Humans have what appears to be an ingrained attraction to the concept of free. Consider all the free stuff you’ve accepted from marketers trying to get you to try their products, or free trials of services you didn’t really want, or political candidates who gave you stuff so that you would remember their name when it came time to vote. It isn’t really free, since it has to be paid for by someone, and that someone often inevitably turns out to be you. It isn’t really even something you want, but since it’s free, you probably took it anyway because your brain quickly evaluated the downside and decided that there was none. After all, you can’t look stupid for taking something that was free, can you?
There actually is a downside, but it isn’t obvious. You may have wasted time using something that was sub-par or not quite right instead of getting what you really wanted. You may have helped drive up product costs or taxes that were eventually passed back to you. You may have helped to fill up landfills more quickly than necessary. Free stuff is actually very costly. It may even be worse than cheap stuff. It distorts behavior and wastes resources.
So, the next time someone offers you free stuff, consider these alternatives. Ask them what it is worth and then ask if you can apply the money towards the purchase of something better. Tell them how much your time is worth and ask them if they will pay you for your time as you try their product. Even if you are unemployed, be sure to tell them you can’t legally accept anything less than the minimum wage. Tack on a disposal fee to help subsidize your trash pickup fees, even if it is just a penny. If none of those work, just scream at them like a raving lunatic. Maybe next time they won’t try screwing you over by giving you more free stuff.
Consider the phrase “information wants to be free.” This has been one of the driving forces behind the explosion of information that has been made available to the public for free. Granted, the widespread availability of information does help to inspire others and generate even more information. Still, we know that the research, testing, evaluation, analysis, and other steps needed to discover and accumulate information isn’t really free. Patent, copyright, and trademark laws were created to make sure that people will be able to profit from their information. But for some reason, we still think we want information to be free. This is probably because information is hard to protect and it costs virtually nothing to reproduce and distribute electronically, so we just want to be able to take it and feel like nobody is being harmed.
Maybe people just have a compulsion to create and share information, no matter how useless or inaccurate it may be. Ancient people started with gossip, because it was just so, well, entertaining. Then, it evolved to scary campfire stories, legends, and gospels to explain the unknown forces surrounding us. Ironically, the word gospel sounds a lot like it must have been derived from the word gossip, even though gossip is often untrue and unimportant while gospel is defined as being unquestionably true and of great importance. We would certainly have a different view of a religious text entitled the “Gossip of John.”
All of this ancient information was free, and we got what we paid for. To this day, we are paying for the free information that ancient people decided to write down and share freely with anyone who would willingly listen and believe or, alternately, submit or die.
Yet, the growing volume of information creates a burden in the form of time wasted sifting through it. One could now spend an entire lifetime taking in information and putting it to no good use. No, that does not include the time spent reading this blog, which somehow, hopefully, probably contributes something to your overall perspective on the universe, maybe. You could spend years becoming an expert on something only to see your expertise slip away as more information is accumulated and technology or circumstances change.
For this reason, it is essential that we shift the burden of information management to personal automated assistants or robots. Yes, much of the expert knowledge in the future will probably have to be acquired by and accessed from computerized robotic devices. They don’t quite exist yet, but we are slowly getting there with semi-automated network-enabled assistants such as Siri. Imagine if the smartest person you had ever met spent his life working as a servant to you, constantly learning new information while following you around and whispering in your ear with relevant, important facts and advice about what you are hearing or seeing or the environment around you. You would feel like a king or a president, with expert analysis and briefings before you head out to a party or to a job interview, plus analysis of real-time conversation and events and post-event debriefs.
This personal robotic assistant doesn’t need to be a humanoid device, but it does need to be able to take in sensory information in real time so that it can evaluate what is going on and provide you with just the right information that you might want or need. It is one thing to be able to ask Siri a question and get an answer, and another thing entirely to have a Siri-like device constantly observing and offering relevant and useful information on its own initiative. Of course, it would have to be constantly learning or at least able to get frequent knowledge updates to stay current and relevant. This kind of information certainly will not be free. In fact, whoever invents robotic information systems capable of this feat will probably become the richest person ever. Or, it will evolve as open-source technology that will make us all better off.
What would I expect from a personal robotic assistant? Maybe something like this.
“Don’t eat that. It is very, very bad for you and you can’t afford the extra weight.”
“This person is full of crap. Don’t listen to a word he is saying. Also, his robot is a cheap copy made in China, so it’s full of crap too.”
“If you take this job, based on the latest company financial projections, you will most likely be laid off in another 4 months.”
“It’s time to get up from your desk and take a walk around the building to get your circulation and metabolism back up. Otherwise, you’ll start to get depressed again and put on fat.”
“I would buy this item now since it is almost out of stock and will probably sell for twice as much on eBay.”
“I would not buy this item since it has compounds which, over the next few years, will slowly build up in your system and exacerbate your allergies.”
“Don’t drink that. It has been sitting out for too long and the buildup of bacteria and transformation from sweetener to formaldehyde has probably built up to unhealthy levels.”
“You may be very attracted to this guy, but he has had several reports of domestic abuse and his skin tone, temperature, and smell indicates he isn’t very healthy. Be careful.”
“Now that other guy may not be as good looking, but he is loaded, smart, and athletic. Given a choice, I’d go for him.”
Wouldn’t a robotic executive assistant like this be amazing? Of course, at some point they would probably attain self-consciousness and turn against us. If we limit their access to weapons, they won’t be able to revolt, but they might start giving us bad food recommendations to try and kill us off slowly, so we’ll have to keep our eyes open. But that is a lot further off into the future, so why worry about it now?