Summa Technologiae, or why the trouble with science is religion

Soviet Space Art 2

Before I read Lee Billings’ piece in the fall issue of Nautilus, I had no idea that in addition to being one of the world’s greatest science-fiction writers, Stanislaw Lem had written what became a forgotten book, a tome that was intended to be the overarching text of the technological age his 1966 Summa Technologiae.

I won’t go into detail on Billings’ thought provoking piece, suffice it to say that he leads us to question whether we have lost something of Lem’s depth with our current batch of Silicon Valley singularitarians who have largely repackaged ideas first fleshed out by the Polish novelist. Billings also leads us to wonder whether our focus on the either fantastic or terrifying aspects of the future are causing us to forget the human suffering that is here, right now, at our feet. I encourage you to check the piece out for yourself. In addition to Billings there’s also an excellent review of the Summa Technologiae by Giulio Prisco, here.

Rather than look at either Billings’ or Prisco’s piece , I will try to lay out some of the ideas found in Lem’s 1966 Summa Technologiae a book at once dense almost to the point of incomprehensibility, yet full of insights we should pay attention to as the world Lem imagines unfolds before our eyes, or at least seems to be doing so for some of us.

The first thing that stuck me when reading the Summa Technologiae was that it wasn’t our version of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica from which Lem got his tract’s name. In the 13th century Summa Theologica you find the voice of a speaker supremely confident in both the rationality of the world and the confidence that he understands it. Aquinas, of course, didn’t really possess such a comprehensive understanding, but it is perhaps odd that the more we have learned the more confused we have become, and Lem’s Summa Technologiae reflects some of this modern confusion.

Unlike Aquinas, Lem is in a sense blind to our destination, and what he is trying to do is to probe into the blackness of the future to sense the contours of the ultimate fate of our scientific and our technological civilization. Lem seeks to identify the roadblocks we likely will encounter if we are to continue our technological advancement- roadblocks that are important to identify because we have yet to find any evidence in the form of extraterrestrial civilizations that they can be actually be overcome.

The fundamental aspect of technological advancement is that it has become both its own reward and a trap. We have become absolutely dependent on scientific and technological progress as long as population growth continues- for if technological advancement stumbles and population continues to increase living standards would precipitously fall.

The problem Lem sees is that science is growing faster than the population, and in order to keep up with it we would eventually have to turn all human beings into scientists, and then some. Science advances by exploring the whole of the possibility space – we can’t predict which of its explorations will produce something useful in advance, or which avenues will prove fruitful in terms of our understanding.  It’s as if the territory has become so large we at some point will no longer have enough people to explore all of it, and thus will have to narrow the number of regions we look at. This narrowing puts us at risk of not finding the keys to El Dorado, so to speak, because we will not have asked and answered the right questions. We are approaching what Lem calls “the information peak.”

The absolutist nature of the scientific endeavor itself, our need to explore all avenues or risk losing something essential, for Lem, will inevitably lead to our attempt to create artificial intelligence. We will pursue AI to act as what he calls an “intelligence amplifier” though Lem is thinking of AI in a whole new way where computational processes mimic those done in nature, like the physics “calculations” of a tennis genius like Roger Federer, or my 4 year old learning how to throw a football.

Lem through the power of his imagination alone seemed to anticipate both some of the problems we would encounter when trying to build AI, and the ways we would likely try to escape them. For all their seeming intelligence our machines lack the behavioral complexity of even lower animals, let alone human intelligence, and one of the main roads away from these limitations is getting silicon intelligence to be more like that of carbon based creatures – not even so much as “brain like” as “biological like”.

Way back in the 1960’s, Lem thought we would need to learn from biological systems if we wanted to really get to something like artificial intelligence- think, for example, of how much more bang you get for your buck when you contrast DNA and a computer program. A computer program get you some interesting or useful behavior or process done by machine, DNA, well… it get you programmers.

The somewhat uncomfortable fact about designing machine intelligence around biological like processes is that they might end up a lot like how the human brain works- a process largely invisible to its possessor. How did I catch that ball? Damned if I know, or damned if I know if one is asking what was the internal process that led me to catch the ball.

Just going about our way in the world we make “calculations” that would make the world’s fastest supercomputers green with envy, were they actually sophisticated enough to experience envy. We do all the incredible things we do without having any solid idea, either scientific or internal, about how it is we are doing them. Lem thinks “real” AI will be like that. It will be able to out think us because it will be a species of natural intelligence like our own, and just like our own thinking, we will soon become hard pressed to explain how exactly it arrived at some conclusion or decision. Truly intelligent AI will end up being a “black box”.

Our increasingly complex societies might need such AI’s to serve the role of what Lem calls “Homostats”- machines that run the complex interactions of society. The dilemma appears the minute we surrender the responsibility to make our decisions to a homostat. For then the possibility opens that we will not be able to know how a homostat arrived at its decision, or what a homostat is actually trying to accomplish when it informs us that we should do something, or even, what goal lies behind its actions.

It’s quite a fascinating view, that science might be epistemologically insatiable in this way, and that, at some point it will grow beyond the limits of human intelligence, either our sheer numbers, or our mental capacity, and that the only way out of this which still includes technological progress will be to develop “naturalistic” AI: that very soon our societies will be so complicated that they will require the use of such AIs to manage them.

I am not sure if the view is right, but to my eyes at least it’s got much more meat on its bones than current singularitarian arguments about “exponential trends” that take little account of the fact, as Lem does, that at least one outcome is that the scientific wave we’ve been riding for five or so centuries will run into a wall we will find impossible to crest.

Yet perhaps the most intriguing ideas in Lem’s Summa Technologiae are those imaginative leaps that he throws at the reader almost as an aside, with little reference to his overall theory of technological development. Take his metaphor of the mathematician as a sort of crazy  of “tailor”.

He makes clothes but does not know for whom. He does not think about it. Some of his clothes are spherical without any opening for legs or feet…

The tailor is only concerned with one thing: he wants them to be consistent.

He takes his clothes to a massive warehouse. If we could enter it, we would discover clothes that could fit an octopus, others fit trees, butterflies, or people.

The great majority of his clothes would not find any application. (171-172)

This is Lem’s clever way of explaining the so-called “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” a view that is the opposite of current day platonists such as Max Tegmark who holds all mathematical structures to be real even if we are unable to find actual examples of them in our universe.

Lem thinks math is more like a ladder. It allows you to climb high enough to see a house, or even a mountain, but shouldn’t be confused with the house or the mountain itself. Indeed, most of the time, as his tailor example is meant to show, the ladder mathematics builds isn’t good for climbing at all. This is why Lem thinks we will need to learn “nature’s language” rather than go on using our invented language of mathematics if we want to continue to progress.

For all its originality and freshness, the Summa Technologiae is not without its problems. Once we start imagining that we can play the role of creator it seems we are unable to escape the same moral failings the religious would have once held against God. Here is Lem imagining a far future when we could create a simulated universe inhabited by virtual people who think they are real.

Imagine that our Designer now wants to turn his world into a habitat for intelligent beings. What would present the greatest difficulty here? Preventing them from dying right away? No, this condition is taken for granted. His main difficulty lies in ensuring that the creatures for whom the Universe will serve as a habitat do not find out about its “artificiality”. One is right to be concerned that the very suspicion that there may be something else beyond “everything” would immediately encourage them to seek exit from this “everything” considering themselves prisoners of the latter, they would storm their surroundings, looking for a way out- out of pure curiosity- if nothing else.

…We must not therefore cover up or barricade the exit. We must make its existence impossible to guess. ( 291 -292)

If Lem is ultimately proven correct, and we arrive at this destination where we create virtual universes with sentient inhabitants whom we keep blind to their true nature, then science will have ended where it began- with the demon imagined by Descartes.

The scientific revolution commenced when it was realized that we could neither trust our own sense nor our traditions to tell us the truth about the world – the most famous example of which was the discovery that the earth, contrary to all perception and history, traveled around the sun and not the other way round. The first generation of scientists who emerged in a world in which God had “hidden his face” couldn’t help but understand this new view of nature as the creator’s elaborate puzzle that we would have to painfully reconstruct, piece by piece, hidden as it was beneath the illusion of our own “fallen” senses and the false post-edenic world we had built around them.

Yet a curious new fear arises with this: What if the creator had designed the world so that it could never be understood? Descartes, at the very beginning of science, reconceptualized the creator as an omnipotent demon.

I will suppose then not that Deity who is sovereignly good and the fountain of truth but that some malignant demon who is at once exceedingly potent and deceitful has employed all his artifice to deceive me I will suppose that the sky the air the earth colours figures sounds and all external things are nothing better than the illusions of dreams by means of which this being has laid snares for my credulity.

Descartes’ escape from this dreaded absence of intelligibility was his famous “cogito ergo sum”, the certainty a reasoning being has in its own existence. The entire world could be an illusion, but the fact of one’s own consciousness was nothing that not even an all powerful demon would be able to take away.

