Is AI a Myth?

nielsen eastof the sun 29

A few weeks back the technologist Jaron Lanier gave a provocative talk over at The Edge in which he declared ideas swirling around the current manifestation AI to be a “myth”, and a dangerous myth at that. Yet Lanier was only one of a set of prominent thinkers and technologists who have appeared over the last few months to challenge what they saw as a flawed narrative surrounding recent advances in artificial intelligence.

There was a piece in The New York Review of Books back in October by the most famous skeptic from the last peak in AI – back in the early 1980’s, John Searle. (Relation to the author lost in the mists of time) It was Searle who invented the well-know thought experiment of the “Chinese Room”, which purports to show that a computer can be very clever without actually knowing anything at all. Searle was no less critical of the recent incarnation of AI, and questioned the assumptions behind both Luciano Floridi’s Fourth Revolution and Nick Bostrom’s Super-Intelligence.

Also in October, Michael Jordan, the guy who brought us neural and Bayesian networks (not the gentleman who gave us mind-bending slam dunks) sought to puncture what he sees as hype surrounding both AI and Big Data. And just the day before this Thanksgiving, Kurt Anderson gave us a very long piece in Vanity Fair in which he wondered which side of this now enjoined battle between AI believers and skeptics would ultimately be proven correct.

I think seeing clearly what this debate is and isn’t about might give us a better handle on what is actually going on in AI, right now, in the next few decades, and in reference to a farther off future we have to start at least thinking about it- even if there’s no much to actually do regarding the latter question for a few decades at the least.

The first thing I think one needs to grasp is that none of the AI skeptics are making non-materialistic claims, or claims that human level intelligence in machines is theoretically impossible. These aren’t people arguing that there’s some spiritual something that humans possess that we’ll be unable to replicate in machines. What they are arguing against is what they see as a misinterpretation of what is happening in AI right now, what we are experiencing with our Siri(s) and self-driving cars and Watsons. This question of timing is important far beyond a singularitarian’s fear that he won’t be alive long enough for his upload, rather, it touches on questions of research sustainability, economic equality, and political power.

Just to get the time horizon straight, Nick Bostrom has stated that top AI researchers give us a 90% probability of having human level machine intelligence between 2075 and 2090. If we just average those we’re out to 2083 by the time human equivalent AI emerges. In the Kurt Andersen piece, even the AI skeptic Lanier thinks humanesque machines are likely by around 2100.

Yet we need to keep sight of the fact that this is 69 years in the future we’re talking about, a blink of an eye in the grand scheme of things, but quite a long stretch in the realm of human affairs. It should be plenty long enough for us to get a handle on what human level intelligence means, how we want to control it, (which, I think, echoing Bostrom we will want to do), and even what it will actually look like when it arrives. The debate looks very likely to grow from here on out and will become a huge part of a larger argument, that will include many issues in addition to AI, over the survival and future of our species, only some of whose questions we can answer at this historical and technological juncture.

Still, what the skeptics are saying really isn’t about this larger debate regarding our survival and future, it’s about what’s happening with artificial intelligence right before our eyes. They want to challenge what they see as current common false assumptions regarding AI.  It’s hard not to be bedazzled by all the amazing manifestations around us many of which have only appeared over the last decade. Yet as the philosopher Alva Noë recently pointed out, we’re still not really seeing what we’d properly call “intelligence”:

Clocks may keep time, but they don’t know what time it is. And strictly speaking, it is we who use them to tell time. But the same is true of Watson, the IBM supercomputer that supposedly played Jeopardy! and dominated the human competition. Watson answered no questions. It participated in no competition. It didn’t do anything. All the doing was on our side. We played Jeapordy! with Watson. We used “it” the way we use clocks.

This is an old criticism, the same as the one made by John Searle, both in the 1980’s and more recently, and though old doesn’t necessarily mean wrong, there are more novel versions. Michael Jordan, for one, who did so much to bring sophisticated programming into AI, wants us to be more cautious in our use of neuroscience metaphors when talking about current AI. As Jordan states it:

I wouldn’t want to put labels on people and say that all computer scientists work one way, or all neuroscientists work another way. But it’s true that with neuroscience, it’s going to require decades or even hundreds of years to understand the deep principles. There is progress at the very lowest levels of neuroscience. But for issues of higher cognition—how we perceive, how we remember, how we act—we have no idea how neurons are storing information, how they are computing, what the rules are, what the algorithms are, what the representations are, and the like. So we are not yet in an era in which we can be using an understanding of the brain to guide us in the construction of intelligent systems.

