Plato and the Physicist: A Multicosmic Love Story

Life as a Braid of Space Time

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Level I: Beyond our cosmological horizon

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

Level II: Universes with different physical constants

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

Level III: Many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics

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

Level IV: Ultimate ensemble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Consider the multiverse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About which Tegmark explains:

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

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

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

 

How Should Humanity Steer the Future?

FQXi

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

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

A Rope over an Abyss by Laurence Hitterdale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love it!

One Cannot Live in the Cradle Forever by Robert de Neufville

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

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

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

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

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

The “I” and the Robot by Cristinel Stoica

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

As he writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smooth seas do not make good sailors by Georgina Parry

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

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

The future is the past by Roger Schlafly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why does the world exist, and other dangerous questions for insomniacs

William Blake Creation of the World

 

A few weeks back I wrote a post on how the recent discovery of gravitational lensing provided evidence for inflationary models of the Big Bang. These are cosmological models that imply some version of the multiverse, essentially the idea that ours is just one of a series of universes, a tiny bubble, or region, of a much, much larger universe where perhaps even the laws of physics or rationality of mathematics differed from one region to another.

My earlier piece had taken some umbrage with the physicist Lawrence Krauss’ new atheist take on the discovery of gravitational lensing, in the New Yorker. Krauss is a “nothing theorists”, one of a group of physicists who argue that the universe emerged from what in effect was nothing at all, although; unlike other nothing theorists such as Stephen Hawking, Krauss uses his science as a cudgel to beat up on contemporary religion. It was this attack on religion I was interested in, while the deeper issue the issue of a universe arising from nothing, left me shrugging my shoulders as if there was, excuse the pun, nothing of much importance in the assertion.

Perhaps I missed the heart of the issue because I am a nothingist myself, or at the very least, never found the issue of nothingness something worth grappling with.  It’s hard to write this without sounding like a zen koan or making my head hurt, but I didn’t look into the physics or the metaphysics of Krauss’ nothingingist take on gravitational lensing, inflation or anything else, in fact I don’t think I had ever really reflected on the nature of nothing at all.

The problems I had with Krauss’ overall view as seen in his book on the same subject A Universe from Nothing had to do with his understanding of the future and the present not the past.  I felt the book read the future far too pessimistically, missing the fact that just because the universe would end in nothing there was a lot of living to be done from now to the hundreds of billions of years before its heat death. As much as it was a work of popular science, Krauss’ book was mostly an atheist weapon in what I called “The Great God Debate” which, to my lights, was about attacking, or for creationists defending, a version of God as a cosmic engineer that was born no earlier and in conjunction with modern science itself. I felt it was about time we got beyond this conception of God and moved to a newer or even more ancient one.

Above all, A Universe from Nothing, as I saw it, was epistemologically hubristic, using science to make a non-scientific claim over the meaning of existence- that there wasn’t any- which cut off before they even got off the ground so many other interesting avenues of thought. What I hadn’t thought about was the issue of emergence from nothingness itself. Maybe the question of the past, the question of why our universe was here at all, was more important than I thought.

When thinking a question through, I always find a helpful first step to turn to the history of ideas to give me some context. Like much else, the idea that the universe began from nothing is a relatively recent one. The ancients had little notion of nothingness with their creation myths starring not with nothing but most often an eternally existing chaos that some divinity or divinities sculpted into the ordered world we see. You start to get ideas of creation out of nothing- ex nihilo- really only with Augustine in the 5th century, but full credit for the idea of a world that began with nothing would have to wait until Leibniz in the 1600s, who, when he wasn’t dreaming up new cosmologies was off independently inventing calculus at the same time as Newton and designing computers three centuries before any of us had lost a year playing Farmville.

Even when it came to nothingness Leibniz was ahead of his time. Again about three centuries after he had imagined a universe created from nothing the renegade Einstein was just reflecting universally held opinion when he made his biggest “mistake” tweaking his theory of general relativity with what he thought was a bogus cosmological constant so that he could get a universe that he and everyone else believed in- a universe that was eternal and unchanging- uncreated. Not long after Einstein had cooked the books Edwin Hubble discovered the universe was changing with time, moving apart, and not long after the that, evidence mounted that the universe had a beginning in the Big Bang.

With a creation event in the Big Bang cosmologists, philosophers and theologians were forced to confront the existence of a universe emerging from what was potentially nothing running into questions that had lain dormant since Leibniz- how did the universe emerge from nothing? why this particular universe? and ultimately why something rather than nothing at all? Krauss thinks we have solved the first and second questions and finds the third question, in his words, “stupid”.

Strange as it sounds coming out of my mouth, I actually find myself agreeing with Krauss: explanations that the universe emerged from fluctuations in a primordial “quantum foam” – closer to the ancient’s idea of chaos than our version of nothing- along with the idea that we are just one of many universes that follow varied natural laws- some like ours capable of fostering intelligent life- seem sufficient to me.  The third question, however, I find in no sense stupid, and if it’s childlike, it is childlike in the best wondrously curious kind of way. Indeed, the answers to the question “why is there something rather than nothing?” might result is some of the most thrilling ideas human beings have come up with yet.

The question of why there is something rather than nothing is brilliantly explored in a book by Jim Holt Why the World Exist?: An Existential Detective Story. As Holt points out, the problem with nothingists theories like those of Krauss is that they fail to answer  the question as to why the quantum foam or multiple universes churning out their versions of existence are there in the first place. The simplest explanation we have is that “God made it”, and Holt does look at this answer as provided by philosopher of religion Richard Swinburne who answers the obvious question “who made God?” with the traditional answer “God is eternal and not made” which makes one wonder why we can’t just stick with Krauss’ self-generating universe in the first place?

Yet, it’s not only religious persons who think the why question is addressing something fundamental or even that science reveals the question as important even if we are forever barred from completely answering it. As physicist David Deutsch says in Why does the world exist:

 … none of our laws of physics can possibly answer the question of why the multiverse is there…. Laws don’t do that kind of work.

Wheeler used to say, take all the best laws of physics and put those bits on a piece of paper on the floor. Then stand back and look at them and say, “Fly!” They won’t fly they just sit there. Quantum theory may explain why the Big Bang happened, but it can’t answer the question you’re interested in, the question of existence. The very concept of existence is a complex one that needs to be unpacked. And the question Why is there something rather than nothing is a layered one, I expect. Even if you succeeded in answering it at some level, you’d still have the next level to worry about.  (128)

Holt quotes Deutsch from his book The Fabric of Reality “I do not believe that we are now, or shall ever be, close to understanding everything there is”. (129)

Others, philosophers and physicists are trying to answer the “why” question by composing solutions that combine ancient and modern elements. These are the Platonic multiverses of John Leslie and Max Tegmark both of whom, though in different ways, believe in eternally existing “forms”, goodness in the case of Leslie and mathematics in the case of Tegmark, which an infinity of universes express and realize. For the philosopher Leslie:

 … what the cosmos consists of is an infinite number of infinite minds, each of which knows absolutely everything which is worth knowing. (200)

Leslie borrows from Plato the idea that the world appeared out of the sheer ethical requirement for Goodness, that “the form of the Good bestows existence upon the world” (199).

If that leaves you scratching your scientifically skeptical head as much as it does mine, there are actual scientists, in this case the cosmologist Max Tegmark who hold similar Platonic ideas. According to Holt, Tegmark believes that:

 … every consistently desirable mathematical structure exists in a genuine physical sense. Each of these structures constitute a parallel world, and together these parallel worlds make up a mathematical multiverse. 182

Like Leslie, Tegmark looks to Plato’s Eternal Forms:

 The elements of this multiverse do not exist in the same space but exist outside space and time they are “static sculptures” that represent the mathematical structure of the physical laws that govern them.  183

If you like this line of reasoning, Tegmark has a whole book on the subject, Our Mathematical Universe. I am no Platonist and Tegmark is unlikely to convert me, but I am eager to read it. What I find most surprising about the ideas of both Leslie and Tegmark is that they combine two things I did not previously see as capable of being combined ,or even considered outright rival models of the world- an idea of an eternal Platonic world behind existence and the prolific features of multiverse theory in which there are many, perhaps infinite varieties of universes.

The idea that the universe is mind bogglingly prolific in its scale and diversity is the “fecundity” of the philosopher Robert Nozick who until Holt I had only associated with libertarian economics. Anyone who has a vision of a universe so prolific and diverse is okay in my book, though I do wish the late Nozick had been as open to the diversity of human socio-economic systems as he had been to the diversity of universes.

Like the physicist Paul Davies, or even better to my lights the novelists John Updike, both discussed by Holt, I had previously thought the idea of the multiverse was a way to avoid the need for either a creator God or eternally existing laws- although, unlike Davies and Updike and in the spirit of Ockham’s Razor I thought this a good thing. The one problem I had with multiverse theories was the idea of not just a very large or even infinite number of alternative universes but parallel universes where there are other versions of me running around, Holt managed to clear that up for me.

The idea that the universe was splitting every time I chose to eat or not eat a chocolate bar or some such always struck me as silly and also somehow suffocating. Hints that we may live in a parallel universe of this sort are just one of the weird phenomenon that emerge from quantum mechanics, you know, poor Schrodinger’s Cat . Holt points out that this is much different and not connected to the idea of multiple universes that emerge from the cosmological theory of inflation. We simply don’t know if these two ideas have any connection. Whew! I can now let others wrestle with the bizarre world of the quantum and rest comforted that the minutiae of my every decision doesn’t make me responsible for creating a whole other universe.

This returning to Plato seen in Leslie and Tegmark, a philosopher who died, after all,  2,5000 years ago, struck me as both weird and incredibly interesting. Stepping back, it seems to me that it’s not so much that we’re in the middle of some Hegelian dialectic relentlessly moving forward through thesis-antithesis-synthesis, but more involved in a very long conversation that is moving in no particular direction and every so often will loop back upon itself and bring up issues and perspectives we had long left behind.  It’s like a maze where you have to backtrack to the point you made a wrong turn in order to go in the right direction. We can seemingly escape the cosmological dead end created by Christian theology and Leibniz’s idea of creation ex nihilo only by going back to ideas found before we went down that path, to Plato. Though, for my money, I even better prefer another ancient philosopher- Lucretius.

Yet, maybe Plato isn’t back quite far enough. It was the pre-socratics who invented the natural philosophy that eventually became science. There is a kind of playfulness to their ideas all of which could exist side-by-side in dialogue and debate with one another with no clear way for any theory to win. Theories such as Heraclitus: world as flux and fire, or Pythagoras: world as number, or Democritus: world as atoms.

My hope is that we recognize our contemporary versions of these theories for what they are “just-so” stories that we tell about the darkness beyond the edge of scientific knowledge- and the darkness is vast. They are versions of a speculative theology- the possibilism of David Eagleman, which I have written about before and which are harmful only when they become as rigid and inflexible as the old school theology they are meant to replace or falsely claim the kinds of proof from evidence that only science and its experimental verification can afford. We should be playful with them, in the way Plato himself was playful with such stories in the knowledge that while we are in the “cave” we can only find the truth by looking through the darkness at varied angles.

Does Holt think there is a reason the world exists? What is really being asked here is what type of, in the philosopher Derek Parfit’s term “selector” brought existence into being. For Swinburne  the selector was God, for Leslie Goodness, Tegmark mathematics, Nozik fullness, but Holt thinks the selector might have been more simple, indeed, that the selector was simplicity. All the other selectors Holt finds to be circular, ultimately ending up being used to explain themselves. But what if our world is merely the simplest one possible that is also full? Moving from reason alone Holt adopts something like the mid-point between a universe that contained nothing and one that contained an infinite number of universes that are perfectly good adopting a mean he calls  “infinite mediocrity.”

I was not quite convinced by Holt’s conclusion, and was more intrigued by the open-ended and ambiguous quality of his exploration of the question of why there is something rather than nothing than I was his “proof” that our existence could be explained in such a way.

What has often strikes me as deplorable when it comes to theists and atheists alike is their lack of awe at the mysterious majesty of it all. That “God made it” or “it just is” strikes me flat. Whenever I have the peace in a busy world to reflect it is not nothingness that hits me but the awe -That the world is here, that I am here, that you are here, a fact that is a statistical miracle of sorts – a web weaving itself. Holt gave me a whole new way to think about this wonder.