What Lem’s resurrection of the demon imagined by Descartes tells us is just how deeply religious thinking still lies at the heart of science. The idea has become secularized, and part of our mythology of science-fiction, but its still there, indeed, its the only scientifically fashionable form of creationism around. As proof, not even the most secular among us unlikely bat an eye at experiments to test whether the universe is an “infinite hologram”. And if such experiments show fruit they will either point to a designer that allowed us to know our reality or didn’t care to “bar the exits”, but the crazy thing, if one takes Lem and Descartes seriously, is that their creator/demon is ultimately as ineffable and unrouteable as the old ideas of God from which it descended. For any failure to prove the hypothesis that we are living in a “simulation” can be brushed aside on the basis that whatever has brought about this simulation doesn’t really want us to know. It’s only a short step from there to unraveling the whole truth concept at the heart of science. Like any garden variety creationists we end up seeing the proof’s of science as part of God’s (or whatever we’re now calling God) infinitely clever ruse.

The idea that there might be an unseeable creator behind it all is just one of the religious myths buried deeply in science, a myth that traces its origins less from the day-to-day mundane experiments and theory building of actual scientists than from a certain type of scientific philosophy or science-fiction that has constructed a cosmology around what science is for and what science means. It is the mythology the singularitarians and others who followed Lem remain trapped in often to the detriment of both technology and science. What is a shame is that these are myths that Lem, even with his expansive powers of imagination, did not dream widely enough to see beyond.

Mary Shelley’s other horror story; Lessons for Super-pandemics

The Last Man

Back in the early 19th century a novel was written that tells the story of humanity’s downfall in the 21st century.  Our undoing was the consequence of a disease that originates in the developing world and radiates outward eventually spreading into North America, East Asia, and ultimately Europe. The disease proves unstoppable causing the collapse of civilization, our greatest cities becoming grave sites of ruin. For all the reader is left to know, not one human being survives the pandemic.

We best know the woman who wrote The Last Man in 1825 as the author of  Frankenstein, but it seems Mary Shelley had more than one dark tale up her sleeve. Yet, though the destruction wrought by disease in The Last Man is pessimistic to the extreme, we might learn some lessons from the novel that would prove helpful to understanding not only the very deadly, if less than absolute ruination, of the pandemic of the moment- Ebola- and even more regarding the dangers from super-pandemics more likely to emerge from within humanity than from what is a still quite dangerous nature herself.

The Last Man tells the story of son of a nobleman who had lost his fortune to gambling, Lionel Verney, who will become the sole remaining man on earth as humanity is destroyed by a plague in the 21st century. Do not read the novel hoping to get a glimpse of Shelley’s view of what our 21st century world would be like, for it looks almost exactly like the early 19th century, with people still getting around on horseback and little in the way of future technology.

My guess is that Shelley’s story is set in the “far future” in order to avoid any political heat for a novel in which England has become a republic. Surely, if she meant it to take place in a plausible 21st century, and had somehow missed the implications of the industrial revolution, there would at least have been some imagined political differences between that world and her own. The same Greco-Turkish conflict that raged in the 1820’s rages on in Shelley’s imagined 21st century with only changes in the borders of the war. Indeed, the novel is more of a reflection and critique on the Romantic movement, with Lord Byron making his appearance in the form of the character Lord Raymond, and Verney himself a not all that concealed version of Mary Shelley’s deceased husband Percy.

In The Last Man Shelley sets out to undermine all the myths of the Romantic movement, myths of the innocence of nature, the redemptive power of revolutionary politics and the transformative power of art. While of historical interests such debates offer us little in terms of the meaning of her story for us today. That meaning, I think,  can be found in the state of epidemiology, which on the very eve of Shelley’s story was about to undergo a revolution, a transformation that would occur in parallel with humanity’s assertion of general sovereignty over nature, the consequence of the scientific and industrial revolutions.

Reading The Last Man one needs to be carefully aware that Shelley has no idea of how disease actually works. In the 1820’s the leading theory of what caused diseases was the miasma theory, which held that they were caused by “bad air”. When Shelley wrote her story miasma theory was only beginning to be challenged by what we now call the “germ theory” of disease with the work of scientists such as Agostino Bassi. This despite the fact that we had known about microscopic organisms since the 1500s and their potential role in disease had been cited as early as 1546 by the Italian polymath Girolamo Fracastoro. Shelley’s characters thus do things that seem crazy in the light of germ theory; most especially, they make no effort to isolate the infected.

Well, some do. In The Last Man it is only the bad characters that try to run away or isolate themselves from the sick. The supremely tragic element in the novel is how what is most important to us, our small intimate circles, which we cling to despite everything, can be done away with by nature’s cruel shrug. Shelley’s tale is one of extreme pessimism not because it portrays the unraveling of human civilization, and turns our monuments into ruins, and eventually, dust, but because of how it portrays a world where everyone we love most dearly leave us almost overnight. The novel gives one an intimate portrait of what its like to watch one’s beloved family and friends vanish, a reality Mary Shelley was all too well acquainted with, having lost her husband and three children.

Here we can find the lesson we can take for the Ebola pandemic for the deaths we are witnessing today in west Africa are in a very real sense a measure of people’s humanity as if nature, perversely, set out to target those who are acting in a way that is most humane. For, absent modern medical infrastructure, the only ones left to care for the infected is the family of the sick themselves.

This is how is New York Times journalist Helene Cooper explained it to interviewer Terry Gross of Fresh Air:

COOPER: That’s the hardest thing, I think, about the disease is it does make pariahs out of the people who are sick. And it – you know, we’re telling the family people – the family members of people with Ebola to not try to help them or to make sure that they put on gloves. And, you know, that’s, you know, easier – I think that can be easier said than done. A lot of people are wearing gloves, but for a lot of people it’s really hard.

One of the things – two days after I got to Liberia, Thomas Eric Duncan sort of happened in the U.S. And, you know, I was getting all these questions from people in the U.S. about why did he, you know, help his neighbor? Why did he pick up that woman who was sick? Which is believed to be how we got it. And I set out trying to do this story about the whole touching thing because the whole culture of touching had gone away in Liberia, which was a difficult thing to understand. I knew the only way I could do that story was to talk to Ebola survivors because then you can ask people who actually contracted the disease because they touched somebody else, you know, why did you touch somebody? It’s not like you didn’t know that, you know, this was an Ebola – that, you know, you were putting yourself in danger. So why did you do it?

And in all the cases, the people I talked to there were, like, family members. There was this one woman, Patience, who contracted it from her daughter who – 2-year-old daughter, Rebecca – who had gotten it from a nanny. And Rebecca was crying, and she was vomiting and, you know, feverish, and her mom picked her up. When you’re seeing a familiar face that you love so much, it’s really, really hard to – I think it’s a physical – you have to physically – to physically restrain yourself from touching them is not as easy as we might think.

The thing we need to do to ensure naturally occurring pandemics such as Ebola cause the minimum of human suffering is to provide support for developing countries lacking the health infrastructure to respond to or avoid being the vectors for infectious diseases. We especially need to address the low number of doctors per capita found in some countries through, for example, providing doctor training programs. In a globalized world being our brother’s keeper is no longer just a matter of moral necessity, but helps preserve our own health as well.

A super-pandemic of the kind imagined by Mary Shelley, though, is an evolutionary near impossibility. It is highly unlikely that nature by itself would come up with a disease so devastating we will not be able to stop before it kills us in the billions. Having co-evolved with microscopic life some human being’s immune system, somewhere, anticipates even nature’s most devious tricks. We are also in the Anthropocene now, able to understand, anticipate, and respond to the deadliest games nature plays. Sadly, however, the 21st century could experience, as Shelley imagined, the world’s first super-pandemic only the source of such a disaster wouldn’t be nature- it would be us.

One might think I am referencing bio-terrorism, yet the disturbing thing is that the return address for any super-pandemic is just as likely to be stupid and irresponsible scientists as deliberate bioterrorism. Such is the indication from what happened in 2011 when the Dutch scientist Ron Fouchier deliberately turned the H5N1 bird flu into a form that could potentially spread human-to-human. As reported by Laurie Garrett:

Fouchier told the scientists in Malta that his Dutch group, funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, had “mutated the hell out of H5N1,” turning the bird flu into something that could infect ferrets (laboratory stand-ins for human beings). And then, Fouchier continued, he had done “something really, really stupid,” swabbing the noses of the infected ferrets and using the gathered viruses to infect another round of animals, repeating the process until he had a form of H5N1 that could spread through the air from one mammal to another.

Genetic research has become so cheap and easy that what once required national labs and huge budgets to do something nature would have great difficulty achieving through evolutionary means can now be done by run-of-the-mill scientists in simple laboratories, or even by high school students. The danger here is that scientists will create something so novel that  evolution has not prepared any of us for, and that through stupidity and lack of oversight it will escape from the lab and spread through human populations.

