Sunday, June 20, 2010

the ethical and political dimension of technological progress

The skill ladder keeps going up.  I remember what it was like working in IT back in 1998, and it's nothing like it is now.  The amount you need to know to break into this industry is somewhat daunting.  A lot of those jobs were being outsourced then, but it's crazy now.   Or not even outsourced - a lot of it is just automated.  In fact, that was my first IT job: automating shit.  

This guy Marshall Brain thinks automation is going to result in either (a) everyone being unemployed and starving or (b) what I would describe with the word "communism".  He's not the only one espousing a technological/eschatological viewpoint.  There's also Robert Wright, who thinks we're at the beginning of a period in which we're either going to basically get things right or simply kill ourselves.  I'm somewhat convinced of Wright's position, at least in the general features.  He makes political gestures which, if not wholly inspiring, are probably the best we can rationally hope to achieve in the short-run.

All of this got me thinking about the Luddites and the Luddite Fallacy. Automation by itself isn't causing the longer and deeper recessions we're suffering.  There has been almost no break in the blinding pace of technological progress since the early 19th century, when the Luddite movement erupted.  (I would argue that if you look at it from the position of very early human civilization, we have been post-"singularity" for about 500 years now.)  And yet we're not all unemployed, and the prosperity and increase in quality of life has been tremendous by almost any relevant measure.

The question I want to raise is this: Is it automatic?  Does the relentless quickening of technological advance and the increase in productivity automatically result in greater prosperity for everyone, or is there some moment of political decision in this that has to be seized in the right way? It's not as though you introduce an automated loom and the people who used to weave now go and make looms instead. There's a time lag. You have to be trained, and that requires education. Education requires money. There are college students today who are the first in their families to attend.Education and training are hardly guaranteed, especially in American society. It's hard to register this, but the working class had to fight for the right to public education, and it was pretty lousy for a century—Marx described this in the first volume of Capital. Arguably it was the GI Bill which economically enfranchised an entire generation and made possible the previously unprecedented prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s.

So my point is that technological progress and the increase in productivity it brings is good and necessary and shouldn't be opposed under any circumstances.  There are very few people who do oppose it, though.  The problem is that the questions of prosperity and quality of life—which are connected with things like the level of unemployment, the kinds of social safety nets available in the society, etc.—aren't technological questions.  They're not guaranteed by technological progress.  This is very different from suggesting that technological progress causes unemployment.  I kind of doubt that because if that were the case society would have collapsed some time during the Renaissance—which is arguably when the singularity actually occurred.  What I'm thinking—and again, this goes back to my previous point about the role and meaning of human subjectivity—is that there's a political and ethical dimension to all of this.  The reason we've benefited so much from technological progress isn't because there's something inherently wonderful about it.  Technological growth is more like a natural growth, even if it exists in symbiosis with us, its host.  The reason we've benefited is because people have organized themselves and have struggled against capital and have demanded and won those gains for themselves.

Thursday, June 17, 2010


From the New York Times Magazine:
“Toured the Burj in this U.A.E. city. They say it’s the tallest tower in the world; looked over the ledge and lost my lunch.”

This is the quintessential sort of clue you hear on the TV game show “Jeopardy!” It’s witty (the clue’s category is “Postcards From the Edge”), demands a large store of trivia and requires contestants to make confident, split-second decisions. This particular clue appeared in a mock version of the game in December, held in Hawthorne, N.Y. at one of I.B.M.’s research labs. Two contestants — Dorothy Gilmartin, a health teacher with her hair tied back in a ponytail, and Alison Kolani, a copy editor — furrowed their brows in concentration. Who would be the first to answer?