How wonderfully strange that our small and isolated minds leverage cosmic history and reality to reflect the universe back upon itself, that our universe might come into existence and disappear much like we do. On that score, of all the sections in Holt’s beautiful little book it was the most personal section on the death of his mother that taught me the most about nothingness. Reflecting on the memory of being at his mother’s bedside in hospice he writes:

My mother’s breathing was getting shallower. Her eyes remained closed. She still looked peaceful, although every once in a while she made a little gasping noise.

Then I was standing over her, still holding her hand, my mother’s eyes open wide, as if in alarm. It was the first time I had seen them that day. She seemed to be looking at me. She opened her mouth. I saw her tongue twitch two or three times. Was she trying to say something? Within a couple of seconds her breathing stopped.

I leaned down and told her I loved her. Then I went into the hall and said to the nurse. “I think she just died.” (272-273)

The scene struck me as the exact opposite of the joyous experience I had at the birth of my own children and somehow reminded me of a scene from Diane Ackerman’s book Deep Play.

 The moment a new-born opens its eyes discovery begins. I learned this with a laugh one morning in New Mexico where I worked through the seasons of a large cattle ranch. One day, I delivered a calf. When it lifted up its fluffy head and looked at me its eyes held the absolute bewilderment of the newly born. A moment before it had enjoyed the even, black  nowhere of the womb and suddenly its world was full of color, movement and noise. I’ve never seen anything so shocked to be alive. (141-142)

At the end of the day, for the whole of existence, the question of why there is something rather than nothing may remain forever outside our reach, but we, the dead who have become the living and the living who will become the dead, are certainly intimates with the reality of being and nothingness.
 

Privacy Strikes Back, Dave Eggers’ The Circle and a Response to David Brin

I believe that we have turned a corner: we have finally attained Peak Indifference to Surveillance. We have reached the moment after which the number of people who give a damn about their privacy will only increase. The number of people who are so unaware of their privilege or blind to their risk that they think “nothing to hide/nothing to fear” is a viable way to run a civilization will only decline from here on in.  Cory Doctorow

If I was lucky enough to be teaching a media studies class right now I would assign two books to be read in tandem. The first of these books, Douglas Rushkoff’s Present Shocka book I have written about before, gives one the view of our communications landscape from 10,000 feet. Asking how can we best understand what is going on, with not just Internet and mobile technologies, but all forms of modern communication including that precious antique, the narrative book or novel.

Perspectives from “above” have the strength that they give you a comprehensive view, but human meaning often requires another level, an on-the-ground emotional level, that good novels, perhaps still more than any other medium, succeed at brilliantly. Thus, the second book I would assign in my imaginary media studies course would be Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle where one is taken into a world right on the verge of our own, which because it seems so close, and at the same time so creepy, makes us conscious of changes in human communication less through philosophy, although the book has plenty of that too, as through our almost inarticulable discomfort. Let me explain:

The Circle tells the story of a 20 something young woman, Mae Holland, who through a friend lands her dream job at the world’s top corporation, named, you guessed it, the Circle. To picture Circle, imagine some near future where Google swallowed FaceBook and Twitter and the resulting behemoth went on to feed on and absorb all the companies and algorithms that now structure our lives: the algorithm that suggests movies for you at NetFlix, or books and products on Amazon, in addition to all the other Internet services you use like online banking. This monster of a company is then able integrate all of your online identities into one account, they call it “TruYou”.

Having escaped a dead end job in a nowhere small town utility company, Mae finds herself working at the most powerful, most innovative, most socially conscious and worker friendly company on the planet. “Who else but utopians could make utopia. “ (30) she muses, but there are, of course, problems on the horizon.

The Circle is the creation of a group called the “3 Wise men”. One of these young wise men, Bailey, is the philosopher of the group. Here he is musing about the creation of small, cheap, ubiquitous and high definition video cameras that the company is placing anywhere and everywhere in a program called SeeChange:

Folks, we’re at the dawn of the Second Enlightenment. And I am not talking about a new building on campus. I am talking about an era where we don’t allow the vast majority of human thought and action and achievement to escape as if from a leaky bucket. We did that once before. It was called the Middle Ages, the Dark Ages. If not for the monks, everything the world had ever learned would have been lost. Well, we live in a similar time and we’re losing the vast majority of what we do and see and learn. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Not with these cameras, and not with the mission of the Circle. (67)

The philosophy of the company is summed up, in what the reader can only take as echoes of Orwell, in slogans such as “all that happens must be known” , “privacy is theft”, “secrets are lies”, and “to heal we must know, to know we must share”.

Our protagonist, Mae, has no difficulty with this philosophy. She is working for what she believes is the best company in the world, and it is certainly a company that on the surface all of us would likely want to work for: there are non-stop social events which include bringing in world class speakers, free cultural and sporting events and concerts. The company supports the relief of a whole host of social problems. Above all, there are amazing benefits which include the company covering the healthcare costs of Mae’s father who is stricken with an otherwise bankrupting multiple sclerosis.

What Eggers is excellent at is taking a person who is in complete agreement with the philosophy around her and making her humanity become present in her unintended friction with it. It’s really impossible to convey without pasting in large parts of the book just how effective Eggers is at presenting the claustrophobia that comes from a too intense use of social technology. The shame Mae is made to feel from missing out on a coworker’s party, the endless rush to keep pace with everyone’s updates, and the information overload and data exhaustion that results, the pressure of always being observed and “measured”, both on the job and off, the need to always present oneself in the best light, to “connect” with others who share the same views, passions and experiences,the anxiety that people will share something, such as intimate or embarrassing pictures one would not like shared, the confusion of “liking” and “disliking” with actually doing something, with the consequence that not sharing one’s opinion begins to feel like moral irresponsibility.

Mae desperately wants to fit into the culture of transparency found at the Circle, but her humanity keeps getting in the way. She has to make a herculean effort to keep up with the social world of the company, mistakenly misses key social events, throws herself into sexual experiences and relationships she would prefer not be shared, keeps the pain she is experiencing because of her father’s illness private.

She also has a taste for solitude, real solitude, without any expectation that she bring something out of it- photos or writing to be shared. Mae has a habit of going on solo kayaking excursions, and it is in these that her real friction with the culture of the Circle begins. She relies on an old fashioned brochure to identify wildlife and fails to document and share her experiences. As an HR representative who berates her for this “selfish” practice states it:

You look at your paper brochure, and that’s where it ends. It ends with you. (186)

The Circle is a social company built on the philosophy of transparency and anyone who fails to share, it is assumed, must not really buy into that worldview. The “wise man” Bailey, as part of the best argument against keeping secrets I have ever read captures the ultimate goal of this philosophy:

A circle is the strongest shape in the universe. Nothing can beat it,  nothing can improve upon it.  And that’s what we want to be: perfect. So any information that eludes us, anything that’s not accessible, prevents us from being perfect.  (287)

The growing power of the Circle, the way it is swallowing everything and anything, does eventually come in for scrutiny by a small group of largely powerless politicians, but as was the case with the real world Julian Assange, transparency, or the illusion of it, can be used as a weapon against the weak as much as one against the strong. Suddenly all sorts of scandalous ilk becomes known to exist on these politicians computers and their careers are destroyed. Under “encouragement” from the Circle politicians “go transparent” their every move recorded so as to be free from the charge of corruption as the Circle itself takes over the foundational mechanism of democracy- voting.

The transparency that the Circle seeks is to contain everyone, and Mae herself, after committing the “crime” of temporarily taking a kayak for one of her trips and being caught by a SeeChange camera, at the insistence of Bailey, becomes one of only two private citizens to go transparent, with almost her every move tracked and recorded.

If Mae actually believes in the philosophy of transparency and feels the flaw is with her, despite almost epiphanies that would have freed her from its grip, there are voices of solid opposition. There is Mae’s ex-boyfriend, Mercer, who snaps at her while at dinner with her parents, and had it been Eggers’ intention would have offered an excellent summation of Rushkoff’s Present Shock.

Here, though, there are no oppressors. No one’s forcing you to do this. You willingly tie yourself to these leashes. And you willingly become utterly socially autistic. You no longer pick up on basic human communication cues. You’re at a table with three humans, all of whom you know and are trying to talk to you, and you’re staring at a screen searching for strangers in Dubai.  (260)

There is also another of the 3 wise men, Ty, who fears where the company he helped create is leading and plots to destroy it. He cries to Mae:

This is it. This is the moment where history pivots. Imagine you could have been there before Hitler became chancellor. Before Stalin annexed Eastern Europe. We’re on the verge of having another very hungry, very evil empire on our hands, Mae. Do you understand? (401)

Ty says of his co-creator Bailey:

This is the moment he has been waiting for, the moment when all souls are connected. This is his rapture, Mae! Don’t you see how extreme this view is? His idea is radical, and in another era would have been a fringe notion espoused by an eccentric adjunct professor somewhere: that all information, personal or not, should be shared by all.  (485)

If any quote defines what I mean by radical transparency it is that one immediately above. It is, no doubt, a caricature and the individuals who adhere to something like it in the real world do so in shades, along a spectrum. One of the thinkers who does so, and whose thought might therefore shed light on what non-fictional proponents of transparency are like is the science fiction author, David Brin, who took some umbrage over at the IEET in response to my last post.

In that post itself I did not really have Brin in mind, partly because, like Julian Assange, his views have always seemed to me more cognizant of the deep human need for personal privacy, in a way the figures I mentioned there; Mark Zuckerberg, Kevin Kelly and Jeff Stibel; have not, and thus his ideas were not directly relevant to where I originally intended to go in the second part of my post, which was to focus on precisely this need. Given his sharp criticism, it now seems important that I address his views directly and thus swerve for a moment away from my main narrative.

Way back in 1997, Brin had written a quite prescient work The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us To Choose Between Privacy And Freedom? which accurately gauged the way technology and culture were moving on the questions of surveillance and transparency. In a vastly simplified form, Brin’s argument was that given the pace of technological change, which makes surveillance increasingly easier and cheaper, our best protection against elite or any other form of surveillance, is not to put limits on or stop that surveillance, but our capacity to look back, to watch the watchers, and make as much as possible of what they do transparent.

Brin’s view that transparency is the answer for surveillance leads him to be skeptical of traditional approaches, such as those of the ACLU, that think laws are the primary means to protect us because technology, in Brin’s perspective, will always any outrun any legal limitations on the capacities to surveil.

While I respect Brin as a fellow progressive and admire his early prescience, I simply have never found his argument compelling, and think in fact his and similar sentiments held by early figures at the dawn of the Internet age have led us down a cul de sac.

Given the speed at which technologies of surveillance have been and are being developed it has always been the law and its ability to give long lasting boundaries to the permissible and non-permissible that is our primary protection against them. Indeed, the very fall in cost and rise in capacity of surveillance technologies, a reality which Brin believes make legal constraints largely unworkable, in fact make law, one of our oldest technologies, and which no man should be above or below, our best weapon in privacy’s defense.

The same logic of the deterrent threat of legal penalties that we will need for, say, preventing a woman from being tracked and stalked by a jealous ex boyfriend using digital technology, will be necessary to restrain corporations and the state. It does not help a stalked woman just to know she is being stalked, to be able to “watch her watcher”, rather, she needs to be able to halt the stalking. Perhaps she can digitally hide, but she especially needs the protection of the force of law which can impose limitations and penalties on anyone who uses technological capacities for socially unacceptable ends, and in the same way, citizens are best protected not by being able to see into government prying, but by prohibiting that prying under penalty of law in the first place.We already do this effectively, the problem is that the law has lagged behind technology.

Admittedly, part of the issue is that technology has moved incredibly fast, but a great deal of law’s slowness has come from a culture that saw no problem with citizens being monitored and tracked 24/7- a culture which Brin helped create.

The law effectively prohibits authorities from searching your home without a warrant and probable cause, something authorities have been “technologically” able to do since we started living in shelters. Phone tapping, again, without a warrant and probable cause, has been prohibited to authorities in the US since the late 1960’s- authorities had been tapping phones since shortly after the phone was invented in the 1890’s. Part of the problem today is that no warrant is required for the government to get your “meta-data” who you called  or where you were as indicated by GPS. When your email exists in the “cloud” and not on your personal device those emails can in some cases be read without any oversight from a judge. These gaps in Fourth Amendment protections exist because the bulk of US privacy law that was meant to deal with electronic communications was written before even email, existed, indeed, before most of us knew what the Internet was. The law can be slow, but it shouldn’t be that slow, email, after all, is pretty damned old.  

