Malthusian Fiction and Fact

Wind_Up_Girl_by_Raphael_Lacoste-big

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 She is an animal. Servile as a dog.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gibbons:

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

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

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

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

 

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This City is Our Future

Erich Kettelhut Metropolis Sketch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Jumping Off The Technological Hype-Cycle and the AI Coup

Robotic Railroad 1950s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Correction:

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

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