Wednesday, October 27, 2010

story of the world

In some respects I'm an optimist about history, and in some respects I'm a pessimist.

I'm an optimist insofar as I think Kurzweil's law of accelerating returns is probably right, at least in its fundamental intuitions. By that I mean that the sort of technological change most people think will take centuries to realize will in fact take decades. Will a non-biological intelligence pass the Turing Test by 2029? 2050? 2020? The exact year of it doesn't matter that much. Most people think it will happen a hundred or two hundred years from now. The point is that the time it takes from now will be in multiples of 10, not 100, years. It's the exponential dimension Kurzweil has zeroed in on, and in that I think he's right.

Same thing goes especially for developing alternative energy and treatments for diseases. Most people seem to think such problems will take 50-100 years to solve. I follow trends in both these areas closely, and I think the scale Kurzweil projects them on—decades—is more accurate. As far as I understand the trends, it will shock me if my 2030 we have cancer or if we use of fossil fuels accounts for a significant portion of where we get our energy from. So with regard to those three things—AI, energy, and medicine—I'm an optimist.

That makes me and anyone the right age who is reading this pretty lucky. Right? Leaving the metaphysical complexities aside, each of us at least has the inextinguishable intuition he/she could have been born as anyone in any time or in any place. We're pretty lucky to have been born now. Assuming the technologies scale the right way, we might witness and participate in immortality, the transformation into a greater-than-human species, or even more.

This brings me to my pessimistic side.

History is a kind of imperialism of the general over the particular. From a skeptical/empiricist point of view, it doesn't seem that way. There's just a bunch of junk smacking into other junk, and eventually some monkeys come along and stop drooling long enough to imagine there are laws governing all this shit.

Be that as it may, assuming any scientific account of the universe is correct, for most of the world's history (so far as we know), there were just the laws of physics and chemistry operating on matter. Eventually that gave rise to "life", whatever the actual thing designated by the concept "life" is. It was impersonal and unfeeling, up through (perhaps) an RNA world in which there was genus but no species, and then maybe two and a half billion years of stuff you couldn't even see without a microscope. For at least 3/4 of its history, life consists in stuff not unlike what you skim off the top of your pool or scrub out around the drain in your tub.

Eventually, something happens, we know not what, and there exist nervous systems, sentience, consciousnesses, selves, individual rights, words which mean "get a life!", and the realization of the full meaning of personhood.

Ahh, but not so fast!

If the most optimistic pictures of the future are right, we will eventually reverse the tendency of biological evolution. The subject of evolution is the species, not the individual. (It's the general, not the particular.) Anyone who has watched a nature documentary and has sniffled over a cub dying or a rodent being eaten has felt the cold, detached generality of nature. We're observing a still-shot of a larger process which strengthens the species at the expense of the individual creature.

Evolution has created in us love for the individual, even while evolution is diametrically opposed to the individual. For all our intelligence and sensitivity, we still watch one another die. We're conscious of our own deaths. We even kill one another. This has gone on for millennia.

Do you see why I say there can't be a God? There can't be anyone who planned this. There is without doubt intelligence in the universe, even before humans. But the computer in your car or washing machine also has intelligence, about equal to that of an insect, and it has about as much emotional awareness as a hive of insects. If the universe has a plan or purpose, it's evolving one, and we're it.

I'm a pessimist, because I believe we're on the cusp of true individuality, but we might not be near enough to it in order for it to matter to us. We have the idea of individuality, and a series of imperfect institutions set up to shelter it from caprice. So long as technology continues its advance, there's nothing in theory which should be able to stop us from making true individuality—and all the dignity endowed to it—a reality rather than a liberal arts fantasy. But when you consider all the suffering that exists now in the world and which has existed in the past, it gives you a real appreciation for the relative mindlessness which has gotten us here.

Friday, October 22, 2010

rules for complex life

There was an article in yesterday's The New Scientist which lends support to claims I made in an earlier series of posts on evolution. According to the article, once complex organisms come into existence, they're freed from a host of constraints. This might allow their subsequent development to seem meteoric by comparison. The problem is crossing that initial hurdle from simplicity to complexity in the first place.
Once freed from energy restraints, genomes could expand dramatically and cells capable of complex functions – such as communicating with each other and having specialised jobs – could evolve. Complex life was born.