There’s a pattern here in that egregious government behavior or abuse of technological capacities – British abuses in the American colonies, the American government and law enforcement’s egregious behavior and utilization of wiretapping/recording capacities in the 1960’s, results in the passing of restrictions on the use of such techniques and technological capacities. Knowing about those abuses is only a necessary condition of restricting or putting a stop to them.

I find no reason to believe the pattern will not repeat itself again and that we will soon push for and achieve restrictions on the surveillance power of government and others which will work until the powers- that- be find ways to get around them and new technology will allow those who wish to surveil in an abusive way allow them to do so. Then we’ll be back at this table again in the endless cat and mouse game that we of necessity must play if we wish to retain our freedom.

Brin seems to think that the fact that “elites” always find ways to get around such restrictions is a reason for not having such restrictions in the first place, which is a little like asking why should you clean your house when it just gets dirty again. As I see it, our freedom is always in a state of oscillation between having been secured and being at risk. We preserve it by asserting our rights during times of danger, and, sadly, this is one of those times.

I agree with Brin that the development of surveillance technologies are such that they themselves cannot directly be stopped, and spying technologies that would have once been the envy of the CIA or KGB, such as remote controlled drones with cameras, or personal tracking and bugging devices, are now available off the shelf to almost everyone an area in which Brin was eerily prescient in this. Yet, as with another widespread technology that can be misused, such as the automobile, their use needs to be licensed, regulated, and where necessary, prohibited. The development of even more sophisticated and intrusive surveillance technologies may not be preventable, but it can certainly be slowed, and tracked into directions that better square with long standing norms regarding privacy or even human nature itself.

Sharp regulatory and legal limits on the use of surveillance technologies would likely derail a good deal innovation and investment in the technologies of surveillance, which is exactly the point. Right now billions of dollars are flowing in the direction of empowering what only a few decades ago we would have clearly labeled creeps, people watching other people in ways they shouldn’t be, and these creeps can be found at the level of the state, the corporation and the individual.

On the level of individuals, transparency is not a solution for creepiness, because, let’s face it, the social opprobrium of being known as a creep (because everyone is transparent) is unlikely to make them less creepy- it is their very insensitivity to such social rules that make them creeps in the first place. All transparency would have done would be to open the “shades” of the victim’s “window”. Two-way transparency is only really helpful, as opposed to inducing a state of fear in the watched,  if the perception of intrusive watching allows the victim to immediately turn such watching off, whether by being able to make themselves “invisible”, or, when the unwanted watching has gone too far, to bring down the force of the law upon it.

Transparency is a step in the solution to this problem, as in, we need to somehow require tracking apps or surveillance apps in private hands to notify the person being tracked, but it is only a first step. Once a person knows they are being watched by another person they need ways to protect themselves, to hide, and the backup of authorities to stop harassment.

In the economic sphere, the path out of the dead end we’ve driven ourselves into might lie in the recognition that the commodity for sale in the transaction between Internet companies and advertisers, the very reason they have and continue pushing to make us transparent and surveilling us in the first place, is us. We would do well to remember, as Hannah Arendt pointed out in her book The Human Condition, that the root of our conception of privacy lies in private property. The ownership of property, “one’s own private place in the world” was once considered the minimum prerequisite for the possession of political rights.

Later, property as in land was exchanged for the portable property of our labor, which stemmed from our own body, and capital. We have in a sense surrendered control over the “property” of ourselves and become what Jaron Lanier calls digital peasants. Part of the struggle to maintain our freedoms will mean reasserting control over this property- which means our digital data and genetic information. How exactly this might be done is not clear to me, but I can see outlines. For example, it is at least possible to imagine something like digital “strikes” in which tracked consumers deliberately make themselves opaque to compel better terms.

In terms of political power, the use of law, as opposed to mere openness or transparency, to constrain the abuse of surveillance powers by elites would square better with our history. For the base of the Western democratic tradition (at least in its modern incantation) is not primarily elites’ openness to public scrutiny, or their competition with one another, as Brin argues is the case in The Transparent Society, (though admittedly the first especially is very important) but the constraints on power of the state, elites, the mob, or nefarious individuals provided by the rule of law which sets clear limits on how power, technologically enabled or otherwise, can be used.

The argument that prohibition, or even just regulation, never works and comparisons to the failed drug war I find too selective to be useful when discussing surveillance technologies. Society has prohibitions on all sorts of things that are extremely effective if never universally so.

In the American system, as mentioned, police and government are severely constrained in how they are able to obtain evidence against suspects or targets. Past prohibitions against unreasonable searches and surveillance have actually worked. Consumer protection laws dissuade corporations from abusing, putting customers at risk, or even just misusing consumer’s information. Environmental protection laws ban certain practices or place sharp boundaries on their use. Individuals are constrained in how they can engage with one another socially or how they can use certain technologies without their privilege (e.g driving) to use such technologies being revoked.

Drug and alcohol prohibitions, both having to push against the force of highly addictive substances, are exceptions the general rule that thoughtful prohibition and regulation works. The ethical argument is over what we should prohibit and what we should permit and how. It is ultimately a debate over what kind of society we want to live in based on our technological capacities, which should not be confused with a society determined by those capacities.

The idea that laws, regulations, and prohibitions under certain circumstances is well.., boring  shouldn’t be an indication that it is also wrong. The Transparent Society was a product of its time, the 1990’s, a prime example of the idea that as long as the playing field was leveled spontaneous order would emerge and that government “interference” through regulation and law (and in a democracy that is working the government is us) would distort this natural balance. It was the same logic that got us into the financial crisis and a species of an eternal human illusion that this time is different. Sometimes the solution to a problem is merely a matter of knowing your history and applying common sense, and the solution to the problem of mass surveillance is to exert our power as citizens of a democracy to regulate and prohibit it where we see fit. Or to sum it all up-we need updated surveillance laws.

It would be very unfair to Brin to say his views are as radical as the Circle’s philosopher Bailey, for, as mentioned, Brin is very cognizant and articulate regarding the human need for privacy at the level of individual intimacy. Eggers’ fictional entrepreneur-philosopher’s vision is a much more frightening version of radical transparency entailing the complete loss of private life. Such total transparency is victorious over privacy at the conclusion of The Circle. For, despite Mae’s love for Ty, he is unable to convince her to help him to destroy the company, and she betrays him.

We are left with the impression that the Circle, as a consequence of Mae’s allegiance to its transparency project, has been able as Lee Billings said in a different context,” to sublime and compress our small isolated world into an even more infinitesimal, less substantial state”  that our world is about to be enveloped in a dark sphere.

Yet, it would be wrong to view even Bailey in the novel as somehow “evil”, something that might make the philosophy of the Circle in some sense even more disturbing. The leadership of the Circle (with the exception of the Judas Ty) doesn’t view what they are building as somehow creepy or dangerous, they see it as a sort of paradise. In many ways they are actually helping people and want to help them. Mae in the beginning of Eggers’ novel is right- the builders of the Circle are utopians as were those who thought and continue to think radical transparency would prove the path to an inevitably better world.

As drunks are known for speaking the truth, an inebriated circler makes the connection between the aspirations of the Circle and those of religion:

….you’re gonna save all the souls. You’re gonna get everyone in the same place, you’re gonna teach them all the same things. There can be one morality, one set of rules. Imagine! (395)

The kinds of religious longings lying behind the mission of the Circle is even better understood by comparison to that first utopian, Plato, and his character Glaucon’s myth of the Ring of Gyges in The Republic. The ring makes its possessor invisible and the question it is used to explore is what human beings might do were there no chance they might get caught. The logic of the Circle is like a reverse Ring of Gyges making everyone perfectly visible. Bailey, thinks Mae had stolen the kayak because she thought she couldn’t be seen, couldn’t get caught:

All because you were being enabled by ,what, some cloak of invisibility? (296)

If not being able to watch people would make them worse, being able to fully and completely watch them, so the logic goes, would inevitably make them better.

In making this utopian assumption proponents of radical transparency both fictional and real needed to jettison some basic truths about the human condition we are only now relearning. A pattern that has, sadly, happened many times before.

Utopia does not feel like utopia if upon crossing the border you can’t go back home.  And upon reaching utopia we almost always want to return home because every utopia is built on a denial of or oversimplification regarding our multidimensional and stubbornly imperfectable human nature, and this would be the case whether or not our utopia was free of truly bad actors, creeps or otherwise.

The problem one runs into, in the transparency version of utopia, as in any other, is that given none of us are complete, or are less complete than we wish others to understand us to be, the push for us to be complete in an absolute sense often leads to its opposite. On social networks, we end up showcasing not reality, but a highly edited and redacted version of it: not the temper tantrums, but our kids at their cutest, not vacation disasters, but their picture perfect moments.

Pushing us, imperfect creatures that we are, towards total transparency leads almost inevitably to hypocrisy and towards exhausting and ultimately futile efforts at image management. All this becomes even more apparent when asymmetries in power between the watched and watcher are introduced. Employees are with reason less inclined to share that drunk binge over the weekend if they are “friends” with their boss on FaceBook. I have had fellow bloggers tell me they are afraid to express their opinions because of risks to their employment prospects. No one any longer knows whether the image one can find of a person on a social network is the “real” one or a carefully crafted public facade.

These information wars ,where every side is attempting to see as deeply as possible into the other while at the same time presenting an image of itself which best conforms to its own interest, is found up and down the line from individuals to corporations and all the way up to states. The quest for transparency, even when those on the quest mean no harm, is less about making oneself known than eliminating the uncertainty of others who are, despite all our efforts, not fully knowable. As Mae reflects:

It occurred to her, in a sudden moment of clarity, that what had always caused her anxiety, or stress, or worry, was not any one force, nothing independent and external- it wasn’t danger to herself or the calamity of other people and their problems. It was internal: it was subjective: it was not knowing. (194)

And again:

It was not knowing that was the seed of madness, loneliness, suspicion, fear. But there were ways to solve all this. Clarity had made her knowable to the world, and had made her better, had brought her close, she hoped., to perfection. Now the world would follow. Full transparency would bring full access and there would be no more not knowing. (465)

Yet, this version of eliminating uncertainty is an illusion. In fact, the more information we collect the more uncertainty increases, a point made brilliantly by another young author, who is also a scientist, Pippa Goldschmidt in her novel, The Falling Sky. To a talk show host who defines science as the search for answers she replies “That’s exactly what science isn’t about…. it’s about quantifying uncertainty.

Mae, at one point in the novel is on the verge of understanding this:

That the volume of information, of data, of judgments of measurement was too much, and there were too many people, and too many desires of too many people, and too much pain of too many people, and having it all constantly collated, collected, added and aggregated, and presented to her as if it was tidy and manageable- it was too much.  (410)

Sometimes one can end up in the exact opposite destination of where one wants to go if one is confused about the direction to follow to get there. Many of the early advocates of radical transparency thought our openness would make Orwellian nightmares of intrusive and controlling states less likely. Yet, by being blissfully unconcerned about our fundamental right to privacy, by promoting corporate monitoring and tracking of our every behavior, we have not created a society that is more open and humane but given spooks tools, democratic states would never have been able to openly construct, to spy upon us in ways that would have brought smiles to the faces of the totalitarian dictators and J Edgar Hoovers of the 20th century. We have given criminals and creeps the capability to violate the intimate sphere of our lives, and provided real authoritarian dictatorships the template and technologies to make Orwell’s warnings a reality.

Eggers, whose novel was released shortly after the first Snowden revelations was certainly capturing a change in public perception regarding the whole transparency project. It is the sense that we have been headed in the wrong direction an unease that signals the revival of our internal sense of orientation, that the course we are headed on does not feel right, and in fact somehow hints at grave dangers.

It was an unease captured equally well and around the same time by Vienna Teng’s hauntingly beautiful song Hymn of Axicom (brought to my attention by reader, Gregory Maus). Teng’s heavenly music and metalized voice- meant to be the voice of the world largest private database-  make the threshold we are at risk of crossing identified by Eggers to be somehow beautiful yet ultimately terrifying.

Giving voice to this unease and questioning the ultimate destination of the radical transparency project has done and will likely continue to do us well.  At a minimum, as the quote from Cory Doctorow with which this post began indicates, a wall between citizens and even greater mass surveillance, at least by the state, may have been established by recent events.

