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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Why the Future is Killing Adulthood

As the world hurtles mercilessly forward, our ability to fully grasp the world is slowly falling away. Although there never really was a time when we could have perfect knowledge of how the world worked, we at least had an illusion that we did. This collective illusion, known as adulthood, is now slowly slipping away.

While laws defining the age at which a child can give their consent have been around since the middle ages and certainly would have pre-dated this in the form of social norms, it could be argued that our modern idea of childhood really only came into being along with the industrial revolution. Only with the advent of mechanization could society afford to have such a large chunk of its workforce essentially exempted from labour. It was in 1819 that the first child labor law was passed, which stated that workers must be at least the ripe-old age of 9 years old before they can be employed in gainful work.

Along with this law, the dictates of childhood were established. Until the age of [insert modern definition of adult], you shall be free of the expectations of an adult. You will be free of the requirement to work. You shall not yet be considered to be responsible for your actions. You will also have fewer rights than adults and legally must always be under the care of a responsible adult. You will also be expected to spend a significant amount of your time in a place known as school, where you will learn the skills and knowledge needed to navigate the world. 

Once you get through this process of childhood, you will pop out the other side as a fully formed human being. As an adult, you will finally have a command of the complex machinations of the world around you. You will become responsible for everything you do or don’t do, for good and for bad. You will know yourself, what it is that you want from life, and how to get it.  You will be ready to join the “real” world. You will have a career that will provide for you for the rest of your life.

You will have a plan; you will be set for life. 

Clearly, this was always bullshit.

Nonetheless, this seductive idea of adulthood was a comfortable and pragmatic delusion. It helped us feel powerful and in control in the world where our understanding was so very limited. I would argue that the illusion of adulthood was important factor driving the accelerated scientific and technological innovation through the 20th century. Embracing the idea that we each have the power to control our own lives led us to the parallel realization that we have the power to reshape the world around us to serve our needs.

The perception of adulthood is personal manifestation of the great man theory. A view that we are each independent actors in this world is just as false as the view that history can be broken into a string of important men acting independently of the world around them.

Let us take the criticism of the great man theory put forward by Herbert Spencer in the 19th century:

“[Y]ou must admit that the genesis of a great man depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which he appears, and the social state into which that race has slowly grown…. Before he can remake his society, his society must make him.”

This well-articulated criticism of our tendency to overvalue the importance of historic individuals could just as easily be applied to our modern view of ourselves. You must admit that the genesis of you depends on the long series of complex influences which has produced the race in which you appear… Maybe we each get to run our own race, but we don’t get to choose what race we are in.

In the modern world, with our increasing knowledge of the networks of interaction which rule everything from the biological to the sociological world, our view of history seems to have shifted away from the raw importance of individual actors. In parallel, it seems that our view of ourselves has also shifted away from the idea of the fully realized adult.

We realize now that the systems around us have a powerful influence on who we are and what we do in life. If we come from a [insert adjective] home and grow up with [insert adjective] education, there is strong likelihood that we will go on to live a [insert adjective life]. Violence breeds violence, ignorance breeds ignorance, and success breeds success.

Our realization that our freedom is imperfect and our control is incomplete, necessitates that we let go of the idea of true adulthood. We will never be fully prepared for a “real” world which does not really exist. In a world which is changing at an accelerating pace we will never be able to outpace our growing ignorance. We will never enjoy the luxury of careers and clear life plans which allowed our parents to set in their adult moulds.

The boiling down of a human soul into a singular purpose always was always rather cartoonish anyways. 

Ironically, maybe childhood was the more truthful view the entire time. Childhood is something in between. It is a time when we accept our naivete about life, and we are open to change. We grasp only what responsibilities and capabilities that our knowledge allows, but we are also cognizent of our own imperfection. Children are a work in progress.

It would seem that a natural extension of childhood is already happening. We are living at home longer, waiting longer to have children, and staying in school longer. All of these things which would previously have been associated with childhood have been extended out over the years. In a future where work will become less and less the defining characteristic of our lives, I hope that we will be able to rediscover our fascination with the world and embrace of the positive aspects of childhood (creativity, freedom, happiness, love) and not the negative aspects of childhood (impatience, irresponsibility, ignorance).

Ultimately, as we begin to grasp the enormity of the universe around us we are left with a knowledge of our own imperfection and fallibility. In the face of the awesome we are all children.

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This post was partially inspired by a self post on r/Futurology by Polycephal_Lee.  “There are those that say idleness will breed laziness and contempt, but we can empirically observe a population of freeloaders who completely depend on others and contribute nothing: our children. Are they lazy assholes? No, they’re curious, thoughtful, happy, kind, friendly creatures. Essentially everything I want to be.”

The Bots Can Save Us, But Only if We Ask Them To

We have some problems to deal with.

