Plato and the Physicist: A Multicosmic Love Story

Life as a Braid of Space Time

 

So I finally got around to reading Max Tegmark’s book Our Mathematical Universe, and while the book answered the question that had led me to read it, namely, how one might reconcile Plato’s idea of eternal mathematical forms with the concept of multiple universes, it also threw up a whole host of new questions. This beautifully written and thought provoking book made me wonder about the future of science and the scientific method, the limits to human knowledge, and the scientific, philosophical and moral meaning of various ideas of the multiverse.

I should start though with my initial question of how Tegmark manages to fit something very much like Plato’s Theory of the Forms into the seemingly chaotic landscape of multiverse theories. If you remember back to your college philosophy classes, you might recall something of Plato’s idea of forms, which in its very basics boils down to this: Plato thought there was a world of perfect, eternally existing ideas of which our own supposedly real world was little more than a shadow. The idea sounds out there until you realize that Plato was thinking like a mathematician. We should remember that over the walls of Plato’s Academy was written “Let no man ignorant of geometry enter here”, and for the Greeks geometry was the essence of mathematics. Plato aimed to create a school of philosophical mathematicians much more than he hoped to turn philosophers into a sect of moral geometers.

Probably almost all mathematicians and physicists hold to some version of platonism, which means that they think mathematical structures are something discovered rather than a form of language invented by human beings. Non- mathematicians, myself very much included, often have trouble understanding this, but a simple example from Plato himself might help clarify.

When the Greeks played around with shapes for long enough they discovered things. And here we really should say discover because they had no idea shapes had these properties until they stumbled upon them through play.Plato’s dialogue Meno gave us the most famous demonstration of the discovery rather than invention of mathematical structures. Socrates asks a “slave boy” (we should take this to be the modern day equivalent of the man off the street) to figure out the area of a square which is double that of a square with a length of 2. The key, as Socrates leads the boy to see, is that one should turn the square with the side of 2 into a right triangle the length of whose hypotenuse is then seen as equal to one of the lengths of the doubled square allowing you easily calculate its area. The slave boy explains his measurement epiphany as the “recovery of knowledge from a past life.”

The big gap between Plato and modern platonists is that the ancient philosopher thought the natural world was a flawed copy of the crystalline purity of the mathematics of  thought. Contrast that with Newton who saw the hand of God himself in nature’s calculable regularities. The deeper the scientists of the modern age probed with their new mathematical tools the more nature appeared as Galileo said “ a book written in the language of mathematics”. For the moderns mathematical structures and natural structures became almost one and the same. The Spanish filmmaker and graphic designer Cristóbal Vila has a beautiful short over at AEON reflecting precisely this view.

It’s that “almost” that Tegmark has lept over with his Mathematical Universe Hypothesis (MUH). The essence of the MUH is not only that mathematical structures have an independent identity, or that nature is a book written in mathematics, but that the nature is a mathematical structure and just as all mathematical structures exist independent of whether we have discovered them or not, all logically coherent universes exists whether or not we have discovered their structures. This is platonism with a capital P, the latter half explaining how the MUH intersects with the idea of the multiverse.

One of the beneficial things Tegmark does with his book is to provide a simple to understand set of levels for different ideas that there is more than one universe.

Level I: Beyond our cosmological horizon

A Level I multiverse is the easiest for me to understand. It is within the lifetime of people still alive that our universe was held to be no bigger than our galaxy. Before that people thought the entirety of what was consisted of nothing but our solar system, so it is no wonder that people thought humanity was the center of creation’s story. As of right now the observable universe is around 46 billion light years across, actually older than the age of the universe due to its expansion. Yet, why should we think this observable horizon constitutes everything when such assumption has never proved true in the past? The Level I multiverse holds that there are entire other universes outside the limit of what we can observe.

Level II: Universes with different physical constants

The Level II multiverse again makes intuitive sense to me. If one assumes that the Big Bang was not the first or the last of its kind, and  if one assumes there are whole other, potentially an infinite number of universes, why assume that our is the only way a universe should be organized? Indeed, having a variety of physical constants to choose from would make the fine tuning of our own universe make more sense.

Level III: Many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics

This is where I start to get lost, or at least this particular doppelganger of me starts to get lost. Here we find Hugh Everett’s interpretation of quantum unpredictability. Rather than Schrodinger’s Cat being pushed from a superposition of states between alive and dead when you open the box, exposing the feline causes the universe to split- in one universe you have an alive cat, and in another a dead one. It gets me dizzy just thinking about it, just imagine the poor cat- wait, I am the cat!

Level IV: Ultimate ensemble

Here we have Tegmark’s model itself where every universe that can represented as a logically consistent mathematical structure is said to actually exist. In such a multiverse when you roll a six-sided die, there end up being six universes corresponding to each of the universes, but there is no universe where you have rolled a “1 not 1” , and so on. If a universe’s mathematical structure can be described, then that universe can be said to exist there being, in Tegmark’s view, no difference between such a mathematical structure and a universe.

I had previously thought the idea of the multiverse was a way to give scale to the shadow of our ignorance and expand our horizon in space and time. As mentioned, we had once thought all that is was only as big as our solar system and merely thousands of years old. By the 19th century the universe had expanded to the size of our galaxy and the past had grown to as much as 400 million years. By the end of the 20th century we knew there were at least 100 billion galaxies in the universe and that its age was 13.7 billion. There is no reason to believe that we have grasped the full totality of existence, that the universe, beyond our observable horizon isn’t even bigger, and the past deeper. There is “no sign on the Big Bang saying ‘this happened only once’” as someone once said cleverly whose attribution I cannot find.

Ideas of the multiverse seemed to explain the odd fact that the universe seems fine-tuned to provide the conditions for life, Martin Rees “six numbers” such as Epsilon (ε)- the strength of the force binding nucleons to nuclei. If you have a large enough sample of universes then the fact that some universes are friendly for life starts to make more sense. The problem, I think, comes in when you realize just how large this sample size has to be to get you to fine tuning- somewhere on the order of 10 ^200. What this means is that you’ve proposed the existence of a very very large or even infinite number of values, as far as we know which are unobservable to explain essentially six. If this is science, it is radically different from the science we’ve known since Galileo dropped cannon balls off of the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

For whatever reason, rather than solidify my belief in the possibility of the multiverse, or convert me to platonism, Tegmark’s book left me with a whole host of new questions, which is what good books do. The problem is my damned doppelgangers who can be found not only at the crazy quantum Level III, but at the levels I thought were a preserve of Copernican Mediocrity – Levels I and II, or as Tegmark says.

The only difference between Level I and Level III is where your doppelgängers reside.

Yet, to my non-physicist eyes, the different levels of multiverse sure seems distinct. Level III seems to violate Copernican Mediocrity with observers and actors being able to call into being whole new timelines with even the most minutea laden of their choices, whereas Levels I and II simply posit that a universe sufficiently large enough and sufficiently extended enough in time would allow for repeat performances down to the smallest detail- perhaps the universe is just smaller than that, or less extended in time, or there is some sort of kink whereby when what the late Stephen J Gould called the “life tape” is replayed you can never get the same results twice.

Still, our intuitions about reality have often been proven wrong, so no theory can be discounted on the basis of intuitive doubts. There are other reasons, however, why we might use caution when it comes to multiverse theories, namely, their potential risk to the scientific endeavor itself.  The fact that we can never directly observe parts of the multiverse that are not our own means that we would have to step away from falsifiability as the criteria for scientific truth. The physicist Sean Carroll  argues that falsifiability is a weak criteria, what makes a theory scientific is that it is “direct” (says something definite about how reality works) and “empirical”, by which he no longer means the Popperian notion of falsifiability, but its ability to explain the world. He writes:

Consider the multiverse.

If the universe we see around us is the only one there is, the vacuum energy is a unique constant of nature, and we are faced with the problem of explaining it. If, on the other hand, we live in a multiverse, the vacuum energy could be completely different in different regions, and an explanation suggests itself immediately: in regions where the vacuum energy is much larger, conditions are inhospitable to the existence of life. There is therefore a selection effect, and we should predict a small value of the vacuum energy. Indeed, using this precise reasoning, Steven Weinberg did predict the value of the vacuum energy, long before the acceleration of the universe was discovered.

We can’t (as far as we know) observe other parts of the multiverse directly. But their existence has a dramatic effect on how we account for the data in the part of the multiverse we do observe.

One could look at Tegmark’s MUH and Carroll’s comments as a broadening of our scientific and imaginative horizons and the continuation of our powers to explain into realms beyond what human beings will ever observe. The idea of a 22nd version of Plato’s Academy using amazingly powerful computers to explore all the potential universes ala Tegmark’s MUH is an attractive future to me. Yet, given how reliant we are on science and the technology that grows from it, and given the role of science in our society in establishing the consensus view of what our shared physical reality actually is, we need to be cognizant and careful of what such a changed understanding of science actually might mean.

The physicist, George Ellis, for one, thinks the multiverse hypothesis, and not just Tegmark’s version of it, opens the door to all sorts of pseudoscience such as Intelligent Design. After all, the explanation that the laws and structure of our universe can be understood only by reference to something “outside” is the essence of explanations from design as well, and just like the multiverse, cannot be falsified.

One might think that the multiverse was a victory of theorizing over real world science, but I think Sean Carroll is essentially right when he defends the multiverse theory by saying:

 Science is not merely armchair theorizing; it’s about explaining the world we see, developing models that fit the data.

It’s the use of the word “model” here rather than “theory” that is telling. For a model is a type of representation of something whereas a theory constitutes an attempt at a coherent self-contained explanation. If the move from theories to models was only happening in physics then we might say that this had something to do merely with physics as a science rather than science in general. But we see this move all over the place.

