Planes, Trains and the Technological Singularity

Many times have I heard the analogy that our technological society is a speeding locomotive recklessly hurtling down the tracks towards ends unknown. We continue to shovel more and more coal onto the already raging fires, ever accelerating our train forwards, yet we barely consider the path that lies before us.

Surely, you couldn’t blame someone for thinking that society might benefit from simply slowing the acceleration of change and giving more consideration to the ramifications of what it is that we are doing. If progress doesn’t happen in a responsible and sustainable manner, we risk everything, including not only the progress that we have achieved but potentially all that came before it too.

The argument to perhaps re-evaluate the aims and goals to which we apply our technological  know-how is a good one, in particular with regards to improving our stewardship of the environment and eachother, but the idea that progress should be slowed or stopped in general is a flawed and potentially disastrous ideology. To demonstrate why I believe we must continue accelerate in technological progress let us consider an alternative analogy..

What if technological progress is not a train but an airplane?

Instead of accelerating down a set of defined tracks, perhaps we are speeding down a runway. Slowly and with great bangs and bumps we are gaining lift under our wings, heading towards the point of take-off. Under maximum throttle, we hurtle towards the point of flight, wherein our society will undergo a paradigm shift from two-dimensional reality to three-dimensional space.

Just as the shift to flight irrevocably altered our world view over the course of the 20th century, the emergence of machine intelligence will irreversibly alter our world view and our control over that world in the 21st century. Through the lens of networked intelligence we will transcend our current world and again enter a new dimension of possibility.

That is, if we can get there.

You see, when an airplane is taking off, at some point you must pass an invisible line known as the go/no-go point. Beyond this point you will not feasibly be able to stop without overshooting the runway and crashing disastrously into whatever obstacles lie beyond. Once you have passed this point you have given yourself over to the physics of flight, leaving no choice but to keep hard on the throttle and hope that your pre-flight calculations were right. If everything goes as it should, you will achieve flight and soar over whatever obstacles lie beyond the runway.

Beyond the go/no-go, there is no turning back; there is only faith in math and physics.

So the question that must be asked is this, are we past the go/no-go decision point for technological singularity? If we were to somehow figure out a way to generally slow  or stop technological progress, would we be able to deal with the problems that have already been created? Would we be able to avoid the disaster at the end of the runway?

Anthropogenic climate change is the most obvious existential threat posed by accelerating technological progress, but the possibility of economic or social collapse could potentially pose an equally grave danger to a society with the power of nuclear arms. If we do not continue to develop our ability to understand and manipulate complex systems such as the climate, the economy, or social systems, we risk being unable to respond if these systems shift in ways that are unfavourable for our long-term survival.

From where I am sitting, it seems an obvious fact that we are well past the go/no-go point when it comes to technological progress. The momentum of our technological society will be more than enough to carry us to disaster, with no need for the fuel of continued innovation. Even if were to decide to push to the extreme, and somehow try to dismantle the technological machinery of our modern society, I see no way we could realistically avoid disaster.

No, at this point there is only one way out of this, and that way if forward. We are going to need the power of intelligent machines if we hope to solve the problems  created by technological progress.

Technological progress is a speeding airplane that is well past its go/no-go point—progress or bust is all we have now. 

So if you are swayed by this argument, then let us take it a bit further. If reaching the point of technological paradigm shift will be the only way to avoid the consequences of said technological progress, then we should be literally pouring on the gas. Let’s burn more fossil fuels, drill the polar cap, build more pipelines—do everything that will push the rate of progress even a notch higher. In short, we should do exactly what we are already doing in order reach the point of technological transcendence as fast as possible.

Still, I can’t shake the feeling that this extreme tack is highly irresponsible. More importantly, it is rooted in a 20th century view wherein progress is counted simply in the number of barrels of oil we burn and number of cars we buy. In the 21st century economy, progress seems to be increasingly measured in the number of 1s and 0s that we accrue every year and need no longer be tied strictly to the production economy and fossil energy.

