I have many times heard the analogy that our technological society is a speeding locomotive, recklessly hurtling down the tracks towards ends unknown. We are continuing to shovel more and more coal onto the fire, ever accelerating forwards, yet we barely consider at 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 we risk everything that came before it too.
The argument to reconsider the magnitude and direction of technological progress is a good one (and one that I have written about here), but at least for the sake of argument let’s consider an alternative view. What if technological progress is not a train, but it is an airplane?
Instead of accelerating down a set of defined tracks, perhaps we are speeding down a runway. Slowly, we are gaining lift under our wings, heading towards the point of take-off. Under maximum throttle, we are heading towards an ultimate paradigm shift from 2-dimensional reality to 3-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. It is at beyond this point that 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 essentially given yourself over to the physics of flight, and you have 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 that 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 slow down technological progress, would we be able to deal with the problems that have already been created? Would we be able to avoid 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 in 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 which are unfavourable for our long term survival.
From where I am sitting, it seems clear that we are already past the go/no-go point when it comes to technological progress. We are going to need the power of intelligent machines if we hope to solve the the problems which have already been created 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 to its logical extreme. 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 us burn more fossil fuels, drill the polar cap, build more pipelines – do everything that will push the rate of progress just a notch higher. In short, we need to 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 can be 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 1’s and 0’s that we accrue every year, and need no longer be tied strictly to the production economy and fossil energy.
Given that technological progress is already offering new means to maintain the rate of accelerating progress 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 changes in the modern lifestyle all offer powerful means to extend our technological progress while limiting its consequences on the natural world.
If there exist means to maintain technological progress in a more responsible manner we have a moral obligation to do so, but we the idea that we should slow the pace of change in general is idealistic, impossible, and downright dangerous. Technological progress is a bet, and we are all in.