Among, neuroscientists, for example, there is no widely agreed upon theory of how SSRIs work, even though they’ve been around for a generation, and there’s more. In a widely debated speech Noam Chomsky argued that current statistical models in AI were bringing us no closer to the goal of AGI or the understanding of human intelligence because they lacked any coherent theory of how intelligence works. As Yaden Katz wrote for The Atlantic:

Chomsky critiqued the field of AI for adopting an approach reminiscent of behaviorism, except in more modern, computationally sophisticated form. Chomsky argued that the field’s heavy use of statistical techniques to pick regularities in masses of data is unlikely to yield the explanatory insight that science ought to offer. For Chomsky, the “new AI” — focused on using statistical learning techniques to better mine and predict data — is unlikely to yield general principles about the nature of intelligent beings or about cognition.

Likewise, the field of systems biology and especially genomic science is built not on theory but on our ability to scan enormous databases of genetic information looking for meaningful correlations. The new field of social physics is based on the idea that correlations of human behavior can be used as governance and management tools, and business already believes that statistical correlation is worth enough to spend billions on and build an economy around.

Will this work as well as the science we’ve had for the last five centuries? It’s too early to tell, but it certainly constitutes a big change for science and the rest of us who depend upon it. This shouldn’t be taken as an unqualified defense of theory- for if theory was working then we wouldn’t be pursuing this new route of data correlation whatever the powers of our computers. Yet, those who are pushing this new model of science should be aware of its uncertain success, and its dangers.

The primary danger I can see from these new sorts of science, and this includes the MUH, is that it challenges the role of science in establishing the consensus reality which we all must agree upon. Anyone who remembers their Thomas Kuhn can recall that what makes science distinct from almost any system of knowledge we’ve had before, is that it both enforces a consensus view of physical reality beyond which an individual’s view of the world can be considered “unreal”, and provides a mechanism by which this consensus reality can be challenged and where the challenge is successful overturned.

With multiverse theories we are in approaching what David Engelman calls Possibilism the exploration of every range of ways existence can be structured that is compatible with the findings of science and is rationally coherent. I find this interesting as a philosophical and even spiritual project, but it isn’t science, at least as we’ve understood science since the beginning of the modern world. Declaring the project to be scientific blurs the lines between science and speculation and might allow people to claim the kind of understanding over uncertainty that makes politics and consensus decisions regarding acute needs of the present, such a global warming, or projected needs of the future impossible.

Let me try to clarify this. I found it very important that in Our Mathematical Universe Tegmark tried to tackle the problem of existential risks facing the human future. He touches upon everything from climate change, to asteroid impacts, to pandemics to rogue AI. Yet, the very idea that there are multiple versions of us out there, and that our own future is determined seems to rob these issues of their urgency. In an “infinity” of predetermined worlds we destroy ourselves, just as in an “infinity” of predetermined worlds we do what needs to be done. There is no need to urge us forward because, puppet-like, we are destined to do one thing or the other on this particular timeline.

Morally and emotionally, how is what happens in this version of the universe in the future all that different from what happens in other universe? Persons in those parallel universes are even closer to us, our children, parents, spouses, and even ourselves than the people of the future on our own timeline. According to the deterministic models of the multiverse, the world of these others are outside of our influence and both the expansion or contraction of our ethical horizon leave us in the same state of moral paralysis. Given this, I will hold off on believing in the multiverse, at least on the doppelganger scale of Level I and II, and especially Levels III and IV until it actually becomes established as a scientific fact,which it is not at the moment, and given our limitations, perhaps never will be, even if it is ultimately true.

All that said, I greatly enjoyed Tegmark’s book, it was nothing if not thought provoking. Nor would I say it left me with little but despair, for in one section he imagined a Spinoza-like version of eternity that will last me a lifetime, or perhaps I should say beyond.  I am aware that I will contradict myself here: his image that gripped me was of an individual life seen as a braid of space-time. For Tegmark, human beings have the most complex space-time braids we know of. The idea vastly oversimplified by the image above.

About which Tegmark explains:

At both ends of your spacetime braid, corresponding to your birth and death, all the threads gradually separate, corresponding to all your particles joining, interacting and finally going their own separate ways. This makes the spacetime structure of your entire life resemble a tree: At the bottom, corresponding to early times, is an elaborate system of roots corresponding to the spacetime trajectories of many particles, which gradually merge into thicker strands and culminate in a single tube-like trunk corresponding to your current body (with a remarkable braid-like pattern inside as we described above). At the top, corresponding to late times, the trunk splits into ever finer branches, corresponding to your particles going their own separate ways once your life is over. In other words, the pattern of life has only a finite extent along the time dimension, with the braid coming apart into frizz at both ends.

Because mathematical structures always exist whether or not anyone has discovered them, our life braid can be said to have always existed and will always exist. I have never been able to wrap my head around the religious idea of eternity, but this eternity I understand. Someday I may even do a post on how the notion of time found in the MUH resembles the medieval idea of eternity as nunc stans, the standing-now, but for now I’ll use it to address more down to earth concerns.

My youngest daughter, philosopher that she is, has often asked me “where was I before I was born?”. To which my lame response has been “you were an egg” which for a while made big breakfasts difficult. Now I can just tell her to get out her crayons to scribble, and we’ll color our way to something profound.

 

Why the Castles of Silicon Valley are Built out of Sand

Ambrogio_Lorenzetti Temperance with an hour glass Allegory of Good Government

If you get just old enough, one of the lessons living through history throws you is that dreams take a long time to die. Depending on how you date it, communism took anywhere from 74 to 143 years to pass into the dustbin of history, though some might say it is still kicking. The Ptolemaic model of the universe lasted from 100 AD into the 1600’s. Perhaps even more dreams than not simply refuse to die, they hang on like ghost, or ghouls, zombies or vampires, or whatever freakish version of the undead suits your fancy. Naming them would take up more room than I can post, and would no doubt start one too many arguments, all of our lists being different. Here, I just want to make an argument for the inclusion of one dream on our list of zombies knowing full well the dream I’ll declare dead will have its defenders.

The fact of the matter is, I am not even sure what to call the dream I’ll be talking about. Perhaps, digitopia is best. It was the dream that emerged sometime in the 1980’s and went mainstream in the heady 1990’s that this new thing we were creating called the “Internet” and the economic model it permitted was bound to lead to a better world of more sharing, more openness, more equity, if we just let its logic play itself out over a long enough period of time. Almost all the big-wigs in Silicon Valley, the Larry Pages and Mark Zuckerbergs, and Jeff Bezos(s), and Peter Diamandis(s) still believe this dream, and walk around like 21st century versions of Mary Magdalene claiming they can still see what more skeptical souls believe has passed.

By far, the best Doubting Thomas of digitopia we have out there is Jaron Lanier. In part his power in declaring the dream dead comes from the fact that he was there when the dream was born and was once a true believer. Like Kevin Bacon in Hollywood, take any intellectual heavy hitter of digital culture, say Marvin Minsky, and you’ll find Lanier having some connection. Lanier is no Luddite, so when he says there is something wrong with how we have deployed the technology he in part helped develop, it’s right and good to take the man seriously.

The argument Lanier makes in his most recent book Who Owns the Future? against the economic model we have built around digital technology in a nutshell is this: what we have created is a machine that destroys middle class jobs and concentrates information, wealth and power. Say what? Hasn’t the Internet and mobile technology democratized knowledge? Don’t average people have more power than ever before? The answer to both questions is no and the reason why is that the Internet has been swallowed by its own logic of “sharing”.

We need to remember that the Internet really got ramped up when it started to be used by scientists to exchange information between each other. It was built on the idea of openness and transparency not to mention a set of shared values. When the Internet leapt out into public consciousness no one had any idea of how to turn this sharing capacity and transparency into the basis for an economy. It took the aftermath of dot com bubble and bust for companies to come up with a model of how to monetize the Internet, and almost all of the major tech companies that dominate the Internet, at least in America- and there are only a handful- Google, FaceBook and Amazon, now follow some variant of this model.

The model is to aggregate all the sharing that the Internet seems to naturally produce and offer it, along with other “compliments” for “free” in exchange for one thing: the ability to monitor, measure and manipulate through advertising whoever uses their services. Like silicon itself, it is a model that is ultimately built out of sand.

When you use a free service like Instagram there are three ways its ultimately paid for. The first we all know about, the “data trail” we leave when using the site is sold to third party advertisers, which generates income for the parent company, in this case FaceBook. The second and third ways the service is paid for I’ll get to in a moment, but the first way itself opens up all sorts of observations and questions that need to be answered.

We had thought the information (and ownership) landscape of the Internet was going to be “flat”. Instead, its proven to be extremely “spiky”. What we forgot in thinking it would turn out flat was that someone would have to gather and make useful the mountains of data we were about to create. The big Internet and Telecom companies are these aggregators who are able to make this data actionable by being in possession of the most powerful computers on the planet that allow them to not only route and store, but mine for value in this data. Lanier has a great name for the biggest of these companies- he calls them Siren Servers.

One might think whatever particular Siren Servers are at the head of the pack is a matter of which is the most innovative. Not really. Rather, the largest Siren Servers have become so rich they simply swallow any innovative company that comes along. FaceBook gobbled up Instagram because it offered a novel and increasingly popular way to share photos.

The second way a free service like Instagram is paid for, and this is one of the primary concerns of Lanier in his book, is that it essentially cannibalizes to the point of destruction the industry that used to provide the service, which in the “old economy” meant it also supported lots of middle class jobs.

Lanier states the problem bluntly:

 Here’s a current example of the challenge we face. At the height of its power, the photography company Kodak employed more than 140,000 people and was worth $28 billion. They even invented the first digital camera. But today Kodak is bankrupt, and the new face of digital photography is Instagram. When Instagram was sold to FaceBook for a billion dollars in 2012, it employed only thirteen people.  (p.2)

Calling Thomas Piketty….

As Bill Davidow argued recently in The Atlantic the size of this virtual economy where people share and get free stuff in exchange for their private data is now so big that it is giving us a distorted picture of GDP. We can no longer be sure how fast our economy is growing. He writes:

 There are no accurate numbers for the aggregate value of those services but a proxy for them would be the money advertisers spend to invade our privacy and capture our attention. Sales of digital ads are projected to be $114 billion in 2014,about twice what Americans spend on pets.