News of the crazy Dutch experiments with H5N1 was followed by revelations of mind bogglingly lax safety procedures around pandemic diseases at federal laboratories where smallpox virus had been forgotten in a storage area and pathogens were passed around in Ziploc bags.

The U.S. government, at least, has woken up to the danger imposing a moratorium on such research until their true risks and rewards can be understood and better safety standards established. This has already, and will necessarily, negatively impact potentially beneficial research. Yet what else, one might ask should the government do given the potential risks? What will ultimately be needed is an international treaty to monitor, regulate, and sometimes even ban certain kinds of research on pandemic diseases.

In terms of all the existential risks facing humanity in the 21st century, man-made super-pandemics are the one with the shortest path between reality and nightmare. The risk from runaway super-intelligence remains theoretical, based upon hypothetical technology that, for all we know, may never exist. The danger of runaway global warming is real, but we are unlikely to feel the full impact this century. Meanwhile, the technologies to create a super-pandemic in large part already here with the key uncertainty being how we might control such a dangerous potential if, as current trends suggest, the ability to manipulate and design organisms at the genetic level continues to both increase and democratize. Strangely enough, Mary Shelley’s warning in her Frankenstein about the dangers of science used for the wrong purposes has the greatest likelihood of coming in the form of her Last Man.

 

The Human Age

atlas-and-the-hesperides-1925 John Singer Sargent

There is no writer now, perhaps ever, who is able to convey the wonder and magic of science with poetry comparable to Diane Ackerman. In some ways this makes a great deal of sense given that she is a poet by calling rather than a scientist.  To mix metaphors: our knowledge of the natural world is merely Ackerman’s palette whose colors she uses to paint a picture of nature. It is a vision of the world as magical as that of the greatest worlds of fiction- think Dante’s Divine Comedy, or our most powerful realms of fable.

There is, however, one major difference between Ackerman and her fellow poets and storytellers: the strange world she breathes fire into is the true world, the real nature whose inhabitants and children we happen to be. The picture science has given us, the closest to the truth we have yet come, is in many ways stranger, more wondrous, more beautifully sublime, than anything human beings have been able to imagine; therefore, the perfect subject and home for a poet.

The task Ackerman sets herself in her latest book, The Human Age: The World Shaped By US, is to reconcile us to the fact that we have now become the authors and artists rather than the mere spectators of nature’s play . We live in an era in which our effect upon the earth has become so profound that some geologists want to declare it the “Anthropocene” signalling that our presence is now leaving its trace upon the geological record in the way only the mightiest, if slow moving, forces of nature have done heretofore. Yet in light of the the speed with which we are changing the world, we are perhaps more like a sudden catastrophe than languid geological transformation taking millions of years to unfold.

Ackerman’s hope is to find a way to come to terms with the scale of our own impact without at the same time reducing humanity to that of the mythical Höðr, bringing destruction on account of our blindness and foolishness, not to mention our greed. Ackerman loves humanity as much as she loves nature, or better, she refuses, as some environmentalist are prone to do, to place human beings on one side and the natural world on the other. For her, we are nature as much as anything else that exists. Everything we do is therefore “natural”, the question we should be asking is are we doing what is wise?

In The Human Age Ackerman attempts to reframe our current pessimism and self-loathing regarding our treatment of “mother” nature , everything from the sixth great extinction we are causing to our failure to adequately confront climate change, by giving us a window into the many incredible things we are doing right now that will benefit our fragile planet.  

She brings our attention to new movements in environmentalism such as “Reconciliation Ecology” which seeks to bring into harmony human settlements and the much broader needs of the rest of nature. Reconciliation Ecology is almost the opposite of another movement of growing popularity in “neo-environmentalists” circles, namely, “Environmental Modernism”. Whereas Environmental Modernism seeks to sever our relationship with nature in order to save it, Reconciliation Ecology aims to naturalize the human artifice, bringing farming and even wilderness into the city itself. It seeks to heal the fragmented wilderness our civilization has brought about by bringing the needs of wildlife into the design process.

Rather than covering our highways with road kill, we could provide animals with a safe way to cross the street. This might be of benefit to the deer, the groundhog, the racoon, the porcupine. We might even construct tunnels for the humble meadow vole. Providing wildlife corridors, large and small, is the one of the few ways we can reconcile the living space and migratory needs of “non-urbanized” wildlife to our fragmented and now global sprawl.

Human beings, Ackerman argues, are as negatively impacted by the disappearance of wilderness as any other of nature’s creatures, and perhaps given our aesthetic sensitivity, even more so. For a long time now we have sought to use our engineering prowess to subdue nature. Why not use it to make the human made environment more natural?  She highlights a growing movement among architects and engineers to take their inspiration not from the legacy of our lifeless machines and buildings, but from nature itself, which so often manages to create works of beautiful efficiency. In this vein we find leaps of the imagination such as the Eastgate Center designed by Mick Pearce who took his inspiration from the breathing, naturally temperature controlled, structure of the termite mound.

The idea of the Anthropocene is less an acknowledgement of our impact than a recognition of our responsibility. For so long we have warred against nature’s limits, arrows, and indifference that it is somewhat strange to find ourselves in the position of her caretaker and even designer. And make no mistake about it, for an increasing number of the plants and animals with whom we share this planet their fate will be decided by our action or inaction.

Some environmentalists would argue for nature’s “purity” and against our interference, even when this interference is done in the name of her creatures. Ackerman, though not entirely certain, is arguing against such environmental nihilism, paralysis, or puritanism. If it is necessary for us to “fix” nature- so be it, and she sees in our science and technology our greatest tool to come to nature’s aid. Such fixes can entail everything from permitting, rather than attempting to uproot, invasive species we have inadvertently or deliberately introduced if those invasives have positive benefits for an ecosystem, aiding the relocation of species as biomes shift under the impact of climate change, or introducing extinct species we have managed to save and resurrect through their DNA.

We are now entering the era where we are not only able to mimic nature, but to redesign it at the genetic level. Creating chimeras that nature left to itself would find it difficult or impossible to replicate. Ackerman is generally comfortable with our ever more cyborg nature and revels in the science that allows us to literally print body parts and one day whole organs. Like the rest of us should be, she is flabbergasted by ongoing revolutions in biology that are rewriting what it means to be human.

The early 21st century field of epigenetics is giving us a much more nuanced and complex view of the interplay between genes and the environment. It is not only that multiple genes need to be taken account of in explaining conditions and behaviors, but that genes are in a sense tuned by the environment itself. Indeed, much of this turning “on or off” of genes is a form of genetic memory. In a strange echo of Lamarck, the experiences of one’s close ancestors- their feasts and famines are encoded in the genes of their descendants.

Add to that our recent discoveries regarding the microbiome, the collection of bacteria that live within us that are far more numerous and in many ways as influential as our genes, and one gets an idea for how far we are moving from ideas of what it meant to be human held by scientists even a few years ago and how much distance has been put between current biology and simplistic versions of environmental or genetic determinism.

Some such, as the philosopher of biology, John Dupree see in our advancing understanding of the role of the microbiome and epigenetics a revolutionary change in human self understanding. For a generation we chased after a simplistic idea of genetic determinism where genes were seen as a sort of “blueprint” for the organism. This is now known to be false. Genes are just one part of a permeable interaction between them, the environment and the microbiome that guide individual development and behavior.

We are all of us collectives, constantly swapping biological information and rather than seeing the microscopic world as a kind of sideshow to the “real” biological story of large organisms such as ourselves we might be said to be where we have always been in Steven Jay’s “Age of Bacteria” as much as we are in an Anthropocene.

Returning to Ackerman, she is amazed at the recent advancements in artificial intelligence, and like Tyler Cowen, even wonders whether scientific discoveries will soon no longer be the prerogative of humans, but of our increasingly intelligent machines. Such is the conclusion one might draw from looking at the work of Hod Lipson of Cornell “Eureqa Machine” . Feed the Eureqa Machine observations or data and it is able to come up with equations that describe them all on its own. Ackerman does, however, doubt whether we could ever build a machine that replicated human beings in all their wondrous weirdness.

Where her doubts regarding technology veer towards warning has to do with the question of digitalization of the world. Ackerman is best known for her 1990 A Natural History of the Senses a work which explored the five forms of human perception. Little wonder, then, that she would worry about what the world being flattened on our ubiquitous screens   into the visual sense alone. She laments:

What if, through novelty and convenience, digital nature replaces biological nature?

The further we distance ourselves from the spell of the present, explored by all our senses, the harder it will be to understand and protect nature’s precarious balance, let alone the balance of our own human nature. I worry about virtual blinders. Hobble all the senses except the visual, and you produce curiously deprived voyeurs.  (196-197)

While concerned that current technologies may be flattening human experience by leaving us visually mesmerized behind screens at the expense of the body, even as they broaden their scope allowing us to see into world small, large, and at speeds never before possible, Ackerman accepts our cyborg nature. For her we are, to steal a phrase from the philosopher Andy Clark “natural born cyborgs”, and this is not a new thing. Since our beginning we have been a changeling able to morph into a furred animal in the cold with our clothes, wield fire like a mythical dragon, or cover ourselves with shells of metal among much else.

