Thursday, January 9, 2014

Is our world too complex to understand?

Timely. We just talked about diminishing returns, including diminishing returns to complexity. This article in Aeon Magazine makes a similar point: Is Our Technology Making the World Too Complex?
For centuries, humans have been creating ever-more complicated systems, from the machines we live with to the informational systems and laws that keep our global civilisation stitched together. Technology continues its fantastic pace of accelerating complexity — offering efficiencies and benefits that previous generations could not have imagined — but with this increasing sophistication and interconnectedness come complicated and messy effects that we can’t always anticipate. It’s one thing to recognise that technology continues to grow more complex, making the task of the experts who build and maintain our systems more complicated still, but it’s quite another to recognise that many of these systems are actually no longer completely understandable.  We now live in a world filled with incomprehensible glitches and bugs. When we find a bug in a video game, it’s intriguing, but when we are surprised by the very infrastructure of our society, that should give us pause.
It used to be taken for granted that there would be knowledge that no human could possibly attain. In his book The Guide for the Perplexed, the medieval scholar Moses Maimonides opined that ‘man’s intellect indubitably has a limit at which it stops’ and even enumerated several concepts he thought we would never grasp, including ‘the number of the stars of heaven’ and ‘whether that number is even or odd’. But then the Scientific Revolution happened, and with it, a triumphalism of understanding. Hundreds of years later, we now know the exact number of objects in the night sky visible to the naked eye — it’s 9,110 (an even number).
But ever since the Enlightenment, we have moved steadily toward the ‘Entanglement’, a term coined by the American computer scientist Danny Hillis. The Entanglement is the trend towards more interconnected and less comprehensible technological surroundings. Hillis argues that our machines, while subject to rational rules, are now too complicated to understand. Whether it’s the entirety of the internet or other large pieces of our infrastructure, understanding the whole — keeping it in your head — is no longer even close to possible.
One of the earliest signs of technology complicating human life was the advent of the railroads, which necessitated the development of standardised time zones in the United States, to co-ordinate the dozens of new trains that were criss-crossing the continent. And things have gotten orders of magnitude more complex since then in the realm of transportation. Automobiles have gone from mechanical contraptions of limited complexity to computational engines on wheels. Indeed, it’s estimated that the US has more than 300,000 intersections with traffic signals in its road system.  And it’s not just the systems and networks these machines inhabit. During the past 200 years, the number of individual parts in our complicated machines — from airplanes to calculators — has increased exponentially.

The encroachment of technological complication through increased computerisation has affected every aspect of our lives, from kitchen appliances to workout equipment.  We are now living with the unintended consequences: a world we have created for ourselves that is too complicated for our humble human brains to handle. The nightmare scenario is not Skynet — a self-aware network declaring war on humanity — but messy systems so convoluted that nearly any glitch you can think of can happen. And they actually happen far more often than we would like.
And here are some amazing facts from the article:
  • According to some estimates, the source code for the Windows operating system increased by an order of magnitude over the course of a decade, making it impossible for a single person to understand all the different parts at once. 
  •  It’s true that the so-called Millennium Bug passed without serious complications, but the startling fact was that we couldn’t be sure what would happen on 1 January 2000 because the systems involved were too complex.
  • TCAS [Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System] alerts pilots to potential hazards, and tells them how to respond by using a series of complicated rules...this set of rules — developed over decades — is so complex, perhaps only a handful of individuals alive even understand it anymore. When a TCAS is developed, humans are pushed to the sidelines and, instead, simulation is used. If the system responds as expected after a number of test cases, it receives the engineer’s seal of approval and goes into use.
  •  [...] there is a complete ‘machine ecology beyond human response time’ in the financial world, where stocks are traded in an eyeblink, and mini-crashes and spikes can occur on the order of a second or less. 
  • .The US Code, itself a kind of technology, is more than 22 million words long and contains more than 80,000 links within it, between one section and another. This vast legal network is profoundly complicated, the functionality of which no person could understand in its entirety...We even see the interplay between legal complexity and computational complexity in the problematic rollout of a website for Obamacare.
How complicated can things get before they are beyond the ability of even the smartest people to grasp? I think we're close to that point if not beyond it. That's why I think a lot of the miracle technology that's supposed to come to our rescue, from fusion reactors, to genetic manipulation, to microwave stations on the moon, to geoengineering, are not going to come to pass, or if they do, they will unleash disastrous consequences. I think a lot of the hostile reaction to modernity is a reaction against a world so big, complex and anonymous that things seem permanently out of control. That's why this urge to go back to simpler times is an undercurrent of the discontent and rhetoric of groups across the political spectrum, from back-to-the-land Permaculturists, to anarcho-primitivists, to libertarians, to Tea Party and religious fundamentalist types.