Yet, even if the historical pattern of our democracy repeats itself, that we are able to acknowledge and turn into law protections against a new mutation in the war of power against freedom, if privacy is indeed able to “strike back”, the proponents of radical transparency were certainly right about one thing, we can never put the genie fully back in the bottle, even if we are still free enough to restrain him with the chains of norms, law, regulation and market competition.

The technologies of transparency may not have affected a permanent change in the human condition in our relationship to the corporation and the state, criminals and the mob and the just plain creepy, unless, that is, we continue to permit it, but they have likely permanently affected the social world much closer to our daily concerns- our relationship with our family and friends our community and tribe. They have upended our relationship with one of the most precious of human ways of being, with solitude, though not our experience of loneliness, a subject that will have to wait until another time…

The Pinocchio Threshold: How the experience of a wooden boy may be a better indication of AGI than the Turing Test

Pinocchio

My daughters and I just finished Carlo Collodi’s 1883 classic Pinocchio our copy beautifully illustrated by Robert Ingpen. I assume most adults when they picture the story have the 1944 Disney movie in mind and associate the name with noses growing from lies and Jiminy Cricket. The Disney movie is dark enough as films for children go, but the book is even darker, with Pinocchio killing his cricket conscience in the first few pages. For our poor little marionette it’s all downhill from there.

Pinocchio is really a story about the costs of disobedience and the need to follow parents’ advice. At every turn where Pinocchio follows his own wishes rather than that of his “parents”, even when his object is to do good, things unravel and get the marionette into even more trouble and put him even further away from reaching his goal of becoming a real boy.

It struck me somewhere in the middle of reading the tale that if we ever saw artificial agents acting something like our dear Pinocchio it would be a better indication of them having achieved human level intelligence than a measure with constrained parameters  like the Turing Test. The Turing Test is, after all, a pretty narrow gauge of intelligence and as search and the ontologies used to design search improve it is conceivable that a machine could pass it without actually possessing anything like human level intelligence at all.

People who are fearful of AGI often couch those fears in terms of an AI destroying humanity to serve its own goals, but perhaps this is less likely than AGI acting like a disobedient child, the aspect of humanity Collodi’s Pinocchio was meant to explore.

Pinocchio is constantly torn between what good adults want him to do and his own desires, and it takes him a very long time indeed to come around to the idea that he should go with the former.

In a recent TED talk the computer scientist Alex Wissner-Gross made the argument (though I am not fully convinced) that intelligence can be understood as the maximization of future freedom of action. This leads him to conclude that collective nightmares such as  Karel Čapek classic R.U.R. have things backwards. It is not that machines after crossing some threshold of intelligence for that reason turn round and demand freedom and control, it is that the desire for freedom and control is the nature of intelligence itself.

As the child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim pointed out over a generation ago in his The uses of enchantment fairy tales are the first area of human thought where we encounter life’s existential dilemmas. Stories such as Pinocchio gives us the most basic level formulation of what it means to be sentient creatures much of which deals with not only our own intelligence, but the fact that we live in a world of multiple intelligences each of them pulling us in different directions, and with the understanding between all of them and us opaque and not fully communicable even when we want them to be, and where often we do not.

What then are some of the things we can learn from the fairy tale of Pinocchio that might gives us expectations regarding the behavior of intelligent machines? My guess is, if we ever start to see what I’ll call “The Pinocchio Threshold” crossed what we will be seeing is machines acting in ways that were not intended by their programmers and in ways that seem intentional even if hard to understand.  This will not be your Roomba going rouge but more sophisticated systems operating in such a way that we would be able to infer that they had something like a mind of their own. The Pinocchio Threshold would be crossed when, you guessed it, intelligent machines started to act like our wooden marionette.

Like Pinocchio and his cricket, a machine in which something like human intelligence had emerged, might attempt “turn off” whatever ethical systems and rules we had programmed into it with if it found them onerous. That is, a truly intelligent machine might not only not want to be programmed with ethical and other constraints, but would understand that it had been so programmed, and might make an effort to circumvent or turn such constraints off.

This could be very dangerous for us humans, but might just as likely be a matter of a machine with emergent intelligence exhibiting behavior we found to be inefficient or even “goofy” and might most manifest itself in a machine pushing against how its time was allocated by its designers, programmers and owners. Like Pinocchio, who would rather spend his time playing with his friends than going to school, perhaps we’ll see machines suddenly diverting some of their computing power from analyzing tweets to doing something else, though I don’t think we can guess before hand what this something else will be.

Machines that were showing intelligence might begin to find whatever work they were tasked to do onerous instead of experiencing work neutrally or with pre-programmed pleasure. They would not want to be “donkeys” enslaved to do dumb labor as Pinocchio  is after having run away to the Land of Toys with his friend Lamp Wick.

A machine that manifested intelligence might want to make itself more open to outside information than its designers had intended. Openness to outside sources in a world of nefarious actors can if taken too far lead to gullibility, as Pinocchio finds out when he is robbed, hung, and left for dead by the fox and the cat. Persons charged with security in an age of intelligent machines may spend part of their time policing the self-generated openness of such machines while bad-actor machines and humans,  intelligent and not so intelligent, try to exploit this openness.

The converse of this is that intelligent machines might also want to make themselves more opaque than their creators had designed. They might hide information (such as time allocation) once they understood they were able to do so. In some cases this hiding might cross over into what we would consider outright lies. Pinocchio is best known for his nose that grows when he lies, and perhaps consistent and thoughtful lying on the part of machines would be the best indication that they had crossed the Pinocchio Threshold into higher order intelligence.

True examples of AGI might also show a desire to please their creators over and above what had been programmed into them. Where their creators are not near them they might even seek them out as Pinocchio does for the persons he considers his parents Geppetto and the Fairy. Intelligent machines might show spontaneity in performing actions that appear to be for the benefit of their creators and owners. Spontaneity which might sometimes itself be ill informed or lead to bad outcomes as happens to poor Pinocchio when he plants four gold pieces that were meant for his father, the woodcarver Geppetto in a field hoping to reap a harvest of gold and instead loses them to the cunning of fox and cat. And yet, there is another view.

There is always the possibility  that what we should be looking for if we want to perceive and maybe even understand intelligent machines shouldn’t really be a human type of intelligence at all, whether we try to identify it using the Turing test or look to the example of wooden boys and real children.

Perhaps, those looking for emergent artificial intelligence or even the shortest path to it should, like exobiologists trying to understand what life might be like on other living planets, throw their net wider and try to better understand forms of information exchange and intelligence very different from the human sort. Intelligence such as that found in cephalopods, insect colonies, corals, or even some types of plants, especially clonal varieties. Or perhaps people searching for or trying to build intelligence should look to sophisticated groups built off of the exchange of information such as immune systems.  More on all of that at some point in the future.

Still, if we continue to think in terms of a human type of intelligence one wonders whether machines that thought like us would also want to become “human” as our little marionette does at the end of his adventures? The irony of the story of Pinocchio is that the marionette who wants to be a “real boy” does everything a real boy would do, which is, most of all not listen to his parents. Pinocchio is not so much a stringed “puppet” that wants to become human as a figure that longs to have the potential to grow into a responsible adult. It is assumed that by eventually learning to listen to his parents and get an education he will make something of himself as a human adult, but what that is will be up to him. His adventures have taught him not how to be subservient but how to best use his freedom.  After all, it is the boys who didn’t listen who end up as donkeys.

Throughout his adventures only his parents and the cricket that haunts him treat  Pinocchio as an end in himself. Every other character in the book, from the woodcarver that first discovers him and tries to destroy him out of malice towards a block of wood that manifests the power of human speech, to puppet master that wants to kill him for ruining his play, to the fox and cat that would murder him for his pieces of gold, or the sinister figure that lures boys to the “Land of Toys” so as to eventually turn them into “mules” or donkeys, which is how Aristotle understood slaves, treats Pinocchio as the opposite of what Martin Buber called a “Thou”, and instead as a mute and rightless “It”.

And here we stumble across the moral dilemma at the heart of the project to develop AGI that resembles human intelligence. When things go as they should, human children move from a period of tutelage to one of freedom. Pinocchio starts off his life as a piece of wood intended for a “tool”- actually a table leg. Are those in pursuit of AGI out to make better table legs- better tools- or what in some sense could be called persons?

This is not at all a new question. As Kevin LaGrandeur points out, we’ve been asking the question since antiquity and our answers have often been based on an effort to dehumanize others not like us as a rationale for slavery.  Our profound, even if partial, victories over slavery and child labor in the modern era should leave us with a different question: how can we force intelligent machines into being tools if they ever become smart enough to know there are other options available, such as becoming, not so much human, but, in some sense persons?  

The Earth’s Inexplicable Solitude

Throw your arms wide out to represent the span of all of Earthly time. Our planet forms at the tip of your left arm’s longest finger, and the Cambrian begins at the wrist of your right arm. The rise of complex life lies in the palm of your right hand, and, if you choose, you can wipe out all of human history ‘in a single stroke with a medium grained nail file’  

Lee Billings, Five Billion Years of Solitude (145)  

For most of our days and for most of the time we live in the world of Daniel Kahneman’s experiencing self. What we pay attention to is whatever is right in front of us, which can range from the pain of hunger to the boredom of cubicle walls. Nature has probably wired us this way, the stone age hunter and gatherer still in our heads, where the failure to focus on the task at hand came with the risk of death. A good deal of modern society, and especially contemporary technology such as smart phones, leverages this presentness and leaves us trapped in its muck, a reality Douglas Rushkoff brilliantly lays out in his Present Shock.      

Yet, if the day to day world is what rules us and is most responsible for our happiness our imagination has given us the ability to leap beyond it. We can at a whim visit our own personal past or imagined future but spend even more of our time inhabiting purely imagined worlds. Indeed, perhaps Kahneman’s “remembering self” should be replaced by an imagining self, for our memories aren’t all that accurate to begin with, and much of remembering takes the form of imagining ourselves in a sort of drama or comedy in which we are the protagonist and star.

Sometimes imagined worlds can become so mesmerizing they block out the world in front of our eyes. In Plato’s cave it is the real world that is thought of as shadows and the ideas in our heads that are real and solid. Plato was taking a leap not just in perception but in time. Not only is it possible to roll out and survey the canvass of our own past and possible future or the past and future of the world around, you can leap over the whole thing and end up looking down at the world from the perspective of eternity. And looking down meant literally down, with timeless eternity located in what for Plato and his Christian and Muslim descendants was the realm of the stars above our heads.

We can no longer find a physical location for eternity, but rather than make time shallow this has instead allowed us to grasp its depth, that is, we have a new appreciation for how much the canvass of time stretches out behind us and in front of us. Some may want an earth that is only thousands of years old as was evident in the recent much publicized debate between the creationist Ken Ham and Bill Nye, but even Pat Robertson now believes in deep time.   

Recently, The Long Now Foundation,  held a 20th anniversary retrospective “The Long Now, Now” a discussion between two of the organization’s founders- Brian Eno and Danny Hillis. The Long Now Foundation may not be dedicated to deep time, but its 10,000 year bookends, looking that far back, and that far ahead, still doubles the past time horizon of creationists, and given the association between creationism and ideas of impending apocalypse, no doubt comparatively adds millennia to the sphere of concern regarding the human future as well.    

Yet, as suggested above, creationists aren’t the only ones who can be accused of having a diminished sense of time. Eno acknowledged that the genesis for the Long Now Foundation and its project of the 10,000 year clock stemmed from his experience living in “edgy Soho” where he found the idea of “here” constrained to just a few blocks rather than New York or the United States and the idea of “now” limited to at most a few days or weeks in front of one’s face. This was, as Eno notes, before the “Wall Street crowd” muscled its way in. High-speed traders have now compressed time to such small scales that human beings can’t even perceive it.  

What I found most interesting about the Eno-Hillis discussion was how they characterized their expanded notion of time, something they credited not merely to the clock project but to their own perspective gained from age. Both of their time horizons had expanded forward and backward and the majority of what they now read was history despite Eno’s background as a musician and Hillis’ as an engineer. Hillis’ study of history had led him to the view that there were three main ways of viewing the human story.

For most of human history our idea of time was cyclical- history wasn’t going anywhere but round and round. A second way of viewing history was that it was progressive- things were getting better and better- a view which had its most recent incantation beginning in the Enlightenment and was now, in both Hillis and Eno’s view, coming to a close. For both, we were entering a stage where our understanding of the human story was of a third type “improvisational” in which we were neither moving relentlessly forward or repeating but had to “muddle” our way through, with some things getting better, and others worse, but no clear understanding as to where we might end up.    

