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