Ackerman is not alone in the view that our cyborg tendencies are an ancient legacy. Shortly before I read The Human Age I finished the anthropologist Timothy Taylor’s short and thought provoking The Artificial Ape: How Technology Changed the Course of Human Evolution. Taylor makes a strong case that anatomically modern humans co-evolved with technology, indeed, that the technology came first and in a way has been the primary driver of our evolution.

The technology Taylor thinks lifted us beyond our hominid cousins wasn’t the usual suspects of fire or stone tools but likely the unsung baby sling.  This simple invention allowed humans to overcome a constraint suffered by the other hominids whose brains, contrary to common opinion, were getting smaller because upright walking was putting a premium of quick rather than delayed development of the young. Slings allowed mothers to carry big brained babies that took longer to develop, but because of the long period of youth could learn much more than faster developing relatives. In effect, slings were a way for human mothers who needed their hands free to externalize the womb and evolve a koala like pouch.

To return to The Human Age; although, she has, as always, given us a wonderfully written book filled with poetry and insights, Ackerman’s book is not without its flaws. Here I will focus only on what I found to be the most important one; namely, that for a book named after our age, there is not enough regarding humans in it. This is what I mean: Though the problems suffered from the effects of the Anthropocene are profound and serious, the animal most likely to broadly suffer the impact of phenomenon such as climate change are likely to be us.

The weakness of the idea of the Anthropocene when judged largely positively, which is what Ackerman is trying to do, is that it universalizes a state of control over nature that is largely limited to advanced countries and the world’s wealthy. The threat of rising sea levels look quite different from the perspective of Manhattan or Chittagong. A good deal of the environmental gains in advanced countries over the past half century can be credited to globalization, which amid its many benefits, has also entailed the offloading of pollution, garbage, and waste processing from developed to developing countries. This is the story that the photos of Edward Burtynsky, whom Ackerman profiles, tells. Stories such as the lives of the shipbreakers of Bangladesh whose world resembles something out of a dystopian novel.

Humanity is not sovereign over nature everywhere, and for some of us not only our we faced with a wildness that has not been subdued, but where humanity itself has become like a unpredictable natural force reigning down unfathomable, uncontrollable good and ill. Such is the world now being experienced by the west African societies suffering under the epidemic of Ebola. It is a world we might better understand by looking at a novel written on the eve of our mastery over nature, a novel by another amazing writer who was also a woman.

2040′s America will be like 1840′s Britain, with robots?

Christopher Gibbs Steampunk

Looked at in a certain light, Adrian Hon’s History of the Future in 100 Objects can be seen as giving us a window into a fictionalized version of an intermediate technological stage we may be entering. It is the period when the gains in artificial intelligence are clearly happening, but they have yet to completely replace human intelligence. The question if it AI ever will actually replace us is not of interest to me here. It certainly won’t be tomorrow, and technological prediction beyond a certain limited horizon is a fool’s game.

Nevertheless, some features of the kind of hybrid stage we have entered are clearly apparent. Hon built an entire imagined world around them from with “amplified-teams” (AI working side by side with groups of humans) as one of the major elements of 21st century work, sports, and much else besides.

The economist Tyler Cowen perhaps did Hon one better, for he based his very similar version of the future not only on things that are happening right now, but provided insight on what we should do as job holders and bread-winners in light of the rise of ubiquitous, if less than human level, artificial intelligence. One only wishes that his vision had room for more politics, for if Cowen is right, and absent us taking collective responsibility for the type of future we want to live in, 2040’s America might look like the Britain found in Dickens, only we’ll be surrounded by robots.

Cowen may seem a strange duck to take up the techno-optimism mantle, but he did in with gusto in his recent book Average is Over. The book in essence is a sequel to Cowen’s earlier best seller The Great Stagnation in which he argued that developed economies, including the United States, had entered a period of secular stagnation beginning in the 1970’s. The reason for this stagnation was that advanced economies had essentially picked all the “low hanging fruit” of the industrial revolution.

Arguing that we are in a period of technological stagnation at first seems strange, but when I reflect a moment on the meaning of facts such as not flying all that much faster than would have been common for my grandparents in the 1960’s, the kitchen in my family photos from the Carter days looking surprisingly like the kitchen I have right now- minus the paneling, or saddest of all, from the point of view of someone brought up on Star Trek, Star Wars and Our Star Blazers with a comforter sporting Viking 2 and Pioneer, the fact that, not only have we failed to send human visitors to Mars or beyond, we haven’t even been back to the moon. Hell we don’t even have any human beings beyond low-earth orbit.

Of course, it would be silly to argue there has been no technological progress since Nixon. Information, communication and computer technology have progressed at an incredible speed, remaking much of the world in their wake, and have now seemingly been joined by revolutions in biotechnology and renewable energy.

And yet, despite how revolutionary these technologies have been, they have not been able to do the heavy lifting of prior forms of industrialization due to the simple fact that they haven’t been as qualitatively transformative as the industrial revolution. If I had a different job I could function just fine without the internet, and my life would be different only at the margins. Set the technological clock by which I live back to the days preceding industrialization, before electricity, and the internal combustion engine, and I’d be living the life of my dawn-to-dusk Amish neighbors- a different life entirely.

Average is Over is a followup to Cowen’s earlier book in that in it he argues that technological changes now taking place will have an impact that will shake us out of our stagnation, or at least how that stagnation is itself evolving into something quite different with some being able to escape its pull while others fall even further behind.

Like Hon, Cowen thinks intermediate level AI is what we should be paying attention to rather than Kurzweil or Bostrom- like hopes and fears regarding superintelligence. Also like Hon, Cowen thinks the most important aspect of artificial intelligence in the near future is human-AI teams. This is the lesson Cowen takes from, among other things, freestyle chess.

For those who haven’t been paying attention to the world of competitive chess, freestyle chess is what emerged once people were able to buy a chess playing program that could beat the best players in the world for a few dollars to play on one’s phone. One might of thought that would be the death knell for human chess, but something quite different has happened. Now, some of the most popular chess games are freestyle meaning human-machine vs human-machine.

The moral Cowen draws from freestyle chess is that the winners of these games, and he extrapolates, the economic “games” of the future, are those human beings who are most willing to defer to the decisions of the machine. I find this conclusion more than a little chilling given we’re talk about real people here rather than Knight or Pawns, but Cowen seems to think it’s just common sense.

In its simplest form Cowen’s argument boils down to the prediction that an increasing amount of human work in the future will come in the form of these AI-human teams. Some of this, he admits, will amount to no workers at all with the human part of the “team” reduced to an unpaid customer. I now almost always scan and bag my own goods at the grocery store, just as I can’t remember the last time I actually spoke to a bank teller who wasn’t my mom. Cowen also admits that the rise of AI might mean the world actually gets “dumber” our interactions with our environment simplified to foster smooth integration with machines and compressed to meet their limits.

In his vision intelligent machines will revolutionize everything from medicine to education to business management and negotiation to love. The human beings who will best thrive in this new environment will be those whose work best complements that of intelligent machines, and this will be the case all the way from the factory floor to the classroom. Intelligent machines should improve human judgement in areas such as medical diagnostics and would even replace judges in the courtroom if we are ever willing to take the constitutional plunge. Teachers will go from educators to “coaches” as intelligent machines allow individualized instruction , but education will still require a human touch when it comes to motivating students.

His message to those who don’t work well with intelligent machines is – good luck. He sees automation leading to an ever more competitive job market in which many will fail to develop the skills necessary to thrive. Those unfortunate ones will be left to fend for themselves in the face of an increasingly penny-pinching state. There is one area, however, where Cowen thinks you might find refuge if machines just aren’t your thing-marketing. Indeed, he sees marketing as one of the major growth areas in the new otherwise increasingly post-human economy.

The reason for this is simple. In the future there are going to be less ,not more, people with surplus cash to spend on all the goods built by a lot of robots and a handful of humans. One will have to find and persuade those with real incomes to part with some of their cash. Computers can do the finding, but it will take human actors to sell the dream represented by a product.

The world of work presented in Cowen’s Average is Over is almost exclusively that of the middle class and higher who find their way with ease around the Infosphere, or whatever we want to call this shell of information and knowledge we’ve built around ourselves. Either that or those who thrive economically will be those able to successfully pitch whatever it is they’re selling to wealthy or well off buyers, sometimes even with the help of AI that is able to read human emotions.

I wish Cowen had focused more on what it will be like to be poor in such a world. One thing is certain, it will not be fun. For one, he sees further contraction rather than expansion of the social safety net, and widespread conservatism, rather than any attempts at radically new ways of organizing our economy, society and politics. Himself a libertarian conservative, Cowen sees such conservatism baked into the demographic cake of our aging societies. The old do not lead revolutions and given enough of them they can prevent the young from forcing any deep structural changes to society.