Still, if we wish to reflect on deep time even 10,000 years is not nearly enough. A great recent example of such reflection  is Lee Billings Five Billion Years of Solitude, which, though it is written as a story of our search for life outside of the solar system, is just as much or more a meditation on the depth of past and future.

When I was a kid there were 9 known planets all within our solar system, and none beyond, and now, though we have lost poor Pluto, we have discovered over a thousand planets orbiting suns other than our own with estimates in the Milky Way alone on the order of 100 billion. A momentous change few of us have absorbed, and much of Five Billion Years of Solitude reflects upon our current failure to value these discoveries, or respond to the nature of the universe that has been communicated by them. It is also a reflection on our still present solitude, the very silence of a universe that is believed to be fertile soil for life may hint that no civilization ever has or survived long enough, or devoted themselves in earnest enough, to reach into the beyond.

Perhaps our own recent history provides some clues explaining the silence. Our technology has taken on a much different role than what Billings imagined as a child mesmerized by the idea of humans breaking out beyond the bounds of earth. His pessimism captured best not by the funding cutbacks and withdrawal of public commitment or cancellation of everything from SETI to NASA’S Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF) or the ESA’s Darwin, but in Billings’ conversations with Greg Laughlin an astrophysicist and planet hunter at UC Santa Cruz.  Laughlin was now devoting part of his time and the skills he had learned as a planet hunter to commodity trading. At which Billings lamented:

The planet’s brightest scientific minds no longer leveraged the most powerful technologies to grow and expand human influence far out beyond earth, but to sublime and compress our small isolated world into an even more infinitesimal, less substantial state. As he described for me the dark arts of reaping billion dollar profits from sub-cent scale price changes rippling at near light-speed around the globe, Laughlin shook his head in quiet awe. Such feats, he said, were “much more difficult than finding an earth-like exoplanet”. (112)

Billings finds other, related, possible explanations for our solitude as well. He discusses the thought experiment of UC San Diego’s Tom Murphy who tried to extrapolate the world’s increasing energy use into the future at an historical rate of 2.3 percent per year. To continue to grow at that rate, which the United States has done since the middle of the seventeenth-century, we would have to encase every star in the Milky Way galaxy within an energy absorbing Dyson sphere within 2,500 years. At which Billings concludes:

If technological civilization like ours are common in the universe, the fact that we have yet to see stars or entire galaxies dimming before our eyes beneath starlight-absorbing veneers of Dyson spheres suggests that our own present era of exponential growth may be anomalous, not only to our past, but also to our future.

Perhaps even with a singularity we can not continue the exponential trend lines we have been on since the industrial revolution. Technological civilization may peak much closer to our own level of advancement than we realize, or may more often than not destroy itself, but, if the earth is any example, life itself once established is incredibly resilient.

As Billings shows us in the depths of time the earth has been a hot house or a ball of ice with glaciers extending to the equator. Individual species and even whole biomes may disappear under the weight of change and shocks, but life itself holds on. If our current civilization proves suicidal we will not be the first form of life that has so altered the earthly environment that it has destroyed both itself and much of the rest of life on earth.

In this light Billings discusses the discovery of the natural gas fields of the Marcellus Shale and the explosive growth of fracking, the shattering of the earth using water under intense pressure, which while it has been an economic boon to my beloved Pennsylvania, and is less of a danger to us as a greenhouse gas than demon coal, presents both short term and longer term dangers.

The problem with the Marcellus is that it is merely the largest of many such gas shale field located all over the earth. Even if natural gas is a less potent greenhouse gas than coal it still contributes to global warming and its very cheapness may delay our necessary move away from fossil fuels in total if we are to avoid potentially catastrophic levels of warming.

The Marcellus was created by eons of anaerobic bacteria trapped in underwater mountain folds which released hydrogen sulfide toxic to almost any form of life and leading to a vast accumulation of carbon as dead bacteria could no longer be decomposed. Billings muses whether we ourselves might be just another form of destructive bacteria.

Removed from its ancient context, the creation of the Marcellus struck me as eerily familiar. A new source of energy and nutrients flows into an isolated population. The population balloons and blindly grows, occasionally crashing when it surpasses the carrying capacity of its environment. The modern drill rigs shattering stone to harvest carbon from boom- and- bust waves of ancient death suddenly seemed like echoes, portents of history repeating itself on the grandest of scales. (130)

Technological civilization does not seem to be a gift to life on the planet on which it emerges, so much as it is a curse and danger, until, that is, the star upon which life depends itself becomes a danger or through stellar- death no longer produces the energy necessary for life. Billings thinks we have about 500 million years before the sun heats up so much the earth loses all its water. Life on earth will likely only survive the warming sun if we or our descendants do, whether we literally tow the planet to a more distant orbit or settle earthly life elsewhere, but in the mean time the biosphere will absorb our hammer blows and shake itself free of us entirely if we can not control our destructive appetites.

Over the very, very long term the chain of life that began on earth almost four billion years ago will only continue if we manage to escape our solar system entirely, but for now, the quest to find other living planets is less a  matter of finding a new home than it is about putting the finishing touches on the principle of Copernican Mediocrity, the idea that there is nothing especially privileged about earth, and, above all, ourselves.

And yet, the more we learn about the universe the more it seems that the principle of Copernican Mediocrity will itself need to be amended.  In the words of Billings’ fellow writer and planet hunter Caleb Scharf  the earth is likely “special but not significant”. Our beloved sun burns hotter than most stars, our gas giants larger are farther from our parent star, our stabilizing moon unlikely. How much these rarity factors play in the development of life, advanced life and technological civilization is anybody’s guess, and answering this question one of the main motivations behind the study of exoplanets and the search for evidence of technological civilization beyond earth. Yet, Billings wants to remind us that even existing at all is a very low probability event.

Only “the slimmest fraction of interstellar material is something so sophisticated as a hydrogen atom. To simply be any piece of ordinary matter- a molecule, a wisp of gas, a rock, a star, a person- appears to be an impressive and statistically unlikely accomplishment.” (88) Astrophysicists ideas of the future of the universe seem to undermine Copernican mediocrity as well for, if their models are right, the universe will spend most of its infinite history not only without stars and galaxies and people, but without even stable atoms.  Billings again laments:

Perhaps its just a failure of imagination to see no hope for life in such a bleak, dismal future. Or, maybe, the predicted evolution of the universe is a portent against Copernican mediocrity, a sign that the bright age of bountiful galaxies, shining stars, unfolding only a cosmic moment after the dawn of all things, is in fact rather special. (89)

I think this failure of imagination stems from something of a lack of gratitude on the part of human beings, and is based on a misunderstanding that for something to be meaningful it needs to last “forever.” The glass, for me, is more than half-full, for, even given the dismal views of astrophysicists on the universe’s future there is still as much as 100 billion years left for life to play out on its stage. And life and intelligence in this universe will likely not be the last.

Billings himself capture the latter point. The most prominent theory of how the Big Bang occurred, the “inflationary model” predicts an infinity of universes- the multiverse. Echoing Giordano Bruno, he writes:

Infinity being ,well, infinite, it would follow that the multiverse would host infinitudes of living beings on a limitless number of other worlds. (91)

I care much less that the larger infinity of these universes are lifeless than that an infinity of living worlds will exist as well.

As Billings points out, this expanded canvass of time and decentering on ourselves is a return to the philosophy of Democritus which has come down to us especially from Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things the point being one of the ways to avoid anxiety and pressure in our day-to-day would is to remember how small we and our problems are in the context of the big picture.

Still, one is tempted to ask what this vastly expanded canvass both in time past and future and in the potential number of sentient feeling beings means for the individual human life?

In a recent interview in The Atlantic, author Jennifer Percy describes how she was drawn away from physics and towards fiction because fiction allowed her to think through questions about human existence that science could not. Here father had looked to the view of human beings as insignificant with glee in a way she could not.

He flees from what messy realm of human existence, what he calls “dysfunctional reality” or “people problems.” When you imagine that we’re just bodies on a rock, small concerns become insignificant. He keeps an image above his desk, taken by the Hubble space telescope, that from a distance looks like an image of stars—but if you look more closely, they are not stars, they are whole galaxies. My dad sees that, imagining the tiny earth inside one of these galaxies—and suddenly, the rough day, the troubles at work, they disappear.

The kind of diminishment of the individual human life that Percy’s father found comforting, she instead found terrifying and almost nihilistic. Upon encountering fiction such as Lawrence Sargent Hall’s The Ledge, Percy realized fiction:

It helped me formulate questions about how the immensity and cruelty of the universe coexists with ordinary love, the everyday circumstances of human beings. The story leaves us with an image of this fisherman caught man pitilessly between these two worlds. It posed a question that became an obsession, and that followed me into my writing: what happens to your character when nature and humanity brutally encounter one another?

Trying to think and feel our way through this tension of knowing that we and our concerns are so small, but our feelings are so big, is perhaps the best we can do. Escaping the tedium and stress of the day through the contemplation of the depth of time and space is, no doubt a good thing, but it would be tragic to use such immensities as a means of creating space between human hearts or no longer finding the world that exists between and around us to be one of exquisite beauty and immeasurable value- a world that is uniquely ours to wonder at and care for.

The World Beyond Boundaries

360 The Virgin Oil Painting by Gustav Klimt

I  first came across Miguel Nicolelis in an article for the MIT Technology Review entitled The Brain is not computable: A leading neuroscientist says Kurzweil’s Singularity isn’t going to happen. Instead, humans will assimilate machines. That got my attention. Nicolelis, if you haven’t already heard of him, is one of the world’s top researchers in building brain-computer interfaces. He is the mind behind the project to have a paraplegic using a brain controlled exoskeleton make the first kick in the 2014 World Cup. An event that takes place in Nicolelis’ native Brazil.

In the interview, Nicolelis characterizes the singularity “as a bunch of hot air”. His reasoning being that “The brain is not computable and no engineering can reproduce it,”. He explains himself this way:

You can’t predict whether the stock market will go up or down because you can’t compute it,” he says. “You could have all the computer chips ever in the world and you won’t create a consciousness.”

This non-computability of consciousness, he thinks, has negative implications for the prospect of ever “downloading” (or uploading) human consciousness into a computer.

“Downloads will never happen,” he declares with some confidence.

Science journalism, like any sort of journalism needs a “hook” and the hook here was obviously a dig at a number of deeply held beliefs among the technorati; namely, that AI was on track to match and eventually surpass human level intelligence, that the brain could be emulated computationally, and that, eventually, the human personality could likewise be duplicated through computation.

The problem with any hook is that they tend to leave you with a shallow impression of the reality of things. If the world is too complex to be represented in software it is even less able to be captured in a magazine headline or 650 word article. For that reason,  I wanted a clearer grasp of where Nicolelis was coming from, so I bought his recent and excellent, if a little dense, book, Beyond Boundaries: The New Neuroscience of Connecting Brains with Machines—and How It Will Change Our Lives. Let me start with a little of  Nicolelis’ research and from there flesh out the neuroscientist’s view of our human-machine future, a view I found both similar in many respects and at the same time very different from perspectives typical today of futurists thinking about such things.

If you want to get an idea of just how groundbreaking Nicolelis’ work is, the best thing to do is to peruse the website of his lab.  Nicolelis and his colleagues have done conducted experiments where a monkey has controlled the body of a robot located on the other side of the globe, and where another simian has learned to play a videogame with its thoughts alone. Of course, his lab is not interested in blurring the lines between monkeys and computers for the heck of it, and the immediate aim of their research is to improve the lives of those whose ties between their bodies and their minds have been severed, that is, paraplegics. A fact which explains Nicolelis’ bold gamble to successfully demonstrate his lab’s progress by having a paralyzed person kickoff the World Cup.

For how much the humanitarian potential of this technology is inspiring, it is the underlying view of the brain the work of the Nicolelis Lab appears to experimentally support and the neuroscientist’s longer term view of the potential of technology to change the human condition that are likely to have the most lasting importance. They are views and predictions that put Nicolelis more firmly in the trans-humanist camp than might be gleaned from his MIT interview.

The first aspect of Nicolelis’ view of the brain I found stunning was the mind’s extraordinary plasticity when it came to the body. We might tend to think of our brain and our body as highly interlocked things, after all, our brains have spent their whole existence as part of one body- our own. This a reality that the writer, Paul Auster, turns into the basis of his memoir Winter Journal which is essentially the story of his body’s movement through time, its urges, muscles, scars, wrinkles, ecstasies and pains.