The forecasted GDP growth in 2014 is 2.8 percent and the annual historical growth rate of middle quintile incomes has averaged around 0.4 percent for the past 40 years. So if the government counted our virtual salaries based on the sale of our privacy and attention, it would have a big effect on the numbers.

Fans of Joseph Schumpeter might see all this churn as as capitalism’s natural creative destruction, and be unfazed by the government’s inability to measure this “off the books” economy because what the government cannot see it cannot tax.

The problem is, unlike other times in our history, technological change doesn’t seem to be creating many new middle class jobs as fast as it destroys old ones. Lanier was particularly sensitive to this development because he always had his feet in two worlds- the world of digital technology and the world of music. Not the Katy Perry world of superstar music, but the kinds of people who made a living selling local albums, playing small gigs, and even more importantly, providing the services that made this mid-level musical world possible. Lanier had seen how the digital technology he loved and helped create had essentially destroyed the middle class world of musicians he also loved and had grown up in. His message for us all was that the Siren Servers are coming for you.

The continued advance of Moore’s Law, which, according to Charlie Stross, will play out for at least another decade or so, means not so much that we’ll achieve AGI, but that machines are just smart enough to automate some of the functions we had previously thought only human beings were capable of doing. I’ll give an example of my own. For decades now the GED test, which people pursue to obtain a high school equivalency diploma, has had an essay section. Thousands of people were necessary to score these essays by hand, the majority of whom were likely paid to do so. With the new, computerized GED test this essay scoring has now been completely automated, human readers made superfluous.

This brings me to the third way this new digital capabilities are paid for. They cannibalize work human beings have already done to profit a company who presents and sells their services as a form of artificial intelligence. As Lanier writes of Google Translate:

It’s magic that you can upload a phrase in Spanish into the cloud services of a company like Google or Microsoft, and a workable, if imperfect, translation to English is returned. It’s as if there’s a polyglot artificial intelligence residing up there in that great cloud of server farms.

But that is not how cloud services work. Instead, a multitude of examples of translations made by real human translators are gathered over the Internet. These are correlated with the example you send for translation. It will almost always turn out that multiple previous translations by real human translators had to contend with similar passages, so a collage of those previous translations will yield a usable result.

A giant act of statistics is made virtually free because of Moore’s Law, but at core the act of translation is based on real work of people.

Alas, the human translators are anonymous and off the books. (19-20)

The question all of us should be asking ourselves is not “could a machine be me?” with all of our complexity and skills, but “could a machine do my job?” the answer to which, in 9 cases out of 10, is almost certainly- “yes!”

Okay, so that’s the problem, what is Lanier’s solution? His solution is not that we pull a Ned Ludd and break the machines or even try to slow down Moore’s Law. Instead, what he wants us to do is to start treating our personal data like property. If someone wants to know my buying habits they have to pay a fee to me the owner of this information. If some company uses my behavior to refine their algorithm I need to be paid for this service, even if I was unaware I had helped in such a way. Lastly, anything I create and put on the Internet is my property. People are free to use it as they chose, but they need to pay me for it. In Lanier’s vision each of us would be the recipients of a constant stream of micropayments from Siren Servers who are using our data and our creations.

Such a model is very interesting to me, especially in light of other fights over data ownership, namely the rights of indigenous people against bio-piracy, something I was turned on to by Paolo Bacigalupi’s bio-punk novel The Windup Girl, and what promises to be an increasing fight between pharmaceutical/biotech firms and individuals over the use of what is becoming mountains of genetic data. Nevertheless, I have my doubts as to Lanier’s alternative system and will lay them out in what follows.

For one, such a system seems likely to exacerbate rather than relieve the problem of rising inequality. Assuming most of the data people will receive micropayments for will be banal and commercial in nature, people who are already big spenders are likely to get a much larger cut of the micropayments pie. If I could afford such things it’s no doubt worth a lot for some extra piece of information to tip the scales between me buying a Lexus or a Beemer, not so much if it’s a question of TIDE vs Whisk.

This issue would be solved if Lanier had adopted the model of a shared public pool of funds where micropayments would go rather than routing them to the actual individual involved, but he couldn’t do this out of commitment to the idea that personal data is a form of property. Don’t let his dreadlocks fool you, Lanier is at bottom a conservative thinker. Such a fee might balance out the glaring problem that Siren Servers effectively pay zero taxes

But by far the biggest hole in Lanier’s micropayment system is that it ignores the international dimension of the Internet. Silicon Valley companies may be barreling down on their model, as can be seen in Amazon’s recent foray into the smartphone market, which attempts to route everything through itself, but the model has crashed globally. Three events signal the crash, Google was essentially booted out of China, the Snowden revelations threw a pale of suspicion over the model in an already privacy sensitive Europe, and the EU itself handed the model a major loss with the “right to be forgotten” case in Spain.

Lanier’s system, which accepts mass surveillance as a fact, probably wouldn’t fly in a privacy conscious Europe, and how in the world would we force Chinese and other digital pirates to provide payments of any scale? And China and other authoritarian countries have their own plans for their Siren Servers, namely, their use as tools of the state.

The fact of the matter is their is probably no truly global solution to continued automation and algorithmization, or to mass surveillance. Yet, the much feared “splinter-net”, the shattering of the global Internet, may be better for freedom than many believe. This is because the Internet, and the Siren Servers that run it, once freed from its spectral existence in the global ether, becomes the responsibility of real territorially bound people to govern. Each country will ultimately have to decide for itself both how the Internet is governed and define its response to the coming wave of automation. There’s bound to be diversity because countries are diverse, some might even leap over Lanier’s conservativism and invent radically new, and more equitable ways of running an economy, an outcome many of the original digitopians who set this train a rollin might actually be proud of.

 

How Should Humanity Steer the Future?

FQXi

Over the spring the Fundamental Questions Institute (FQXi) sponsored an essay contest the topic of which should be dear to this audience’s heart- How Should Humanity Steer the Future? I thought I’d share some of the essays I found most interesting, but there are lots, lots, more to check out if you’re into thinking about the future or physics, which I am guessing you might be.

If there was any theme I found across the 140 or so essays entered in the contest – it was that the 21st century was make- it- or-break-it for humanity, so we need to get our act together, and fast. If you want a metaphor for this sentiment, you couldn’t do much better than Nietzsche’s idea that humanity is like an individual walking on a “rope over an abyss”.

A Rope over an Abyss by Laurence Hitterdale

Hitterdale’s idea is that for most of human history the qualitative aspects of human experience have pretty much been the same, but that is about to change. What are facing, according to Hitterdale, is the the extinction of our species or the realization of our wildest perennial human dreams- biological superlongevity, machine intelligence that seem to imply the end of drudgery and scarcity. As he points out, some very heavy hitting thinkers seem to think we live in make or break times:

 John Leslie, judged the probability of human extinction during the next five centuries as perhaps around thirty per cent at least. Martin Rees in 2003 stated, “I think the odds are no better than fifty-fifty that our present civilization on Earth will survive to the end of the present century.”Less than ten years later Rees added a comment: “I have been surprised by how many of my colleagues thought a catastrophe was even more likely than I did, and so considered me an optimist.”

In a nutshell, Hiterdale’s solution is for us to concentrate more on preventing negative outcomes that achieving positive ones in this century. This is because even positive outcomes like human superlongevity and greater than human AI could lead to negative outcomes if we don’t sort out our problems or establish controls first.

How to avoid steering blindly: The case for a robust repository of human knowledge by Jens C. Niemeyer

This was probably my favorite essay overall because it touched on issues dear to my heart- how will we preserve the past in light of the huge uncertainties of the future.  Niemeyer makes the case that we need to establish a repository of human knowledge in the event we suffer some general disaster, and how we might do this.

By one of those strange incidences of serendipity, while thinking about Niemeyer’s ideas and browsing the science section of my local bookstore I came across a new book by Lewis Dartnell The Knowledge: How to Rebuild Our World from Scratch which covers the essential technologies human beings will need if they want to revive civilization after a collapse. Or maybe I shouldn’t consider it so strange. Right next to The Knowledge was another new book The Improbability Principle: Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day, by David Hand, but I digress.

The digitization of knowledge and its dependence on the whole technological apparatus of society actually makes us more vulnerable to the complete loss of information both social and personal and therefore demands that we backup our knowledge. Only things like a flood or a fire could have destroyed our lifetime visual records the way we used to store them- in photo albums- but now all many of us would have to do is lose or break our phone. As Niemeyer  says:

 Currently, no widespread efforts are being made to protect digital resources against global disasters and to establish the means and procedures for extracting safeguarded digital information without an existing technological infrastructure. Facilities like, for instance, the Barbarastollen underground archive for the preservation of Germany’s cultural heritage (or other national and international high-security archives) operate on the basis of microfilm stored at constant temperature and low humidity. New, digital information will most likely never exist in printed form and thus cannot be archived with these techniques even in principle. The repository must therefore not only be robust against man-made or natural disasters, it must also provide the means for accessing and copying digital data without computers, data connections, or even electricity.

Niemeyer imagines the creation of such a knowledge repository as a unifying project for humankind:

Ultimately, the protection and support of the repository may become one of humanity’s most unifying goals. After all, our collective memory of all things discovered or created by mankind, of our stories, songs and ideas, have a great part in defining what it means to be human. We must begin to protect this heritage and guarantee that future generations have access to the information they need to steer the future with open eyes.

Love it!

One Cannot Live in the Cradle Forever by Robert de Neufville

If Niemeyer is trying to goad us into preparing should the worst occur, like Hitterdale, Robert de Neufville is working towards making sure these nightmare, especially self-inflicted ones, don’t come true in the first place. He does this as a journalist and writer and as an associate of the Global Catastrophic Risk Institute.

As de Neufville points out, and as I myself have argued before, the silence of the universe gives us reason to be pessimistic about the long term survivability of technological civilization. Yet, the difficulties that stand in the way of our minimizing global catastrophic risks, thing like developing an environmentally sustainable modern economy, protecting ourselves against global pandemics or meteor strikes of a scale that might set civilization on its knees, or the elimination of the threat of nuclear war, are more challenges of politics than technology. He writes:

But the greatest challenges may be political. Overcoming the technical challenges may be easy in comparison to using our collective power as a species wisely. If humanity were a single person with all the knowledge and abilities of the entire human race, avoiding nuclear war, and environmental catastrophe would be relatively easy. But in fact we are billions of people with different experiences, different interests, and different visions for the future.