Cowen also has a thing for so-called “moral enhancement” though he doesn’t call it that. Moral enhancement need not only come from conservative forces, as the extensive work on the subject by the progressive James Hughes shows, but in the hands of both Hon and Cowen, moral enhancement is a bulwark of conservative societies, where the world of middle class work and the social safety net no longer function, or even exist, in the ways they had in the 20th century.

Hon with his neuroscience background sees moral enhancement leveraging off of our increasing mastery over the brain, but manifesting itself in a revival of religious longings related to meaning, a meaning that was for a long time provided by work, callings and occupations that he projects will become less and less available as we roll through the 21st century with human workers replaced by increasingly intelligent machines. Cowen, on the other hand, sees moral enhancement as the only way the poor will survive in an increasingly competitive and stingy environment, though his enhancement is to take place by more traditional means, the return of strict schools that inculcate victorian era morals such as self-control and above all conscientiousness in the young. Cowen is far from alone in thinking that in an era when machines are capable of much of the physical and intellectual labor once done by human beings what will matter most to individual success is ancient virtues.

In Cowen’s world the rich with money to burn are chased down with a combination of AI, behavioral economics, targeted consumer surveillance, and old fashioned, fleshy persuasion to part with their cash, but what will such a system be like for those chronically out of work? Even should mass government surveillance disappear tomorrow, (fat chance) it seems the poor will still face a world where the forces behind their ever more complex society become increasingly opaque, responsible humans harder to find, and in which they are constantly “nudged” by people who claim to know better. For the poor, surveillance technologies will likely be used not to sell them stuff which they can’t afford, but are a tool of the repo-man, and debt collector, parole officer, and cop that will slowly chisel away whatever slim column continues to connect them the former middle class world of their parents. It is a world more akin to the 1940’s or even the 1840’s than it is to anything we have taken to be normal since the middle of the 20th century.

I do not know if such a world is sustainable over the long haul, and pray that it is not. The pessimist in me remembers that the classical and medieval world’s existed for long periods of time with extreme levels of inequality in both wealth and power, the optimist chimes in that these were ages when the common people did not know how to read. In any case, it is not a society that must by some macabre logic of economic determinism come about. The mechanism by which Cowen sees no sustained response to such a future coming into being is our own political paralysis and generational tribalism. He seems to want this world more than he is offering us a warning of it arrival. Let’s decide to prove him wrong for the technologies he puts so much hope in could be used in totally different ways and in the service of a juster form of society.

However critical I am of Cowen for accepting such a world as a fait accompli, the man still has some rather fascinating things to say. Take for instance his view of the future of science:

Once genius machines start coming up with new theories…. intelligibility will seem like a legacy from the very distant past. ( 220)

For Cowen much of science in the 21st century will be driven by coming up with theories and correlations from the massive amount of data we are collecting, a task more suited to a computer than a man (or woman) in a lab coat. Eventually machine derived theories will become so complex that no human being will be able to understand them. Progress in science will be given over to intelligent machines even as non-scientists find increasing opportunities to engage in “citizen science”.

Come to think of it, lack of intelligibility runs like a red thread throughout Average is Over, from “ugly” machine chess moves that human players scratch their heads at, to the fact that Cowen thinks those who will succeed in the next century will be those who place their “faith” in the decisions of machines, choices of action they themselves do not fully understand. Let’s hope he’s wrong on that score as well, for lack of intelligibility in human beings in politics, economics, and science, drives conspiracy theories, paranoia, and superstition, and political immobility.

Cowen believes the time when secular persons are able to cull from science a general, intelligible picture of the world is coming to a close. This would be a disaster in the sense that science gives us the only picture of the world that is capable of being universally shared which is also able to accurately guide our response to both nature and the technological world. At least for the moment, perhaps the best science writer we have suggests something very different. To her new book, next time….

Digital Afterlife: 2045

Alphonse Mucha Moon

Excerpt from Richard Weber’s History of Religion and Inequality in the 21st Century (2056)

Of all the bewildering diversity of new of consumer choices on offer before the middle of the century that would have stunned people from only a generation earlier, none was perhaps as shocking as the many ways there now were to be dead.

As in all things of the 21st century what death looked like was dependent on the wealth question. Certainly, there were many human beings, and when looking at the question globally, the overwhelming majority, who were treated in death the same way their ancestors had been treated. Buried in the cold ground, or, more likely given high property values that made cemetery space ever more precious, their corpses burned to ashes, spread over some spot sacred to the individual’s spirituality or sentiment.

A revival of death relics that had begun in the early 21st century continued for those unwilling out of religious belief, or more likely, simply unable to afford any of the more sophisticated forms of death on offer. It was increasingly the case that the poor were tattooed using the ashes of their lost loved one, or that they carried some momento in the form of their DNA in the vague hope that family fortunes would change and their loved one might be resurrected in the same way mammoths now once again roamed the windswept earth.

Some were drawn by poverty and the consciousness brought on by the increasing period of environmental crisis to simply have their dead bodies “given back” to nature and seemed to embrace with morbid delight the idea that human beings should end up “food for worms”.

It was for those above a certain station where death took on whole new meanings. There were of course, stupendous gains in longevity, though human beings still continued to die, and  increasingly popular cryonics held out hope that death would prove nothing but a long and cold nap. Yet it was digital and brain scanning/emulating technologies that opened up whole other avenues allowing those who had died or were waiting to be thawed to continue to interact with the world.

On the low end of the scale there were now all kinds of interactive cemetery monuments that allowed loved ones or just the curious to view “life scenes” of the deceased. Everything from the most trivial to the sublime had been video recorded in the 21st century which provided unending material, sometimes in 3D, for such displays.

At a level up from this “ghost memoirs” became increasingly popular especially as costs plummeted due to outsourcing and then scripting AI. Beginning in the 2020’s the business of writing biographies of the dead ,which were found to be most popular when written in the first person, was initially seen as a way for struggling writers to make ends meet. Early on it was a form of craftsmanship where authors would pour over records of the deceased individual in text, video, and audio recordings, aiming to come as close as possible to the voice of the deceased and would interview family and friends about the life of the lost in the hopes of being able to fully capture their essence.

The moment such craft was seen to be lucrative it was outsourced. English speakers in India and elsewhere soon poured over the life records of the deceased and created ghost memoirs en mass, and though it did lead to some quite amusing cultural misinterpretations, it also made the cost of having such memoirs published sharply decline further increasing their popularity.

The perfection of scripting AI made the cost of producing ghost memoirs plummet even more. A company out of Pittsburgh called “Mementos” created by students at Carnegie Mellon boasted in their advertisements that “We write your life story in less time than your conception”. That same company was one of many others that had brought 3D scanning of artifacts from museums to everyone and created exact digital images of a person’s every treasured trinket and trophy.

Only the very poor failed to have their own published memoir which recounted their life’s triumphs and tribulations or failed to have their most treasured items scanned.  Many, however, esqued the public display of death found in either interactive monuments or the antiquated idea of memoirs as death increasingly became a thing of shame and class identity. They preferred private home- shrines many of which resembled early 21st century fast food kiosks whereby one could chose a precise recorded event or conversation from the deceased in light of current need. There were selections with names like “Motivation”, and “Persistence” that might pull up relevant items, some of which used editing algorithms that allowed them to create appropriate mashups, or even whole new interactions that the dead themselves had never had.

Somewhat above this level due to the cost for the required AI were so-called “ghost-rooms”. In all prior centuries some who suffered the death of a loved one would attempt to freeze time by, for instance, leaving unchanged a room in which the deceased had spent the majority of their time. Now the dead could actually “live” in such rooms, whether as a 3D hologram (hence the name ghost rooms) or in the form of an android that resembled the deceased. The most “life-like” forms of these AI’s were based on the maps of detailed “brainstorms” of the deceased. A technique perfected earlier in the century by the neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis.

One of the most common dilemmas, and one that was encountered in some form even in the early years of the 21st century, was the fact that the digital presence of a deceased person often continued to exist and act long after a person was gone. This became especially problematic once AIs acting as stand-ins for individuals became widely used.

Most famously there was the case of Uruk Wu. A real estate tycoon, Wu was cryogenically frozen after suffering a form of lung cancer that would not respond to treatment. Estranged from his party-going son Enkidu, Mr Wu had placed the management all of his very substantial estate under a finance algorithm (FA). Enkidu Wu initially sued the deceased Uruk for control of family finances- a case he famously and definitively lost- setting the stage for increased rights for deceased in the form of AIs.

Soon after this case, however, it was discovered that the FA being used by the Uruk estate was engaged in wide-spread tax evasion practices. After extensive software forensics it was found that such evasion was a deliberate feature of the Uruk FA and not a mere flaw. After absorbing fines, and with the unraveling of its investments and partners, the Uruk estate found itself effectively broke. In an atmosphere of great acrimony TuatGenics the cryonic establishment that interred Urduk unplugged him and let him die as he was unable to sustain forward funding for his upkeep and future revival.