So if Lane and Martin are right, the textbook idea that complex cells evolved first and only later gained mitochondria is completely wrong: cells could not become complex until they acquired mitochondria.

Simple cells hardly ever engulf other cells, however – and therein lies the catch. Acquiring mitochondria, it seems, was a one-off event. This leads Lane and Martin to their most striking conclusion: simple cells on other planets might thrive for aeons without complex life ever arising. Or, as Lane puts it: "The underlying principles are universal. Even aliens need mitochondria."
It's a bit different from what I was saying. I was siding with Peter Ward and his hypothesis that life has a self-destructive tendency. It's not deliberately suicidal of course, but it has had a tendency to go in directions which were "unsustainable", i.e., which led to drastic decreases in genetic diversity and productivity over the long haul. I suggested that if the Medea hypothesis were true, it might explain why it took so long (about 3 billion years) for multicellular life to form on Earth.

Lane and Martin are suggesting something different though complimentary. Putting aside the fact that life often goes off in directions which are unsustainable, there's an energy threshold that has to be reckoned with in order to move from simplicity to complexity in living things. To put their idea in my own words, it's not enough to grow larger; things have to become more internally complex. And it turns out that transition from external complexity (concatenating cells) to internal complexity (adding intracellular parts like the mitochondria) is relatively difficult. Or at least it seems to be, given how long it took to happen after the initial abiogenesis.

One of the intriguing things about Lane and Martin's idea is that it's generalizable. It's just a function of the relationship between surface area and total volume. So as long as the life form in question has to occupy good old 3-dimensional Euclidean space, the same rules are going to apply there. Anything we find in the cosmos above the level of simple organisms like bacteria or archea will have to have something analogous to mitochondria. Though what the odds are of encountering anything that is, is anyone's guess.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

the size of the universe and the likelihood of intelligence

I recently came across an interesting quote in an article I was reading:
If the universe lasts forever, then any event that can happen, will happen, no matter how unlikely. In fact, this event will happen an infinite number of times.
The article has to do with the laws of physics and why time must eventually end, but I had thought about this idea previously while thinking about abiogenesis and the evolution of intelligence.

The large scale structure of the universe seems uniform. Once you pull out far enough, it's all filaments and voids. Since it's basically the same everywhere, the likelihood of an event occurring in one part of the universe should be the same as the likelihood of it occurring in another part of the universe.

Of course this depends on the type of event and scale we're talking about. Supernovae are a relatively frequent occurrence at the level of individual galaxies. But there might be 100 gamma ray bursts per day across the entire universe (which is considerably larger).

We could generalize this and say that for any cosmological event there's a particular probability density (P) for it which could be expressed as the likelihood of finding such an event occurring in a randomly chosen galaxy the size of our own. For the above two examples, Psupernova > Pgamma-ray-burster, though we don't know by exactly how much.

So what's the P for life? If you chose a Milky Way-like galaxy in the universe at random, how many planets could you expect to find in it, on average, that had ongoing processes of biological evolution taking place?

What's the P for intelligent life? What's the scale of the universe at which Pintelligent-life = 1? What's the average density of intelligent life for the universe as a whole? (Since the universe is roughly uniform in condition, it makes sense that everything is about equally distributed.)

As I mentioned in the previous post, if the Medea hypothesis is true, it might be very difficult for life to evolve even to the level of complexity and order we see in Cambrian biology, let alone intelligent life like our own. The scale of the universe at which Pintelligent-life = 1 might be extremely large, maybe even larger than the observable universe. It would explain why we don't see any intelligent civilizations even though we should if any existed.

It also might explain why the universe is so large. According to some cosmologists, the difference between the size of the observable universe and the actual universe is the same as the difference between an atom and the surface of the earth. (Mind you, the observable universe is already unfathomably large.)

Why do we observe such a large universe? Perhaps it's because that's the only kind of universe that can support the sort of life that would evolve to ask the question, "Why do we observe such a large universe?" Smaller universes might exist, though they never reach a scale large enough for intelligent life to become probable.

