Blindsided by History

16 February 2009


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It was never my intention to write so much here about artificial intelligence and machine consciousness, but having visited the topic in The Singularity has no Clothes and returned to it in The Law of Stalled Technologies, it becomes more apparent with each further glance at the topic that a brief treatment cannot do justice to all the issues involved. Also, it has been a fruitful inquiry. We have seen that a consideration of the possibility of a “technological singularity” led us to the Law of Stalled Technologies, and this in turn led us to the realization that social technologies may well manifest a similar pattern of development.

I ought to point out that I am not an AI “skeptic.” I’m not even a skeptic of the possibility of machine consciousness in a strong and robust form. On the contrary, if I had to give my position a name I suppose I would have to call myself an “inevitabilist” as it seems to me that if industrial-technological civilization has the opportunity to continue its present course of development, it will inevitably converge upon artificial intelligence and even machine consciousness — in some form, however inscrutable. And this is an important qualification to make, since if and when machine consciousness emerges in history, it will be incomprehensibly alien, perhaps unrecognizable for what it is (i.e., as another form of consciousness, distinct from human consciousness), because it will have emerged from a different evolutionary process than that from which we emerged.

We should expect to be blindsided by the future, as history is inherently unpredictable. Just ask a Marxist. Marx was supposed to have discovered the laws whereby history functions; some of his followers saw him as the Newton who gave the laws of motion for human society. Only, things didn’t work out the way Marx predicted. And even after history has run its course, people fight over the meaning and significance of what happened. Just ask an historian. There is little consensus on what actually happened in the past, for the past is a battleground.

Putting faith in our powers of prediction is a fool’s errand. Usually we cannot even see what is in front of our noses. One striking feature of intelligence gathering efforts in the twentieth century was its utter failure. All the biggest world events — what geopolitical types now call “strategic shocks” — were completely unexpected and blindsided even the experts. While there has been a lot of backpedaling during the past twenty years, I was old enough at the time of the collapse of communism in eastern Europe to remember how completely unexpected it was. And, of course, the same is true of the financial crisis today. After the fact, everyone says that they saw it coming. The fact is, almost no one saw it coming. It is a particular dishonesty of our time that so few are willing to admit it.

While I have just pointed out above how wrong Marx was, I will now make the point (after having much criticized Marx in this forum) of observing the sense in which Marx was a true visionary. Marx, unlike most men of his time, knew that he was witnessing a revolution. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, transforming the world of everyone, Marx included, but Marx was one of the few to explicitly realize that he was seeing a revolution. His vision opened his eyes to what was going on around him. Indeed, it was Marx’s realization that he was seeing a revolution that made him aware that revolutions were in fact possible and therefore there could be a revolution of the industrial proletariat that would expropriate the expropriators. It is a powerful vision, but it has remained a vision only.

Marx the visionary recognized the Industrial Revolution and was inspired by the possibility of further revolution.

Marx the visionary recognized the Industrial Revolution when others did not and was inspired by the possibility of further revolution.

Similarly, our world has been and is being transformed by technology. It is a revolution, although this time there is more of an awareness that it is a revolution. Kurzweil’s prediction of a technological singularity is essentially a prediction of the precise form that a further technological revolution will take. My issue it not with a technological revolution, but that it will take the form of a technological singularity, or, for that matter, any vision of a technological utopia in which human beings no longer struggle but rather enjoy unlimited abundance and leisure. This simply isn’t how the world works. We know we are alive because we struggle, and when we cease to struggle we will have given up and dropped out of history. The end.

The HAL 9000 was the frightening fictional introduction to AI for many of us.

The HAL 9000 was the frightening fictional introduction to AI for many of us.

Fortunately, it is not yet the end for us — not quite yet, at least. The more I think about it, the more Kurzweil’s approach to AI and machine consciousness — “simple methods combined with heavy doses of computation” — is the antithesis of mind. It is the technological approach, and this approach has been buttressed by successes such as Deep Blue, but it is an approach that will stall, since it is based on a highly specific technology.

the factual introduction to AI for many of us.

One of several versions of IBM's Deep Blue: the factual introduction to AI for many of us.

Moore’s law, in its original form (and it has received several forms as its supporters have re-formulated it as technology has changed), was a very specific prediction about a very specific technology: it was concerned with how many transistors can be fit on an integrated circuit. The technology of integrated circuits has rapidly reached a point of maturity, and when this specific technology stalls can be predicted on the basis of known materials science.

This is not to say that computers might not continue to realize tremendous gains in performance, but if they do so it will be because new technologies replace integrated circuit technologies, which cannot function when the miniaturization of transistors falls below the size of the molecules of the particular materials used to create transistors in integrated circuits. At this point, the technology by definition reaches its end. There may be increases in computer performance from such things as quantum computing, but this is a distinct technology based on distinct materials and processes. Further improvements will not come from the stalled, older technologies, but from the new, innovative technologies only now beginning to experience an initial exponential growth.

Similarly, even if artificial intelligence and machine consciousness are inevitable, that does not mean that they can be predicted, projected, or extrapolated on the basis of present technologies. There is an element of anachronism in even supposing that this is so, and that is part of the charm of failed futurisms of the past. The simplicity of consciousness is the exact opposite of Kurzweil’s approach, which latter is based on a projection of present technologies. Consciousness operates with a large stock of rules of thumb derived from experience and many principles derived from reflection, and it works on a very few select perceptions retrieved from the preconscious mind.

Failed futurisms of the past are endlessly entertaining, and it is worth enquiring into why this is the case.

Failed futurisms of the past are endlessly entertaining, and it is worth inquiring into why this is the case.

Present technologies will stall, and they will eventually be superseded by unpredicted and unpredictable technologies that will emerge to surpass them. Those who remain fixated on existing technologies will be blindsided by the new technologies, and indeed may simply fail to recognize new technologies for what they are when they do in fact appear. While engineers and technologists may be slow to grasp this, canny politicians have exploited this facet of social technologies from the beginning of time: all hope is fixed upon the revolution that promises fundamental change, and not upon the Old Order, which is seen as demoralized, decadent, and compromised.

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