The Other Day I was talking to Dean of Dean’s World Fame about issues of The Singularity (And some of what I sad came out making me an insensitive Jerk of which I feel bad about.) Dean’s most recent missive on the subject can be found here. But the point I made to Dean gets brought up on the same “Hot air” charges by James P. Pinkerton here.
While part of me when I hear about “The Singularity” makes me want to ask its believers when I am going to be getting my flying car, I also seem to find it amazing that these folks all seem to miss the role social structures play into the development of technology. Lets take the debate over High Def DVD formats. The role of game system platforms and making them DVD compatible will make a major difference in how the technology war is settled. The 100 million or so PS-3’s In the US and however many in Japan gives Sony’s high def format a niche that will keep it from collapsing. Because gamers find using their game platforms for DVD’s is a more efficient way to spend their money then buying two appliances to do the same job.
The High Def DVD format war isn’t decided by what technology is best; it is decided by the access to technology. Access, not quality is the key. Factories in China are using manufacturing process that are marginally at best cheaper then the American manufacturing platforms because they can train people to fix the less advanced machines. That access makes the lower tech solution best, not the cost or even the technology. It fuels more efficiently the major manufacturing economy on the planet and thus it is best in a realistic sense.
Our high tech communications world which has made manufacturing and capitalism even greater the technology was not driven by some urge to be best it was driven by things like ways to transmit pornography to an audience that wanted it. It was built on a military backbone to survive and thrive in a major war scenario. The very skill that network of technologies created that is revolutionizing so many fields was always there but no one looked to it at the time. So just because computers will probably grow at an exponential rate that doesn’t mean they will be the technology that kick starts our society to the next level. And if something else like organic based computational devices, or crystal based computational devices serve as a better tool, albeit a tool with a slower growth rate then guess what… that’s what we are going to use.
And this is assuming computers continue to grow at the rate they are doing. While yes we can go back and look at those prior growth spikes of technology in our modern age and say “well it’s been expanding that fast.” To which the historian in me wants to counter “and we’ve never had a technology like this before.” Lets also forget people predicting such doom as global warming, population bombs, population crunches, global cooling, acid rain melting everything, etc… have never done a good job proving anything about the future. The only thing they have done well is prove that their predictions are usually wrong.
I’ve been promised a flying car my whole life. As have my parents before me…. But it just aint here now is it? We’ve been promised lunar and deep space colonies along with folks living on the sea floor. All this goes to the point that people in the future predicting business usually aren’t very good at it.
But lets go back to the sociology of technology use. While there is a positive sociology “using tool x in application y is the best advancement for society.” There is a negative sociological use of technology. The Ancient Romans taught their new barbarian overlords the techniques of the roman army, the weapons, and the tactics only to find a enemy that was once their inferiors was now their peers.
The Guttenburg Printing Press allowed a mass production of ideas. The idea of the modern state and the modern concepts of Christianity are owed to a single printing press. The social order of the time fell rather easily to a technology beyond its control.
And as the traditional communications boundaries and travel boundaries have faded today things like global terrorism and weapons proliferation become harder, not easier to stop.
And this is where the problem of the singularity I found today comes to fruit. As the computational power in the hands of the individual grows, as the learning curve of the individual grows beyond the state (or even the corporations) ability to match then real problems exist. People learn to code and can look at lines and lines of Microsoft code. Code some one in Redmond or their India locations may not know well, but some code that can be used to tank the current code system. This can potentially disable most of the computers on the planet. One man, next to impossible for the state to find when he causes his havoc… but now lets say this man starts taking out power plants and hospitals, lets say he takes down so many computer systems real human lives are lost. This is a problem….
And just as folks in the Civil War would say “The Constitution is not a suicide pact.”
And what will “give,” almost certainly, is freedom. After a sufficient number of tragedies and catastrophes, the survival instinct will assert itself, and the source of the problem will be eliminated, or we will die trying. There’s plenty of precedent for such coercive danger-pre-emption: the banning of machine guns, for example, and “cop killer” bullets. Similarly, when home computers have 100 times the power of today’s supercomputers – well, then, such futurecomputers won’t be allowed in the home.
As the ability of the individual has grown to control aspects of his environment or the environment, so to in the modern era has the power of the state grown. But in areas in the past where the individual once had great power –Social Welfare Sytems- the state to has assumed that power. It assumed that power to fuel the engines of the state. As the state built hospitals to see that sickness did not drive down the engines of an industrial society, schools to build good factory workers, old age pensions and the like it changed how people viewed their role in society. They have in much of the world transitioned to valuing the collective over the individual.
But if this Singularity is to happen is it the computing needs of those folks who once said “No one will ever need a computer with more then 64k” or “no more then 7 computers will ever need to be made and only for the richest individuals.” Or is it for the people who use open source programming language and use things (dare I say) like blogs to express their individual identity.
File Sharing has spurred the needs for a new file format for DVD’s as has the technology for a digital signal. New computers that can do on demand TV and internet out of the same box have brought the need for digital quality transmission lines. The needs of the individual drive the innovation of society.
But as technology falls from the elites to the masses that technology becomes a threat to society unless the –society- changes and those people can become collectivist yet still fuel the drive to new technology.
As the EU and the developed world push for a world of more rules and more restrictions the future computers and technologies needed for a “singularity” to develop will become harder and harder to come by because it will be harder for them to be made, it will be harder to make a profit, and society won’t value those things because of societal generated scarcity issues.
We could develop anarcho-libertarian state systems but that is as alien as the thoughts of what an AI built by an AI built by an AI could be. We could develop a system free from money but again such a concept is alien (even though Star Trek used it… but they sure as heck couldn’t explain it)
Unless we become a society with dangerous, even genocidal technologies can fit into the hands of the individuals eventually society will restrict itself to the point where no new fonts of knowledge will bare fruit.
Mr. Pinkerton has an answer to that.
Thus, the human prospect here on Earth: an all-knowing and all-powerful government. Not much room for dissent there. So is that the end of the story? Human freedom snuffed out by the human capacity for evil and destruction? That’s the bleak future here on Earth but not necessarily in the heavens, as distinct from heaven. Some will argue that true liberation is found only in the metaphysical hereafter, but those who seek to guarantee their liberty in corporeal terms will have to make their escape to other heavenly – make that celestial – bodies.
A colonial system above and bellow the world we live in now could allow the freedom to develop and grow that kind of technology. This is assuming we don’t crack the celestial egg before then.