Global warming, poverty, economic collapse, general environmental destruction, diminishing resources, and lets not forget that we’re still sitting on an unreasonably large stockpile of awe-inspiring super weapons. If you have been paying attention, then you know that if we want to survive on this planet, now might be a good time for us to start thinking about long term plans.

But how can we ever deal with problems as immense as global warming or poverty?

Contrary to the popular expression, I don’t think that the first step in dealing with any problem is accepting that you have a problem, rather you must first accept that you are not helpless. Regardless of what problems you face, you must first identify your own ability to change yourself and your world. Learned helplessness is a psychological state wherein we begin to believe that failure has become inevitable and insurmountable. Perhaps, this same psychological fault that drives individuals to give up in the face of their problems, is partly what prevents us from collectively facing the wider problems of the world.

The belief that humans are essential impotent in the face of the power of nature is deep within our psyche. It likely doesn’t help that this view was basically true for all of history. Humans have always been at the mercy of any earthquake, flood, storm, drought, famine etc… In the face of such a malevolent environment, one can see how we would have developed a sense of helplessness about our environment.

But in the modern world where we have accomplished so many incredible things, is there really any justification for such a pessimistic view? In a world where we regularly perform magical feats like flying through the air from one place to another, or beaming pictures of ourselves across the world in mere fractions of a moment etc… We created the airplane, television, atomic bomb, and the internet in the same century!

These great technologies give us all immense power. By one estimate, an average westerner has access to the energy equivalent of around 100 or 150 slaves. At no time ever have so many had access to so much.

So, if we accept that we are not helpless, and that we have the power to solve our problems, then we must next ask the next question – how?

This is where the robots come in.

Soon the many menial jobs will be replaced with computers. We will be able to get far more done for far less cost. It may not be an easy transition for the economy but that makes no difference, if a robot can do your job, you will be replaced. Driven by continued advances in computers and robotics, as well as things like 3D printing the cost to make things will continue to plummet. Many of us already have access to most of the things we could ever want… soon everyone could.

But what are we to do with this economic boon? I would argue that we can and must become better people. Technology gives us immense new power, but it is up to us to decide how we will use it.

Now is the time we must act. If we allow the automation revolution to progress in a moral vacuum as with the industrial revolution, we will be risking everything. Automation has even more of the disruptive potential that was brought to bear by industrialization.

The obvious example of this disruptive capacity is the acceleration of job loss, which may already be outpacing the rate at which new jobs are created. If we fail to address the fundamental problem of wealth inequality in the age of automation, we risk total economic collapse.

If we continue to cling to our medieval belief that economic hardship is mainly brought on by laziness and ineptitude then we risk losing everything we have worked so hard to build. In a world of untold riches, success need no longer be justified through villainizing failure.

Just as automation has the potential magnify our economic sins, environmental destruction could be similarly accelerated. If the industrialization enabled us to destroy a mountain in search of riches, automation could allow us to destroy a mountain range. If lax regulation allowed industry to pollute a entire river, automation could pollute an entire ocean.

World war II showed the world the terrifying efficiency with which the military industrial complex can extinguish human life. I shudder at the potential power that an automated army could unleash upon the world.

Automation will give us more power then we have ever known, and as the old saying goes “with great power comes great responsibility”. It is up to us to imbue our technological world with morality.  If we don’t expect automation to make the world healthier, safer and fairer, then it will almost certainly make it dirtier, more unstable, and more polarized.

Technology will serve to magnify our successes and our sins, it is up to us to choose which ones.

Exploding into the Age of Quantum Computing

I am become death, the destroyer of economies

On July 16th, 1945 the world changed in a moment. In the early New Mexico morning, a spherical explosion condensed a core of enriched plutonium to supercritical size, initiating an irreversible chain-reaction that would change the world forever. With the bomb known as The Gadget and its brothers Little Boy and Fat Man, humanity had tapped into the fundamental power of the Universe.

The world had exploded into the nuclear age and there would be no turning back.

While the first time DWave flipped the switch on their processor it might have lacked the punctuation of an awesome nuclear explosion, the consequences of flipping that switch may be no less profound than that of the trinity explosion. Whether you accept that DWave has created a quantum computer or not, someone will eventually create it and the consequences are going to be deep and serious.

Humanity is tapping into the fundamental mathematical power of the Universe. We are exploding into the age of quantum computing and there will be no turning back.

Essentially, adiabatic quantum computing means that if we formulate a mathematical question in just the right way and if we can quiet the inherent noise of the world, then it is possible that the right answer can simply pop out of the Universe.

Whereas standard computers utilize strings of digital bits that are deterministically always either 1 or 0, quantum bits are simultaneously both 1 and 0 (known as superposition). While in this state of quantum flux, the answer to a given calculation is not accessible to us. In order for us here in the deterministic world to get an answer, we must collapse the quantum waveform into a deterministic one. By carefully controlling this process of quantum collapse, adiabatic quantum processors can naturally find the lowest energy state of a given string of bits.