Thursday, October 7, 2010


For a change of pace, here's some music I've been really into lately:

I like how this one rolls in like low cloud cover. The Raincoats is Ana da Silva, Vicky Aspinall, and Gina Birch. Their drummer Palmolive (formerly of The Slits) quit before they did this album, so they had to make it up as they went along. It's why the percussion sounds so strange and why the overall effect is so non-rock despite their being (ostensibly) a punk rock band. Robert Wyatt and Georgie Born performed on this album (but not this track), which is a nice segue to...

Slapp Happy (Dagmar Krause, Peter Blegvad, and Jon Greaves) merged with Henry Cow (Fred Frith, Chris Cutler, and Tim Hodgkinson) in 1975 to record Desperate Straights. No, cabaret rock was not invented by Dresden Dolls! And no, this is not your dad's progressive rock. The short (2-5 minute form) experimental song form did not come into existence with post-punk. These guys were doing it in the early 70s.

Autoclave was Christina Billotte (of Slant 6), Mary Timony (of Helium), Nikki Chapman, and Melissa Berkoff. They did one album before splitting up, and this is the best track off it. The pinch harmonics, metal scales, shifting time signatures, and compressed punk beat make it an effective import of prog-rock idioms into indie rock. (I guess the term here is "math rock".)

A somewhat obscure post-punk gem. When they kicked sax player Lora Logic out of X-Ray Spex, she went on to form her own band, Essential Logic. They did a few albums before Lora Logic joined the Krishnas and had an arranged marriage (it's gotta beat using OkCupid). They do a lot of odd time signatures and tempo and key changes. Does anyone else hear the similarity between her singing and Danny Elfman's? I think they both stole it from Ludus.


Well, no introduction is necessary for Broken Social Scene. This song doesn't precisely represent what I like best about them, but it's still pretty cool. What's the deal nowadays with bands having, like, 15 people in them anyway? I barely get along with two people at a time...

Another band that came out with an album this year. This band is just amazing. I love them.

sustainability, part 2

I want to clarify the post I wrote on sustainability yesterday. There are many definitions of the word "sustainability", and I don't want to give the impression that I'm impugning environmentalism. I'm not. In some contexts, it's a feel-good buzz-word with little substance, but that's not the case for all uses of the word.

One important, legitimate use of the concept has to do with promoting sustainable development: "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." (link) Of course this encompasses a lot, and different organizations and institutions have approached the subject differently. In general what it points to is the need to reconcile social and economic demands with environmental ones. How do we increase human affluence while at the same time dealing with the pressures placed on the environment by population growth, energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, soil erosion and depletion, species extinction through deforestation and over-fishing, pollution of fresh water sources, etc.?

These aren't marginal questions. On the contrary, I believe they're the problems demanding the most immediate attention right now. Many of them might be soluble, and their solutions are connected on a deep level with issues of human justice. More on that in a bit.

But there's another definition of "sustainable" I was using in my last post which is separate from but connected with the sense intended by environmentalists. That has more generally to do with how biological systems remain diverse and productive over time. It's separate from the environmentalist conception of sustainability in the sense that it's more general, and it does not necessarily imply human decision-making. An ecosystem in this sense might be sustainable or unsustainable in the absence of humans. For example, if you have a closed system in which organism A is the natural predator of organism B, the system (relationship between the two organisms) is unsustainable if A can completely kill off B in a generation or two before B can replenish itself through reproduction. So they're separate concepts.

But the two concepts come into relation when we think about the specific impact human civilization has on the environment. And they're certainly in relation—I would say confused with one another—when someone claims that modern human civilization is the original and sole source of unsustainability in the larger, ecological sense. It was against this latter claim which I was trying to intervene.

Yes, modern civilization as it currently exists is not sustainable. If development continues in a straight line from where it is now, our civilization will in all likelihood collapse.

But it's also true that every civilization which has ever existed—and almost every form of human society above the hunter-gatherer level—was also unsustainable. In some cases it was for internal, economic and political reasons; in many cases it was for ecological reasons. Jared Diamond goes through these examples in detail in his book Collapse.