Given that the ultimate promise of technological progress is to offer means to  sustain a technologically empowered world in a more responsible manner, it seems prudent that we should adopt these technologies as rapidly as possible. The ever decreasing cost of solar and wind power, more efficient means of producing and transporting goods, and reasonable changes in the modern lifestyle all offer powerful means to extend our technological progress while limiting its consequences on the natural world.

If there exists the means to maintain technological progress in a more responsible manner, we have a moral obligation to do so; but the idea that we should slow the pace of change in general is idealistic, impossible, and downright dangerous.

Technology is a bet that brings both peril and progress, forward or bust is all we have now

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6 thoughts on “Planes, Trains and the Technological Singularity

  1. Why exactly is progress an all in situation ?
    The Amish people stomped progress and seem to be doing fine most of the time.

    This article is making assumptions without making real world examples, so I still do not get it. You state the things as if they were facts. This is a very dangerous trap for yourself.

    Please improve your article.

    • If you accept that climate change is a real threat, then you should understand that we may very well need to have technological solutions to big problems. Similarly, nuclear technology puts a massive amount of destructive capacity in the hands of people – we cannot afford to let the world go to shit socially or economically for this reason. We need to understand complex systems if we want to have any hope of surviving long term.

      Even the Amish accept that the whole world would not work if everyone was to be amish, it is just not feasible. See the recent iterview on CBC Spark pertaining to the subject (http://www.cbc.ca/player/Radio/Spark/ID/2392872574/)

      While I accept the notion of “progress traps” that you appear to be alluding to, the only way I see out of these traps is more technology. The only way we get what we want is seizing on our power to understand the world.

  2. Way too complicated. Let’s simplify.

    Right now – today – we have all the technology we need to have a sustainable world, with clean power generation, clean transportation and clean manufacturing. We also have all the tech and efficiency and then some to make sure all humans have their needs met.

    So why are things such a huge mess?

    Because we are still using the same social organization that we used thousands of years ago. Nothing has really changed in how we approach society organization even though everything has changed in what technology we have and what levels of efficiency we can attain.

    Technology is not the problem, and it doesn’t need to accelerate anymore. With what we have, we can create something that’s tottering right on the edge of utopia (even though, of course, utopia will never be achieved as long as humans are involved.) But we could even now create a society that was a golden age never before seen.

    But not without serious changes to the underlying social fabric. You can’t continue to run the world on a competition and hoarding basis and expect technology to fix everything. What happens is just that the rich take even more fo the pie, and leave 1 billion people starving the way they are starving today. They’re starving because of a lack of purchasing power… not a lack of available calories, or lack of resources to produce even more calories.

    There’s no go/no-go. We’ve already went. Now we just have to stop intentionally flying into the mountain time and time again…

    • I think you are missing the point here. The transition from the age of pre-machine intelligence to post-singularity is like the transition from a 2d world to a 3d one. It is a change like nothing we have seen before (comparable to the emergence of language). In this sense, we definitely have not gone anywhere yet, the point of this article is to make the argument that we must keep full steam ahead.

  3. I agree with most of the point presented here. I do not however believe that the only technology that can solve our issues is machine intelligence. I still believe that as long as profit can be made for basic human necessities (ie water, food, clothing) we are going to be in a bad state no matter how much technology we have. Technology would reach a point of machine intelligence or a point in which basic human needs are provided (not really possible within the confines of physics, but the turning point of the Star Trek universe was the invention of the replicator, in which people had food, water and clothing at their fingertips, allowing humanity to pursue each other their own dreams, aspirations and goals, without worrying about how much it payed. note; many people continued to work like they do today.) I just think that there is a lot to be said about the idea of profit being a major limiting factor to the advance of the human race, however the only reason it works is because humanity loves to consume new things that they don’t really need just because it is new and shiny and well marketed. But I digress. Good article.

    • I think you are right about the fact that ubiquitous technology could end up overturning the capitalist paradigm we are now in. In particular I am very excited about the possibilities of 3d printing as being a sort of replicator. The way I think we get to advanced nanoscale replicator/3D printing technology though is going to be through machine AI. I really think that all of our eggs are in the machine AI basket, it is an absolute must.

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