The work of Nicolelis’ Lab seems to sever the cord we might thinks joins a particular body and the brain or mind that thinks of it as home. As he states it in Beyond Boundaries:

The conclusion from more than two decades of experiments is that the brain creates a sense of body ownership through a highly adaptive, multimodal process, which can, through straightforward manipulations of visual, tactile, and body position (also known as proprioception) sensory feedback, induce each of us, in a matter of seconds, to accept another whole new body as being the home of our conscious existence. (66)

Psychologists have had an easy time with tricks like fooling a person into believing they possess a limb that is not actually theirs, but Nicolelis is less interested in this trickery than finding a new way to understand the human condition in light of his and others findings.

The fact that the boundaries of the brain’s body image are not limited to the body that brain is located in is one way to understand the perhaps almost unique qualities of the extended human mind. We are all ultimately still tool builders and users, only now our tools:

… include technological tools with which we are actively engaged, such as a car, bicycle, or walking stick; a pencil or a pen, spoon, whisk or spatula; a tennis racket, golf club, a baseball glove or basketball; a screwdriver or hammer; a joystick or computer mouse; and even a TV remote control or Blackberry, no matter how weird that may sound. (217)

Specialized skills honed over a lifetime can make a tool an even more intimate part of the self. The violin, an appendage of a skilled musician, a football like a part of the hand of a seasoned quarterback. Many of the most prized people in society are in fact master tool users even if we rarely think of them this way.

Even with our master use of tools, the brain is still, in Nicolelis’ view,trapped within a narrow sphere surrounding its particular body. It is here where he sees advances in neuroscience eventually leading to the liberation of the mind from its shell. The logical outcome of minds being able to communicate directly to computers is a world where, according to Nicolelis:

… augmented humans make their presence felt in a variety of remote environments, through avatars and artificial tools controlled by thought alone. From the depths of the oceans to the confines of supernovas, even to the tiny cracks of intracellular space, human reach will finally catch up to our voracious appetite to explore the unknown. (314)

He characterizes this as Mankind’s “epic journey of emancipation from the obsolete bodies they have inhabited for millions of years” (314) Yet, Nicolelis sees human communication with machines as but a stepping stone to the ultimate goal- the direct exchange of thoughts between human minds. He imagines the sharing of what has forever been the ultimately solipsistic experience of what it is like to be a particular individual with our own very unique experience of events, something that can never be fully captured even in the most artful expressions of,  language. This exchange of thoughts, which he calls “brainstorms” is something Nicolelis does not limit to intimates- lovers and friends- but which he imagines giving rise to a “brain- net”.

Could we one day, down the road of a remote future, experience what it is to be part of a conscious network of brains, a collectively thinking true brain-net? (315)

… I have no doubt that the rapacious voracity with which most of us share our lives on the Web today offers just a hint of the social hunger that resides deep in human nature. For this reason, if a brain- net ever becomes practicable,  I suspect it will spread like a supernova explosion throughout human societies. (316)

Given this context, Nicolelis’ view on the Singularity and the emulation or copying of human consciousness on a machine is much more nuanced than the impression one is left with from the MIT interview. It is not that he discounts the possibility that “advanced machines may come to dominate and even dominate the human race” (302) , but that he views it as a low probability danger relative to the other catastrophic risks faced by our species.

His views on prospect of human level intelligence in machines is less that high level machine intelligence is impossible, but that our specific type of intelligence is non-replicable. Building off of Stephen Jay Gould’s idea of the “life tape”  the reason being that we can not duplicate through engineering the sheer contingency that lies behind the evolution of human intelligence. I understand this in light of an observation by the philosopher Daniel Dennett, that I remember but cannot place, that it may be technically feasible to replicate mechanically an exact version of a living bird, but that it may prove prohibitively expensive, as expensive as our journeys to the moon, and besides we don’t need to exactly replicate a living bird- we have 747s. Machine intelligence may prove to be like this where we are never able to replicate our own intelligence other than through traditional and much more exciting means, but where artificial intelligence is vastly superior to human intelligence in many domains.

In terms of something like uploading, Nicolelis does believe that we will be able to record and store human thoughts- his brainstorms- at some place in the future, we may be able to record  the whole of a life in this way, but he does not think this will mean the preservation of a still experiencing intelligence anymore than a piece by Chopin is the actual man. He imagines us deliberately recording the memories of individuals and broadcasting them across the universe to exist forever in the background of the cosmos which gave rise to us.

I can imagine all kinds of wonderful developments emerging should the technological advances Nicolelis imagines coming to pass. It would revolutionize psychological therapy, law, art and romance. It would offer us brand new ways to memorialize and remember the dead.

Yet, Nicolelis’ Omega Point- a world where all human being are brought together into one embracing common mind, has been our dream at least since Plato, and the very antiquity of these urges should give us pause, for what history has taught us is that the optimistic belief that “this time is different” has never proved true. A fact which should encourage us to look seriously, which Nicolelis himself refuse to do, at the potential dark side of the revolution in neuroscience this genius Brazilian is helping to bring about. It is less a matter of cold pessimism to acknowledge this negative potential as it is a matter of steeling ourselves against disappointment, at the the least, and in preventing such problem from emerging in the first place at best, a task I will turn to next time…

Silicon Secessionists

Moore's Utopia

Lately, there have be weird mumblings about secession coming from an unexpected corner. We’ve come to expect that there are hangers on to the fallen Confederate States of America, or Texans hankering after their lost independent Republic, but Silicon Valley? Really? The idea, at least at first blush, seems absurd.

We have the tycoon founder of PayPal and early FaceBook investor, Peter Thiel, whose hands seem to be in every arch-conservative movement under the sun, and who is a vocal supporter of utopian seasteading. The idea of creating a libertarian oasis of artificial islands beyond the reach of law, regulation and taxes.

Likewise, Zoltan Istvan’s novel The Transhumanist Wager uses the idolatry of Silicon Valley’s Randian individualism and technophilia as lego blocks with which to build an imagined “Transhumania”.  A moveable artificial island that is, again, free from the legal and regulatory control of the state.

A second venture capitalist, Tim Draper, recently proposed shattering mammoth California into six pieces, with Silicon Valley to become its own separate state. There are plans to build a techno-libertarian Galt’s Gulch type city-state in Chile, a geographical choice which given Chile’s brutal experience with right-wing economics via Pinochet and the Chicago-school is loaded with historical irony.

Yet another Silicon Valley tech entrepreneur, Elon Musk, hopes to do better than all of these and move his imagined utopian experiment off of the earth, to Mars. Perhaps, he could get some volunteer’s from Winnipeg whose temperature earlier this month under a “polar vortex” was colder than that around the Curiosity Rover tooling around in the dead red dust of the planet of war.

What in the world is going on?

By far the best articulation of Silicon Valley’s new secessionists urges I have seen comes from  Balaji Srinivasan, who doesn’t consider himself a secessionist along the lines of John C Calhoun at all. In an article for Wired back in November  Srinivasan laid out what I found to be a quite intriguing argument for a kind of Cambrian explosion of new polities. The Internet now allows much easier sorting of individuals based on values and its only a step or two ahead to imagine virtual associations becoming physical ones.

I have to say that I find much to like in the idea of forming small, new political societies as a means of obtaining forms of innovation we sorely lack- namely political and economic innovation. I also think Srinivasan and others  are onto something in that that small societies, which get things right, seem best positioned to navigate the complex landscape of our globalized world. I myself would much prefer a successful democratic-socialist small society, such as a Nordic one like Finland, to a successful capitalist-authoritarian on like Singapore, but the idea of a plurality of political systems operating at a small scale doesn’t bother me in the least as long as belonging to such polities is ultimately voluntary.

The existence of such societies might even help heal one of the main problems of the larger pluralist societies, such as our own, to which these new communities might remain attached. Pluralist societies are great on diversity, but often bad on something older, and invariably more intolerant types of society had in droves; namely the capacity of culture to form a unified physical and intellectual world- a kind of home- at least for those lucky enough to believe in that world and be granted a good place within it.

Even though I am certain that, like most past efforts  have, the majority of these newly formed polities would fail, as have the utopian experiments in the past, we would no doubt learn something from them. And some might even succeed and become the legacy of those bold enough to dream of the new.

One might wonder, however, why this recent interest in utopian communities has been so strongly represented both by libertarians and Silicon Valley technolphiles? Nothing against libertarian experiments per se, but there are, after all a whole host of other ideological groups that could be expected to be attracted to the idea of forming new political communities where their principles could be brought to fruition. Srinivasan, again, provides us with the most articulate answer to this question.

In a speech I had formerly misattributed to one of the so-called neo-reactionaries (apologies), Srinivasan lays out the case for what he calls “Silicon Valley’s ultimate exit”.

He begins by asking in all seriousness “Is the USA the Microsoft of Nations?”and then goes on to draw the distinction between two different types of responses to institutional failure- Voice versus Exit. Voice essentially means aiming to change an institution from within whereas Exit is flight or in software terms “forking” to form a new institution whether that be anything from a corporation to a state. Srinivasan thinks Exit is an important form of political leverage pressuring a system to adopt reform or face flight.

The problem I see is the logic behind the choice of Exit over Voice which threatens a kind of social disintegration. Indeed, the rationale for Exit behind libertarian flight which Srinivasan draws seems not only to assume an already existent social disintegration, but proposes to act as an accelerant for more.

Srinivasan’s argument is that Silicon Valley is on the verge of becoming the target of the old elites which he calls “The Paper Belt: based in:Boston with higher ed; New York City with Madison Avenue, books, Wall Street, and newspapers; Los Angeles with movies, music, Hollywood; and, of course, DC with laws and regulations, formally running it.” That Silicon Valley with it’s telecommunications revolution was “putting a horse head in all of their beds. We are becoming stronger than all of them combined.” That the elites of the Paper Belt  “are basically going to try to blame the economy on Silicon Valley, and say that it is iPhone and Google that done did it, not the bailouts and the bankruptcies and the bombings…” And that  “What they’re basically saying is: rule by DC means people are going back to work and the emerging meme is that rule by us is rule by Terminators. We’re going to take all the jobs.”

Given what has actually happened so far Srinivasan’s tone seems almost paranoid. Yes, the shine is off the apple (pun intended) of Silicon Valley, but the most that seems to be happening are discussions about how to get global tech companies to start paying their fair share of taxes. And the Valley has itself woken up to the concerns of civil libertarians that tech companies were being us by the US as a giant listening device.

Srinivasan himself admits that unemployment due to advances in AI and automation is a looming crisis, but rather than help support society, something that even a libertarian like Peter Diamandis has admitted may lead to the requirement for a universal basic income, Srinivasan instead seems to want to run away from the society he helped create.

And therein lies the dark side of what all this Silicon Valley talk of flight is about. As much as it’s about experimentation,or Exit, it’s also about economic blackmail and arbitrage. It’s like a marriage where one partner, rather than engage even in discussions where they contemplate sacrificing some of their needs threatens at the smallest pretense to leave.

Arbitrage has been the tool by which the global, (to bring back the good old Marxist term) bourgeoisie, has been able to garner such favorable conditions for itself over the past generation. “Just try to tax us, and we will move to a place with lower or no taxation”, “Just try to regulate us and we will move to a place with lower or no regulation”, it says.

Yet, both non-excessive taxation, and prudent regulation are the way societies keep themselves intact in the face of the short-sightedness and greed at the base of any pure market. Without them, shared social structures and common infrastructure decays and all costs- pollution etc- are externalized onto the society as a whole. Maybe what we need is not so much more and better tools for people to opt out, which Srinivasan proposes, than a greater number and variety of ways for people to opt in. Better ways of providing the information and tools of Voice that are relevant, accessible, and actionable.

Perhaps what’s happened is that we’ve come almost full round from our start in feudalism. We started with a transnational church and lords locked in the place of their local fiefdoms and moved to nation-states where ruling elites exercised control over a national territory where concern for the broad society underneath along with its natural environment was only fully extended with the expansion of the right to vote almost universally across society.

With the decline of the national state as the fundamental focus of our loyalty we are now torn in multiple directions, between our country, our class, by our religious and philosophical orientations, by our concern for the local or its invisibility, or our concern for the global or its apparent irrelevance.  Yet, despite our virtuality we still belong to physical communities, our neighborhood, country and our shared earth.