Neither, as it turned out. Both were beaten to the buzzer by the third combatant: Watson, a supercomputer.
It's fascinating news. For me, the most interesting part of the article was seeing how advanced the algorithms are. You have programmers who are waiting for the hardware to catch up. That's a really good sign as far as AI goes, since the main anxieties aren't hardware-related but are software-related.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

article on genomics

There was an article in the NYT the other day about progress and lack thereof in medicine in the past 10 years since the human genome was decoded.
The initial attraction of genomics was the assumption that knowing all the genes would lead to the discovery of thousands of new targets. And to some extent that has happened.

But compared to the past, when targets tended to be discovered by academic scientists already studying a disease and its genetic context, the genome project provided companies with thousands of potential new targets all at once. Targets discovered this way, without years of academic research behind them, can require companies to spend years to understand the targets’ role in disease.
The article goes on to qualify this pessimism—correctly I think—with the fact that (a) it can take up to 15 years for a new drug to clear clinical trials, and (b) most scientists agree that we're at the mere beginning of a revolution in medicine, the fruit of which will not all be borne at once.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

the politics of intelligence

The point of view I suggested here is that the universe is intelligent. The universe has always had intelligence, since it has always had some form, and as this form has evolved, so too has the intelligence of the universe. This is another way of saying that the basic building blocks of the universe are not inchoate particulars (what Aristotle and the Greeks referred to as "hypokeimenon" or "hyle") but rather patterns, shapes, or intelligible appearances ("morphe" in the Greek philosophical lexicon).

Further, human individuality (subjectivity, consciousness, and moral awareness) is not a mere statistical outlier with respect to the rest of the universe. It is not evanescent mist hovering above the churning sea of brute material existence. It is an integral part of this process—maybe the most complex and ordered stage of it—which started with the Big Bang. Human individuality expresses something essential in the universe itself, since it is part of the continuum of ever-increasing complexity and order of forms of the physical world.

This is not to say humans are somehow more evolved than other things. Bacteria are no more or less evolved than human beings. Nor is it to say an asteroid couldn't come along tomorrow and wipe us out (though the odds of this happening decrease constantly). There is in all probability no "higher power" looking out for us. None of this is part of any preordained plan. But individuality does not have to be part of a plan in order to be at the center of a philosophical understanding of the cosmos. It only need to contain within itself everything it needs in order to survive, and by means of its own resources, create the scaffolding for its transition to a higher level of order and complexity.

Asteroid impacts, frozen earths, and other calamities have befallen the world already, and they will happen again. And yet all the evidence points toward life having formed once on earth, not many times. So even the simplest forms of life have within them the power to weather cosmological contingencies—even those crises created by life itself. All the great extinctions we know about happened to creatures far more complex than the prokaryotes. The received wisdom is that as we become more complex, we're also more fragile. The higher we build the edifice of intelligence and (eventually) technological civilization, the more vulnerable is our deck of cards to the slightest breeze.

And yet the speed and consistency with which consciousness has developed since the Cambrian explosion, straight through those extinctions, is astonishing. Having complex bodies, central nervous systems, spinal columns, brains, opposable thumbs, abstract thought, and emotions haven't made us more susceptible to the caprice of nature. On the contrary, they seem to have allowed us to master nature. Nature has rapidly evolved many sorts of creatures, all of which have unprecedented abilities to solve problems using finite resources. There have been catastrophic interruptions along the way, but overall the great experiment of life has gone unimpeded for almost four billion years now. The proof is in our genetic code, which has recorded the results of this experiment going all the way back to the last common ancestor.

Most would agree that, if we include things like bacteria, life in general is probably immune to extinction caused by any natural event, save the swelling of the sun into a red supergiant which engulfs the earth. And it's probably a safe bet that there are few natural events which could completely exterminate human life. The question remains whether it could be done by technological means.