  1. We Transhumanists say this makes the case for Augmented Human Intelligence, the implantation of cybernetic interface elements directly into the human brain. The basics of that tech is already being applied and plenty more is in the pipeline.

    1. So I guess that means you're OK with the NSA spying on your thoughts, then? I think when there's a chip in your head, they won't need police anymore, they can just hit 'delete' on any subversive thoughts. And what makes you think they're going to share any intelligence-boosting technology? All you need to do is look at television to see that the last thing the people in power want is smarter people.

    2. What makes you think the NSA cannot spy on your thoughts already, chip or no chip?

    3. The survival of The Race requires that we become a spacefaring species. But all evidence so far shows that Baseline Humans do not do well in space. In my book, that is the key reason for Transhumanism. Only Enhanced Augmented Humans will be able to become that spacefaring race. Baseline humans will be left behind on Earth.

      I’m a fat old man on Disability, so I have no illusions about where my dust will settle. But I feel it my Duty to The Race do what little I can to help transform us and push us off this rock.

  2. The article falls a bit flat for me, because although the increasing complexity of technological systems is self-evident, it's not clear what if any negative effects are occurring because of it. Increasing complexity is a natural and inevitable corollary of economic growth, as more efficiency is obtained via greater specialization and adding additional stages of production from raw to finished goods. Airplanes for instance are some of the most complicated devices ever built by man, and orders of magnitude more complex than twenty years ago, but also much safer and more efficient.

    Likewise, it's often remarked that we're utterly dependent on things like the power grid and oil-delivery infrastructure, and therefore vulnerable if these systems should fail. Yet at least we theoretically control these systems, whereas our ancestors were no less exposed to the vagaries of natural forces which we've to a large degree overcome: droughts, floods, crop failure, and disease.

    A distinction needs to be made between engineered technological systems versus social or political constructs, like laws and government. Recall here that Tainter wrote about *social* complexity, or put more simply the growth in bureaucracy and managers at the expense of actual production. The lines are blurry (some government workers are 'productive' while some private-sector operators, e.g. in finance, may not be) but it seems clear that the unproductive class is growing rapidly. Of course, for the moment we can afford it without much trouble.

    1. Our technology is a subset of the natural world, and thus still subject to its vagaries. Although not dependent upon weather, we are still dependent upon a human construct called "the economy" which is also prone to boom and bust - feast and famine.

      Similarly, I don't know if I accept the argument that technological complexity and social complexity are entirely separate. Rather, I think they are intertwined. For example, could we maintain the current level of social complexity if, just as a thought example, a virus were to wipe out thirty percent of the population as it did in the Black Death? Larger populations lead to more complexity, and the capability to make more complex technology. Hunters could haft a rock pretty easily, but you need a complex social and technological infrastructure to make an automobile; in fact many countries still haven't managed it.

      You didn't need to regulate nuclear reactors before there were nuclear reactors. You didn't need to regulate high frequency trading before it existed. Or, you could leave them unregulated and suffer the consequences, which are catastrophic. As technology becomes more complex, it falls into the hands of specialists who are prone to abuse it (see the above comment)

      The question is, with our social and political systems unraveling, how are we going to keep making ever more complex technology? I think the article is arguing that we've hit a limit.

    2. I missed that part of his. Hm. Obviously, too much water, too much food, too much sitting on the couch, too much of all sorts of things in the material realm are just as subject to diminishing returns. More chemical fertilizer, more insecticide and herbicide don't add up to better ag after a certain point. Throwing more and more antibiotics after germs don't add up to better health after a certain point. I can't think of any human activity not subject to diminishing utility. Is there?

    3. I guess the question is whether our social systems are 'unraveling' or have simply reached a point where some kind of major reform is called for, as has happened continuously throughout history. It's worthwhile to note that the American governmental system has existed virtually unchanged for 234 years, even as the world has become utterly unrecognizable. The only meaningful alteration has been - drumroll - to centralize more and more authority, and add additional layers of bureaucracy and control.

      A radical reconstructionist today might conclude that localism - not in terms of growing your own food, but in terms of community, governance, and economic affairs - is the way to go. I read an interesting article about Iceland recently: rather than respond to the financial crisis by bailing out all and sundry and submitting to supranational authority, the government forced losses to be realized and the people responded by refocusing on the really crucial aspects of day-to-day life and commerce. This meant spending more time with family, but it also meant renewed investment in high-tech biofuels and geothermal power, including a scheme to export electricity to Britain via the longest submarine power cable ever envisioned. Certainly sounds more promising than financial engineering.