But what few people appreciate is that some hunter-gatherer societies were also unsustainable in both senses of the word. They wreaked ecological havoc, and their form of development led to their demise. The Clovis culture of North America serves as an example. So do the first inhabitants of Australia. Human life itself appears to become unsustainable in many cases, even in the absence of capitalism and modern industry.

Now, unsustainability does not entail annihilation. I think almost anyone would agree that Roman civilization was unsustainable. It did, after all, collapse! Whether that was for ecological reasons or not isn't important here. What matters is that the techniques of production developed by the Romans were not completely lost. In fact, many of them survived and were developed down through the Middle Ages by European Christians and by Muslims in the Near East. Sometimes techniques are totally lost, like writing when the Mayan civilization collapsed. But it's not as though the collapse of the Roman Empire threw Eurasia back into the stone age. We might say the Roman Empire as a particular kind of human civilization was unsustainable, even while in a more general sense we can say that human civilization itself, as a genus, has sustained itself and continued to develop.

This brings us to the question of the sustainability of life itself. Here we have to deal with the broad, ecological category of sustainability. Does life remain diverse and productive over time?

I would say it depends on the time scale you look at, and it depends when in the history of time you're looking. If you're looking after the Cambrian explosion, and you're looking at a time-slice of a few tens of millions of years, then yes, you're liable to find sustainability. But if you take the Phanerozoic (the last 540 million years) as a whole, the picture looks quite different:

This is a graph of biodiversity since the Cambrian explosion. (The Cambrian explosion marks a radical proliferation of life. It's when modern body plans came into existence.) The yellow triangles on the chart represent the major mass extinctions. They're known as the "big five" because there are five of them: (1) the Ordovician-Silurian event (27% of all families and 57% of all genera wiped out), (2) late Devonian extinction (19% of all families, 50% of all genera and 70% of all species, gone), (3) the Permian-Triassic extinction (mother of all extinction events in which 53% of marine families, 84% of marine genera, about 96% of all marine species and an estimated 70% of land species are wiped out), (4) Triassic-Jurassic extinction event (20% of marine families and 55% of marine genera went extinct), and (5) the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) extinction event (this is the one that killed the dinosaurs, but it took 70% of all species with it, too).

The best known of all these is of course the last one, the extinction of the dinosaurs. That's also the one paleontologists are almost certain was caused by an outside event, the collision with the earth of a 15 km wide asteroid. This is probably why many people have been led to believe that extinction events are caused by the intervention of things like comets or volcanos. But there's hardly any consensus as to what caused these extinctions, or the five other minor extinctions (blue triangles on the chart). Is this a case of the smooth, sustainable evolution of life being interrupted by chance bollide impacts or volcano eruptions? Or does life bring these mass extinctions upon itself when it develops too far in a direction which is unsustainable?

The point comes home more emphatically when we switch time-scale. Let's pull back and think about the period before the Cambrian explosion, what used to be called the "Precambrian" period but is now called the Archean and the Proterozoic. Now we're thinking about life on the order of billions or hundreds of millions of years, not tens of millions of years. If we imagine the Earth were only 12 hours old, we would be talking about what happened between about 2:00 (about when life started) and 10:00 (a little after animals came about).

Now we start to notice some drastic events. Starting around 3500 ma, photosynthesis starts. The cyanobacteria in the world's oceans are converting sunlight and CO2 into food, and they're releasing oxygen into the oceans. First the oxygen is absorbed by the water and the rocks in the oceans. After a few hundred million years of that, the oceans become saturated, and the oxygen starts to fill the atmosphere. The theory accepted by the scientific community is that the oxygen oxidized the methane in the atmosphere. The methane could no longer act as a greenhouse gas. So the earth froze. And not just a little bit. The whole thing froze. It may have been the greatest mass extinction in the whole history of life. Even before the drastic increase of oxygen in the atmosphere, the oxygen in the world's oceans would have been toxic to the anaerobic lifeforms that lived there. Whatever managed to survive the first catastrophe was probably wiped out by the second.

So there's widespread scientific consensus that at least once, life went in a direction which was unsustainable, i.e., which created instability and which decreased diversity.

I didn't realize this when I wrote the post yesterday, but there's a book that just came out on this subject by Peter Ward.  Ward also has a TED talk, but it's a bit scattered at the end, in my opinion.

