May 26th 2023
“We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.
In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late.
This is no time for apathy or complacency.”
Martin Luther King Jr.
Many of the problems that humans deal with today, such as racism, sexism, authoritarianism, pandemics, slavery, and war, have existed in some form for thousands of years. These issues are not new, and humanity has been able to make progress on many of them. But rapidly escalating digital technologies are creating new problems and unprecedented dangers that humanity has never before had to face. Children and adults will need to learn essential skills for navigating the complex societal disruptions caused not only by reality, but also by Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality, and various forms of Artificial Intelligence such as Large Language Models (LLMs).
Describing the unprecedented time in which we live, AI innovator Geoffrey Hinton said the following about ChatGPT and other LLMs, “We’re entering a time of great uncertainty, where we’re dealing with kinds of things we have never dealt with before. It’s as if aliens have landed, but we didn’t really take it in because they speak good English.”
In the past, our societal response to disruptive digital technologies has been far too slow. In 2023, governmental and educational institutions are still trying to come to grips with the many ways in which smartphones and social media – technologies that started to become mainstream over a decade ago – impact children, civil society, and attention, along with our information ecosphere, political systems, and basic ability to trust.
In 2019 I taught a Peace Literacy workshop to a school district, and the teachers and principals asked me what they should do about the problem of smartphones in their classes. In that moment, I realized they were asking this question thirteen years too late.
I recalled being in the Army in 2006 when it was issuing Blackberries to soldiers. These adults found these new smartphones so compelling and hard to put down that they began calling them “Crackberries.” In fact, Crackberry was the Word of the Year in 2006. Blackberries seem archaic today, relative to the technologies now available to both adults and children.
If soldiers, whom we think of as disciplined, were having addiction issues with Blackberries, what happens when over 90% of adolescents have access to contemporary smartphones that are a thousand times more capable than a Blackberry? Where AI, VR, and AR are concerned, we cannot afford to be thirteen years too late again.
Unfortunately, our society is at great risk of being much too late, once again. This might not seem to be the case, because there has been a lot of recent mass media attention on the dangers of AI. However, most of this attention has been reactive and unhelpful. Instead of providing the kind of forethought that can help people get several steps ahead of rapidly advancing technology, so much media attention involves reacting to the trail that new technology leaves behind. For example, practically no mainstream media articles that discuss Large Language Models such as ChatGPT have mentioned Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality, even though these immersive technologies are well-situated to become the primary ways in which people in the future interact with LLMs and other forms of generative AI.
If people find it compelling to type to an LLM (and they do), imagine how much more mesmerizing it will be when VR/AR devices allow people to make eye contact with, sit next to, and speak to an LLM that looks like a photorealistic human exhibiting believable facial expressions. Imagine how much more useful and powerful LLMs will be when they can access the sensors in a VR/AR device in order to continually perceive and contextualize a person’s surroundings from a human-oriented perspective in real-time. Imagine how much more spellbinding and addictive LLMs will be when they can help generate not just static art images, but dynamic worlds that people can feel embodied in through VR/AR. These dynamic worlds will be social spaces that allow people from around the globe to interact with each other in new ways. Anything that people can imagine, they will also be able to see, hear, touch, and share with others, instantaneously. Because billions of people today are vulnerable to addiction, manipulation, and exploitation, the positive potential of this technology brings with it an even greater potential for peril. To prepare children (and adults) for this future, we must not repeat the mistakes of the past. We need at least to be aware of what is coming and what is already here.
There was almost no mainstream media attention focused on GPT-1 (released by OpenAI in 2018) and GPT-2 (released in 2019), and little attention on GPT-3 (released in 2020). Most reporters had probably never heard of GPT until version 3.5, known as ChatGPT, was released to the public in late 2022. There has been a similar lack of mainstream media attention on the dramatic advancements in computer vision. This is the field of AI that Apple, Meta, and other tech companies are accelerating at an unprecedented pace, which makes new VR/AR systems possible and is set to drastically disrupt our world in combination with LLMs. When Apple announces its first VR/AR headset on June 5th, 2023, which it has been working on for over seven years at a cost of billions of dollars and a project team of well over 1000 engineers, it will have joined the nascent revolution to liberate AI from the prison of conventional flat screens. But with the continued lag in media attention and education, many people will not even realize this revolution is happening until it is too late.