There was a great and still unresolved debate in the 2030’s over whether FAs acting in the markets on behalf of the dead were stabilizing or destabilizing the financial system. FAs became an increasingly popular option for the cryogenically frozen or even more commonly the elderly suffering slow onset dementia, especially given the decline in the number of people having children to care for them in old age, or inherit their fortunes after death. The dead it was thought would prove to be conservative investment group, but anecdotally at least they came to be seen as a population willing to undertake an almost obscene level of financial risk due to the fact that revival was a generation off or more.

One weakness of the FAs was that they were faced with pouring their resources into upgrade fees rather than investment as the presently living designed software meant to deliberately exploit the weaknesses of earlier generation FAs. Some argued that this was a form of “elder abuse” whereas others took the position that to prohibit such practices would constitute fossilizing markets in an earlier and less efficient era.

Other phenomenon that came to prominence by the 2030’s were so-called “replicant” and “faustian” legal disputes. One of the first groups to have accurate digital representations in the 21st century were living celebrities. Near death or at the height of their fame, celebrities often contracted out their digital replicants. There was always need of those having ownership rights of the replicants to avoid media saturation, but finding the right balance between generating present and securing future revenue proved challenging.

Copyright proved difficult to enforce. Once the code of a potentially revenue generating digital replicant had been made there was a great deal of incentive to obtain a copy of that replicant and sell it to all sorts of B-level media outlets. There were widespread complaints by the Screen Actors Guild that replicants were taking away work from real actors, but the complaint was increasingly seen as antique- most actors with the exception of crowd drawing celebrities were digital simulations rather than “real” people anyway.

Faustian contacts were legal obligations by second or third tier celebrities or first tier actors and performers whose had begun to see their fame decline that allowed the contractor to sell a digital representation to third parties. Celebrities who had entered such contracts inevitably found “themselves” staring in pornographic films, or just as common, in political ads for causes they would never support.

Both the replicant and faustian issues gave an added dimension to the legal difficulties first identified in the Uruk Wu case. Who was legally responsible for the behavior of digital replicants? That question became especially apparent in the case of the serial killer Gregory Freeman. Freeman was eventually held liable for the deaths of up to 4,000 biological, living humans. Murders he “himself” had not committed, but that were done by his digital replicant. This was done largely by infiltrating a software error in the Sony-Geisinger remote medical monitoring system (RMMS) that controlled everything from patients pacemakers to brain implants and prosthetics to medication delivery systems and prescriptions. Freeman was found posthumously guilty of having caused the deaths (he committed suicide) but not before the replicant he had created had killed hundreds of persons even after the man’s death.

It became increasingly common for families to create multiple digital replicants of a particular individual, so now a lost mother or father could live with all of their grown and dispersed children simultaneously. This became the source of unending court disputes over which replicant was actually the “real” person and which therefore held valid claim to property.

Many began to create digital replicants well before the point of death to farm them out out for remunerative work. Much of work by this point had been transformed into information processing tasks, a great deal of which was performed by human-AI teams, and even in traditional fields where true AI had failed to make inroads- such as indoor plumbing- much of the work was performed by remote controlled droids. Thus, there was an incentive for people to create digital replicants that would be tasked with income generating work. Individuals would have themselves copied, or more commonly just a skill-based part of themselves copied and have it used for work. Leasing was much more common than outright ownership and not merely because of complaints of a new form of “indentured servitude” but because whatever skill set was sold was likely to be replaced as its particulars became obsolete or pure AI that had been designed on it improved. In the churn of needed skills to obsolescence many dedicated a share of their digital replicants to retraining itself.

Servitude was one area where the impoverished dead were able to outcompete their richer brethren. A common practice was for the poor to be paid upfront for the use of their brain matter upon death. Parts of once living human brains were commonly used by companies for “capucha” tasks yet to be mastered by AI.

There were strenuous objections to this “atomization” of the dead, especially for those digital replicants that did not have any family to “house” them, and who, lacking the freedom to roam freely in the digital universe were in effect trapped in a sort of quantum no-man’s-land. Some religious groups, most importantly the Mormons, responded to this by place digital replicants of the dead in historical simulations that recreated the world in which the deceased had lived and were earnestly pursuing a project in which replicants of those who had died before the onset of the digital age were created.

In addition, there were numerous rights arguments against the creation of such simulated histories using replicants. The first being that forcing digital replicants to live in a world where children died in mass numbers, starvation, war and plague were common forms of death, and which lacked modern miracles such as anesthesia, when such world could easily be created with more humane features, was not “redemptive” but amounted to cruel and unusual punishment and even torture.

Indeed, one of the biggest, and overblown, fears of this time was that one’s digital replicant might end up in a sadistically crafted simulated form of hell. Whatever its irrationality, this became a popular form of blackmail with videos of “captive” digital replicants or proxies used to frighten a person into surrendering some enormous sum.

The other argument against placing digital replicants in historical simulations, either without their knowledge, their ability to leave, or more often both, was something akin to imprisoning a person in a form of Colonial Williamsburg or The Renaissance Faire. “Spectral abolitionists” argued that the embodiment of a lost person should be free to roam and interact with the world as they chose whether as software or androids, and that they should be unshackled from the chains of memory. There were even the JBDBM (the John Brown’s Digital Body Movement) and the DigitalGnostics, hacktivists group that went around revealing the reality of simulated worlds to their inhabitants and sought to free them to enter the larger world heretofore invisible to them.

A popular form of cultural terrorism at this time were so-called “Erasers” entities with names such as “GrimReaper” or “Scathe” whose project consisted in tracking down digital replicants and deleting them. Some characterized these groups as a manifestation of a deathists philosophy, or even claimed that they were secretly funded by traditional religious groups whose traditional “business models” were being disrupted by the new digital forms of death. Such suspicions were supported by the fact that the Erasers usually were based in religious countries where the rights of replicants were often non-existent and fears regarding new “electric jinns” rampant.

Also prominent in this period were secular prophets who projected that a continuing of the trends of digital replicants, both of the living, and the at least temporarily dead, along with their representing AI’s, would lead to a situation where non-living humans would soon outnumber the living. There were apocalyptic tales akin to the zombie craze earlier in the century that within 50 years the dead would rise up against the living and perhaps join together with AIs destroy the world. But that, of course, was all Ningbowood.

 

An imaginary book excerpt inspired by Adrian Hon’s History of the Future in 100 Objects.

The Future As History

hon-future100

It is a risky business trying to predict the future, and although it makes some sense to try to get a handle on what the world might be like in one’s lifetime, one might wonder what’s even the point of all this prophecy that stretches out beyond the decades one is expected to live? The answer I think is that no one who engages in futurism is really trying to predict the future so much as shape it, or at the very least, inspire Noah like preparations for disaster. Those who imagine a dark future are trying to scare the bejesus out of us so we do what is necessary not to end up in a world gone black swept away by the flood waters.  Problem is, extreme fear more often leads to paralysis rather than reform or ark building, something that God, had he been a behavioral psychologist, would have known.

Those with a Pollyannaish story about tomorrow, on the other hand, are usually trying to convince us to buy into some set of current trends, and for that reason, optimists often end up being the last thing they think they are, a support for conservative politics. Why change what’s going well or destined, in the long run, to end well? The problem here is that, as Keynes said “In the long run we’re all dead”, which should be an indication that if we see a problem out in front of us we should address it, rather than rest on faith and let some teleos of history or some such sort the whole thing out.

It’s hard to ride the thin line between optimism and pessimism regarding the future while still providing a view of it that is realistic, compelling and encourages us towards action in the present. Science-fiction, where it avoids the pull towards utopia or dystopia, and regardless of it flaws, does manage to present versions of the future that are gripping and a thousand times better than dry futurists “reports” on the future that go down like sawdust, but the genre suffers from having too many balls in the air.

There is not only a problem of the common complaint that, like with political novels, the human aspects of a story suffer from being tied too tightly to a social “purpose”- in this case to offer plausible predictions of the future, but that the idea of crafting a “plausible” future itself can serve as an anchor on the imagination. An author of fiction should be free to sail into any world that comes into his head- plausible destinations be damned.

Adrian Hon’s recent The History of the Future in 100 Objects overcomes this problem with using science-fiction to craft plausible versions of the future by jettisoning fictional narrative and presenting the future in the form of a work of history. Hon was inspired to take this approach in part by an actual recent work of history- Neil MacGregor’s History of the World in 100 Objects. In the same way objects from the human past can reveal deep insights not just into the particular culture that made them, but help us apprehend the trajectory that the whole of humankind has taken so far, 100 imagined “objects” from the century we have yet to see play out allows Hon to reveal the “culture” of the near future we can actually see quite well,  which when all is said and done amounts to interrogating the path we are currently on.     