I think there's a lot of evidence in favor of Ward's position. On the long-term scale, we have at least one drastic ecological catastrophe caused by life itself. On the short-term scale (last 540 ma) we have 10 extinction events (5 of them major), and while some of them were caused by outside events, it's unlikely all of them were. It really seems as though life has a tendency to fuck itself over (I'm not using "fuck" here in a technical sense, by the way).

I think there are a few implications of this:
  1. Intelligent design just has to be wrong. Imagine you're an intelligent designer—presumably omniscient and omnipotent and, above all, Good—and you set yourself the task of creating intelligent beings by means of a purely causal process (because for some reason, even though you're omnipotent, you can't just snap your fingers and create them). Not only do you design a system in which 99.9% of all species which ever existed go extinct (to say NOTHING of the individuals who have feelings, personal goals, whatever). You design it so the system is actually suicidal in many, many circumstances. (Imagine that if you ran the experiment a million times, most of the time it would kill itself completely and produce nothing.  We don't yet have other planets to compare ours to, but maybe this is what happens.)  There's no design in this system! Even a person with below-average intelligence could do better.
  2. The likelihood of life evolving from prokaryotes and archaea to eukaryotes and beyond is probably low. It seems if you get above a certain threshold (perhaps represented by the Cambrian explosion), suicide attempts on the part of life are still frequent, but they're less effective. (Assuming the worst mass extinctions were pre-Cambrian.) This might be why so much of the history of life on earth is represented by such simple organisms. It takes a LOT of trial and error to cross that threshold. Once one does, the evolution of complex bodies and sentience might be relatively meteoric (if still highly problematic). But between exoteric catastrophes and suicide attempts by life, it may be hard to cross that line.  So most attempts at sentient beings fail.
  3. If (2) is right, that might explain why we don't see signs of intelligence in the universe. Ward makes just this case in an earlier book. Another possible explanation is that superintelligent civilization is out there, but it has no interaction with electromagnetic radiation (they don't emit it, and they don't use it for energy). That's possible, but then so is anything. Going by available evidence, I'm betting the first life we encounter looks like this and not like this.
  4. From a certain abstract point of view, there's nothing novel about the fact that our way of life is unsustainable. Life may never have been sustainable for very long periods of time. And yet it's evident that life continues. Despite all these catastrophes, life came into existence only once on earth. The experiment has been interrupted many times by ecological catastrophe, but it has continued.
Of course the problem with this last point is that it's true only in a very abstract sense. Sure, cyanobacteria had the power to change the entire ecosystem of the earth and did. But it took them about a billion years to do it. That's roughly the amount of time that elapsed between the invention of the technique of photosynthesis and the first snowball earth. Never before has there existed a force on earth capable of bringing out such widespread catastrophe on the order of centuries. Our technology and our intelligence have collapsed the geological time scale down to the human time scale. We don't only reap the rewards of progress exponentially. We reap the dangers that way, too.

No doubt plenty of people think "So what? Once humans are gone, life will continue without us. There's nothing we can do to the ecosystem worse than what previous forms of life have done.  Maybe it's better to revert back to simple organisms."

Our survival instinct militates against this, of course. But I think there's a good reason to reject fatalism.

For the first time in the history of life—maybe in the history of the universe—someone cares about individuals. God doesn't care about individuals. If He did, he wouldn't have sacrificed 99.9999999% of them in the process of evolution. The process of evolution cares nothing for individuals. All it selects are genes. (As William James pointed out long ago to Herbert Spencer, evolution is survival of the fittest species, not the fittest individual.) I think one could argue about how much even previous human civilizations have cared about individuals compared with this one.

We have an almost endless list of ecological, economic, and social justice problems. Two billion people on our planet still struggle to put shoes on their feet and food in their stomachs. A woman in the United States has to worry about whether or not she'll be assaulted while walking down the street for no other reason than that she was born a woman. We wipe out thousands of species each year. We're a disgusting mess—just like you would expect from any form of life—just more nuanced and satisfied with ourselves over it. It could make one beg for plague or bollide.