In a sense, the future is a collective action problem. Our species’ prospects are effectively what economists call a “common good”. Every person has a stake in our future. But no one person or country has the primary responsibility for the well-being of the human race. Most do not get much personal benefit from sacrificing to lower the risk of extinction. And all else being equal each would prefer that others bear the cost of action. Many powerful people and institutions in particular have a strong interest in keeping their investments from being stranded by social change. As Jason Matheny has said, “extinction risks are market failures”.

His essay makes an excellent case that it is time we mature as a species and live up to our global responsibilities. The most important of which is ensuring our continued existence.

The “I” and the Robot by Cristinel Stoica

Here Cristinel Stoica makes a great case for tolerance, intellectual humility and pluralism, a sentiment perhaps often expressed but rarely with such grace and passion.

As he writes:

The future is unpredictable and open, and we can make it better, for future us and for our children. We want them to live in peace and happiness. They can’t, if we want them to continue our fights and wars against others that are different, or to pay them back bills we inherited from our ancestors. The legacy we leave them should be a healthy planet, good relations with others, access to education, freedom, a healthy and critical way of thinking. We have to learn to be free, and to allow others to be free, because this is the only way our children will be happy and free. Then, they will be able to focus on any problems the future may reserve them.

Ends of History and Future Histories in the Longue Duree by Benjamin Pope

In his essay Benjamin Pope is trying to peer into the human future over the long term, by looking at the types of institutions that survive across centuries and even millennia: Universities, “churches”, economic systems- such as capitalism- and potentially multi-millennial, species – wide projects, namely space colonization.

I liked Pope’s essay a lot, but there are parts of it I disagreed with. For one, I wish he would have included cities. These are the oldest lived of human institutions, and unlike Pope’s other choices are political, and yet manage to far out live other political forms- namely states or empires. Rome far outlived the Roman Empire and my guess is that many American cities, as long as they are not underwater, will outlive the United States.

Pope’s read on religion might be music to the ears of some at the IEET:

Even the very far future will have a history, and this future history may have strong, path-dependent consequences. Once we are at the threshold of a post-human society the pace of change is expected to slow down only in the event of collapse, and there is a danger that any locked-in system not able to adapt appropriately will prevent a full spectrum of human flourishing that might otherwise occur.

Pope seems to lean toward the negative take on the role of religion to promote “a full spectrum of human flourishing” and , “as a worst-case scenario, may lock out humanity from futures in which peace and freedom will be more achievable.”

To the surprise of many in the secular West, and that includes an increasingly secular United States, the story of religion will very much be the story of humanity over the next couple of centuries, and that includes especially the religion that is dying in the West today, Christianity. I doubt, however, that religion has either the will or the capacity to stop or even significantly slow technological development, though it might change our understanding of it. It also the case that, at the end of the day, religion only thrives to the extent it promotes human flourishing and survival, though religious fanatics might lead us to think otherwise. I am also not the only one to doubt Pope’s belief that “Once we are at the threshold of a posthuman society the pace of change is expected to slow down only in the event of collapse”.

Still, I greatly enjoyed Pope’s essay, and it was certainly thought provoking.  

Smooth seas do not make good sailors by Georgina Parry

If you’re looking to break out of your dystopian gloom for a while, and I myself keep finding reasons for which to be gloomy, then you couldn’t do much better to take a peak and Georgina Parry’s fictionalized peak at a possible utopian future. Like a good parent, Parry encourages our confidence, but not our hubris:

 The image mankind call ‘the present’ has been written in the light but the material future has not been built. Now it is the mission of people like Grace, and the human species, to build a future. Success will be measured by the contentment, health, altruism, high culture, and creativity of its people. As a species, Homo sapiens sapiens are hackers of nature’s solutions presented by the tree of life, that has evolved over millions of years.

The future is the past by Roger Schlafly

Schlafly’s essay literally made my draw drop, it was so morally absurd and even obscene.

Consider a mundane decision to walk along the top of a cliff. Conventional advice would be to be safe by staying away from the edge. But as Tegmark explains, that safety is only an illusion. What you perceive as a decision to stay safe is really the creation of a clone who jumps off the cliff. You may think that you are safe, but you are really jumping to your death in an alternate universe.

Armed with this knowledge, there is no reason to be safe. If you decide to jump off thecliff, then you really create a clone of yourself who stays on top of the cliff. Both scenarios are equally real, no matter what you decide. Your clone is indistinguishable from yourself, and will have the same feelings, except that one lives and the other dies. The surviving one can make more clones of himself just by making more decisions.

Schlafly rams the point home that under current views of the multiverse in physics nothing you do really amount to a choice, we are stuck on an utterly deterministic wave-function on whose branching where we play hero and villain, and there is no space for either praise or guilt. You can always act as a coward or naive sure that somewhere “out there” another version of “you” does the right thing. Saving humanity from itself in the ways proposed by Hitterdale and de Neufville, preparing for the worst as in Niemeyer and Pope or trying to build a better future as Parry and Stoica makes no sense here. Like poor Schrodinger’s cat, on some branches we end up surviving, on some we destroy ourselves and it is not us who is in charge of which branch we are on.

The thought made me cringe, but then I realized Schlafly must be playing a Swiftian game. Applying quantum theory to the moral and political worlds we inhabit leads to absurdity. This might or might not call into question the fundamental  reality of the multiverse or the universal wave function, but it should not lead us to doubt or jettison our ideas regarding our own responsibility for the lives we live, which boil down to the decisions we have made.

Chinese Dream is Xuan Yuan’s Da Tong by KoGuan Leo

Those of us in the West probably can’t help seeing the future of technology as nearly synonymous with the future of our own civilization, and a civilization, when boiled down to its essence, amounts to a set of questions a particular group of human beings keeps asking, and their answer to these questions. The questions in the West are things like what is the right balance between social order and individual freedom? What is the relationship between the external and internal (mental/spiritual) worlds, including the question of the meaning of Truth? How might the most fragile thing in existence, and for us the most precious- the individual- survive across time? What is the relationship between the man-made world- and culture- visa-vi nature, and which is most important to the identity and authenticity of the individual?

The progress of science and technology intersect with all of these questions, but what we often forget is that we have sown the seeds of science and technology elsewhere and the environment in which they will grow can be very different and hence their application and understanding different based as they will be on a whole different set of questions and answers encountered by a distinct civilization.

Leo KoGuan’s essay approaches the future of science and technology from the perspective of Chinese civilization. Frankly, I did not really understand his essay which seemed to me a combination of singularitarianism and Chinese philosophy that I just couldn’t wrap my head around.  What am I to make of this from the Founder and Chairman of a 5.1 billion dollar computer company:

 Using the KQID time-engine, earthlings will literally become Tianming Ren with God-like power to create and distribute objects of desire at will. Unchained, we are free at last!

Other than the fact that anyone interested in the future of transhumanism absolutely needs to be paying attention to what is happening and what and how people are thinking in China.

Lastly, I myself had an essay in the contest. It was about how we are facing incredible hurdles in the near future and that one of the ways we might succeed in facing these hurdles is by recovering the ability to imagine what an ideal society, Utopia, might look like. Go figure.

Malthusian Fiction and Fact

Wind_Up_Girl_by_Raphael_Lacoste-big

Prophecies of doom, especially when they’re particularly frightening, have a way of sticking with us in a way more rosy scenarios never seem to do. We seem to be wired this way by evolution, and for good reason.  It’s the lions that almost ate you that you need to remember, not the ones you were lucky enough not to see. Our negative bias is something we need to be aware of, and where it seems called for, lean against, but that doesn’t mean we should dismiss and ignore every chicken little as a false prophet even when his predictions turn out to be wrong, not just once, but multiple times. For we can never really discount completely the prospect that chicken little was right after all, and it just took the sky a long, long time to fall.

 The Book of Revelation is a doom prophecy like that, but it is not one that any secular or non-Christian person in their right mind would subscribe to. A better example is the prediction of Thomas Malthus who not only gave us a version of Armageddon compatible with natural science, but did so in the form of what was perhaps the most ill timed book in human history.

Malthus in his  An Essay on the Principle of Population published in 1798 was actually responding to one of history’s most wild-eyed optimist. While he had hidden himself away from French Revolutionary Jacobins who wanted to chop off his head, Nicolas de Condorcet had the balls to write his Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit, which argued not only that the direction of history was one of continuous progress without limit, but that such progress might one day grant mankind biological immortality. Condorcet himself wouldn’t make it, dying just after being captured, and before he could be drug off to the Guillotine, whether from self-ingested poison or just exhaustion at being hunted we do not know.

The argument for the perpetual progress of mankind was too much for the pessimist Malthus to bear. Though no one knew how long we had been around it was obvious to anyone who knew their history that our numbers didn’t just continually increase let alone things get better in some linear fashion. Malthus thought he had fingered the culprit – famine. Periods of starvation, and therefore decreases in human numbers, were brought about whenever human beings exceeded their ability to feed themselves, which had a tendency to happen often. As Malthus observed the production of food grew in a linear fashion while human population increased geometrically or exponentially.  If you’re looking for the origins of today’s debate between environmentalists and proponents of endless growth from whatever side of the political ledger- here it is-with Condorcet and Malthus.

Malthus could not have been worse in terms of timing. The settlement of the interiors of North America and Eurasia along with the mechanization of agriculture were to add to the world untold tons of food. The 19th century was also when we discovered what proved to be the key to unleashing nature’s bounty- the nitrogen cycle- which we were able to start to take advantage of in large part because in Peru we had stumbled across a hell of a lot of bat poop.