Consider an analogy with the development of cell phones. In 1993, it wasn't obvious to most people that big, clunky cellphones and the newly emerging mass-market internet would end up becoming the same technology, in the form of a sleek, streamlined smartphone that greatly amplifies the power and potential of the internet.
Similarly, in 2023, it isn't obvious to most people that big, clunky VR/AR headsets and newly emerging mass-market AI will end up becoming the same technology, in the form of a sleek, streamlined, wearable device that greatly amplifies the power and potential of AI.
The long race toward this sleek, streamlined, wearable VR/AR device that makes current LLMs seem like the horse-and-buggy has only just begun. In early 2023, Samsung and Google announced that they are partnering to develop a new VR/AR headset, and Meta is releasing a new VR/AR headset this fall, the Quest 3. This will fuel an arms race with Apple that gradually makes these devices much smaller and cheaper, and far more comfortable and powerful.
The Apple Vision Pro, a VR/AR headset that Apple revealed to the public after I wrote this, is pictured above.
Because it might take three or four more years before VR/AR starts to become mainstream, this creates a vital opportunity. We have a chance to be proactive and get ahead of this rapidly advancing technology by escalating Peace Literacy education, for children and adults alike.
To empower people to thrive in the unprecedented and uncharted technological waters that humanity is now entering, Peace Literacy views peace not merely as a goal, but as a set of practical skills needed to confront the root causes of aggression and mistrust in our society, transform global problems into greater peace and justice, navigate rapidly advancing technology with discernment and grace, and fulfill non-physical needs such as purpose, meaning, belonging, and self-worth in healthy ways. Peace Literacy explains why the most dangerous weapons in the twenty-first century are not bullets and bombs, but the weaponization of mistrust, alienation, rage, disillusionment, cynicism, and other tangles of trauma, which make all forms of violence more likely. Smartphones and social media have given people the ability to weaponize and amplify these tangles of trauma in new ways. VR, AR, and AI will offer far more powerful methods to exploit and weaponize humanity’s pain and vulnerability.
Peace Literacy offers a deep and thorough examination of the human condition that sheds new light on why VR, AR, and AI are critical peace issues, while empowering us to proactively protect the many layers of the human condition vulnerable to exploitation. Smartphones and social media have disrupted every aspect of our society, but this will be a ripple compared to the tsunami that VR, AR, and AI have the potential to unleash.
To counterbalance our rapidly escalating technological power, Peace Literacy helps students develop their capacity for conscience, empathy, and discernment in ways that escalate the power of their humanity. Curriculum designed by the Peace Literacy Institute (PLI) is currently being used in pre-K through 12th grade and higher education, and PLI is already harnessing the revolutionary educational opportunities made possible by VR to enhance and deepen the teaching of Peace Literacy. The Peace Literacy VR curriculum is called Navigating the Human Condition. It takes students on an epic journey into the human condition, where they learn to unlock and develop their vast potential to thrive and wage peace.
Peace Literacy was influenced by my training with civil rights leaders who worked with Martin Luther King, Jr. The leaders of the civil rights movement had a mission to equip people with the power of waging peace. Peace Literacy advances their mission and vision. As humanity enters the unprecedented and uncharted waters of VR, AR, and AI, the need for Peace Literacy and the power of waging peace will become even more urgent. In this regard, King's words about the “fierce urgency of now” are more relevant than ever, and a reminder that we cannot be thirteen years too late again.
Paul K. Chappell
HOW YOU CAN HELP
PLI is embarking on a multi-year training and data-gathering project to scale up Peace Literacy in the US and around the globe. You can help sponsor an educator from our first cohort in the project (please note “sponsorship” with your donation). We will keep you informed about how your donation is putting peace in action for educators and their students.