But if you extricate yourself and think about it—not optimistically, not pessimistically, but just abstractly and rationally—our suffering is a sublime achievement of the universe. We feel injustice done at the expense of the dignity of the individual. It hurts the body, and it hurts the capacity to reason.

If we leave the universe, there will be no one to champion the rights of the individual. There will be no justice. Certain species will endure, and others will be wiped out. Nothing but the pure mechanism of action and reaction will exist. There will be no justice. Nor will there be pity or forgiveness. There is no God, if by that we mean a rational, moral author of the world. Before us there was no concern with the individual or with purpose, and if we die, they will die with us.

By a (probably) rare stroke of luck, evolution has brought us to this point where we can, at least in one sense, negate the process of evolution. Evolution has valorized the genus over the individual. Maybe we can reverse that. The possibilities are too tantalizing and the implications are too spectacular not to try.

Anyway, I said I would mention something about the relationship between ecology and social justice, and that we might have the capacity to resolve our sustainability problems. Check this out. It's a talk by Hans Rosling on population growth. (I posted something by him before.) You should watch the whole thing. He's one of my favorite TED speakers, and his animated graphs are awesome (though in this one he goes low-tech). Choice quote:
Child survival is the new green. Only by child survival will we stop population growth. But will it happen? I'm not an optimist. Neither am I a pessimist. I'm a very serious possibilist. It's a new category. Where we take emotion apart and we work analytically with the world. It can be done. We can have a much more just world. With green technology and investments to end poverty and global governance, the world can become like this.
I want to return to this topic, but I'm exhausted from writing tonight (2 hours straight now—I wonder if anyone reads this stuff). I think we live during an amazing time during which absolutely unprecedented events are occurring. Some might read the narrative of technological advance as something which makes human freedom obsolete. But on the contrary. If I'm right in what I've said in this post, than individual human choice is more important and more powerful than ever. It's the ultimate test of human reason to see if we can make it through the current impasse. For those who are ambitious and creative, it's the best time to be alive.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


If you think about it, every society above the hunter-gatherer level has been "unsustainable" in one way or another. It's by no means a new feature or one restricted to industrial society. Yet over the long haul, the positive feedback mechanism between population growth and technological advance has remained intact. One civilization may not be able to resolve its immediate problems and prevent its collapse, but another civilization comes along and revolutionizes those old techniques. It's at least true of the trajectory followed by Eurasian cultures since the late Pleistocene. Every solution gives rise to a new set of problems, and every new set of problems inspires a new set of solutions. The transitions are anything but smooth, and they're usually disadvantageous to individuals people and individual societies. But one can easily perceive a general advance in the aggregate.

Hell, even hunting and gathering societies haven't always been sustainable. The Clovis culture wreaked widespread ecological havoc on North American fauna, hunting many species of animal to extinction. One doesn't need an extraterrestrial cause to explain the end of the Clovis culture. They were the Native American equivalent of suburban sprawl today. Just spread out and use it up! The same thing happened in Australia when hunter-gatherers arrived there. They hunted many species to extinction. It was a completely unsustainable way of life.

I'll be even more provocative: life itself is "unsustainable". Environmentalists talk about how inefficient and wasteful modern society is. Newsflash: over 99% of species which have ever existed have gone extinct. It took just that much trial and error—probably 4 billion years worth of it—to create life that even had the concept of "sustainability". Anyone who thinks the universe or life were designed "intelligently" needs to stop and wonder why even an imbecile couldn't come up with a system less efficient, less "designed" than evolution. It's a mess.

This idea that everything on Earth is interconnected into a harmonious whole, and it's humans who have disrupted it, has begun to come under attack. Paleontologists now believe that life itself on several occasions has brought about widespread global catastrophe. We hear every day about the dangers of CO2 in the air (and rightfully so), but how many people know about the oxygenation catastrophe that overtook the entire globe 2.5 billion years ago? Cyanobacteria pumped oxygen, a poisonous gas, into the atmosphere, and it probably led to a global extinction event. I wonder if any wise, environmentally-minded bacteria said, "Hey guys, wait a second. I don't think this toxic waste dumping is sustainable!" Of course then we wouldn't be here to talk about it. Oxygen is poisonous to us, too, which is part of the reason we age and die. A perfectly unsustainable form of metabolism, if you think about it. Except we circumvent the catastrophe just long enough to have science, learning, love, and humor.