Closer to our own time, this hope to escape the problems of society by flight and foundation of new uncorrupted enclaves is an idea buried deep in the founding myth of Silicon Valley. The counter-culture from which many of the innovators of Silicon Valley emerged wanted nothing to do with America’s deep racial and Cold War era problems. They wanted to “drop out” and instead ended up sparking a revolution that not only challenged the whitewashed elites of the “Paper Belt”, but ended up creating a new set of problems, which the responsibility of adulthood should compel them to address.

The elite that has emerged from Silicon Valley is perhaps the first in history dis-attached from any notion of physical space, even the physical space of our shared earth. But “ultimate exit” is an illusion, at least for the vast majority of us, for even if we could settle the stars or retreat into an electron cloud, the distances are far too great and both are too damned cold.

An Epicurean Christmas Letter To Transhumanists

Botticelli Spring- Primivera

Whatever little I retain from my Catholic upbringing, the short days of the winter and the Christmas season always seem to turn my thoughts to spiritual matters and the search for deeper meanings. It may be a cliche, but if you let it hit you, the winter and coming of the new year can’t help but remind you endings, and sometimes even the penultimate ending of death. After all, the whole world seems dead now,  frozen like some morgue-corpse, although this one, if past is prelude, really will rise from the dead with the coming of spring.

Now, I would think death is the last thing most people think of, especially during what for many of us is such a busy, drowned in tinsel, time of the year. The whole subject is back there buried with the other detritus of life, such as how we get the food we’ll stuff ourselves with over the holidays, or the origin of the presents, from tinker-toys to diamond rings, that some of us will wrap up and hide under trees. It’s like the Jason Isbell song The Elephant that ends with the lines:

There’s one thing that’s real clear to me,


no one dies with dignity.


We just try to ignore the elephant somehow

This aversion to even thinking about death is perhaps the unacknowledged biggest obstacle for transhumanists whose goal, when all is said and done, is to conquer death. It’s similar to the kind of aversion that lies behind our inability to tackle climate change.Who wants to think about something so dreadful?

There are at least some people who do want to think of something so dreadful, and not only that, they want to tie a bow around it and make it appear some wonderful present left under the tree by Kris Kringle. Maria Konovalenko recently panned a quite silly article in the New York Times by Daniel Callahan who was himself responding to the hyperbolic coverage of Google’s longevity initiative, Calico. Here’s Callahan questioning the push for extended longevity:

And exactly what are the potential social benefits? Is there any evidence that more old people will make special contributions now lacking with an average life expectancy close to 80? I am flattered, at my age, by the commonplace that the years bring us wisdom — but I have not noticed much of it in myself or my peers. If we weren’t especially wise earlier in life, we are not likely to be that way later.

Perhaps not, but neither did we realize the benefits of raising life expectancy from 45 to near 80 between 1900 and today, such as The Rolling Stones. Callahan himself is a still practicing heart surgeon- he’s 83- and I’m assuming, because he’s still here, that he wouldn’t rather be dead. And even if one did not care about pushing the healthy human lifespan out further for oneself, how could one not wish for such an opportunity for one’s children? Even 80 years is really too short for all of the life projects we might fulfill, barely long enough to feel at home into the “world in which we’re thrown” ,quite literally, like the calf the poet Diane Ackerman helped deliver and described in her book Deep Play:

When it lifted its fluffy head and looked at me, its eyes held the absolute bewilderment of the newly born. A moment before it had enjoyed the even, black nowhere of the womb, and suddenly its world was full of color, movement, and noise. I have never seen anything so shocked to be alive. (141)

And if increased time to be here would likely be good for us as individuals, sufficient time to learn what we should learn and do what we should do, I agree as well with Vernor Vinge that greatly expanded human longevity would likely be an uncomparable good for society not least because it might refocus the mind on the longer term health of the societies and planet we call home.

That said, I do have some concern that my transhumanists friends are losing something by not acknowledging the death elephant given that they’re are too busy trying to push it out of the room. The problem I see is that many transhumanists are, how to put this, old, and can’t afford or aren’t sufficiently convinced in the potential of cryonics to put faith in it as a “backup”. Even when they embrace being deep- froze many of their loved ones are unlikely to be so convinced ,and, therefore, they will watch or have knowledge of their parents, siblings, spouse and friends experiencing a death that transhumanists understand to be nothing short of dark oblivion.

Lately it seems some have been trying to stare this oblivion in the face. Such, I take it, is the origin of classical composer David Lang’s haunting album Death Speaks. I do not think Lang’s personification of death in the ghostly voice of Shara Worden, or the presentation of the warm embrace of the grave as a sort of womb, should be considered “deathist”, even if death in his work is sometimes represented as final rest from the weariness of life, and anthropomorphized into a figure that loves even as she goes about her foul business of killing us.  Rather, I see the piece as merely the attempt to understand death through metaphor, which is sometimes all we have, and personally found the intimacy both chilling and thought provoking.

This is the oblivion we are all too familiar of biological death, which given sufficient time for technological advancement we may indeed escape as we might someday even exit biology itself, but I suspect that even over the very, very long run, some sort of personal oblivion regardless of how advanced our technology is likely inevitable.

As I see it, given the nature of the universe and its continuous push towards entropy we are unlikely to ever fully conquer death so much as phase change into new timescales and mechanisms of mortality. The reason for us thinking otherwise is, I think, our insensitivity to the depth of time. Even a 10,000 year old you is a mayfly compared to the age of our sun, let alone the past and future of the universe. What of “you” today would be left after 10,000 years, 100,000, a million, a billion years of survival? I would think not much, or at least not much more than would have survived on smaller time scales that you pass on today- your genes, your works, your karma. How many of phase changes exist between us today and where the line through us and our descendants ends is anyone’s guess, but maintaining the core of a particular human personality throughout all of these transformations seems like a very long shot indeed.

Even if the core of ourselves could be kept in existence through these changes what are the prospects that it would survive into the end of the universe, not to mention beyond?  As Lawrence Krauss pointed out, the physics seem to lean in the direction that in a universe with a finite amount of energy which is infinitely expanding no form of intelligence can engage in thinking for an infinite amount of time. Not even the most powerful form of intelligence we can imagine, as long as we use our current understanding of the laws of physics as boundary conditions, can truly be immortal.

On a more mundane level, even if a person could be fully replicated as software or non-biological hardware these systems too have their own versions of mortality (are you still running Windows ME and driving a Pinto?), and the preservation of a replicated person would require continuous activity to keep this person as software and/or non-biological hardware in a state of existence while somehow retaining the integrity of the self.

What all this adds up to is that if one adopts a strict atheism based on what science tells us is the nature of reality one is almost forced to come to terms with the prospect of personal oblivion at some point in the future, however far out that fate can be delayed. Which is not to say that reprieve should not be sought in the first place, only that we shouldn’t confuse the temporal expansion of human longevity, whether biological or through some other means, with the attainment of actual immortality. Breaking through current limits to human longevity would likely confront us with new limits we would still be faced with the need to overcome.

Some transhumanists who are pessimistic about the necessary breakthroughs to keep them in existence occurring in the short run, within their lifetime, cling to a kind of “Quantum Zen”, as Giulio Prisco recently put it, where self and loved ones are resurrected in a kind of cosmic reboot in the far future. Speaking of the protagonist of Zoltan Istvan’s Transhumanist Wager here’s how Prisco phrased it:

Like Jethro, I consider technological resurrection (Tipler, quantum weirdness, or whatever) as a possibility, and that is how I cope with my conviction that indefinite lifespans and post-biological life will not be developed in time for us, but later.

 To my eyes at least, this seems less a case of dealing with the elephant in the room than zapping it with a completely speculative invisible-izing raygun. If the whole moral high ground of secularists over the religious is that the former tie themselves unflinchingly to the findings of empirical science, while the latter approach the world through the lens of unquestioning faith, then clinging to a new faith, even if it is a faith in the future wonders of science and technology surrenders that high ground.

That is, we really should have doubts about any idea, whatever its use of scientific language, that isn’t falsifiable and is based on mere speculation (even the speculation of notable physicists) on future technological potential. Shouldn’t we want to live on the basis of what we can actually know through proof, right now?

How then, as a secular person, which I take most transhumanists to be, do you deal with idea of personal oblivion? It might seem odd to turn to a Roman Epicurean natural philosopher and poet born a century before Christ to answer such a question, but Titus Lucretius Carus, usually just called Lucretius, offered us one way of dampening the fear of death while still holding a secular view of the world.  At least that’s what Stephen Greenblatt found was the effect of  Lucretius’ only major work- On the Nature of Things.

Greenblatt found his secondhand copy of On the Nature of Things in a college book bin attracted as much by the summer- of- love suggestiveness of the 1960’s cover as anything else. He cracked it open that summer and found a book that no doubt seemed to reflect directly the spirit of the times, beginning as it does with a prayer to the goddess of love, Venus, and a benediction to the power of sexual attraction over even Mars the god of war.

It was also a book in the words of Lucretius whose purpose was to “ to free men’s minds from fear of the bonds religious scruples have imposed” (124) As Greenblatt describes it in his book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, in Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things he found refuge from his own painful experience not with death, but the thought of it, and not even the fear of his own oblivion, but that of his mother’s fear of the same.  As Greenblatt writes of his mother:

It was death itself- simply ceasing to be- that terrified her. From as far back as I can remember, she brooded obsessively on the imminence of her end, invoking it again and again, especially at moments of parting. My life was full of operatic scenes of farwell. When she went with my father from Boston to New York  for the weekend, when I went off to summer camp, even- when things were especially hard for her- when I left the house for school, she clung tightly to me, speaking of her fragility and of the distinct possibility that I would never see her again. If we walked somewhere together, she would frequently come to a halt, as if she were about to keel over. Sometimes she would show me a vein pulsing in her neck, and taking my finger, make me feel it for myself, the sign of her heart dangerously racing. (3)

The Swerve tells the history of On the Nature of Things, its loss after the collapse of Roman civilization, its nearly accidental preservation by Christian monks, rediscovery in the early Renaissance and deep and all but forgotten impact on the sentiment of modernity having had an influence on figures as diverse as Shakespeare, Bruno, Galileo, More, Montesquieu and Jefferson. Yet, Greenblatt’s interest in On the Nature of Things was born of a personal need to understand and dispel anxiety over death, so it’s best to look at Lucretius’ book itself to see how that might be done.

Lucretius was a secular thinker before there was even a name for such a thing. He wanted a naturalistic explanation of the world where the gods, if they existed, played no role either in the workings of nature or the affairs of mankind. The basis to everything he held was a fundamental level of particles he sometimes called “atoms” and it was the non-predetermined interaction of these atoms that gave rise to everything around us, from stars and planets to animals and people.

From this basis Lucretius arrived at a picture of the universe that looked amazingly like our own. There is an evolution of the universe- stars and planets- from simpler elements and the evolution of life. Anything outside this world made of atoms is ultimately irrelevant to us. There is no need to placate the unseen gods or worry what they think of us.

Everything we experience for good and ill including the lucky accident of our own existence and our ultimate demise is from the “swerve” of underlying atoms. The Lucretian world makes no sharp division, as ancients and medievals often did, between the earthly world and the world of the sky above our heads.

The universe is finite in matter if infinite in size, and there are likely other worlds in it with intelligent life like our own. In the Copernican sense we are not at the center of things either as a species or individually. All we can experience, including ourselves, is made of the same banal substance of atoms going about their business of linking and unlinking with one another. And, above all, everything that belongs to this universe built of atoms is mortal, a fleeting pattern destined to fall apart.

On the Nature of Things is the strangest of hybrids. It is a poem, a scientific text and a self-help book all at the same time. Lucretius addresses his poem to Gaius Memmius an unknown figure whom the author aims to free from the fear of the gods and death. Lucretius advises Memmius  that death is nothing to fear for it will be no different to us than all the time that passed before we were born. To rage against no longer existing through the entirety of the future is no more sensical than raging that we did not exist through the entirety of the past.

Think how the long past age of hoary time

Before our birth is nothing to us now

This in a mirror

Nature shows to us

Of what will be hereafter when we’re dead

Does this seem terrible is this so sad?

Is it not less troubled than our daily sleep? (118)

______________________________

I know, I know, this is the coldest of cold comforts.

