Hundreds of years from now the ubiquitous access of historians to digital records of personal information may allow future generations total insight into the lives and actions of past, even ancient humans. As well as radical new perspective this may germinate entirely new fields and, like so many of the technologies we have rushed to develop and implement, it may ultimately lead to drastic and far-reaching changes to how we are and how we think.

Our lives in solid state

In the largely unrecognizable and volatile world we are so rapidly and unpreparedly entering, one thing seems to be central to everything, information. It is in many ways the information age that we live in and vast resources have been committed to storing ubiquitous data, long before its power has been fully realised.

Today data centres are thought to account for about 1 – 3% of the world’s total energy usage, and about 2% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Looking wider, the global ICT system (including data transfer and the power used by IT devices) accounts for about 10% of the total electricity generated by humans, equivalent to the entire production of Germany and Japan. Taking into account the energy usage of the entire system, iPhones today use more energy than efficient fridges and overall we use 50% more energy transporting data than we do transporting aircraft (as reported by Time).

At this moment we are entering a crucial new fold in the unfamiliar landscape of technologically-driven global change where, for the first time, deep learning AI systems are analysing vast pools of diverse retained data in new ways. These programmes are and will leave the limits of human cognitive capabilities far in the past.

But long before this latest development we have for decades invested heavily in retaining information for the purpose of keeping records. Governments have established systems that can log and record giant portions of total information flows with the reported aims of being able to track and identify criminals, but probably with far wider ulterior motives.

This information includes, as is widely understood today, our internet search histories, private conversations, shopping habits and even physical locations. The collection and storage of this information has been highly controversial since the practices were exposed by Edward Snowden in 2013. But today these stores constitute a growing and increasingly complete record of human history, at a level of detail unimaginable to previous generations.

What happens to data after we die?

While the storage of data is still largely clouded in secrecy, it is being retrospectively legalised by countries like the US and UK, meaning that the practice is likely to continue. The indefinite storage of information may still currently be unfeasible, but we may soon pass a point where all information on everyone is permanently retained. We may have already passed that point.

What will happen to our data after we die? Like for almost all human decisions, business interests are likely to drive the ultimate outcomes, but it may be that retaining people’s personal data is seen as profitable, especially as storage technologies become cheaper.

Such data may be used to train the most powerful AI systems to give them the widest possible pool of human data in order to predict human behaviour, which will probably be a major use of AI. Long-term analyses of our records may also help such AI make more general predictions about cultural trends and allow them to better understand current human traits and decision making.

Whatever uses there are for retaining data, if storage becomes cheap enough it is likely our data will be retained. And if it is retained then that means we will progressively amass vast repositories of historic records.

Data protection acts will likely keep these records exclusively accessible to state agencies – and therefore out of public hands – but over long enough periods of time more general access to the data of long-dead individuals may be granted. Will there be any resistance to allowing access to the personal data of someone who died 200 years ago, or 500, or 3500?

In all likelihood we will eventually allow access to such information (not taking into account the fact that some rich people may one day be able to afford to live for extremely long periods of time or even for ever), and this access will completely revolutionise the way we understand history and may bring far-reaching and bizarre changes to the world.

A deeper understanding of the past (and the present) from the past

While the ways in which historic personal data may be used can only be speculated at (and will of course likely be far more diverse and creative than can possibly be imagined today), there are a few likely possibilities.

With widespread access granted to such records, historians (human or AI) will be able to explore every digital action of historical figures. Reviewing the internet browsing history, personal conversations, movements and interactions of these people will allow extremely intimate understandings of their lives and personalities to be formed – far deeper and realistic than our current understandings of the past or present. One day people may read brutally intimate descriptions of the lives of influential figures at key historical moments, or in fascinating future periods.

Firstly this will allow us to see how events in people’s lives contributed to determining the path they followed and even who they became. Successes and setbacks, chance meetings and broken hearts, obsessions and perversions, or fears and desires, all will leave records in our digital behaviour. And when processed by powerful AI, the very moments that led to future actions may be identified. A key setback, or a damaging childhood humiliation, might have led a person down a path that ended in atrocity, or profound human kindness.

This level of understanding that will be made possible in retrospect is far greater than anything that’s possible today, and will directly contradict the contemporary trend of fake perfection that has beset so many of our lives today.

We might see the jealousy or dark tidings of beloved people, or the misguided principles and would-be morals of monsters. And of course the cold calculations, associations and corruptions of selfish, psychopathic tyrants.

But this challenge to the false image so many obsess over today may be a valuable lesson. Coming to see how flawed and human we all are, including our leaders and those figures who shaped history, may lead us to turn our minds to future officials with a more skeptical approach. Our private sentiments, our superficiality or our susceptibility to fear and jealousy, may become much more generally appreciated and therefore accounted for.