Supplies of guano along with caliche deposits from the Atacama desert of Chile would provide the world with soil supercharging nitrogen up until the First World War when the always crafty Germans looking for ways to feed themselves and at the same time make poison gas to kill the allies discovered the Haber-Bosch process. Nitrogen rich fertilizer was henceforth to be made using fossil fuels. All of that really took off just in time to answer another Malthusian prophecy  Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb of 1968, which looked at the quite literally exploding human population and saw mass starvation. The so-called “Green Revolution” proved those predictions wrong through a mixture of nitrogen fertilizers, plant breeding and pesticides. We had dodged the bullet yet again.

Malthusians today don’t talk much about mass starvation, which seems to make sense in a world where even the developing world has a growing problem with obesity, but the underlying idea of Malthus, that the biological-system of the earth has systemic limits and humans have a tendency to grow towards exceeding them still has legs, and I would argue, we should take this view very seriously indeed.

We can be fairly certain there are limits out there, though we are in the dark as to what exactly those limits are. Limits to what? Limits to what we can do or take from the earth or subject it to before we make it unlivable the majority of creatures who evolved for its current environment- including ourselves- unless we want to live here under shells as we would on a dead planet like Mars or like in the 70s science-fiction classic Logan’s Run itself inspired by Malthusian fears about runaway population growth.

The reason why any particular Malthus is likely wrong is that the future is in essence unknowable. The retort to deterministic pessimism is often deterministic optimism, something has always saved us in the past, usually human inventiveness i.e. technology and will therefore save us in the future. I don’t believe in either sort of determinism we are not fated to destroy ourselves, but the silence of the universe shouldn’t fill us with confidence that we are fated to save ourselves either. Our future is in our hands.

What might the world look like if today’s Malthusian fears prove true, if we don’t stumble upon or find the will and means to address the problems of what people are now calling the Anthropocene, the era when humanity itself has become the predominant biological, and geochemical force on earth? The problems are not hard to identify and are very real. We are heating up the earth with the carbon output of our technological civilization, and despite all the progress in solar power generation, demon coal is still king. Through our very success as a species we appear to be unleashing the sixth great extinction upon life on earth, akin to the cataclysmic events that almost destroyed life on earth in the deep past. Life and the geography of the planet will bear our scars.

Paolo Bacigalupi is a novelist of the Anthropocene bringing to life dystopian visions of what the coming centuries might look like if we have failed to solve our current Malthusian challenges. The 23rd century Bacigalupi presents in his novel The Windup Girl is not one any of us would want to live in, inheriting the worst of all worlds. Global warming has caused a catastrophic level of sea rise, yet the age of cheap and abundant energy is also over. We are in an era with a strange mixture of the pre-industrial and the post industrial- dirigibles rather than planes ply the air, sailing ships have returned. Power is once again a matter of simple machines and animals with huge biologically engineered elephants turning vast springs to produce energy which for all that is painfully scarce. Those living in the 23rd century look back to our age of abundance, what they call the Expansion, as a golden age.

What has most changed in the 23rd century is our relationship to the living world and especially to food. Bacigalupi has said that the role of science-fiction authors is to take some set of elements of the present and extrapolate them to see where they lead. Or, as William Gibson said “The future is already here it’s just not evenly distributed.” What Bacigalupi was especially interested in extrapolating was the way biotechnology and agribusiness seem to be trying to take ownership over food. Copyrighting genes, preventing farmers from re-using, engaging in bioprospecting. The latter becomes biopiracy when companies copyright genetic samples and leverage indigenous knowledge without compensating the peoples from whom this biological knowledge and material has been gleaned.

In the neo-medieval world of The Windup Girl agribusinesses known as “calorie companies” with names like AgriGen, PurCal and RedStar don’t just steal indigenous knowledge and foreign plants, and hide this theft under the cloak of copyright, they hire mercenaries to topple governments, unleash famines, engage in a sophisticated form of biological warfare. It as if today’s patent obsessed and abusing pharmaceutical companies started to deliberately create and release diseases in order to reap the profits when they swept in and offered cures. A very frightening possible future indeed.

Genetic engineering, whether deliberately or by accident, has brought into being new creatures that outcompete the other forms of life. There are cats called cheshires that roam everywhere and  possess chameleon like camouflaging capabilities. There are all sorts of diseases, mostly deadly, diseases that make the trans-genetic jump from plants to humans.

Congruent with the current Malthusianism, The Windup Girl is really not focused on population as our primary problem. Indeed, the humanoid windups, a people whose condition and fate take center stage in the novel were created not because of population growth, but in response to population decline. In a world without abundant energy robots are a non-starter. Facing collapsing population the Japanese have bred a race of infertile servants called windups for their mechanical like motions. Just one of the many examples where Bacigalupi is able to turn underlying cultural assumptions into a futuristic reality the windups are “more  Japanese than the Japanese” and combine elements of robots and geishas.

The novel is the story of one of these windups, Emiko, who has been abandoned by her owner in Thailand coming to find her soul in a world that considers her soulless. She is forced to live as a sexual slave and is barbarically brutalized by Somdet Chaopraya’ the regent of the child queen, and murders him as a result. Emiko had become involved with a Westerner, Anderson Lake working for AgriGen who is searching out the Thais most valuable resource, their seed bank, the Norwegian seed bank of Svalbard having been destroyed in an act of industrial terrorism by the calorie companies, along with a mysterious scientist called Gibbons who keeps the Thais one step ahead of whatever genetic plague nature or the calorie companies can throw at them.

Anderson and the calories companies are preparing a sort of coup to unseat the powerful Environment Ministry once lead by a murdered figure named Jaidee to open up trade and especially access to the genetic wealth of Thailand. The coup is eventually undone,  Bangkok flooded and Emiko living in hiding the deserted city offered the chance to create more of her own kind by Gibbons who relishes playing God.

What I found most amazing about The Windup Girl wasn’t just the fact that Bacigalupi made such a strange world utterly believable, but that he played out the story in a cosmology that is Buddhist, which gives a certain depth to how the characters understand their own suffering.

The prayers of the monks are all that can sometimes be done in what are otherwise hopeless situation. The ancient temples to faith have survived better than the temples to money- the skyscrapers built during the age of expansion. Kamma (karma) gives the Asian characters in the novel a shared explanatory framework, one not possessed by foreigners (the farang). It is the moral conscience that haunts their decisions and betrayals. They have souls and what they do here and not do will decide the fate of the their soul in the next life.

The possession of a soul is a boundary against the windups. Genetic creations are considered somehow soulless not subject to the laws of kamma and therefore outside of the moral universe, inherently evil. This belief is driven home with particular power in a scene in which the character Kanya comes across a butterfly. It is beautiful, bejeweled a fragile thing that has traveled great distances and survived great hardships. It lands on her finger and she studies it. She lets it sit on her finger and then she shepherds it into the palm of her hand. She crushes it into dust. Remorseless. “Windups have no souls. But they are beautiful.”  (241)

It isn’t only a manufactured pollinator like the butterfly that are considered soulless and treated accordingly. Engineered humans like Emiko are treated in such a way as well. They exist either as commodities to be used or as something demonic to be destroyed. But we know different. Emiko is no sexual toy she is a person, genetically engineered or not, which means, among much else, that she can be scarred by abuse.

 In the privacy of the open air and the setting sun she bathes. It is a ritual process, a careful cleansing. The bucket of water, a fingering of soap. She squats beside the bucket and ladles the warm water over herself. It is a precise thing, a scripted act as deliberate as Jo No Mai, each move choreographed, a worship of scarcity.

Animals bathe to remove dirt. Only humans, only something inhabiting a moral universe, possessing a moral memory both of which might be the best materialist way of understanding the soul, bathe in the hope of removing emotional scars. If others could see into Emiko, or her into the hearts of other human beings, then both would see that she has a soul to the extent that human beings might be said to have one. The American farang Anderson thinks:

 She is an animal. Servile as a dog.

He wonders if she were a real person if he would feel more incensed at the abuse she suffers. It’s an odd thing, being with a manufactured creature, built and trained to serve.

She admits herself that her soul wars with herself. That she does not rightly know which parts of her are hers alone and which have been inbuilt genetically. Does her eagerness to serve come from some portion of canine DNA that makes her assume that natural people outrank her for pack loyalty? Or is it simply the training she has spoken of? (184)

As we ask of ourselves- nature or nurture? Both are part of our kamma as is what we do or fail to do with them.

The scientist, Gibbons who saves the Thais from the genetic assaults of the the calorie companies and holds the keys to their invaluable seed bank is not a hero, but himself a Promethean monster surrounding himself with genetically engineered beings he treats as sexual toys, his body rotting from disease. To Kanya’s assertion that his disease is his kamma, Gibbons shouts:

Karma? Did you say karma? And what sort of karma is it that ties your entire country to me, my rotting body.  (245)

Gibbons is coming from a quite different religious tradition, a Christian tradition, or rather the Promethean scientific religion which emerged from it in which we play the role of god.

We are nature. Our every tinkering is nature, our every biological striving. We are what we are, and the world is ours. We are its gods. Your only difficulty is your unwillingness to unleash your potential fully upon it.

I want to shake you sometimes. If you would just let me, I could be your god and shape you to the Eden that beckons us.

To which Kanya replies: “I’m Buddhist.”

Gibbons:

 And we all know windups have no soul. No rebirth for them. They will have to find their own gods protect them. Their own gods to pray for their dead. Perhaps I will be that one, and your windup children will pray to me for salvation.(243)

This indeed is the world that open up at the end of the novel, with Gibbons becoming Emiko’s “God” promising to make her fertile and her race plentiful. One get the sense that the rise of the windups will not bode well for humanity our far future kamma eventually tracing itself back to the inhuman way we treated Emiko.

Bacigalupi has written an amazing book, even if it has its limitations. The Windup Girl managed to avoid being didactic but is nonetheless polemical- it has political points to score. It’s heroes are either Malthusian or carried by events with all the bad guys wearing Promethean attire. In this sense it doesn’t take full advantage of the capacity of fiction for political and philosophical insight which can only be accomplished when one humanizes all sides, not just ones own.

