Who Controls the Owner of The Matrix?

Tim Metz (孟田)
9 min readNov 24, 2014

Post #14, 2014.11.24 | An Idiot’s Guide to the Future

When thinking about the future, The Matrix is not a bad place to start. Produced in 1999, the movie still feels remarkably accurate today. In fact, having recently watched it again, I’d argue it makes even more sense now than it did back in 1999.

In The Matrix, the human race has been enslaved by machines. The only catch? We don’t know, because they have plugged a computer simulation directly into our brains. This program, called The Matrix, makes us believe we’re living our lives as we’ve always done and the year is 1999. In reality, we’re well into the 22nd century, our physical bodies stuck in cocoons serving as en energy source for the machines.

This might sound pretty far-fetched and hopefully we’ll never find ourselves in a fake, computer-simulated world. But looking at current developments, a scenario where we create robots and AI (artificial intelligence) exponentially smarter than us is not that unlikely. In fact, it seems that’s exactly where we’re going to end up one way or the other. Once that happens, whether we’ll find ourselves in a Matrix-like situation is anyone’s guess.

If this all sounds completely new, alien and/or crazy to you, let me update you on a few things before moving ahead:

  • Ray Kurzweil, the guy who believes we can copy our brains onto a hard disk before the end of this century and live forever (amongst a few other things), currently holds a very senior position at Google (Director of Engineering);
  • Speaking of Google; they’ve snapped up almost every major robotics and AI company on the planet over the past few years;
  • Not to be outdone by Google, the likes of Facebook, Amazon, Apple and major governments around the world are all pouring massive amounts of money into AI and robotics research as well.

These developments are not trivial. The future doesn’t just arrive one day, it’s invented. Since Silicon Valley is currently at the forefront of shaping our (technological) lives, you can bet it will come to resemble how Kurzweil, Google and others over there envision it. Whether we truly turn ourselves into cyborgs (merging body and mind with machine) or hyper-augment our capabilities with super smart external devices (smartphones and wearables on steroids), only time will tell. Either way the changes will be dramatic and therefore raise many questions for all of us.

One of those questions concerns the people and companies making these inventions happen. Who are they and even more importantly, what are their world views and beliefs? All is well and good when they’re just in charge of delivering us a new version of the iPhone, but what we’re talking about now is a whole different ball game. This technological trajectory is set to exponentially increase the capabilities of whoever has access to these upcoming inventions. They will do nothing less than create a form of superhuman. Someone able to live two, three or even ten times longer than the have-nots. This in addition to an intelligence of at least a similar multifold, likely with robotically enhanced “physical” strength to top things off. In other words, it will be an entirely new human race.

Who will set eligibility requirements for getting access to such powerful technology? Probably those who invent it. If we’re lucky it will be affordable for all, but a more realistic scenario will be relatively expensive products out of reach for most people on this planet.

Even worse might be accessibility conditions not related to money: only for people above a certain intelligence, those below or above a specific age, only individuals graduated from Stanford, and so on. There are obviously some very smart people in Silicon Valley, but smart doesn’t always equal humane and social. Moreover, who determines whether the average moral compass and social ideas in California are the “right” ones for the world?

Let’s take as an example Google’s infamous corporate mantra: “don’t be evil”*. Of course this is a virtuous and admirable goal to strive for, especially as a publicly traded company with tons of shareholders to please. But from a purely ethical and philosophical standpoint, the slogan itself is already inherently flawed. As any self-respecting journalist or philosopher can tell you, there is no such thing as true objectivity**. Who decides what is “good” and what is “evil”? Sergey Brin and Larry Page? Google’s employees? Their shareholders? An algorithm?

Good versus evil lives in the realm of fairy tales. The real world is hardly ever black and white like that. And the guys in charge in Silicon Valley are largely still that; predominantly white guys, usually slightly geeky, who have spent most of their time in front of computer screens building companies from the West Coast of the USA. Are they well-rounded in the wonders of the world? Have they truly emerged themselves in different cultures and people, to understand the complexities of life and be able to separate the good from the evil? Judging from most posts and interviews I read online with entrepreneurs in that part of the world, I can’t help but feel they live in their own little bubble, not fully grasping what reality looks like for the other 99% of the planet***. Can they really know what’s right for someone in Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America or even Canada for that matter? Will they choose to judge whether people should get access to their technologies based on specific criteria they deem “right”?

Taking a leap of faith nevertheless, we’ll assume they are currently to be considered “good” and know what they’re doing. There’s an abundance of leaders across the world, who originally started as kind-hearted rebels, overthrowing an evil regime. They then got into power themselves and slowly turned into the worst tyrants the world has ever seen.

“Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
- John Dalberg-Acton

To make matters worse, people tend to get more peculiar, eccentric and stubborn as they get older, especially those grown accustomed to great power and wealth throughout their lives. Robert Mugabe in Zimbabwe is probably the best embodiment of all this, viewed by some as a hero in the late 70’s, but now still clinging to power by any means at the tender age of 90, since having taken control in the 80’s. There are countless other examples, and not only in Africa (just to be clear).

Who ensures that kind of power-corruption**** doesn’t happen to those wielding God-like technologies in the decades to come? Mark Zuckerberg might well hold the keys to a Matrix-like experience for us all*****, now that Facebook owns the most advanced virtual reality headset manufacturer, Oculus Rift. Google is probably best positioned to create an AI smarter than the entire human population combined before the end of this century. With Ray Kurzweil and his team sifting through the enormous amount of data and insights Google has at its disposal, in addition to more or less infinite (financial) resources, it’s more a question of when than of if.

Though it might seem like it, this is not an argument against Google or Facebook per se. On the contrary. If I was forced to choose right now between trusting any government around the wold or putting Google and Facebook in charge, I’d rather go with the latter. I’m incredibly impressed by the long-term view Google clearly takes (as opposed to going for short-term shareholder value) and I’m not amongst the many who constantly predict Facebook’s demise. Not only does Zuckerberg seem extremely passionate and committed to building a great company, his business moves are also clearly aimed at playing the long game.

Unfortunately their current intentions can’t guarantee what will happen once these Godlike powers come into existence and under their control. Like with any business framework, agreements are best made at the earliest stage, before things go either very well or very bad (both leading to trouble when terms are not in place). It would therefore be good to start working on certain codes of conduct in the coming years. As this will affect us al, ideally through a representation of people from around the world and all walks of life. At the very least through self-imposed regulations by the current dominant players.

What should such guidelines look like? For starters they shouldn’t be about denying the inventors ownership nor profits. But just like there are ongoing discussions about who should own the data which tech companies collect on their users, similar considerations are even more necessary (and complicated) looking at what lies ahead.

Some of the topics to be covered off should be:

  • How can we refrain from imposing accessibility limitations on these technologies based on arbitrary factors such as intelligence, nationality and so on?
  • How should choices related to instilling morals and ethics into an AI be made? Can those for example be overseen by an independent and multinational body representing the world’s population?
  • How can we ensure people’s privacy of thought****** and ownership of data generated through these upcoming products and services?
  • How can misuse by both governments and criminal organisations be avoided (if your brain is on a hard disk or at least directly connected to some super smart device, the NSA reading your emails and Facebook messages would be the least of your worries)?
  • How can those who own the companies controlling these technologies be overseen to not abuse the enormous power they will wield?

Once you get into this discussion, the above topics will probably turn out to be only the tip of the iceberg. Finding solutions will not be easy, as a delicate balance will have to be struck between companies being able to guard their intellectual property and confidential information from their competitors, while at the same time guarding the interest and safety of humanity at large.

Whether such guidelines can come into being in the next few years therefore remains to be seen. They’re only a small part of all the implications we need to consider with the technology we’re creating, but if we really want to “not be evil”, this might be a good place to start.

— — -

* Google’s official Code of Conduct, starting with “Don’t be evil.”

** Computer scientists might disagree, arguing a computer or, oh the irony, an AI, can be truly objective, which is exactly why we should be having this discussion in the first place ☺

*** Don’t get me wrong, by this I don’t mean “they’re all rich and we’re all poor and people in Africa have nothing to eat”. But even comparing amongst entrepreneurs around the world, those in Silicon Valley seem to consider it totally normal to pick up a few million in venture capital for a random lame app / product / whatever idea (Tinder for nannies, Uber for Rickshaws, that kind of stuff). They manage to blow through that money within a span of 1 — 2 years and then go out on the internet to herald their great “struggle” to the world. Most entrepreneurs I know would call that a walk in the park.

**** It’s not just about abusing power because of a lust of power. Someone might be convinced by his own beliefs, intellect and surroundings that his views are in the long-term best for the human race, therefore using their power to benefit or disadvantage specific groups in society based on those convictions.

***** I’m not saying it’s his intention to create The Matrix and enslave us all. But he might be creating a monster without realising it, his views might change and/or it might fall out of his control at some point in the future.

****** If that sounds crazy, you should see my Evernote, which currently already serves as a true external brain to me. It holds everything from my ideas, diary entries, everything work and business-related and so on. Anyone who gains access to it can guess at least 20 — 40% of what’s going on in my head. Now I know this is not (yet) representative of the average person, but as it becomes easier and easier to store and do things digitally and through the cloud, I have no doubt this is where we’re headed. Either Evernote and/or similar services, in combination with our devices, will hold and keep track of more and more of our most private data and thoughts within the decades to come.

Other references



Tim Metz (孟田)

Content Marketing Manager at @animalzco. Cofounder at @getsaent.