Saturday, July 11, 2009

The ultimate (Faustian) technological fix

Alfredo Triff

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
’sinvisible 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.


Karyna Do Monte said...

Teacher. My comments on this post will (at best) represent one nascent star in the constellation. There seems to be a deep drive, an instinct, among humans to race outward in their search for truth and advancement. The concepts of industry, imperial expansion, and evolution have been constructed from this impulse. The stark dichotomy between the ineffable and that which is deemed "progress" is well-developed in the Occidental model of human living, so that the unanswered is put aside or reified beyond humanity's reach and anything that can be seized, controlled, and "developed" is. Sages of old indicate to us that attainment of the ineffable, and of truth, involves a different process and aim. Still, the Western impulse continues to represent the dominant definition and representation of human development.
I think of utopia/dystopia imaginings as a compelling counter-discourse to the limitation on our foresight that you aptly mention. Perhaps, these imaginings represent humanity's creative capabilities vis-a-vis their actual creations, their ability to figure out what we do with what we make and with our creative ability in itself.
The optimists, for example, are using their ability to imagine the "merger between AI and humanity" through rose-colored lens. If they were to adopt some revised model of transubstantiation that guarantees no sparks of human consciousness will be left out of the pie distributed among the super-race, their perspective is indeed optimistic. That would involve an advancement in spiritual engineering, perhaps one that remedies millenia of human consciousness fragmenting into the ever-increasing plethora of pained souls living on the planet today. While the drive for progress has not made great headway in the science of souls, it seems that referring to "humanity" without considering the soul leaves "humanity" wanting. How can any theory that deals with humanity apologize away those humans that will not become part of the "super-race" with a place in the "a-la-carte" market?

The pessimists who are planning our relocation and imagining the locus of grand schemes of destruction outside of our planet have taken imagination to an interesting place in terms of spacial de-constriction (i.e.the solution or destruction as outside of Earth), but fail to represent to me the quintessence of this instinct to move outward I mentioned above. An analysis of AI that instrumentalizes the planet and humanity represents the relationship between fear and the concept of cosmic war. It reminds me of the various manifestations of ideological fundamentalism sociologist M. Juergensmeyer describes in his book "Terror in the Mind of God." Any treatment of AI that leads to apocalyptic apprehension is debilitating and de facto turns humans into useless beings in a nihilistic story.

The middle-point is interesting because it considers a dialogical relationship between humans and AI. However, I still wonder whether the pursuit of inner rather than outer "approaching" will gain young generations' attentions.

Technology has and continues to forge beyond a point of return because the whole concept of Western development and advancement involves changing enough that going back is impossible. This outward-moving impulse is historically heavily-laden with mistakes. Indeed, we don't need "machines for such subgoal/supergoal self-destructive scenario."
I am glad that you found some potential for human agency, the "what we do with it" aspect, in your reading of Garreau. I would except nothing less from you than a leaning towards the middle-way.
I think that the exponential drive away from what is unanswerable and undefinable represents the spiritual core of the problem with the "search for truth as abstraction." We need not look at AI to find dehumanized and destructive manifestations of intelligence...

The pes

miamibourbaki said...

I am glad that you found some potential for human agency, the "what we do with it" aspect, in your reading of Garreau. I would except nothing less from you than a leaning towards the middle-way.

Thanks, Karyna. Very well said.

Matthew said...


I don't think we should blame technology. We should blame ourselves for not understanding the limits. By the way, excelent blog you have.

joni said...

Ironically, in the film A.I. the Towers were also still in situ in the submerged, now frozen-over Manhattan populated only by "Mecha".

I think I am in the pessimist camp. When we reach the point of technological singularity that's it for us. I always tease my friend Seth that women will not even attain equal rights with men (in a Liberal sense, forget anything Radical) before the machines take over and make the whole species obsolete.

Did you ever read Dr. John Lilly's early 70s book "The Scientist"? Even back then he was predicting (albeit through his drug and isolation tank visions) that once "Solid State" technology took over, the first thing it would do is get rid of the atmosphere and oceans/water which are corrosive to computer parts. ... Lire la suite

I read a kind of interesting book once on parthenogenesis: Self-Generation: Biology, Philosophy, and Literature Around 1800 (Writing Science) by Helmut Muller-Sievers - all the debates esp. German Romantic Biology.

What about the Selfish Gene?

joni said...

Sorry about the "Lire la suite" - damned cut and paste job!

joni said...

One final thing - I liked reading Karyna Do Monte's contribution, but I would caution against lumping "evolution" in with the discourses / ideologies of "progress".

Evolution is not progressive - its model is not teleological, there is no Ideal for what the best form or typology of an organism might be.

There is no environment without an organism and vice versa. Criteria for fitness are ever changing. Things are just what they are at a given time and the thing that is best adapted to the present gets to breed and leave its genetic material behind.

All evolution means is "change".

Anonymous said...

Hi. I've been following this blog for a week now. Just getting used to comment.
Sort of agree with Karyna on the topic of western consumerism and it's effect on our worldview.
I avoid reading what other people have to say about the future. I doubt anyone can predict what will happen. Better look for ways to change the present.


miamibourbaki said...

Evolution is not progressive - its model is not teleological, there is no Ideal for what the best form or typology of an organism might be.

Good point, Joni. We tend to anthropomorphize everything.

Anonymous said...

critique of Singularity--"the Rapture for nerds"--optimism here:

R.L.R. said...

A great thoughtful blog. I'm learning with the teacher and the students.