Still, it was an incredible novel, one of the best to come out of our new century. Unlike most works of fiction, however, we can only hope that by the time we reach the 23rd century the novel represents it will be forgotten. For otherwise, the implication would be that after many false alarms Malthusian fiction has after a long history of false alarms, become Malthusian fact.

 

This City is Our Future

Erich Kettelhut Metropolis Sketch

If you wish to understand the future you need to understand the city, for the human future is an overwhelmingly urban future. The city may have always been synonymous with civilization, but the rise of urban humanity has been something that has almost all occurred after the onset of the industrial revolution. In 1800 a mere 3 percent of humanity lived in cities of over one million people. By 2050, 75  percent of humanity will be urbanized. India alone might have 6 cities with a population of over 10 million.    

The trend towards megacities is one into which humanity as we speak is accelerating in a process we do not fully understand let alone control. As the counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen writes in his Out of the Mountains:

 To put it another way, these data show that the world’s cities are about to be swamped by a human tide that will force them to absorb- in just one generation- the same population growth that occurred in all of human history up to 1960. And virtually all of this growth will happen in the world’s poorest areas- a recipe for conflict, for crises in health, education and in governance, and for food water and energy scarcity.  (29)

Kilcullen sees 4 trends including urbanization that he thinks are reshaping human geography all of which can be traced to processes that began in the industrial revolution: the aforementioned urbanization and growth of megacities, population growth, littoralization and connectedness.

In terms of population growth: The world’s population has exploded going from 750 million in 1750 to a projected  9.1 – 9.3 billion by 2050. The rate of population growth is thankfully slowing, but barring some incredible catastrophe, the earth seems destined to gain the equivalent of another China and India all within the space of a generation. Almost all of this growth will occur in poor and underdeveloped countries already stumbling under the pressures of the populations they have.

One aspect of population growth Kilcullen doesn’t really discuss is the aging of the human population. This is normally understood in terms of the failure of advanced societies in Japan, South Korea in Europe to reach replacement levels so that the number of elderly are growing faster than the youth to support them, a phenomenon that is also happening in China as a consequence of their draconian one child policy. Yet, the developing world, simply because of the sheer numbers and increased longevity will face its own elderly crisis as well as tens of millions move into age-related conditions of dependency. As I have said in the past, gaining a “longevity dividend” is not a project for spoiled Westerners alone, but is primarily a development issue.

Another trend Kilcullen explores is littoralization, the concentration of human populations near the sea. A fact that was surprising to a landlubber such as myself, Kilcullen points out that in 2012 80% of human beings lived within 60 miles of the ocean. (30) A number that is increasing as the interiors of the continents are hollowed out of human inhabitants.

Kilcullen doesn’t discuss climate change much but the kinds of population dislocations that might be caused by moderate not to mention severe sea level rise would be catastrophic should certain scenarios for climate change play out. This goes well beyond islands or wealthy enclaves such as Miami, New Orleans or Manhattan. Places such as these and Denmark may have the money to engineer defenses against the rising sea, but what of a poor country such as Bangladesh? There, almost 200 million people might find themselves in flight from the relentless forward movement of the oceans. To where will they flee?

It is not merely the displacement of tens of millions of people, or more, living in low-lying coastal areas. Much of the world’s staple crop of rice is produced in deltas which would be destroyed by the inundation of the salt-water seas.

The last and most optimistic of Kilcullen’s trends is growing connectedness. He quotes the journalist John Pollack:

Cell-phone penetration in the developing world reached 79 percent in 2011. Cisco estimates that by 2015 more people in sub-saharan Africa,  South and Southeast Asia and the Middle East will have Internet access than electricity at home.

What makes this less optimistic is the fact as Pollack continues:

Across much of the world, this new information power sits uncomfortably upon layers of corrupt and inefficient government.  (231)

One might have thought that the communications revolution had made geography irrelevant or “flat” in Thomas Friedman’s famous term. Instead, the world has become“spiky” with the concentration of people, capital, and innovation in cities spread across the globe and interconnected with one another. The need for concentration as a necessary condition for communication is felt by the very rich and the very poor alike, both of whom collect together in cities. Companies running sophisticated trading algorithms have reshaped the very landscape to get closer to the heart of the Internet and gain a speed advantage over competitors so small they can not be perceived by human beings.

Likewise, the very poor flood to the world’s cities, because they can gain access to networks of markets and capital, but more recently, because only there do they have access to electricity that allows them to connect with one another or the larger world, especially in terms of their ethnic diaspora or larger civilizational community, through mobile devices and satellite TV. And there are more of these poor struggling to survive in our 21st century world than we thought, 400 million more of them according to a recent report.

For the urban poor and disenfranchised of the cities what the new connectivity can translate into is what Audrey Kurth Croninn has called the new levee en mass.  The first levee en mass was that of the French Revolution where the population was mobilized for both military and revolutionary action by new short length publications written by revolutionary writers such as Robespierre, Saint-Just or the blood thirsty Marat. In the new levee en mass, crowds capable of overthrowing governments- witness, Tunisia, Egypt and Ukraine can be mobilized by bloggers, amateur videographers, or just a kind of swarm intelligence emerging on the basis of some failure of the ruling classes.

Even quite effective armies, such as ISIS now sweeping in from Syria and taking over swaths of Iraq can be pulled seemingly out of thin air. The mobilizing capacity that was once the possession of the state or long-standing revolutionary groups has, under modern conditions of connectedness, become democratized even if the money behind them can ultimately be traced to states.

The movement of the great mass of human beings into cities portends the movement of war into cities, and this is the underlying subject of Kilcullen’s book, the changing face of war in an urban world. Given that the vast majority of countries in which urbanization is taking place will be incapable of fielding advanced armies the kinds of conflicts likely to be encountered there Kilcullen thinks will be guerilla wars whether pitting one segment of society off against another or drawing in Western armies.

The headless, swarm tactics of guerrilla war, which as the author Lawrence H. Keeley reminded us is in some sense a more evolved, “natural” and ultimately more effective form of warfare than the clashing professional armies of advanced states, its roots stretching back into human prehistory and the ancient practices of both hunting and tribal warfare, are given a potent boost by local communication technologies such as traditional radio communication and mesh networks. The crowd or small military group able to be tied together by an electronic web that turns them into something more like an immune system than a modern centrally directed army.

Attempting to avoid the high casualties so often experienced when advanced armies try to fight guerrilla wars, those capable of doing so are likely to turn to increasingly sophisticated remote and robotic weapons to fight these conflicts for them. Kilcullen is troubled by this development, not the least, because it seems to relocate the risk of war onto the civilian population of whatever country is wielding them, the communities in which remote warriors live or where their weapons themselves designed and built, arguably legitimate targets of a remote enemy a community might not even be aware it is fighting. Perhaps the real key is to try to prevent conflicts that might end with our military engagement in the first place.

Cities likely to experience epidemic crime, civil war or revolutionary upheaval are also those that have in Kilcullen’s terms gone “feral”, meaning the order usually imposed by the urban landscape no longer operates due to failures of governance. Into such a vacuum criminal networks often emerge which exchanges the imposition of some semblance of order for the control of illicit trade. All of these things: civil war, revolution, and international crime represent pull factors for Western military engagement whether in the name of international stability, humanitarian concerns or for more nefarious ends most of which are centered on resource extraction. The question is how can one prevent cities from going feral in the first place, avoiding the deep discontent and social breakdown that leads to civil war, revolution or the rise of criminal cartels all of which might end with the military intervention of advanced countries?

The solution lies in thinking of the city as a type of organism with “inflows” such as water, food, resources, manufactured products and capital and “outflows”, especially waste. There is also the issue of order as a kind of homeostasis. A city such as Beijing or Shanghai with their polluted skies is a sick organism as is the city of Dhaka in Bangladesh with its polluted waters or a city with a sky-high homicide rate such as Guatemala City or Sao Paulo. The beautiful thing about the new technologically driven capacity for mass mobilization is that it forces governments to take notice of the people’s problems or figuratively (and sometimes literally lose their heads). The problem is once things have gone badly enough to inspire mass riots the condition is likely systemic and extremely difficult to solve, and that the kinds of protests the Internet and mobile have inspired, at least so far, have been effective at toppling governments, but unable to either found or serve as governments themselves.

At least one answer to the problems of urban geography that could potentially allow cities to avoid instability is “Big-Data” or so-called “smart cities” where the a city is minutely monitored in real time for problems which then initiate quick responses by city authorities. There are several problems here, the first being the costs of such systems, but that might be the least insurmountable one, the biggest being the sheer data load.

As Kilcullen puts it in the context of military intelligence, but which could just as well be stated as the problem of city administrators, international NGOs and aid agencies.

The capacity to intercept, tag, track and locate specific cell phone and Internet users from a drone already exists, but distinguishing signal from noise in a densely connected, heavily trafficked piece of digital space is a daunting challenge. (238)

Kilcullen’s answer to the incomplete picture provided by the view from above, from big data, is to combine this data with the partial but deep view of the city by its inhabitants on the ground. In its essence a city is the stories and connections of those that live in them. Think of the deep, if necessarily narrow perspective of a major city merchant or even a well connected drug dealer. Add this to the stories of those working in social and medical services, police officers, big employers. socialites etc and one starts to get an idea of the biography of a city. Add to that the big picture of flows and connections and one starts to understand the city for what it is, a complex type of non-biological organism that serves as a stage for human stories.

Kilcullen has multiple examples of where knowledge of the big picture from experts has successfully aligned with grassroots organization to save societies on the brink of destruction an alignment he calls “co-design”. He cites the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace where grassroots organizer Leymah Gbowee leveraged the expertise of Western NGOs to stop the civil war in Liberia. CeaseFire Chicago uses a big-picture model of crime literally based on epidemiology and combines that with community level interventions to stop violent crime before it occurs.