The 20th century saw the development of means to bring this about. The 21st century will see the creation of further means to do it. It would be ironic if the very means by which intelligence had learned to weather the contingencies of a hostile universe became the cause of its extinction. I see no reason in principle why we shouldn't destroy ourselves with our technology. But at the same time, I also see no reason why we have to destroy ourselves. We clearly have the capability of using technology in ways that are non-destructive if not totally responsible. We survived the threat of global thermonuclear war, after all. Our most pressing existential threat at the moment comes from the impact of technology on the ecosystem. There's still no telling what effects will come of the massive oil spill which is still spewing into the Gulf of Mexico. Replacements for hydrocarbon energy sources are being created rapidly and should help the global economy move toward zero emissions over the course of the next few decades. But will that be fast enough? Are we too late? It would be tragic to fail at one of our greatest moments, and yet there's nothing to rule such endings out.

It comes down to the role that individual subjectivity—arguably nature's weirdest invention—is to play in all of this. On the one hand there's runaway technological advancement which no one seems to have the power to stop. Assuming technology is the seventh kingdom of life, it is a form of life whose characteristic behavior is to grow, multiply, and evolve without any regard for other living things in the ecosystem. And yet it is a form of life which has a symbiotic relationship with us. As yet it cannot evolve in the absence of human action and human institutions.

But—and here's the important part—those institutions embody more than a drive toward technological mastery. They also embody, in part, our moral awareness, our desire for fairness, our respect for other sentient creatures—in short, they embody human subjectivity.

It's a highly complex relationship because there's very good reason to believe that, without technological advance, we could never have arrived at the moral, political, personal, and ecological awarenesses we currently have. The evolution of technology—and human society and culture more generally—has brought about a penetrating critical awareness of itself. Technology—which just seems to inherently destroy the earth and make us kind of stupid and insane while it also makes life easier in certain respects—brings about not only an awareness of the dangers of technology but also the ability to shape and control the development of technology (while not being able to stop it or reverse it). This is necessarily part of the nature of technology itself, owing to its symbiotic relationship with us. It has to reflect our values, for better or for worse.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger correctly pointed out that "the essence of technology is by no means anything technological." What he meant is that the essence of technology can't be resolved from a technical perspective, as though it were just another engineering difficulty. I think Heidegger is correct when he says the essence of technology goes beyond the gizmos and gadgets we associate with it, and that its destiny was established long before the scientific revolution of the 17th century. What I'm saying—which is different from what Heidegger is saying—is that we're at a dangerous moment of decision right now. Technological advance is not going to stop. In all likelihood we will not "blow ourselves up", at least not to the extent necessary to make a significant dent in a trend which has gone on, so far as we can see, for millennia, through the collapses of civilizations, through plagues, economic collapses, and world wars. And even if we do stop it, it's just going to start up again either here or somewhere else in the universe. In fact, since the large-scale structure of the universe is by all appearances perfectly uniform, what we're going through here and now is probably happening everywhere else it can at the same time.

What I'm saying is that this development is, at least in its broad features, probably inevitable. So if it's going to happen anyway, why not try to make it reflect, as much as possible, the things that are really valuable? Because what we're really being offered here—maybe for the first time in the universe—is the ability to self-consciously guide evolution, maybe even to turn it into a completely rational process.

You might think to yourself, "We're completely screwed then. Just look at how irrational and unjust the world is!" But that's plainly not true. If you want to see irrational and unjust, go back 400 or even 200 years. In 1800, the average life expectancy world-wide was shorter than it is in most of the worst places today. If you think quality of life is bad now, try to imagine what it was like before there was a nation-state. Most—I would argue all—of the awareness we have acquired of the difference between right and wrong, fair and unfair, just and unjust, has come from an ugly, brutal, calamitous history. But we have learned from it, and more importantly we have learned to apply the lessons from it. That learning process hasn't ceased. It just feels that way because you're alive now. Everyone always thinks their time is the worst, but I guarantee you almost anyone from the 18th century—even an upper class person—would trade places with you in a heartbeat if you described to them what our world is like. Chattel slavery is no longer recognized as legally legitimate. The ideas in the Declaration of Independence have been marshaled in defense of struggles for independence and self-determination which have spread across the entire globe. Those ideas have been extended, far beyond what their framers initially thought possible, to encompass more than abstract political rights but also to include things like economic, racial, and gender justice. We can speak and do of so much more than anyone would ever have thought possible even a century and a half ago. It's because we have so much more to think about and it's because we receive so much more information about the world on a daily basis that we feel like things aren't getting better but worse. But if you pull back and look at it, there's a lot more going on.