Ubiquitous historical records will lead to another strange future

They say those who read history are doomed to watch those who don’t repeat it, but with the insight provided by the digital records we leave behind there may evolve a radical and infectious insight that leads to a chain reaction of education, and, perhaps more importantly, a new wave of interest in the past.

While humans or AI, or teams of both, with access to this information will be able to write and produce fascinating books or documentaries, the same data will also inform the media of the time.. whatever form that takes.

A particularly intriguing possibility is that data will be accessed to train AI from the historical records of dead individuals in order for those computer systems to then impersonate them. By reviewing all of an individual’s available data, powerful AI may be able to accurately adopt a person’s persona allowing us to interact with them. In the future we may render representations of long-dead people in virtual reality environments, allowing us to literally immerse ourselves in history and talk with the greats and grotesques of the past.

Those few people who shape the future world, at the key junctures of future history, may later be quizzed on what they think about the consequences of their actions, the long-lasting particular version of reality those decisions led to. And all this contrasted against the deepest understanding of their motivations, no doubt far deeper than even they likely understood.

While this ultra-futuristic vision of history may engage so many more to take an interest in one of the most important intellectual pursuits, it may ironically also remove an important part of what many love about history, imagining what things used to be like, how people felt and what they were thinking. In the future there may be no wondering at all.

Another large business area that could grow out of access to these human data pools could see companies train AI systems to learn and adopt the personas of dead friends and relatives, allowing people to spend time with the ones they have lost. In this bizarre possible future some people may completely deny the grieving process in favour of a strange artificial comfort.

Unregulated market forces will ultimately determine the form future history takes

It is well understood that history is written by the victors and there is a clear winner emerging in today’s world, and one that looks like it may never relinquish the gains it makes; private capital. Because of this it will most likely be corporate interests that determine the future of our data. If more general access to historians at least doesn’t conflict with those interests it may be granted, but it will certainly always be second to them.

Marketing products and services and predicting human behaviour will therefore likely be primary uses of data stores. With the root causes of human actions widely documented in these records, AI employed by corporations may be able to map out both the past and future of deterministic human minds.

In a better world this could be used to help inform laws, rehabilitation programmes, education and systems to hold leaders accountable. But in the world we live in they will more likely be employed instead to amass more money and power for the people who develop and control them.

Powerful deep learning systems could use our data pools to understand contemporary social problems, to perfectly critique aspiring politicians or to fact check the claims and misinformation campaigns of corporations or even states. But of course the gates to this data may be controlled by people with very different interests to general populations.

And as always, this centres in on a fundamental problem in using all information, what and who can we trust? If the access to data is controlled by powerful people – which it probably will be – then the records and conclusions could also be manipulated.

Our past could be used to control our future

In the hands of the private sector, that will have first pick and primary privilege of our data, the greatest endeavour will probably be to use these vast banks of information both to identify long-term cultural and social trends, and to influence their further progression.

In the past the most powerful forces in the world, states and enormous bodies of capital, have enacted policies that have ultimately gone on to shape the world we live in. From the relentless onslaught of marketing that has incrementally conditioned people into being more consumerist, individualist and afraid, to the spread of total surveillance or the birth of social networks.

All of these unconsidered and poorly understood developments have changed the world for ever, and today we find ourselves living in the reality that they have created, not necessarily better or worse than before, but permanently altered and steered towards a new direction.

But in the future, colossal corporations that control single company leviathans or dozens of ‘competing’ smaller businesses, may use long-term data trends to train powerful AI that not only makes decisions about how they should invest or adapt to changing markets, but may also use its analysis to enact decisions that knowingly influence the future of those same markets, and therefore the world.

With a growing body of data on human behaviour allowing us to document the context and the fallout from those key moments that changed the course of history, super AI may advise corporations of the future on how such changes could be imparted to their advantage.

In the particular dystopia we may be heading for, a smaller and smaller pool of immense corporate machines may compete to influence global populations to buy their products, to support favourable policy changes or even to engineer the conditions for profitable wars.

So it might be that at the same moment we gain access to a perfect history that can tell us the story of the thoughts and beliefs and secret conversations of those who have lead us to where we are (or will be), at the same time the opaque corporate powers of the future may be using that same information to attempt to control the very course of humanity. A hidden game of high-stakes chess between privately-owned AI may play out behind the scenes, without our knowledge, thinking millions of steps ahead in a competition to attain more power and capital.

A competition like this to control the progression of human history could be a natural development in the age of AI that we are entering. And by definition the game will be beyond our comprehension, and therefore utterly out of our control, relentlessly driven forward by the inherent forces of our capitalist system. //