While I barely understand how it works at all, quantum computers have a capacity to perform some mathematical calculations in a way that would take unreasonably long amounts of time for a standard computer. One example of this type of problem is the factoring of very large prime numbers. Unfortunately, the inherent difficulty in factoring long prime numbers is also the property that we use for public-key encryption of our internet traffic. Browsing, emails, online banking – all of these things rely on public key encryption that is essentially made obsolete by quantum computers.

In 50 years we will look back at our current time as the age of pre-quantum computing. A world where we dove headlong into digitization right up until we ran smack into quantum computation. Everything from our telecommunications systems, to the command and control of infrastructure, to banking and economic systems have all migrated to using the internet for communications. All of these systems rely on the computational friction to obfuscate private data.

Quantum computers get around this computational friction, and the implications are profound for our modern digital economy.

Thinking about Bitcoin provides a perfect example of the disruptive effects of quantum computing. Bitcoin is a type of crypto-currency (read cryptographic currency) that relies on this computational friction to allow the secure transfer of answers to difficult math problems as a form of currency in and of itself. As opposed to standard computing, a quantum computer circumvents the computational friction that secures Bitcoin as a currency. In this way, you could feasible use a quantum computer to calculate someone else’s “answers”  and steal their Bitcoins.

Bitcoin is the currency that I like to like, and I am thrilled at the idea of a digital currency free of the government hand but within its current form I don’t see any way that your Bitcoin wallet can survive in the age of quantum computing. Even more scary though, while Bitcoin might provide the simplest example of how the coming of the quantum computer will break economic systems, it is far from the only one.

Now, here is where it gets really interesting. In our age of digitization, every currency is essentially a cryptocurrency. That is to say, all modern banking relies on cryptography to maintain its integrity. While you might still be able to take cash out of the bank and hold it in your hand, the vast majority of transactions are simply the secure exchange of 1’s and 0’s. Using a quantum computer of sufficient power, a nefarious actor could theoretically completely circumvent any modern banking systems; easily moving, creating or destroying wealth anywhere which it is digital.

This potential breakdown of digital security could lead to a number of disastrous outcomes. For instance, a collective loss of faith in the security of our banking institutions could lead to a downward spiral in the value and importance of currency generally. More likely than this however, I would guess that some form of quantum encryption will emerge to replace current cryptographic techniques. A side-product of this, is that it would serve to re-centralize the power of cryptography to those who can afford to use expensive quantum technology, namely governments and large corporations (at least for the forseeable future).

The power of quantum computing also extends far beyond the world of cryptography. In addition to being able to do things like factoring extremely large numbers, quantum computers can also find the optimal answer to questions of reality that have as of yet been inaccessible to standard computation.

The classic example of this is the travelling salesman problem, wherein a computer tries to find the shortest route for a salesman to take between multiple locations. In turns out that such a problem is very hard for a standard computer to figure out, but for a quantum computer which seeks the lowest energy solution, it is much easier. Similarly, a quantum computer can also be applied to a host of optimization problems wherein computational friction has thusfar hindered our understanding:

  1. Molecular Processes – Protein folding is a complex process driven by probabilistic processes that are highly difficult for standard computers to model. It is thought that quantum computers will be able to model this much more readily. Similarly, quantum computing might be brought to bear in understanding the interactions of the millions of molecules found in even simple cells, leading to breakthroughs in the understanding of biology. 
  2. Computational understanding – Processing the meaning of an image or text is a highly difficult problem for standard computers. Because understanding is also driven by probabilistic effects, it is thought that quantum computers will also be able to be used to better “understand” what it reads or sees.
  3. Human behaviour – If human behaviour is also driven by probabilistic processes, then a quantum computer could potentially aid in distilling these phenomena as well. Quantum computers could aid an organization in figuring out the best way to sell a particular item to a person or group, or maybe a particular political philosophy.
  4. Understanding of the Nature of Reality – As we start to interact more with quantum computers, in a way we will be touching the mathematical fabric of the universe. Through this we may finally find answers for some fundamental questions such as the nature of consciousness, or that of reality itself.

These are but a few examples of the types of problems that may fall to the might of quantum computing, but as with all technological revolutions it will likely be the unforeseen consequences of quantum computation that will have the biggest impact on the world. There is at least one thing that is without doubt for me, the quantum computer will bring untold power to bear for those that control it, one that will create new economies and destroy old ones.

Just as the explosive entrance of the nuclear bomb onto the world’s stage represented a paradigm shift for warfare, the emergence of quantum computing represents a revolutionary paradigm shift for computation. In the same way that the last half of the 20th century was a story of who had the bomb, the first half of the 21st century may turn out to be about who has the quantum computer.

Stay tuned, this is going to get interesting.