    4. Vera: No, I don't think there is. The difficulty is recognizing when you've passed that point. We're primed by evolution to not do that. Ironically, the people who don't believe in evolution seem to have the hardest time understanding that.

      "as has happened continuously throughout history."

      I'm going to disagree with you there, reform has happened pretty consistently in the age of fossil fuels, but history shows that dissolution and collapse is often more common - from the salt-ridden fields of Mesopotamia to the Feudal system in Europe to the Anasazi of the Southwest. Also, that reform has often come at a terrible cost - World War 2 for example.

      This article from Brad DeLong makes similar points - I haven't had time to do a write-up:

      He makes some similar points to your - see part V. For example:

      A great deal of the discussion about how there has been a "great stagnation" over the past generation that is likely to continue into the future misread distribution and demand-management failures as innovation and accumulation failures.

      A corollary: the fact that marginal utility of wealth and income may decline sharply is not a statement about a slowing pace of economic growth but rather about declining marginal utility of wealth.

      My counters are too long for here, but they are essentially amount to that technological progress is undermining the stable conditions for its own continuation. Furthermore, economic growth and innovation are increasingly bringing diminishing returns, as in social dysfuntion, environmetnal destruction, etc. Much of it is growth for its own sake rather than true innovation - which can be social as well as technical. We've already seen documented declines in health and well being and stagnant incomes for forty years in the United States.

      I agree, reform is needed, but I tend to despair of it in a nation like the United States. Just read the comments section of even the most reasonable and benign article about any sort of way of dealing with our problems-any sort, be it economic or environmental-and you'll see just how paralyzed by division that we are. We can't agree on the way forward, so we stagnate. And the powers that be like it this way, as I've said before.

      Now I can't honestly say that reform is impossible - It has happened before. But I see nothing to give me any hope at this point. I do believe that reform will happen, slowly, piecemeal around the world, because people will tolerate failure for only so long. But probably not here in the U.S. Interesting you cite Iceland - a homogenous nation of 300,000 people.

  3. Oh dear, the disembodied crowd showed up. That can't be good! ;-D

    We've overcome drought? Well, ain't that nice. Tell that to the folks in Colorado recently? Reminds me of the old communist ditty, "we'll make the rain and the wind obey!" Riiight...

    Specterx, you seem another sad victim of failed econ education -- technological progress too is subject to diminishing marginal returns. Or do you actually have a good counter-argument?

    1. It depends on the definitions, and ultimately on your value system. It's clear that technological advances allowed everyone (in the USA and Europe at least) to achieve some basic level of civilization fairly early - the 1940s at the latest. That would be well-constructed shelter, hot showers, electricity, literacy and access to mass media, a reliable food supply, and basic medical care. At the same time productivity increases in money terms continue to bump along at 0.5-2% per year, and meaningful improvements to the human condition are still being realized (for instance, recent advances in cancer therapy).

      It's clear that we'll reach a point where no additional economic growth or technological advance can yield much in terms of basic quality-of-life improvements, but in my view we're far from that point. IMO you'll know it has arrived when it becomes economically and politically viable to guarantee every citizen a level of income equal to say, $50,000 at today's prices. To get there, per-capita income probably has to be at $200k-$250k - so we have a long way to go.

    2. Oh hey, just print more money! ;-)

      The key issue is not so much whether some improvements are still happening, I think they are, but at what price. Pyrrhic victories, a lot of them. The costs outbalancing the benefits gained.

      What Iceland is doing is more sensible than many, but it takes a toll on the island environment. How many more dams? How many more aluminum plants before vast areas are completely devastated?

      I figure... hot baths are good. Hot water gushing endlessly from the wall... too costly. Some plastics good. Bringing home endless plastic packaging that goes straight to the landfill... too costly. And incredibly stupid. Maybe it adds up to the same thing. And don't even get me started on modern sewerage. That was a loser from the getgo. Like so much of what this culture does, it was just kicking the can down the road so someone else would inherit the initial problems that were seemingly solved by clumsy kludges.

  4. Escape, I think passed that point. It's too much for anyone to understand. And the system encourages narrow specialization anyway. But hey, you've cheered me up. The end is nigh! :-) And here, another warning about what will happen to fry all the gadgets, one of these days... enjoy.


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