The point of this is not to say that we've arrived at our destination or that everything is going smooth so just let other people worry about it. The forces of injustice, irrationality, and evil are strong in this world. The appearance that things are crazy and that there are dangers everywhere is not an illusion. It's reality. There's more at stake now than there may ever have been since life first appeared on earth. I do think it's that drastic. What I'm trying to convince you of is that it's not an uneven match. For those of us who care about ethics and who care about fairness and justice—the race is in fact too close to call. You need to understand the stakes, and you need to be involved.

So what is to be done?

The first step is to understand the broad story that I've outlined above. The whole question of intelligence and its role in the world has to be understood from a cosmological perspective. Because only when you understand it from a cosmological perspective will you be motivated to act, even when there are setbacks and things seem bleak. I would say this is the most important part. If you have trouble with philosophy, then embrace an appropriate religion, one that emphasizes compassion toward all sentient beings and in which there is a higher power who sides with the oppressed against the oppressors.

Then you have to help support or build anything that furthers these values. This isn't "activism" in the ordinary sense of going to protests or getting pieces of paper signed. You can build the right kind of civilization in a lot of different ways. You should always support transparency and fairness in political processes, no matter what. For instance, support giving broad powers to IAEA inspectors in Iran, but more importantly, support giving those same powers to inspectors in the United States—not to punish the United States, but because if we do it, then that means everyone else will have to do it too.

Create and share knowledge in all its forms: literary, musical, scientific, philosophical, technological, visual, etc. Don't hoard knowledge; share it. Our ability to share knowledge is growing exponentially. It's a tremendous opportunity. Don't just share information. Think about it and relate it back to the broader picture: the story of our civilization and the essential conflicts in it. Oppose totalitarianism in all its forms. Always support individual rights.

Things not to do. Don't just go to protests. Protests are for old liberals stuck in the 60s and for anarchists hate technology and who juggle and do puppet shows. It's occasionally useful as a tactic, but mostly it's mouthwash for leftists, something to make them feel fresh.

Another thing not to do: don't spend the majority of your time "critiquing" things. Of course one should be critical, i.e., use critical reasoning, in all things which are really worthwhile. But do it in the service of something constructive. Create knowledge and avenues of action with it. Don't use it to create despair or to make yourself feel powerless. Powerlessness is an illusion. Never in all of human history have individuals had more power to change the world.

Never martyr yourself or sacrifice yourself to a degree which is unreasonable. There is nothing noble in being oppressed or deprived. Remain aware of unfairness and privilege. Side with those who are treated unfairly against those who treat them that way. Always look for creative ways to use knowledge to subvert unfairness. But just because you're part of a privileged strata of society does not mean that all there is for you to do is to renounce your privilege and take up the cause of someone less privileged. People who come from a reasonably comfortable background and go to liberal arts colleges come away thinking (a) the world and everyone in it is screwed, (b) they're bad unless they're screwed too, and (c) the only thing you can do to redeem yourself is renounce privilege. This is the liberal arts school view of the world. It's pure preachy moralizing with no connection to reality. Ignore it.

There's actually a lot you can do as a "privileged" person, and it doesn't require you taking the equivalent of friar's vows. (I really don't like the word "privileged"—try using that word with a lower-middle-class or working class family just because they happen to be white and see what kind of reaction you get. It's a bad strategy. It's a bad tactic.) Going to college gives you the ability to do knowledge-work. You can study part of the system as a whole—or even the system itself—and look for more avenues for action and intervention. There are a lot of things you can do once you move beyond self-flagellation.

