Thursday, October 20, 2011

Reply to G-Man's Comment and Some Thoughts on the Singularity

On my What Are People Good For page, someone left a comment (finally). I intended to reply under the comment but a.) my comments are too long b.)In the act of replying, I came up with a lot of other ideas that I wanted to explore, and c.) The software did not let me. On a side note, the Blogger software is awful - it's nearly impossible to format stuff. Anyway, here is my response:

OK, you have clearly laid out the various possible paths, and Kurzweil posits that technology will inexorably take us toward Drexler's 'radical abundance', so the best personal strategy is probably to hunker down, be frugal with your money, and work towards a sustainable (low cash) lifestyle, centered on local relationships.

Hello, G-man, thank you for visiting my site. I hope you return often. Yours was the first comment I have received, and I apologize for taking so long to respond.

Not long ago, We installed a new version of Autocad in our office. It was incompatible with several of our printer drivers. If you printed to the wrong printer, your Autocad would completely shut down without warning. And yet, we're supposed to be able to load our consciousness into machines a few years hence? No thank you. It still takes me 20 minutes to boot up my laptop. And just today I see the following information via BBC:

Millions of Blackberry owners across Europe, the Middle East and Africa have been left without services following a server crash.

And later the outages spread to North America. Imagine if all our consciousnesses were all on Blackberries! Would millions of us now be deceased?

I kid, but as you see, I don't think much of Kurzweil or his predictions. In fact, I think they are ridiculous, and Kurzweil is a loony. Technology does not exist in a vacuum; it is inextricably bound in a social and cultural matrix. Our political and social systems are failing, and this will have an effect on technology, whether we like it or not. Technology is more than just microchips - how does Kurzweil explain Deepwater Horizon or Fukushima? Even important ideas like moving to a post-carbon economy are proving impossible to implement, and most of the core inventions to make that happen (solar panels, fuel cells, etc.) have already been invented! Even the computer I'm using is not fundamentally different from what we were using in 1970 - just faster and more bells and whistles. Speed and size do not equal sophistication. More and more authors are talking about stagnation rather than some sort of Utopian future.

Per Kurzweil in The New York Times:

What’s predictable is that these measures grow exponentially, not linearly, though our intuition about the future is linear, which is hard-wired in our brains. This makes a remarkable difference. Thirty steps linearly gets you to 30, whereas 30 steps exponentially (2, 4, 8, 16. . .) gets you to a billion.

This “law of accelerating returns,” as I call it, tells us that any area of information technology will grow enormously in power while becoming ever smaller in size. This law has continued for the three decades since I first noticed it, and goes back decades before that.

And it’s not just electronics and communications that follow this exponential course. It applies as well to health, medicine and its related field of biology. The Human Genome Project, for instance, saw the amount of genetic sequencing double and the cost of sequencing per base pair come down by half each year

He believes these trends will continue forever. I don't. I find it hard to believe that someone as intelligent as Kurzweil does not know basic mathematics. Outside of theory, in observable nature, populations go up exponentially until they reach some sort of limitation (food, space) and then they level off (or crash). This describes the behavior of bacteria in a vat, for example. If bacteria even in a small wine vat went on multiplying at the initial exponential rate forever, the bacteria would be the size of planet earth in a matter of months. That obviously does not happen with bacteria, and I doubt it will happen with technology. Kurzweil has forgotten that accelerating returns are eventually followed by the law of diminishing returns, or somehow he thinks it does not apply to technology. Yet there are limits, not only to resources but to knowledge. Perhaps he should reread Gödel’s theorem or the Heisenberg uncertainty principle. I think Jaron Lanier is more on target in the same forum:

The best forecasters benefit from a lack of engagement in the particulars and are drunk on beginner's luck. I am always amazed at the conversation about technology and modernity that took place in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Writers like Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Mark Twain, Karl Marx and Forster articulated more vibrant sensibilities about technology and the future of mankind than we can easily find in today's gigantic online chatter.