Another group Kilcullen discusses is Crisis Mappers which offers citizens everywhere in the world access to the big picture, what the organization describes as “the largest and most active international community of experts, practitioners, policy makers, technologists, researchers, journalists, scholars, hackers and skilled volunteers engaged at the intersection between humanitarian crises, technology, crowd-sourcing, and crisis mapping.” (253)

On almost all of this I find Kilcullen to be spot on. The problem is that he fails to tackle the really systemic issue which is inequality. What is necessary to save any city, as Kilcullen acknowledges, is a sense of shared community. What I would call a sense of shared past and future. Insofar as the very wealthy in any society or city are connected to and largely identify with their wealthy fellow elites abroad rather than their poor neighbors, a city and a society is doomed, for only the wealthy have the wherewithal to support the kinds of social investments that make a city livable for its middle classes let alone its poor.

The very globalization that has created the opportunity for the rich in once poor countries to rise, and which connects the global poor to their fellow sufferers both in the same country and more amazingly across the world has cleft the connection between poor and rich in the same society. It is these global connections between classes which gives the current situation a revolutionary aspect, which as Marx long ago predicted, is global in scope.

The danger is that the very wealthy classes use the new high tech tools for monitoring citizens into a way to avoid systemic change, either by using their ability to intimately monitor so-called “revolutionaries” and short-circuit legitimate protest or by addressing the public’s concern in only the most superficial of ways.

The long term solution to the new era of urban mankind is giving people who live in cities the tools, including increasing sophisticated tools of data gathering and simulation, to control their own fates to find ways to connect revolutionary movements to progressive forces in societies where cities are not failing, and their tools for dealing with all the social and environmental problems cities face, and above all, to convince the wealthy to support such efforts, both in their own locality as well as on a global scale. For, the attempt at total control of a complex entity like a city through the tools of the security state, like the paper flat Utopian cities of state worshipers of days past, is to attempt building a castle in the thin armed sky.

 

 

 

 

 

Why the World Cup in Brazil Is Our Future: In More Ways Than One

The bold gamble of the Brazilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis to have a paralysied person using an exoskeleton controlled by the brain kick a soccer ball during the World Cup opening ceremony  has paid off.  Yet, for how important the research of The Walk Again Project is to those suffering paralysis, the less than 2 second display of the technology did very little to live up to the pre-game media hype.

The technology of saving people suffering paralysis using brain-machine interfaces is still in its infancy, though I hold out hope for Nicolelis and others’ work in these areas for those suffering from paralysis or the elderly unable to enjoy the wonders of movement, the future we can see when looking at Brazil today is a much different one than the one hinted at by the miracle of the paralyzed being able to walk.

I first got hint of this through a photograph.  Seeing the elite Brazilian riot police in their full body armor reminded me of nothing so much as StormTroopers from Star Wars. Should full exoskeletons remain prohibitively expensive, it might be soldiers and police who are wearing them to leverage their power against urban protesters.  And if the experience of Brazil in the runup to the World Cup, especially in 2013, but also now, is any indication, protests there will be.

The protests in Brazil reflect a widespread malaise with the present and future of the country. There is endemic concern about youth underemployment and underemployment, crime and inadequate and grossly underfunded public services. What should be a great honor, hosting what is arguably the premier sporting event on the planet, about which the country is fanatic, and in which it is predicted to do amazingly well, has a public where instead, according to a recent Pew Survey:

 About six-in-ten (61%) think hosting the event is a bad thing for Brazil because it takes money away from schools, health care and other public services — a common theme in the protests that have swept the country since June 2013.

The Brazilian government has reasons to be nervous, it is now widely acknowledged, as David Kilcullen points out in his excellent book Out of the Mountains that rabid soccer fans themselves, known as Ultras, were instrumental in the downfall of government in Tunisia and Egypt in 2011. This is not to suggest that Brazil in on the verge of revolution, the country is not, after all, a brittle autocracy like countries that experienced what proved to be the horribly misnamed “Arab Spring” rather, to suggest just how potent a punch can be packed by testosterone charged young men with nothing to lose.

This situation, where you have an intensively dissatisfied urban population, from which mass protests, enabled by ubiquitous mobile technology, protests which governments have extreme difficulty containing, are not, of course, the province of Brazil alone, but have become one of the defining features of the early 21st century.

One of the problems seems to be that even as technological capacities stream forward the low-tech foundational capabilities of societies are crumbling, developments which may be related. Brazilians are simultaneously empowered by mobile technology and disempowered through the decline of necessary services such as public transportation.

We can see the implications here even for something like Nicolelis’ miracle on a Brazilian soccer field today. Who will pay for such exoskeletons for those both paralyzed and poor? But there is another issue, perhaps as worrisome. Our very failure to support low -tech  foundations may eventually render many of our high-tech breakthroughs moot.

Take the low-tech foundational technology of antibiotics:  as Mary Mckenna pointed out in a chilling article back in 2013 the failure of pharmaceutical companies to invest in low-tech and therefore unprofitable antibiotics, combined with their systemic overuse in both humans and animals, threatens to push us into a frightening post antibiotic age.  Many of our medical procedures for dealing with life threatening conditions utilize the temporary suppression of the immune system, something that in itself would be life threatening without our ability to utilize antibiotics. In a world without antibiotics chemotherapy would kill you, severe burns would almost guarantee death, intensive care would be extremely difficult.

Next to go: surgery, especially on sites that harbor large populations of bacteria such as the intestines and the urinary tract. Those bacteria are benign in their regular homes in the body, but introduce them into the blood, as surgery can, and infections are practically guaranteed. And then implantable devices, because bacteria can form sticky films of infection on the devices’ surfaces that can be broken down only by antibiotics.

One answer to this might be nanotechnology, not in the sense of microscopic robots  touted by thinkers such as Ray Kurzweil, but in the form of nanoparticle sprays that kill pathogens and act as protective coatings that help stem the transmission of killer bacteria and viruses. Research into pathogen destroying nanoparticles is still in its early stages, so we have no idea where it will go. The risk remains, however, that our failure to invest in and properly use technologies we’ve had for a century might make a technological miracle like Nicolelis’ exoskeletons impossible, at least, in the case of paraplegics, where surgery might be involved. It would also threatens to erase much of the last century’s gains in longevity. In a world without effective antibiotics my recently infected gum might have killed me. The message from Brazil is that a wondrous future may await, but only if we remember and sustain the achievements and miracles of the past.

 

Jumping Off The Technological Hype-Cycle and the AI Coup

Robotic Railroad 1950s

What we know is that the very biggest tech companies have been pouring money into artificial intelligence in the last year. Back in January Google bought the UK artificial intelligence firm Deep Mind for 400 million dollars. Only a month earlier, Google had bought the innovative robotics firm Boston Dynamics. FaceBook is in the game as well having also in December 2013 created a massive lab devoted to artificial intelligence. And this new obsession with AI isn’t only something latte pumped-up Americans are into. The Chinese internet giant Baidu, with its own AI lab, recently snagged the artificial intelligence researcher Andrew Ng whose work for Google included the breakthrough of creating a program that could teach itself to recognize pictures of cats on the Internet, and the word “breakthrough” is not intended to be the punch line of a joke.

Obviously these firms see something that make these big bets and the competition for talent seem worthwhile with the most obvious thing they see being advances in an approach to AI known as Deep Learning, which moves programming away from a logical set of instructions and towards the kind bulking and pruning found in biological forms of intelligence. Will these investments prove worth it? We should know in just a few years, yet we simply don’t right now.

No matter how it turns out we need to beware of becoming caught in the technological hype-cycle. A tech investor, or tech company for that matter, needs to be able to ride the hype-cycle like a surfer rides a wave- when it goes up, she goes up, and when it comes down she comes down, with the key being to position oneself in just the right place, neither too far ahead or too far behind. The rest of us, however, and especially those charged with explaining science and technology to the general public, namely, science journalists, have a very different job- to parse the rhetoric and figure out what is really going on.

A good example of what science journalism should look like is a recent conversation over at Bloggingheads between Freddie deBoer and Alexis Madrigal. As Madrigal points out we need to be cognizant of what the recent spate of AI wonders we’ve seen actually are. Take the much over-hyped Google self-driving car. It seems much less impressive to know the areas where these cars are functional are only those areas that have been mapped before hand in painstaking detail. The car guides itself not through “reality” but a virtual world whose parameters can be upset by something out of order that the car is then pre-programmed to respond to in a limited set of ways. The car thus only functions in the context of a mindbogglingly precise map of the area in which it is driving. As if you were unable to make your way through a room unless you knew exactly where every piece of furniture was located. In other words Google’s self-driving car is undriveable in almost all situations that could be handled by a sixteen year old who just learned how to drive. “Intelligence” in a self-driving car is a question of gathering massive amounts of data up front. Indeed, the latest iteration of the Google self-driving car is more like tiny trolley car where information is the “track” than an automobile driven by a human being and able to go anywhere, without the need of any foreknowledge of the terrain, so long, that is, as there is a road to drive upon.

As Madrigal and deBoer also point out in another example, the excellent service of Google Translate isn’t really using machine intelligence to decode language at all. It’s merely aggregating the efforts of thousands of human translators to arrive at approximate results. Again, there is no real intelligence here, just an efficient way to sort through an incredibly huge amount of data.

Yet, what if this tactic of approaching intelligence by “throwing more data at it”  ultimately proves a dead end? There may come a point where such a strategy shows increasingly limited returns. The fact of the matter is that we know of only one fully sentient creature- ourselves- and the more data strategy is nothing like how our own brains work. If we really want to achieve machine intelligence, and it’s an open question whether this is a worthwhile goal, then we should be exploring at least some alternative paths to that end such as those long espoused by Douglas Hofstadter the author of the amazing Godel, Escher, Bach,  and The Mind’s I among others.

Predictions about the future of capacities of artificially intelligent agents are all predicated on the continued exponential rise in computer processing power. Yet, these predictions are based on what are some less than solid assumptions with the first being that we are nowhere near hard limits to the continuation of Moore’s Law. What this assumption ignores is increased rumblings that Moore’s Law might be in hospice and destined for the morgue.