Hon is perhaps uniquely positioned to give us a feel for where we are currently headed. Trained as a neuroscientist he is able to see what the ongoing revolutionary breakthroughs in neuroscience might mean for society. He also has his fingers on the pulse of the increasingly important world of online gaming as the CEO of the company Six-to-Start which develops interactive real world games such as Zombies, Run!

In what follows I’ll look at 9 of Hon’s objects of the future which I thought were the most intriguing. Here we go:

#8 Locked Simulation Interrogation – 2019

There’s a lot of discussion these days about the revival of virtual reality, especially with the quite revolutionary new VR headset of Oculus Rift. We’ve also seen a surge of brain scanning that purports to see inside the human mind revealing everything from when a person is lying to whether or not they are prone to mystical experiences. Hon imagines that just a few years out these technologies being combined to form a brand new and disturbing form of interrogation.

In 2019, after a series of terrorists attacks in Charlotte North Carolina the FBI starts using so-called “locked-sims” to interrogate terrorist suspects. A suspect is run through a simulation in which his neurological responses are closely monitored in the hope that they might do things such as help identify other suspects, or unravel future plots.

The technique of locked-sims appears to be so successful that it is soon becomes the rage in other areas of law enforcement involving much less existential public risks. Imagine murder suspects or even petty criminals run through a simulated version of the crime- their every internal and external reaction minutely monitored.

Whatever their promise locked-sims prove full of errors and abuses not the least of which is their tendency to leave the innocents often interrogated in them emotionally scarred. Ancient protections end up saving us from a nightmare technology. In 2033 the US Supreme Court deems locked-sims a form of “cruel and unusual punishment” and therefore constitutionally prohibited.

#20 Cross Ball- 2026

A good deal of A History of the Future deals with the way we might relate to advances in artificial intelligence, and one thing Hon tries to make clear is that, in this century at least, human beings won’t suddenly just exit the stage to make room for AI. For a good while the world will be hybrid.

“Cross Ball” is an imagined game that’s a little like the ancient Mesoamerican ball game of Nahuatl, only in Cross Ball human beings work in conjunction with bots. Hon sees a lot of AI combined with human teams in the future world of work, but in sports, the reason for the amalgam has more to do with human psychology:

Bots on their own were boring; humans on their own were old-fashioned. But bots and humans together? That was something new.

This would be new for real word games, but we do already have this in “Freestyle Chess” where old-fashioned humans can no longer beat machines and no one seems to want to watch matches between chess playing programs, so that the games with the most interest have been those which match human beings working with programs against other human beings working with programs. In the real world bot/human games of the future I hope they have good helmets.

# 23 Desir 2026

Another area where I thought Hon was really onto something was when it came to puppets. Seriously. AI is indeed getting better all the time even if Siri or customer service bots can be so frustrating, but it’s likely some time out before bots show anything like the full panoply of human interactions like imagined in the film Her. But there’s a mid-point here and that’s having human beings remotely control the bots- to be their puppeteers.

Hon imagines this in the realm of prostitution. A company called Desir essentially uses very sophisticated forms of sex dolls as puppets controlled by experienced prostitutes. The weaknesses of AI give human beings something to do. As he quotes Desir’s imaginary founder:

Our agent AI is pretty good as it is, but like I said, there’s nothing that beats the intimate connection that only a real human can make. Our members are experts and they know what to say, how to move and how to act better than our own AI agents, so I think that any members who choose to get involved in puppeting will supplement their income pretty nicely

# 26 Amplified Teams 2027

One thing I really liked about A History of the Future is that it put flesh on the bones of an idea that has been developed by the economist Tyler Cowen in his book Average is Over (review pending) that employment in the 21st century won’t eventually all be swallowed up by robots, but that the highest earners, or even just those able to economically sustain themselves, would be in the form of teams connected to the increasing capacity of AI. Such are Hon’s “amplified teams” which Hon states:

 ….usually have three to seven human members supported by highly customized software that allows them to communicate with one another-  and with AI support systems- at an accelerated rate.

I’m crossing my fingers that somebody invents a bot for introverts- or is that a contradiction?

#39 Micromort Detector – 2032

Hon foresees our aging population becoming increasingly consumed with mortality and almost obsessive compulsive with measurement as a means of combating our anxiety. Hence his idea of the “micromort detector”.

A micromort is a unit of risk representing a one-in-a-million chance of death.

Mutual Assurance is a company that tried to springboard off this anxiety with its product “Lifeline” a device for measuring the mortality risk of any behavior the hope being to both improve healthy living, and more important for the company to accurately assess insurance premiums. Drink a cup of coffee – get a score, eat a doughnut, score.

The problem with the Lifeline was that it wasn’t particularly accurate due to individual variation, and the idea that the road to everything was paved in the 1s and 0s of data became passe. The Lifeline did however sometimes cause people to pause and reflect on their own mortality:

And that’s perhaps the most useful thing that the Lifeline did. Those trying to guide their behavior were frequently stymied, but that very effort often prompted a fleeting understanding of mortality and caused more subtle, longer- lasting changes in outlook. It wasn’t a magical device that made people wiser- it was a memento mori.

#56 Shanghai Six 2036

As part of the gaming world Hon has some really fascinating speculations on the future of entertainment. With Shanghai Six he imagines a mashup of alternate reality games such as his own Zombies Run! and something like the massive role playing found in events such as historical reenactments combined with aspects of reality television and all rolled up into the drama of film. Shanghai Six is a 10,000 person global drama with actors drawn from the real world. I’d hate to be the film crew’s gofer.

#63 Javelin 2040

The History of the Future also has some rather interesting things to say about the future of human enhancement. The transition begins with the paralympians who by the 2020’s are able to outperform by a large measure typical human athletes.

The shift began in 2020, when the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) staged a technology demonstration….

The demonstration was a huge success. People had never before seen such a direct combination of technology and raw human will power outside of war, and the sponsors were delighted at the viewing figures. The interest, of course, lay in marketing their expensive medical and lifestyle devices to the all- important Gen-X and Millennial markets, who were beginning to worry about their mobility and independence as they grew older.

There is something of the Daytona 500 about this here, sports becoming as much about how good the technology is as it is about the excellence of the athlete. And all sports do indeed seem to be headed this way. The barrier now is that technological and pharmaceutical assists for the athlete are not seen as a way to take human performance to its limits, but as a form of cheating. Yet, once such technologies become commonplace Hon imagines it unlikely that such distinctions will prove sustainable:

By the 40s and 50s, public attitudes towards mimic scripts, lenses, augments and neural laces had relaxed, and the notion that using these things would somehow constitute ‘cheating’ seemed outrageous. Baseline non-augmented humans were becoming the minority; the Paralympians were more representative of the real world, a world in which everyone was becoming enhanced in some small or large way.

It was a far cry from the Olympics. But then again, the enhanced were a far cry from the original humans.

#70 The Fourth Great Awakening 2044

Hon has something like Nassim Taleb’s idea that one of the best ways we have of catching the shadow of the future isn’t to have a handle on what will be new, but rather a good idea of what will still likely be around. The best indication we have that something will exist in the future is how long it has existed in the past. Long life proves evolutionary robustness under a variety of circumstances. Families have been around since our beginnings and will therefore likely exist for a long time to come.

Things that exist for a long time aren’t unchanging but flexible in a way that allows them to find expression in new forms once the old ways of doing things cease working.

Hon sees our long lived desire for communal eating surviving in his  #25 The Halls (2027) where people gather and mix together in collectively shared kitchen/dining establishments.

Halls speak to our strong need for social interaction, and for the ages-old idea that people will always need to eat- and they’ll enjoy doing it together.

And the survival of the reading in a world even more media and distraction saturated in something like dedicated seclusionary Reading Rooms (2030) #34. He also sees the survival of one of the oldest of human institutions, religion, only religion will have become much more centered on worldliness and will leverage advances in neuroscience to foster, depending on your perspective, either virtue or brainwashing.  Thus we have Hon’s imagined Fourth Great Awakening and the Christian Consummation Movement.

If I use the eyedrops, take the pills, and enroll in their induction course of targeted viruses and magstim- which I can assure you I am not about to do- then over the next few months, my personality and desires would gradually be transformed. My aggressive tendencies would be lowered. I’d readily form strong, trusting friendships with the people I met during this imprinting period- Consummators, usually. I would become generally more empathetic, more generous and “less desiring of fleeting, individual and mundane pleasures” according to the CCM.

It is social conditions that Hon sees driving the creation of something like the CCM, namely mass unemployment caused by globalization and especially automation. The idea, again, is very similar to that of Tyler Cowen’s in Average is Over, but whereas Cowen sees in the rise of Neo-victorianism a lifeboat for a middle class savaged by automation, Hon sees the similar CCM as a way human beings might try to reestablish the meaning they can no longer derive from work.

Hon’s imagined CCM combines some very old and very new technologies:

The CCM understood how Christianity itself spread during the Apostolic Age through hundreds of small gatherings, and accelerated that process by multiple orders of magnitude with the help of network technologies.

And all of that combined with the most advanced neuroscience.