Times have changed since the 19th century. Technologies that used to be new have become old and entrenched, and we've invested in them to the point of madness. Thus we find it hard to respond to the threat of global climate change. We have built careers and empires around old technologies, and defend them by disadvantaging the development of new and better ones. The oil business is defended and subsidized vastly more than new energy research.

Looking ahead, the better we get at technology and understanding its consequences, the more predicting the future becomes about caution and prohibitions. In that way, prognostication will become drearier than it used to be.

As for Drexel's radical abundance theories, I can disprove that easily without even resorting to what's technologically possible. If you look at all of human history since the beginning of civilization, it has been the story of elites withholding things from the masses to create an environment of scarcity. That's how they hold onto power. Unless human nature fundamentally changes, radical abundance is not possible under any of our social or economic paradigms. Important discoveries will be exploited and withheld by those at the top to benefit themselves. Sometimes discoveries trickle down to the masses, sometimes they do not. Already a lot of life-saving medical technology is unavailable to many people because of cost. We already have enough technology to enable us to work for only a few hours a week. But do we? How would Drexler or Kurzweil explain that? Without scarcity there would be no control systems, and humans are too inherently hierarchical to ever let that happen. That's what happens when you know a whole lot about technology and nothing about society. They assume, against all historical evidence, that these discoveries will radically change the social structure. Why do they think that? I think there is much more evidence to the contrary.

Look at the Industrial Revolution. By all rights, having machines to do useful work should have freed up human labor. A Singularitarian of 1776 would have predicted the exponential growth of fossil fuel power leading to an unprecedented life of leisure and prosperity. In fact, some did predict that. Instead, we had workers working sixteen-hour days six days a week and living in urban slums with barely any sanitation. Not even children were immune. Yet our use of fossil fuels did, in fact, increase exponentially! What would our steampunk Singularitarian make of it? That life of leisure for the masses through mechanization never materialized, not even to this day. Yes, we have washing machines, but we use the extra time to work instead.

Even in our own time - Moore's law has been in force for decades, yet has our life gotten any better? Our productivity has soared by using Turing machines, but has life really changed? Every person today has more computer power at their fingertips than the scientists who planned the Apollo moon landing had. Yet we still trudge to work every day, work our 8+ hours making profits for sociopaths, and fear for our jobs. Computing power didn't change that, did it? In fact, we have less job security, and less jobs per capita than we had in 1969. No wonder we are so pessimistic. In fact,, most of our productivity went straight to the elites. So if the exponential growth of computers since 1969 hasn't changed the basic facts of our existence or the basic underpinnings of society, why would the continued exponential growth of computers in the future, even if it continues? I'm still waiting for technology to substantially change my life. I still eat, sleep shit, and entertain myself, not much different than someone in 1800, except entertainment and personal mobility is alot more convenient.

In fact, most technologies are making our lives worse. As less work is needed, jobs are disappearing leading to widespread desperation. Our large existing stock of materials (building, cars, appliances) is enough that we do not much new growth to have a decent living standards. Our social/economic system has not caught up to this new reality, and sadly it seems it will not until our societies become completely unravelled. More technology continues to lead out to hollowed states with vast disparities between rich and poor and high unemployment - not utopias. And more technology has led to environmental destruction as well.

Now I think the Singularitarians believe that the changes will be so powerful ,and so substantial, that society will have no choice but to change to adapt to the new reality. Kurweil himself talks of a "rupture in the fabric of human society." That is the crux of their argument. But based on what evidence? I read somewhere that the fundamentals of money exchange and banking have not changed since the Middle Ages. How much technological change has happened since the Middle Ages? How much exponential growth? Yet our economic system, based fundamentally upon gambling, has remained the same. While we cannot see the future, the best guide we have is past history. Why should we believe technology is going to rewrite our social and economic systems for the better when it has never happened? Where is the evidence? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. All I see from Singularitarians is a lot of fanciful speculation. Weren't these the same people who told us we'd all be living in space by the year 2000? Instead, our entire space program is nearly bankrupt, and it's not for lack of technical knowledge.