But even if no such hard limits are encountered in terms of Moore’s Law, we still have the unproven assumption that greater processing power almost all by itself leads to intelligence, or even is guaranteed to bring incredible changes to society at large. The problem here is that sheer processing power doesn’t tell you all that much. Processing power hasn’t brought us machines that are intelligent so much as machines that are fast, nor are the increases in processing power themselves all that relevant to what the majority of us can actually do.  As we are often reminded all of us carry in our pockets or have sitting on our desktops computational capacity that exceeds all of NASA in the 1960’s, yet clearly this doesn’t mean that any of us are by this power capable of sending men to the moon.

AI may be in a technological hype-cycle, again we won’t really know for a few years, but the dangers of any hype-cycle for an immature technology is that it gets crushed as the wave comes down. In a hype-cycle initial progress in some field is followed by a private sector investment surge and then a transformation of the grant writing and academic publication landscape as universities and researchers desperate for dwindling research funding try to match their research focus to match a new and sexy field. Eventually progress comes to the attention of the general press and gives rise to fawning books and maybe even a dystopian Hollywood movie or two. Once the public is on to it, the game is almost up, for research runs into headwinds and progress fails to meet the expectations of a now profit-fix addicted market and funders. In the crash many worthwhile research projects end up in the dustbin and funding flows to the new sexy idea.

AI itself went through a similar hype-cycle in the 1980’s, back when Hofstander was writing his Godel, Escher, Bach  but we have had a spate of more recent candidates. Remember in the 1990’s when seemingly every disease and every human behavior was being linked to a specific gene promising targeted therapies? Well, as almost always, we found out that reality is more complicated than the current fashion. The danger here was that such a premature evaluation of our knowledge led to all kinds of crazy fantasies and nightmares. The fantasy that we could tailor design human beings through selecting specific genes led to what amount to some pretty egregious practices, namely, the sale of selection services for unborn children based on spurious science- a sophisticated form of quackery. It also led to childlike nightmares, such as found in the movie Gattaca or Francis Fukuyama’s Our Posthuman Future where we were frightened with the prospect of a dystopian future where human beings were to be designed like products, a nightmare that was supposed to be just over the horizon.  

We now have the field of epigenetics to show us what we should have known- that both genes and environment count and we have to therefore address both, and that the world is too complex for us to ever assume complete sovereignty over it. In many ways it is the complexity of nature itself that is our salvation protecting us from both our fantasies and our fears.

Some other examples? How about MOOCS which we supposed to be as revolutionary as the invention of universal education or the university? Being involved in distance education for non-university attending adults I had always known that the most successful model for online learning was where it was “blended” some face-to-face, some online. That “soft” study skills were as important to student success as academic ability. The MOOC model largely avoided these hard won truths of the field of Adult Basic Education and appears to be starting to stumble, with one of its biggest players UDACITY loosing its foothold.  Andrew Ng, the AI researcher scooped up by Baidu I mentioned earlier being just one of a number of high level MOOC refugees having helped found Coursera.

The so-called Internet of Things is probably another example of getting caught on the hype-cycle. The IoT is this idea that people are going to be clamoring to connect all of their things: their homes, refrigerators, cars, and even their own bodies to the Internet in order to be able to constantly monitor those things. The holes in all this are that not only are we already drowning in a deluge of data, or that it’s pretty easy to see how the automation of consumption is only of benefit to those providing the service if we’re either buying more stuff or the automators are capturing a “finder’s fee”, it’s above all, that anything connected to the Internet is by that fact hackable and who in the world wants their homes or their very bodies hacked? This isn’t a paranoid fantasy of the future, as a recent skeptical piece on the IoT in The Economist pointed out:

Last year, for instance, the United States Fair Trade Commission filed a complaint against TrendNet, a Californian marketer of home-security cameras that can be controlled over the internet, for failing to implement reasonable security measures. The company pitched its product under the trade-name “SecureView”, with the promise of helping to protect owners’ property from crime. Yet, hackers had no difficulty breaching TrendNet’s security, bypassing the login credentials of some 700 private users registered on the company’s website, and accessing their live video feeds. Some of the compromised feeds found their way onto the internet, displaying private areas of users’ homes and allowing unauthorised surveillance of infants sleeping, children playing, and adults going about their personal lives. That the exposure increased the chances of the victims being the targets of thieves, stalkers or paedophiles only fuelled public outrage.

Personalized medicine might be considered a cousin of the IoT, and while it makes perfect sense to me for persons with certain medical conditions or even just interest in their own health to monitor themselves or be monitored and connected to health care professionals, such systems will most likely be closed networks to avoid the risk of some maleficent nerd turning off your pacemaker.

Still, personalized medicine itself, might be yet another example of the magnetic power of hype. It is one thing to tailor a patient’s treatment based on how others with similar genomic profiles reacted to some pharmaceutical and the like. What would be most dangerous in terms of health care costs both to individuals and society would be something like the “personalized” care for persons with chronic illnesses profiled in the New York Times this April, where, for instance, the:

… captive audience of Type 1 diabetics has spawned lines of high-priced gadgets and disposable accouterments, borrowing business models from technology companies like Apple: Each pump and monitor requires the separate purchase of an array of items that are often brand and model specific.

A steady stream of new models and updates often offer dubious improvement: colored pumps; talking, bilingual meters; sensors reporting minute-by-minute sugar readouts. Ms. Hayley’s new pump will cost $7,350 (she will pay $2,500 under the terms of her insurance). But she will also need to pay her part for supplies, including $100 monitor probes that must be replaced every week, disposable tubing that she must change every three days and 10 or so test strips every day.

The technological hype-cycle gets its rhetoric from the one technological transformation that actually deserves the characterization of a revolution. I am talking, of course, about the industrial revolution which certainly transformed human life almost beyond recognition from what came before. Every new technology seemingly ends up making its claim to be “revolutionary” as in absolutely transformative. Just in my lifetime we have had the IT , or digital revolution, the Genomics Revolution, the Mobile Revolution, The Big Data Revolution to name only a few.  Yet, the fact of the matter is not merely have no single one of these revolutions proven as transformative as the industrial revolution, arguably, all of them combined haven’t matched the industrial revolution either.

This is the far too often misunderstood thesis of economists like Robert Gordon. Gordon’s argument, at least as far as I understand it, is not that current technological advancements aren’t a big deal, just that the sheer qualitative gains seen in the industrial revolution are incredibly difficult to sustain let alone surpass.

The enormity of the change from a world where it takes, as it took Magellan propelled by the winds, years, rather than days to circle the globe is hard to get our heads around, the gap between using a horse and using a car for daily travel incredible. The average lifespan since the 1800’s has doubled. One in five of the children born once died in childhood. There were no effective anesthetics before 1846.  Millions would die from an outbreak of the flu or other infectious disease. Hunger and famine were common human experiences however developed one’s society was up until the 20th century, and indoor toilets were not common until then either. Vaccinations did not emerge until the late 19th century.

Bill Gates has characterized views such as those of Gordon as “stupid”. Yet, he himself is a Gordonite as evidenced by this quote:

But asked whether giving the planet an internet connection is more important than finding a vaccination for malaria, the co-founder of Microsoft and world’s second-richest man does not hide his irritation: “As a priority? It’s a joke.”

Then, slipping back into the sarcasm that often breaks through when he is at his most engaged, he adds: “Take this malaria vaccine, [this] weird thing that I’m thinking of. Hmm, which is more important, connectivity or malaria vaccine? If you think connectivity is the key thing, that’s great. I don’t.”

And this is all really what I think Gordon is saying, that the “revolutions” of the past 50 years pale in comparison to the effects on human living of the period between 1850 and 1950 and this is the case even if we accept the fact that the pace of technological change is accelerating. It is as if we are running faster and faster at the same time the hill in front of us gets steeper and steeper so that truly qualitative change of the human condition has become more difficult even as our technological capabilities have vastly increased.

For almost two decades we’ve thought that the combined effects of three technologies in particular- robotics, genetics, and nanotech were destined to bring qualitative change on the order of the industrial revolution. It’s been fourteen years since Bill Joy warned us that these technologies threatened us with a future without human beings in it, but it’s hard to see how even a positive manifestation of the transformations he predicted have come true. This is not to say that they will never bring such a scale of change, only that they haven’t yet, and fourteen years isn’t nothing after all.

So now, after that long and winding road, back to AI. Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee and Jeff Cummings the authors of the most popular recent book on the advances in artificial intelligence over the past decade, The Second Machine Age take aim directly at the technological pessimism of Gordon and others. They are firm believers in the AI revolution and its potential. For them innovation in the 21st century is no longer about brand new breakthrough ideas but, borrowing from biology, the recombination of ideas that already exist. In their view, we are being “held back by our inability to process all the new ideas fast enough” and therefore one of the things we need are even bigger computers to test out new ideas and combinations of ideas. (82)

But there are other conclusions one might draw from the metaphor of innovation as “recombination”.  For one, recombination can be downright harmful for organisms that are actually working. Perhaps you do indeed get growth from Schumpeter’s endless cycle of creation and destruction, but if all you’ve gotten as a consequence are minor efficiencies at the margins at the price of massive dislocations for those in industries deemed antiquated, not to mention society as a whole, then it’s hard to see the game being worth the candle.

We’ve seen this pattern in financial services, in music, and journalism, and it is now desired in education and healthcare. Here innovation is used not so much to make our lives appreciably better as to upend traditional stakeholders in an industry so that those with the biggest computer, what Jaron Lanier calls “Sirene Servers” can swoop in and take control. A new elite stealing an old elite’s thunder wouldn’t matter all that much to the rest of us peasants were it not for the fact that this new elite’s system of production has little room for us as workers and producers, but only as consumers of its goods. It is this desire to destabilize, reorder and control the institutions of pre-digital capitalism and to squeeze expensive human beings from the process of production that is the real source of the push for intelligent machines, the real force behind the current “AI revolution”, but given its nature, we’d do better to call it a coup.

Correction:

The phrase above: “The MOOC model largely avoided these hard won truths of the field of Adult Basic Education and appears to be starting to stumble, with one of its biggest players UDACITY loosing its foothold.”

Originally read: “The MOOC model largely avoided these hard won truths of the field of Adult Basic Education and appears to be starting to stumble, with one of its biggest players UDACITY  closing up shop, as a result.”