Interview

Taiyo Fujii, Science fiction writer
VIRTUAL PERSONAS AND
HUMAN RIGHTS:
Now Is the Time to Start

DESIGN VISION is an original design research project at Sony that predicts societal trends and explores the course that the future might take.
In this initiative, Creative Center designers themselves conduct research and interviews, leading to analysis and proposals.
In 2021, DESIGN VISION implemented backcasting through the new technique of Sci-Fi prototyping to investigate possibilities
for a better future. This is a reprint of an interview article from that research report with Taiyo Fujii,
a Sci-Fi author who participated in the Sci-Fi prototyping.

Taiyo Fujii Science fiction writer.Born in 1971 in Amami Oshima, Japan. In 2012, he self-published an e-book titled Gene Mapper, a science fiction novel he wrote while working for a software firm. The novel became the best-selling Kindle book in the "novels and literature category." His major works include Orbital Cloud, which won the Japan SF Award and the Seiun Award in the Japanese novel category, and Hello, World!, which won the Yoshikawa Eiji Prize for New Writers.

Related theme from the DESIGN VISION Annual Report 2021:
"Homo Dividual"

The DESIGN VISION Annual Report 2021 conceptualized the future world of 2050 using Sci-Fi prototyping. By backcasting from that, the report derived four themes to focus on for the future.*1

One of those themes is "Homo Dividual."

The inspiration for the idea was a short story, "Jobbing & Working," written by Taiyo Fujii for these Sci-Fi prototyping sessions. Some things are brought about in the development of metaverses. One of them is a situation in which the real, physical world exists at the same time as multiple virtual spaces. We may begin to differentiate many virtual personas—“dividuals”*2 that duplicate our own personalities— simultaneously in these metaverses.

We interviewed Taiyo Fujii about the prospects for a future where these plural identities coexist and the effects of Sci-Fi prototyping.

*1 Sci-Fi meets design to shape hopes for the future: Designer roundtable on DESIGN VISION 2021
*2 Dividual: A concept proposed by the books of author Keiichiro Hirano and the context of cultural anthropology. It presents a vision of humans, who have come to be reduced to their smallest single unit as "individuals," evolving into multiple single units that exist simultaneously as beings with the negative prefix "in," expressing that further division is not possible, removed from the word "individual."

VIRTUAL PERSONAS AND HUMAN RIGHTS:
Now Is the Time to Start

In 2021, sixteen budding Sony designers and four science fiction writers gathered over the course of six months for Sci-Fi prototyping sessions. Taiyo Fujii, who led the sessions, explores what the relationship between humans and virtual personas may look like in the future in his latest short story, "Jobbing & Working." We talked to him about this subject in more detail.
(Reprinted from the DESIGN VISION Annual Report 2021 booklet published in October 2021)

Of all the bold and thoughtful ways you imagine the future in "Jobbing & Working," we keep coming back to your idea of "branchmind." When picturing the lives of Homo sapiens in 2050, it is not hard to envision something like a branchmind—a portion of a person’s consciousness that has diverged from the self—living independently and coexisting with humanity. In this report, we’ve been using the term "homo-dividual" to refer to this concept. In the world of your story, a branchmind can put their consciousness into a robot and walk around in a physical body. How did you come up with this idea?

In the next thirty years, I think we will see companies offer some form of virtual persona to take over certain tasks. The personas may even be able to operate robots. Even now, people are building and running computer systems that closely resemble life. With GitHub Actions, for example, a workflow that has been pushed (i.e. configured to run on a specific code branch) can create a new build, tag and push itself again, copy itself to another repository, and create its own new program—just like in Conway’s Game of Life.

The same code replicating itself throughout cloud services is almost exactly like when a tiny organism replicates itself enough times to fill up a small pool of water and then reduces its own population, eventually sharing that space or resource with another organism. It’s hard to say whether or not these developments are dystopian, but if we look at them objectively, we can see the start of something that is not unlike how certain forms of life replaced others early in Earth’s history.

The design prototyping "Life Simulator," created along with Fujii’s short piece "Jobbing & Working" in these Sci-Fi prototyping sessions. From the scene of its exhibition at Ginza Sony Park in 2021.*3

*3 Designing the future with science-fiction writers: ONE DAY, 2050 / Sci-Fi Prototyping

So you think there is a good chance that a person’s virtual persona will be able to live independently. If in a few decades we begin to see virtual personas occupy physical bodies, how do you imagine we will react?

We are actually facing that issue now in a different form. It is the problem of whether to allow abuse of CG-created, exceptionally realistic children. As a society, we would consider it unacceptable, even though the abuse is not targeting real people. So the simplest way to handle this issue in terms of discourse and emotionality is to give virtual personas human rights in some situations, depending on how much they function like a person in a given space.

People are also coming to the consensus that the use of 33 abusive language online is a form of criminal defamation. Until recently, people did not take online bullying seriously, thinking, “It’s just the Internet.” But now, it is seen as a form of defamation. In the same way, we may eventually see the defamation of a virtual persona as no different than that of a human.

Of course, the persona’s original self will not be allowed to abuse them, either. One benefit of science fiction prototyping is that it lets us imagine and prepare for how governance will evolve in these areas.

The ONE DAY, 2050/Sci-Fi Prototyping booklet distributed to guests at the design prototyping exhibition held at Ginza Sony Park and ROHM Theatre Kyoto. It published short stories by four Sci-Fi authors, including Taiyo Fujii.

We do tend to treat autonomous objects with affection, even things like robotic vacuum cleaners that do not look human.

That is why it may be a good idea to stay away from designs that invite too much affection. The user experience will always have to be updated, and if the update does not conform with the user’s image of the product, it may upset them. Preventing that kind of a reaction will be an important design consideration.

Finally, what are your thoughts on the use of Sci-Fi prototyping by businesses?

I think it would be a great adventure for a business to envision a future that has not yet been realized. I also think that working backward from that imagined future would provide a great opportunity for the business to reflect on where they are today and how they got there. It is difficult to imagine the future but much easier to explain how your company has evolved over the last thirty or fifty years. You can get a lot of value out of thinking about what will happen in another thirty or fifty years if you maintain the same trajectory and velocity. Doing so lets you envision greater leaps forward and successes than if you just think about it idly. Then, you can plan how to make that future a reality. I would like to see many different companies try this method.

(Interview conducted on August 3, 2021)

Interviewer’s commentFumitaka Ozaki, Research Producer, Creative Center, Sony Group

Images of humans emerged while conceptualizing the future in 2050 with Sci-Fi authors. The short piece "Jobbing & Working," written by Taiyo Fujii, depicted the possibility of an entirely new lifestyle of entrusting the "job" one needs to live to a virtual-persona alter-ego—a "branch consciousness (branch)"— and enjoying "work" in pursuit of one’s own reason for being.
Furthermore, these Sci-Fi prototyping sessions conducted design prototyping concurrently with the DESIGN VISION initiative, and the "Life Simulator" service supporting various future ways of living has also been exhibited to the public.*3 What can Sony do to show the way to a happy society where humans, AI, robots, and other living things coexist? I gained many hints and lessons from the tale spun by Fujii.*4

*3 Designing the future with science-fiction writers: ONE DAY, 2050 / Sci-Fi Prototyping
*4 Sci-Fi meets design to shape hopes for the future: Designer roundtable on DESIGN VISION 2021