Saturday, July 11, 2009
The ultimate (Faustian) technological fix
Summer’s idleness is a good time for anarchic crossreading. This is how it happens: By chance one comes near “a constellation” -exciting and open-ended. Each “reading” triggers the next, either as footnote, quote, or anxious influence. So, the reader sacrifices (surrenders?) her/his goal-oriented task in favor of literary adventure. Here is a list for futurist speculation @ the end of the world: “The Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins, “Thought Contagion” by Aaron Lynch, “From the finite to the infinite” by Juan Benemelis, “The Singularity is Near” by Ray Kurzweil, “Redesigning Humans: Choosing our genes, changing our future” by geneticist Gregory Stock, “Our Final Hour: A Scientist’s Warning” by Sir Martin Rees, “Engines of Creation: The Coming Era of Nanotechnology” by Eric Drexler and “Radical Evolution” by Joel Garreau.
The ballgame gets split between optimists, pessimists and moderates.
The optimists: Kurzweil, Stock and nanotechnology guru Eric Drexler. For them, humanity is on the verge of a new era of progress. Kurzweil foresees a merger between AI (Artificial Intelligence) and humanity, which leads to universal growth. Likewise, Stock envisions genetic engineering improving memory and prolonging human life, with a super-race around the corner. Drexler dreams with intelligent machines capable of producing atoms “à-la-carte,” fundamentally changing economy’s old modes and relations of production and human life in the process.
The pessimists: Bill Joy, founder of Microsystems, who believes that the AI can exceed human intelligence turning us into irrelevant pets. Benemelis gets into a detailed description of contemporary science and technology. He foresees a future of self-conflagration; our only salvation that of leaving earth for good. Rees presents a menu of technological disasters caused (¡irony of ironies!) by our desire to transform Nature -whether by design or by accident. On a not-so-distant planet, nano-machines designed by irresponsible scientists (how would they know?) imploding the earth in a nuclear chain-reaction swallowing all the matter in the universe at the speed of light.
Garreau is the middle-point: Human beings are neither masters nor slaves of technology. Garreau brings the vision of Jaron Lanier, known as the father of virtual reality, for whom AI is just a novel way of broadening and deepening relations between Homo Sapiens and machines. Hence the enthusiasm with which children approach computers and “interactive” video games. Interactivity has opened up new avenues in education and the transmission of knowledge.
The only problem is the danger of exponential knowledge and the possibility that technology reaches a point of no return.* Singularity expert Nick Bostrom puts it this way: When we create the first super intelligent entity, we might make a mistake and give it goals that lead it to annihilate humankind, assuming its enormous intellectual advantage gives it the power to do so. For example, we could mistakenly elevate a subgoal to the status of a supergoal. I don’t think we need machines for such subgoal/supergoal self-destructive scenario.
For a moderate like Garreau technology is neither friend nor enemy. It depends what we do with it. Think of it as dispassionate inquiry, what Veblen called “idle curiosity,” an indispensable element of creative work (I disagree, creative work usually is a passionate endeavor, but that takes us out of the present topic). How about human history since the Industrial Revolution? Just do the math: Pick ecological benefit vs. ecological loss.
Garreau thinks it’s possible to inhibit or slow down certain dangerous paths of science and technology. How? Can you know what’s “dangerous” without the benefit of hindsight? (Example: Atomic energy vs. nuclear race, antibiotics usage vs. virus resilience, more recently, derivatives in finance vs. derivatives as tools for senseless speculation). Who would doubt that animal cloning opens the possibility for human cloning?** With science, ethical and ecological problems come after-the-fact, not before.
One more book: Harvard University Psychologist Marc D. Hauser’s “Moral Minds.” Hauser defends a kind innate Homo Rawlsean*** with a “meme” in favor of cooperation and justice. For Hauser and Gerreau, technology is not divorced from empathy and cooperation. True, but I think that neither Hauser nor Gerreau entertain a sinister aspect of late-Capitalism and its impact on technology. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” has become a dysfunctional non-cooperative appendage subverting the system it is supposed to preserve, not unlike the so-called “Tragedy of Commons” in medieval England.****
Exactly what’s is going on in America right now.
Some of these authors could take a look at Heidegger’s The Question Concerning Technology. For Heidegger, technology leaves its pragmatic role as mediator for the “good of man” as soon as it pursues its own instrumental interest (very much like art for art’s sake). Technology has a serious genetic defect: its search for truth as abstraction, a cul-de-sac giving humans the impression of having the power to challenge Nature.
I am no pessimist, but take a look at our legacy after 200-plus years of Industrial Revolution: Global Warming?
*After Vernor Vinge, this is known as technological singularity. **A more recent development: parthogenesis.***An innate human ability to understand fairness and engage in cooperative schemes. ****Each member of society acts in his/her own self-interest, ultimately destroying shared limited resources even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long term interest for this to happen.