What this lack of deep understanding means is that brain based metaphors of algorithmic processing such as “neural nets” are really just cartoons of what real brains do. Jordan is attempting to provide a word of caution for AI researchers, the media, and the general public. It’s not a good idea to be trapped in anything- including our metaphors. AI researchers might fail to develop other good metaphors that help them understand what they are doing- “flows and pipelines” once provided good metaphors for computers. The media is at risk of mis-explaining what is actually going on in AI if all it has are quite middle 20th century ideas about “electronic brains” and the public is at risk of anthropomorphizing their machines. Such anthropomorphizing might have ugly consequences- a person is liable to some pretty egregious mistakes if he think his digital assistant is able to think or possesses the emotional depth to be his friend.

Lanier’s critique of AI is actually deeper than Jordan’s because he sees both technological and political risks from misunderstanding what AI is at the current technological juncture. The research risk is that we’ll find ourselves in a similar “AI winter” to that which occurred in the 1980’s. Hype-cycles always risk deflation and despondency when they go bust. If progress slows and claims prove premature what you often get a flight of capital and even public grants. Once your research area becomes the subject of public ridicule you’re likely to lose the interest of the smartest minds and start to attract kooks- which only further drives away both private capital and public support.

The political risks Lanier sees, though, are far more scary. In his Edge talk Lanier points out how our urge to see AI as persons is happening in parallel with our defining corporations as persons. The big Silicon Valley companies – Google, FaceBook, Amazon are essentially just algorithms. Some of the same people who have an economic interest in us seeing their algorithmic corporations as persons are also among the biggest promoters of a philosophy that declares the coming personhood of AI. Shouldn’t this lead us to be highly skeptical of the claim that AI should be treated as persons?

What Lanier thinks we have with current AI is a Wizard of OZ scenario:

If you talk about AI as a set of techniques, as a field of study in mathematics or engineering, it brings benefits. If we talk about AI as a mythology of creating a post-human species, it creates a series of problems that I’ve just gone over, which include acceptance of bad user interfaces, where you can’t tell if you’re being manipulated or not, and everything is ambiguous. It creates incompetence, because you don’t know whether recommendations are coming from anything real or just self-fulfilling prophecies from a manipulative system that spun off on its own, and economic negativity, because you’re gradually pulling formal economic benefits away from the people who supply the data that makes the scheme work.

What you get with a digital assistant isn’t so much another form of intelligence helping you to make better informed decisions as a very cleverly crafted marketing tool. In fact the intelligence of these systems isn’t, as it is often presented, coming silicon intelligence at all. Rather, it’s leveraged human intelligence that has suddenly disappeared from the books. This is how search itself works, along with Google Translate or recommendation systems such as Spotify,Pandora, Amazon or Netflix, they aggregate and compress decisions made by actually intelligent human beings who are hidden from the user’s view.

Lanier doesn’t think this problem is a matter of consumer manipulation alone: By packaging these services as a form of artificial intelligence tech companies can ignore paying the human beings who are the actual intelligence at the heart of these systems. Technological unemployment, whose solution the otherwise laudable philanthropists Bill Gates thinks is: eliminating payroll and corporate income taxes while also scrapping the minimum wage so that businesses will feel comfortable employing people at dirt-cheap wages instead of outsourcing their jobs to an iPad”A view that is based on the false premise that human intelligence is becoming superfluous when what is actually happening is that human intelligence has been captured, hidden, and repackaged as AI.  

The danger of the moment is that we will take this rhetoric regarding machine intelligence as reality.Lanier wants to warn us that the way AI is being positioned today looks eerily familiar in terms of human history:

In the history of organized religion, it’s often been the case that people have been disempowered precisely to serve what were perceived to be the needs of some deity or another, where in fact what they were doing was supporting an elite class that was the priesthood for that deity.

That looks an awful lot like the new digital economy to me, where you have (natural language) translators and everybody else who contributes to the corpora that allow the data schemes to operate, contributing mostly to the fortunes of whoever runs the top computers. The new elite might say, “Well, but they’re helping the AI, it’s not us, they’re helping the AI.” It reminds me of somebody saying, “Oh, build these pyramids, it’s in the service of this deity,” but, on the ground, it’s in the service of an elite. It’s an economic effect of the new idea. The effect of the new religious idea of AI is a lot like the economic effect of the old idea, religion.

As long as we avoid falling into another AI winter this century (a prospect that seems as likely to occur as not) then over the course of the next half-century we will experience the gradual improvement of AI to the point where perhaps the majority of human occupations are able to be performed by machines. We should not confuse ourselves as to what this means, it is impossible to say with anything but an echo of lost religious myths that we will be entering the “next stage” of human or “cosmic evolution”. Indeed, what seems more likely is that the rise of AI is just one part of an overall trend eroding the prospects and power of the middle class and propelling the re-emergence of oligarchy as the dominant form of human society. Making sure we don’t allow ourselves to fall into this trap by insisting that our machines continue to serve the broader human interest for which they were made will be the necessary prelude to addressing the deeper existential dilemmas posed by truly intelligent artifacts should they ever emerge from anything other than our nightmares and our dreams.


Summa Technologiae, or why the trouble with science is religion

Soviet Space Art 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Last Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Human Age

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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