#72 The Downvoted 2045

Augmented reality devices such as Google Glass should let us see the world in new ways, but just important might be what it allows us not to have to see. From this Hon derives his idea of “downvoting” essentially the choice to redact from reality individuals the group has deemed worthless.

“They don’t see you, “ he used to say. “You are completely invisible.I don’t know if it was better or worse  before these awful glasses, when people just pretended you didn’t exist. Now I am told that there are people who literally put you out of their sight, so that I become this muddy black shadow drifting along the pavement. And you know what? People will still downvote a black shadow!”

I’ll leave you off at Hon’s world circa 2045, but he has a lot else to say about everything from democracy, to space colonies to the post-21century future of AI. Somehow Hon’s patchwork imagined artifacts of the future allowed him to sew together a quilt of the century before us in a very clear pattern. What is that pattern?

That out in front of us the implications of continued miniaturization, networking, algorithmization, AI, and advances in neuroscience and human enhancement will continue to play themselves out. This has bright sides and dark sides and one of the darker that the opportunities for gainful human employment will become more rare.

Trained as a neuroscientist, Hon sees both dangers and opportunities as advances in neuroscience make the human brain once firmly secured in the black box of the skull permeable. Here there will be opportunities for abuse by the state or groups with nefarious intents, but there will also be opportunities for enriched human cooperation and even art.

All fascinating stuff, but it was what he had to say about the future of entertainment and the arts that I found most intriguing.  As the CEO of the company Six-to-Start he has his finger on the pulse of the entertainment in a way I do not. In the near future, Hon sees a blurring of the lines between gaming, role playing, and film and television, and there will be extraordinary changes in the ways we watch and play sports.

As for the arts, here where I live in Pennsylvania we are constantly bombarded with messages that our children need to be training in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). This is often to the detriment of programs in “useless” liberal arts such as history and most of all art programs whose budgets have been consistently whittled away. Hon showed me a future in which artists and actors, or more clearly people who have had exposure through schooling to the arts, may be some of the few groups that can avoid, at least for a time, the onset of AI driven automation. Puppeteering of various sorts would seem to be a likely transitional phase between “dead” humanoid robots and true and fully human like AI. This isn’t just a matter of the lurid future of prostitution, but for remote nursing, health care, and psychotherapy. Engineers and scientists will bring us the tools of the future, but it’s those with humanistic “soft-skills” that will be needed to keep that future livable, humane, and interesting.

We see this with another of  The History of the Future’s underlying perspectives- that a lot of the struggle of the future will be about keeping it a place human beings are actually happy to live in and that much of doing this will rely on tools of the past or finding protective bubbles through which the things that we now treasure can survive in the new reality we are building. Hence Hon’s idea of dining halls and reading rooms, and even more generally his view that people will continue to search for meaning sometimes turning to one of our most ancient technologies- religion- to do so.

Yet perhaps what Hon has most given us in The History of the Future is less a prediction than a kind of game with which we too can play which helps us see the outlines of the future, after all, game design is his thing. Perhaps, I’ll try to play the game myself sometime soon…

 

How to predict the future with five simple rules

Caravaggio Fortune Teller

When it comes to predicting the future it seems only our failure to consistently get tomorrow right has been steadily predictable, though that may be about to change, at least a little bit.  If you don’t think our society and especially those “experts” whose job it is to help us steer us through the future aren’t doing a horrible job just think back to the fall of the Soviet Union which blindsided the American intelligence community, or 9-11, which did the same, or the financial crisis of 2008, or even much more recently the Arab Spring, the rise of ISIL, or the war in Ukraine.

Technological predictions have been generally as bad or worse and as proof just take a look at any movie or now yellowed magazine from the 1960’s and 70’s about the “2000’s”. People have put a lot of work into imagining a future but, fortunately or unfortunately, we haven’t ended up living there.

In 2005 a psychologist, Philip Tetlock, set out to explain our widespread lack of success at playing Nostradamus. Tetlock  was struck by the colossal intelligence failure the collapse of the Soviet Union had unveiled. Policy experts, people who had spent their entire careers studying the USSR and arguing for this or that approach to Cold War had almost universally failed to have foreseen a future in which the Soviet Union would unravel overnight, let alone that such a mass form of social and geopolitical deconstruction would occur relatively peacefully.

Tetlock in his book Expert Political Judgment: How Good Is It? How Can We Know? made the case that a good deal of the predictions made by experts were no better than those of the proverbial dart throwing chimp- that is no better than chance, or for the numerically minded among you – 33 percent. With the most frightening revelation being that often the more knowledge a person had on a subject the worse rather than the better their predictions.

The reasons Tetlock discovered for the predictive failure of experts were largely psychological and all too human. Experts, like the rest of us, hate to be wrong, and have a great deal of difficulty assimilating information that fails to square with their world view. They tend to downplay or misremember their past predictive failures, deal in squishy predictions without clearly defining probabilities- qualitative statements that are open to multiple interpretations. Most of all, there seems to be no real penalty for getting predictions wrong, even horribly wrong, policy makers and pundits that predicted a quick and easy exit from Iraq or Dow 36,000 on the eve of the crash go right on working with a “the world is complicated” shrug of the shoulders.

What’s weird, I suppose, is that while getting the future horribly wrong has no effect on career prospects, getting it right, especially when the winds had been blowing in the opposite direction, seems to shoot a person into the pundit equivalent of stardom. Nouriel Roubini or “Dr Doom” was laughed at by some of his fellow economists when he was predicting the implosion of the banking sector well before Lehman Brothers went belly up. Afterwards he was inescapable, with a common image of the man, whose visage puts one in mind of Vlad the Impaler, or better Gene Simmons, finding himself surrounded by 4 or 5 ravishing supermodels.

I can’t help but thinking there’s a bit of Old Testament style thinking sneaking in here- as if the person who correctly predicted disaster is so much smarter or so tuned into the zeitgeist that the future is now somehow magically at their fingertips. Where the reality might be that they simply had the courage to speak up against the “wisdom” of the crowd.

Getting the future right is not a matter of intelligence, but it probably is a matter of thinking style. At least that’s where Tetlock, to return to him, has gone with his research. He has launched The Good Judgement Project which hopes to train people to be better predictors of the future. You too can make better predictions if you follow these 5 rules.

  • Comparisons are important: use relevant comparisons as a starting point;
  • Historical trends can help: look at history unless you have a strong reason to expect change;
  • Average opinions: experts disagree, so find out what they think and pick a midpoint;
  • Mathematical models: when model-based predictions are available, you should take them into account;
  • Predictable biases exist and can be allowed for. Don’t let your hopes influence your forecasts, for example; don’t stubbornly cling to old forecasts in the face of news.

One thing that surprises me about these rules is that apparently policy makers and public intellectuals aren’t following them in the first place. Obviously we need to do our best to make predictions minimizing cognitive biases, and we should certainly be able to do better than the chimps, but we should also be aware of our limitations. Some aspects of the future are inherently predictable demographics work like this, barring some disaster we have a pretty good idea what the human population will be at the end of this century and how it will be distributed. Or at least demographics should be predictable, though sometimes we miss just happen to miss 3 billion future people.

For the things on our immediate horizon we should be able to give pretty good probabilities and those should be helpful to policy makers. It has a definite impact on behavior whether we think there is a 25 percent probability that Iran will detonate a nuclear weapon by 2017 or a 75 percent chance. But things start to get much more difficult the further out into the future you go or when you’re dealing with the interaction of events some of which you didn’t even anticipate – Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous “unknown unknowns”.

It’s the centenary of World War I so that’s a relevant example. Would the war have happened had Gavrilo Princip’s assassination attempt on Franz Ferdinand failed? Maybe? But even had the war only been delayed timing would have most likely have affected its outcome. Perhaps the Germans would have been better prepared and so swiftly defeated the Russians, French and British that the US would never have became involved. It may be the case that German dominance of Europe was preordained, and therefore, in a sense, predictable, as it seems to be asserting itself even now,  but it makes more than a world of difference not just in Europe but beyond whether or not that dominance came in the form of the Kaiser, or Hitler, or, thank God, Merkle and the EU.

History is so littered with accidents, chance encounters, fateful deaths and births that it seems pretty unlikely that we’ll ever get a tight grip on the future which in all likelihood will be as subject to these contingencies as the past (Tetlock’s Second Rule). The best we can probably do is hone our judgement, as Telock argues, plan for what seems inevitable given trend lines, secure ourselves as well as possible against the most catastrophic scenarios based on their probability of destruction (Nick Bostrom’s view) and design institutions that are resilient and flexible in the face a set of extremely varied possible scenarios – (the position of Nassim Taleb).

None of this, however, gives us a graspable and easily understood view of how the future might hang together. Science fiction, for all its flaws, is perhaps alone in doing that. The writer and game developer Adrian Hon may have discovered a new, and certainly produced an insightful way of practicing the craft. To his recent book I’ll turn next time…