There are so many avenues for positive action that there is no excuse for doing nothing. But I think the key to everything else is starting with the right perspective, the perspective of intelligence. If you believe we're living in a meaningless universe or that, as an individual with a modicum of awareness, you're like the last living survivor of a zombie apocalypse, you're going to have a really hard time doing anything besides laying in bed, drinking, or whining.

No, the world is not great, but you have to see it for what it is. Sometimes that requires less information, not more. For example, if you read the news thoroughly every day, you're liable to form a skewed picture of what the world is like. The news of the day is always negative. You need to step back from that and take in, not necessarily more information, but a broader perspective. Creating knowledge sometimes requires us to destroy information or at least ignore it. That's how your mind recognizes things like faces or furniture—it destroys the background data and focuses on the pattern. That's what you need to allow your mind to do with our civilization and with some of human history.

If we're moving toward something like an Omega Point, then the lesson to take away from it is the one I outlined here. The universe is intelligent, not dumb, i.e., it is part of its nature to give rise to more intelligent processes. Conscious moral awareness is therefore at home in the world. Making the world reflect our values is not a hopeless cause. It's the being of history itself. We're here for a reason—not one preordained by a higher power, whatever that means, but one given to us by ourselves for our own care and use.

That any of us exists at all is a mystery. That we exist now is very strange. We live in a time of unprecedented promise and peril. There probably has never existed a more important or interesting time to be alive. That's knowledge worth using.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Leibniz and Cantor on the infinite

If you're in an auditorium and you notice that no one is standing but all the seats are taken, it makes sense to conclude that there are exactly as many people in the room as there are seats. Leibniz concluded the same thing about infinite numbers, should they exist. Assume an exact one-to-one matching between the natural numbers (1, 2, 3, 4 ...) and the even numbers (2, 4, 6, 8...) such that:

1 2 3 4...
| | | |
2 4 6 8...

For each even number, e.g., 234,168, there is a corresponding natural number, viz., 117,084. And yet, the set of even numbers forms a part of the set of the natural numbers (the odd numbers and the even numbers). If a one-to-one matching is possible, then the number of all natural numbers is not larger than the number of all even numbers. The whole is not larger than the part.

According to Martin Davis in Machines of Logic:
Cantor reasoned much as Leibniz had and faced the same dilemma: either it makes no sense to speak of the number of elements in an infinite set or some infinite sets will have the same number of elements as one of its subsets. However, while Leibniz had chosen one horn of this dilemma, Cantor chose the other. He went on to develop a theory of number that would apply to infinite sets and just accepted the consequence that an infinite set could have the same number of elements as one of its parts.
I don't know who was right in this, Leibniz or Cantor. Cantor had his detractors and still does. It's far from a settled dispute. What intrigues me is the option of revising logic. Few things are more self-evident than that the whole is greater than the part. And yet Cantor felt compelled—by the subject-matter of mathematics itself—to reject this assumption. What does this imply about the relation between mathematics and logic? Which is a branch of which? And if it's the case that one is a branch of the other, how can they be in such contradiction?

I felt a similar tension the first time I learned about Bell's inequality. I know others have different intuitions, but I couldn't help but feel there was something flawed in classical logic. It's as though the logic of the whole were somehow independent of the logic of the parts. And assuming transcendental grammar projects transcendental semantics, then there is a metaphysical independence and priority of the whole from and over the parts.

There are a lot of interpretations of mathematics and quantum mechanics. I wouldn't claim anything definitive or with certainty. Nevertheless it seems to me that these examples show that logic (and hence metaphysics) is not a mere given but at least at the moment is a matter of interpretation. And furthermore it is not merely a priori but is subject to experimental result and historical accomplishment. Meaning we may ascend to some point in the future where our transcendental grammar and transcendental semantics are radically different from what they are now.