Sunday, February 17, 2013

A Singularitanian Utopia or a wasted afternoon?

Sometimes you go to a talk or even that just blows your mind – you're overwhelmed with the breadth of the speaker's ideas, or the eloquence with which she concretizes and synthesizes thoughts that have jostled for attention in your own mind. Or you feel that they've opened a door to a whole new domain that until now had been entirely unknown to you.

Sadly, Ian Pearson's presentation at 'ASingularitarian Utopia Or A New Dark Age?' wasn't like that at all. Instead, it was a warmed-over mish-mash of technological cornucopianism, seasoned with Daily Mail-style reactionary harrumphing about 'political correctness gone mad'. It was sad, too, to see that there was little push-back from the audience. The London Futurists that organized the event seemed to lap it all up, and the question and answer session (you couldn't call it a debate or discussion) were really about matters of details. Afterwards, some of the comments posted on the meeting suggested that this was indeed English politeness rather than silent assent. Even where Pearson was at his weakest – his ignorant endorsement of climate change denial – the questions were the kind of polite requests you'd ask of a genuine authority on the subject. 

Pearson began with a brief restatement of the idea of the singularity – the notion that the rate of intellectual and technological change will soon approach an asymptote, and that this will lead to the emergence of superintelligence. Everything will start to change (that is, improve) very quickly, building on the ideas that have gone before, and we'll become superintelligent, thus getting lots of wonderful stuff that will solve not only our present problems but the underlying problems of the human condition, including sickness and mortality.

He argued that technology would indeed soon solve all of the problems that bothered us at the moment – resource problems would be solved by asteroid mining, for example, and better extractive technologies. The apparent crisis of water shortages could be solved by graphene straws, that could enable fresh clean water to be extracted from muddy puddles. This fatuous rubbish should have been indication enough that we were in the presence of someone who was prepared to announce 'solutions' to problems that he hadn't spent even a moment studying.

But we needn't have been worried. Pearson told us that he'd tracked the predictions that he'd been making since the early 1990s, and he'd been right 85% of the time. This does rather beg the question “If you're so smart why ain't you rich?”, and the obvious explanation that it's rather easy to make a lot of predictions that are going to turn out to be true. In 2030 cash will be worth less than it is today, shares will be worth more, and there will be more people around then there are now, and there will be a war going on somewhere, to quote four predictions that are very likely to turn out true.

I've always had near-boundless admiration for engineers. I love the orderly way that they approach complex problems and the way that they are able to organize themselves to work together. Policy-makers should take this kind of approach much more often. But Pearson's diatribe revealed the limitations of this perspective. There was absolutely no consideration that anybody had ever thought about any of these issues before, or that there was any need to bring any knowledge or ideas from any other intellectual discipline. For example, one of his technological riffs was the idea of 'bacterial computing' – that nanotechnology would make it possible to hybridize bacteria with self-replicating computers. Thus, conflating computational power with intelligence, and both with what is measured by intelligence tests, he declared it would be possible to make a pot of yogurt with the IQ of Europe. Similarly, it would be possible to make machines that were 'conscious', without any definition of what that meant (or acknowledgement that anyone else had ever thought about it), within two years. Well, I'm still waiting for my personal jet-pack.

When he'd finished telling us about all the wonderful stuff that was coming real soon – augmented reality, who would have though of that? - he then moved on to discuss the downside of all this change. The downside turned out to be liberal ideas. He put up a graphic to represent all of the dangerous nonsense that was leading us into the New Dark Age promised by the title. There is, it seems, a slippery slope that leads from equality for women, to racial equality, through equality for gay people and then on to animal rights, 'political correctness' and moral relativism. This in turn leads to the questioning of authority and the growth of 'anti-knowledge', which broadly means blog posts that Pearson doesn't agree with and Wikipedia articles that he finds wanting in some way. Actually my experience of Wikipedia articles on subjects that I do know something about is that they are usually pretty good; and such research as there has been done on the quality of Wikipedia articles seems to back up my experience. But why let actual research get in the way of a good rant?

'Moral relativism' in Pearson's view is any change in moral codes. So the decline in bear-baiting and public executions as a form of entertainment, and the advent of the idea that it's wrong for people to own other people, are presumably examples of moral relativism, and thus no doubt bad things. Curiously, he argued that 'political correctness gone mad' had resulted in the rise of a new 'Spanish Inquisition' (code for someone having challenged his reactionary ideas, since he didn't seem to have any visible injuries from his interrogation at the hands of this new Inquisition), while simultaneously lamenting the decline of organised religion which had previously provide us with a stable moral code. Hard to make this kind of stuff up. 

By this time I had almost lost the will to live, and if I'd been sitting on the end of an aisle I would have left. Unfortunately I wasn't, so I had to endure his declaration that he was an expert on climate science too, and he wasn't worried about climate change at all. There was 'a lot of crap on both sides of the debate', as much from what he referred to as the 'warmists' as from the deniers (of course, he didn't call them anything so pejorative . Anybody who disagreed with him was a mindless anti-science environmentalist, the sort of people who did more damage to the environment than all the corporations that there had ever been.

Time to declare a bit of an interest: I work as a technology analyst, and sometimes my clients want me to predict the future. Sometimes I try to do this, and I write about it. Sometimes I am spectacularly wrong – I managed to write hundreds of pages about 'value added data services' in the early 1990s without mentioning the internet, and I thought that SMS would never take off. I have no problem with people thinking about the future of stuff or technology, or about how our civilisation is going to turn out. Indeed, we have to do this if we aren't going to just let shit happen to us. Pearson's closing assertion that in the end our politicians will always wake up and pull us back from the brink of any disaster is belied by many examples of civilisations that did not pull back and went right over the edge to destruction.

But it's hard to resist the observation that this kind of futurology is not much more than science fiction, only without the literary merit. Although Pearson paused to appear to reflect on whether any of these 'inventions' would be a good thing, he didn't do much reflecting, let alone proper thinking about what the implications might be. It was if the phrase 'unintended consequences' had never been uttered by anyone, ever, and that there was no example of this anywhere in human history. On a more positive note, if Pearson really was BT's futurologist for 16 years, then there is hope for all those of us who do this sort of thing for a living. 


Unknown said...

Hi Jeremy: Thanks for getting involved in what I see (like you) as a very serious subject.

I've included some replies to points you raise in my own summary of the event on my personal blog.

I look forward to you writing more on these topics!

Jeremy Green said...

Hi David, tried to post a comment on your blog but Wordpress will only let me do that if I use a different, non-personal identity from the other WordPress blog that I run. Grrr! Anyway, I said that I feel even more that I was unfair to the London Futurists, who were polite rather than assenting to what Ian P said. I also said that I thought your summary was very good and fair to both Ian P and his critics - better than the presentation, actually. The quality of the after-event discussion means that I certainly don't feel I wasted the afternoon, and I look forward to seeing you at the next one.