In fact - just look at space technology. In the sixties, it was depicted as the average person taking a trip to the Moon, much the same way as a trip to the Magic Kingdom. It was a vision of technology for a middle class society. In 2011, what do we have? A billionaire opening a spaceport in the Arizona desert (partially paid for by taxpayers) launching other millionaires and billionaires into space, even while the global economy is disintegrating and society is falling apart! That's the reality of the twenty-first century - a reality of elites and plebeians, or Morlocks and Eloi, to get science fiction-y. And that brings me to my final criticism - technology has enabled the rise of an elite class more insulated and with more power over our destiny than ever before in history. I hear a lot from Singularitarians about how biotechnology will revolutionize humanity. And what will happen when they get power over the genetic code? I'll tell you exactly what will happen: they will engineer us to be docile, obedient workers, while they genetically engineer their own offspring to be smarter, stronger and more able than the rest of us. Then, while we slave away for their benefit, they will claim that their exalted position is justified because of their inherent superiority. When we no longer serve their purposes, these superior people will throw us away like old mules. That's the future I see, unless there are major changes. It's not a future I'm looking forward too.

Technology affects societies in different ways. The way it affects a society has to do with that society's underlying structure. My favorite example is the car. The car caused a lot of Utopian dreaming back in the day. Now, we can't even maintain our motoring infrastructure. What the car unleashed - suburban sprawl, pollution, oil dependence, the assembly line, wars in the Middle East, traffic accidents, ambulance-chasing lawyers, an insurance industry, massive government bureaucracies, racial and ethnic ghettos - has little to do with technology and everything to do with the society they were introduced into. What happens when thinking machines are dropped into the mix - a utopia, or something else. Consider the car and space examples above before you talk about how technology will "liberate" us. Remember, the main cause of problems is solutions.

So the advice you give is spot on - but not to await the Singularity, but to prepare for the coming dark ages. After the fall of Rome, we forgot how to make concrete for a millennium or two. Obviously, that knowledge did not continue to accelerate exponentially, or we would have had steel and glass skyscrapers by the time the first Gothic cathedrals were built. Computers may not solve all our problems, but they could make our lives easier if used in the right way. Unfortunately, they are now used in a completely dysfunctional economic system where they must make profits for a small class of capitalists while putting the rest of us out of work. There's no reason for them to be used this way, rather than, say, allowing us to work less, besides the way we've structured our economic system. That system is now failing. And as it fails, our social systems will fail too, because we’ve structured them around the medium of exchange. This will prevent any "singularity" from occurring. Oh, they'll be rebuilt eventually, but not without a lot of pain and suffering. Maybe then we’ll earn to use them as Lewis Mumford wrote about - by using machines to enhance human society, not to bend human society to the will of machines (or more precisly the owners of the machines).  I think Singularitarians ought to close their laptops, and pick up some paper books about history, sociology, anthropology, ethics and philosophy. Maybe they would have a more realistic view of where we're headed.

There's no better illustration of my point than the current "Singularity Summit" in New York City. While hyper-educated and privileged commentators sat in their comfortable conference rooms and debated technology, thousands of protesters were in the same city demanding to be heard, thousands who have lost everything and see how the powerful are crushing us under their feet. Talk about ivory tower isolation! For some reason, elites always seem to forget that there are other people. No wonder their designs seem to never play out according to plan!

So, in summary, technological innovation without social innovation is a recipe for catastrophe. As John Michael Greer has pointed out, the Singularity is just a modern religion in technical drag. History is going in a different direction. Doomers tend to dismiss technical change, but techno-utopians always forget the social aspect. That's what makes prediction so difficult, especially about the future. So yes, get ready, save your money, build local relationships, hunker down, try to skate where the puck will be rather than where the puck is, and try and enjoy the ride.

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