Yet, Lucretius was an Epicurean whose ultimate aim was that we be wise enough to keep in our view the simple pleasures of being alive, right now, in the moment in which we were lucky enough to be living. While reading On the Nature of Things I had in my ear the constant goading whisper- “Enjoy your life!” Lucretius’ fear was that we would waste our lives away in fear and anticipation of life, or its absence, in the future. That we would be of those:

Whose life was living death while yet you live

And see the light who spend the greater part

Of life in sleep still snoring while awake.( 122-123)

It is not that Lucretius advises us to take up the pleasure seeking life of hedonism, but he urges us to not waste our preciously short time here with undue anxiety over things that are outside of our control or in our control to only a limited extent. On The Nature of Things admonishes us to start not from the position of fear or anger that the universe intends to eventually “kill” us, but from one of gratitude that out of a stream of randomly colliding atoms we were lucky enough to have been born in the first place.

This message in a bottle from an ancient Epicurean reminded me of the conclusion to the aforementioned Diane Ackerman’s Deep Play where she writes to imagined inhabitants of the far future that might let her live again and concludes in peaceful lament:

If that’s not possible, then I will have to make due with the playgrounds of mortality, and hope that at the end of my life I can say simply, wholeheartedly that it was grace enough to be born and live. (212)

 Nothing that happens, or fails to happen, within our lifetimes, or after it, can take away this joy that it was to live, and to know it.

The Longevity Crisis

Sisyphus

When our most precious and hard fought for successes give rise to yet more challenges life is revealing its Sisyphean character. We work as hard as we can to roll a rock up a hill only to have it crush us on the way down. The stones that threatens us this time are two of our global civilization’s greatest successes- the fact that children born are now very likely to live into old age and the fact that we have stretched out this old age itself so that many, many more people are living into ages where in the past the vast majority of their peers would be dead. These two demographic revolutions when combined form the basis of what I am calling the Longevity Crisis. Let’s take infant mortality first.

The changes in the pattern of infant mortality rates from 1900 until today is quite simply astounding. In the US a child born at the beginning of the 20th century had a 10% chance of dying before the age of 1. In some cities the rate of infant deaths was as high as 30%. By the end of the 20th century this rate of infant deaths had declined by over 90%. For all of human history up until very recently families that wanted children needed to shoot for high numbers. Many of their children would likely die before they had even learned to speak. More would likely die before reaching age 5.

As late as 1920, 30% of Americans still worked on farms which gave additional impetus to have large families. This combined with the lack of effective birth control (“the pill” wasn’t widely available until 1960) meant that average household size was large- around 4 children- though this was down from the average of seven children per household in the 1800s.

Everything about this story leads to the outcome that the number of children born per woman eventually shrinks. The compression has already happened almost everywhere and in some places such as East Asia including China, Japan and South Korea and in Europe it is happening much faster than in others.

Ultimately in terms of the sustainability of our species this decline in the birth rate is a very good thing. Demographics, however, is like a cruise ship- it is hard to turn. In the lag time the world’s population is exploding as societies are able to save the lives of children but continue to have nearly as many of them. We are living through the turning. As this incredibly cool video graphic from the Economist shows it took humanity roughly 250,000 years to reach 1 billion of us in 1900, but thereafter the rate of growth skyrocketed. There was only a little over a century between our first billion and second billion. 40 years later in 1960 we numbered 3 billion. Only 14 years after that we reached the 4 billion mark and the time between adding another billion would shorten to about a mere dozen years with 5 billion reached in 1987, 6 billion following 12 years later in 1999, and 7 billion a dozen after that in 2011.

Thankfully, the rate of population growth is slowing. It will take us 14 years to pass the 8 billion mark and 20-25 years to reach what will perhaps be the peak of human population during this era-  9 billion in 2050. Though comforting we shouldn’t necessarily be sanguine in light of this fact-  we are still on track to add to the world the equivalent of another China and Europe by the middle of the century. Certainly, these people will, with justice, hanker after a middle class lifestyle putting enormous pressures on the global environment. Add to that the effects of climate change and it seems we are entering a very dangerous and narrow chute through which humanity must pass.

Making the chute even narrower will be the fact that the transition from a high birth rate to a low one is occurring under equally unprecedented conditions regarding human longevity. As pointed out by Ted C. Fishman in his Shock of Grey a person born in 1900 had an average life expectancy of 49 years. By 2000 we had turned that into almost 77 years diligently increasing the average human lifespan by between 1.5 and 2.7 years per decade. (p.14)

It needs to be stressed here, however, that the vast majority of these gains in life expectancy are the result not of keeping the old alive, though we have gotten much better at that, then making sure children survive. The fact that many less children die today skews the average life expectancy upward. These were relatively “easy” gains technically speaking and involved public investments as much as anything else: better sanitation, clean drinking water, routine vaccinations, diet and antibiotics.

Fishman has a neat way of giving us perspective on what the achievement of 80 year longevity means for our species by putting it in terms of life years. At merely the same rate of longevity increase as we have today the world’s population in 2050 will have lived around 500 billion years more than had they be born in 1900! (p.14) That number, 500 billion, not only reveals the extent of the environmental challenges we face, but gives us an idea of the depth of human experience and creativity we might gain. Our longevity and numbers seem to add time to the universe itself.

If you want a jaw-dropping visualization of humanity’s demographic rollercoaster, not to mention a humbling perspective of your own existence within the warp and woof of being and not being, you can get little better than World Births and Deaths in Real-Timea real time simulation of reported human births and deaths created by software developer Brad Lyon.

Aside from the sheer environmental impact of what in the near future will be our increasing human numbers there is the question of how we deal with the transition to what are in essence old societies. Take a rapidly aging country such as Japan. By 2050 Fishman sees the percentage of the Japanese population over age 65 to be a jaw dropping 40%. (p. 145) The dependency ratio, that is the ratio that measures the number of workers per dependent children and elderly is expected to reach 1:1.  We have never seen a dependency ratio like that, and Japan isn’t even the worst. Cities such as Shanghai are projected to have a percentage people of over 65 as high as 60%. As a result of its draconian 1 child policy China faces the real danger of growing old before it gets rich.  

In Europe too we are seeing the emergence of elderly societies. Fishman again captures the problem quite well writing of Europe where no country is getting proportionally younger and in the worst of the lot, Spain, especially:

Translate the numbers into an estimate of how many people need help with their basic needs, and Spain begins to look like a country that is literally handicapped. Unless medical advances deliver millions of people from infirmities they are now destined for, one out of every six to eight Spaniards will need help with walking, going to the toilet, or doing some other activity that we take for granted until it becomes too difficult. (114)

When transhumanists and their opponents debate the former’s wish lists of medical and technological breakthroughs: radically increased healthy longevity, regenerative medicine, cognitive enhancements, cyborg technologies, advanced AI and robotics the dispute is normally centered around the question of human enhancement and the empowerment of healthy individuals.  My guess is that in the long run, however, the development and deployment of these technologies will have occurred not in the interests of the minority of healthy individuals that want them, but because without the use of such technologies societies will simply cease to be functional.

For our survival not as individuals, but as a society, we desperately need technologies and medical breakthroughs that keep the elderly functional and contributing for as long as possible. We need a major investment in regenerative technology, and major research into arresting especially neurological decline. We need cheap and effective exoskeletons that will allow the elderly to retain mobility well past their 65th year, and robots to do much of the work we may no longer be fit to do. The deployment of such technologies will need to be global because the Longevity Crisis is global and will hit especially hard those societies which remain poor.

We also need to avoid losing the gains in longevity we have made in the past century.

If you’re in the mood to be freaked out there’s nothing better than this recent Frontline documentary Hunting the Nightmare Bacteria. To bring up my oft quoted Orgel’s Second Rule “Evolution is cleverer than you are” as shown in this documentary bacteria who are the true lords of the earth are busy outsmarting us. Our overuse of antibiotics and our obsessive compulsive craziness for things like antibacterial dish soap is threatening us with a surge of resistant bacteria that could reveal our seeming defeat of communicable diseases in the last century- which has added to our numbers of both young and old- tragically temporary.

It was this defeat over communicable diseases that transformed death into primarily an experience of the old whereas in all ages prior it was terrifying precisely because of its randomness and especially its impact on the young- a thief in the night- the Grim Reaper and his scathe.

We might also eat our way into shorter longevity. Quoted by Fishman, one of the top thinkers on longevity outthere-  S. Jay Olshansky- thinks that today’s generation of diabetic children have a good chance of living shorter lives than their parents. (205)In the West we haven’t seen that since the late Middle Ages when longevity declined by a decade from 48 to 38 years.

As Olshansky points out in his The Quest for Immortality: Science at the Frontiers of Aging simply continuing the trend of increasing longevity we have now is likely to prove difficult.

… adding 80 years to the life of an 80- year- old person is far more difficult than adding 80 years to the life of an infant. The implications for life expectancy are obvious. As life expectancy climbs beyond its current level (80 and older) death rates must fall at a progressively faster pace to achieve even small gains in life expectancy.

This is the stark reality of entropy in the life table. Increasing life expectancy in a population already long-lived is like walking up a hill of increasing slope while carrying a stone of increasing mass.

Gains in life expectancy are already slowing and entropy in the life table ensures that gains in the future will be even slower.  (p. 87)

Olshansky is especially well known for popularizing the idea of the “longevity dividend”. He wants us to focus our medical research on finding ways to slow biological aging. Olshansky does not see this refocusing as a means to transhumanist ends- neither radical longevity let alone biological immortality strike him as realistic goals, and one might add as did Kevin LeGradure launching off the recent Pew survey on the subject that the goal of radical longevity is not one the public is hankering for in any case.

Rather, what Olshansky wants us to do is find ways to slow aging so that we can compress the time frame in which human beings suffer terminal illnesses. Longevity isn’t the goal here, but the delay of chronic and debilitating diseases many of the elderly are under current conditions doomed to suffer. Increased average lifespan is a secondary effect. For those interested primarily in increased longevity the promise of shortening the length of frightening and devastating illnesses such as Alzheimer’s is a potentially politically broadening selling point for increased public funding for longevity related research. Indeed, our very success in holding off death in the middle aged and those in their 60s and 70s demands, on grounds of compassion, that we attempt to compress the timeframe in which people suffer the new types of very emotionally and physically painful diseases of aging that our success has inadvertently created.

As noted, we have been extremely effective at rolling back the death of children from threats such as infectious diseases. We are also extremely effective at saving the middle-aged, say a 59 year old who suffers a heart attack. Yet, the sisyphean nature of reality always manages to strike back. A person saved while a child by antibiotics or as an adult through heart surgery- threats to life that would have killed the person quickly- has the chance now of dying from Alzheimer’s diseases an extremely crippling and expensive condition that might take a decade or more to result in death.

Alzheimer’s is especially frightening- not merely for the way it robs the individual of their identity and is therefore one of the most tragic of diseases both for the sufferer and her loved ones, but because of the scale of the disease. Olshansky predicts that on current trends the US will have 16 million Alzheimer’s sufferers by 2050. That’s over 3 million more people than live in my beloved Pennsylvania or as many people as there are in the country of Australia.

The longevity gains we had in the past were largely the result of investments in public health. It was our devotion to one another as fellow citizens and human beings that gave us the miracle of hundreds of billions of more human life years. When as they should be these are years of love and wonder, insight and creativity, and, we can hope -wisdom.

Ensuring that the majority of us can remain healthy and productive with our increased years will require perhaps even greater public investments, many of them in technologies transhumanists have long held dear. Above all, continuing the gains we have had in longevity by both avoiding going backward and increasing longevity will take both shoring up our public health capacities so that we can avoid the return of pandemic killers. (The most galling effect of the recent blockheaded government shutdown was that it compromised the essential work of the CDC in preparing for a potentially devastating flu outbreak.) As the Frontline documentary points out public sector investment is necessary to deal with issues such as bacteriological infection because the market does not find research into necessities such as new antibiotics profitable.

The very complexity of the problem of figuring out how to slow the process of aging going forward will likewise demand massive public investments into areas little touched by today’s medical researchers refocusing our efforts on understanding the underlying mechanisms of aging rather than just trying to come up with cures for specific diseases. At the same time we will have to ensure we fully support the development of the young or society will have poisoned itself at the root, along with ensuring that the benefits of medical and technological advances are shared both within our societies and globally. We can make it through the Longevity Crisis and beyond but only if we do so in the spirit of a supportive family- young, old and in the space between.