make online shopping experience and customer support more pleasant for customers, as they directly answer questions, offer advice, and provide additional information on products, as well as simply being “shopping companions” for people who don’t have family or friends to shop with, online or in physical stores.

  • Imitation bots could save family occasions of people who are extremely busy and could not, for some reason, be present in important family conversations or gatherings.

  • Human resource managers could use imitation bots for interviewing work candidates so that on the part of the applicant they are receiving personalized treatment, while on the side of the company, they are being fully objective in dealing with all applicants.

  • Imitation bots could be used for mentoring or teaching soft skills, or what I would call super skills, like leadership, collaboration, empathy, and compassion.

  • In this story a man who could not get over the death of his fiancée used an obscure website to “talk” to her again. In the same vein, imitation bots could be used for therapy so that the patients receive specialized or customized treatment while retaining full objectivity.

  • Imitation bots could be used to provide regular and human-like conversation for the elderly who do not have family to check on them nor any friends to talk to.

  • Imitation bots could be used as a humane tool to provide companions for prisoners in solitary confinement. This could be programmed by the penal authority if the prisoner should have conversations with a therapist bot, law enforcement bot, or a spiritual advisor bot.

  • Imitation bots could be used to help people with speaking disabilities converse with whoever they like or need to talk to, in their own words, in an adapted version of their voice.

  • Imitation bots could be used to rally a team or group towards a certain goal or target, ensuring that each player or worker is inspired or motivated and reminded of the goal or the objective of a project or games.

  • In the movie Her, an AI provides love and companionship for a lonely writer. In the future, more sophisticated versions of imitation bots could provide companionship to people who withdraw from society, Hikikomori, and maybe even be able to convince them back to the society.

It helps to ask fundamental questions when looking at an emerging issue. For this instance, you might ask, is there any bias in the technology? How is it being used illegally or unethically? If so, how can it be addressed? What are the positive prospects for its use? Asking these questions ensures that we are looking at it from different angles. In futures, there are infinite possibilities. It is just as important to imagine the opportunities a change could bring as anticipating the risks it poses.

Is there any emerging issue you are worried about? What about it worries you? What are your assumptions about it? Might your initial judgement of it be wrong? Have you tried looking at it from a different perspective? Have you instead asked yourself what could go right? By practicing positive imagination, we are drawing out possitibilities, (positive possibilities), and engaging in conversations on how to make opportunities out of risks, thus helping create preferred futures.

© Shiela R Castillo 2021

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