So there's never been anything remotely ecologically sustainable about human existence or even about life. The main threat to life has always come from life itself, not from bollide impacts. Yet life is robust. It only had to have happened once, such that every living thing today is descended from the same universal ancestor that existed almost 4 billion years ago. That means that the response of life to its inherent unsustainability is to surpass its own limitations. This produces new problems of sustainability, and yet life (and now intelligent beings) step up to those challenges, too.

I think the trajectory of this - at least now - is toward the problem of energy simpliciter. Not just the problem of food. Not just the problem of motive force. Not just the problem of fuel. But the problem of energy itself. If we do experience a technological singularity this century, then by the end of the century, non-biological intelligence will far outstrip biological intelligence in our civilization. Our problem won't be producing food, obviously. The main problem will be (a) how to perform computations using the least amount of energy possible and (b) how to keep the temperature of the process below that of a few thousand solar mass stars. We'll have to keep taking in energy from the universe (photons) and exploit cold spots.

But the universe is horribly inefficient. The energy produced per cubic centimeter per second in the center of the sun is approximately equal to the energy density produced in a compost pile or in a lizard's metabolism. It's owing to the sheer mass of the sun that it produces as much energy as it does and goes as long as it does. So your woodburning stove - a manmade object - is orders of magnitude more powerful than the sun. It's very interesting how far the order and complexity of human invention already outstrips nature. The idea that superintelligent, non-biological civilization will simply become the hunters and gatherers of energy in the universe is ridiculous. That advanced civilization will have to produce its own means of subsistence just as much as we produce ours now.

Of course the ultimate sustainability problem is represented in the laws of thermodynamics. This is the problem Asimov deals with in The Last Question. According to inflationary cosmology, the universe is the ultimate free lunch, essentially created out of nothing. A superintelligent civilization might be able to exploit this subtle fact of science in much the same way as engineers are able to exploit subtle differences in air pressure to generate heavier than air flight. My guess is that there are many degrees of creating something from nothing, and that the generation of the cosmos is the most inefficient way we'll discover. The power of intelligence might one day far outstrip the power of nature even to produce a universe or a multiverse.

In short, there might always be something like a "sustainability problem". But if the past is any indication of the future, such problems will not be the end of the story but just another beginning. Even if intelligence is not eternally capable of surpassing every natural barrier placed before it, it seems to be in its essence to try.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Jared Diamond

I've been reading Guns, Germs and Steel. It's thought-provoking. The thesis that geography is what gave Eurasia the "head start" that allowed it to develop the tools to conquer the rest of the world is compelling. Diamond thinks on the largest scale of human history imaginable. He'd accept what Weber has to say about the role of Protestantism and capitalism while at the same time complaining that that sort of account is not an explanation, let alone an ultimate explanation for why Europe overtook the world. (Why did capitalism develop there? Why did Protestantism come into existence there?) As someone who has been deeply influenced by Aristotle and Marx, I relate to that search for ultimate causes.

There's also something compelling in the argument that energy production and use drives history on the largest scale. Diamond's argument is that the agrarian revolution in the Fertile Crescent 11 ka (and its subsequent spread along that line of latitude) is what ultimately gave the advantage to European civilization. But of course food has everything to do with energy. Food is converted into energy in human digestion, and it takes energy to produce food. The society that revolutionizes food production is going to set loose the innate human ability to revolutionize every other aspect of the society. The Arab agrarian revolution launches the scientific revolution in the 11th century CE. The British agrarian revolution in the 18th century launches the industrial revolution in the 19th. The Green Revolution in the 20th century is still transforming life in Asia in ways we have yet to fully witness. Yet all of these are revolutions in how food is produced, i.e., in how much energy and how many hours/person it takes to make food. Diamond's book is in many ways an updated version of Leslie White's technological theory of history.

Diamond's approach might succumb to the same accusations of technological determinism White's did. Already by the 60s, Gerhard Lenski came up with what is (at least to my mind) a more reasonable, probabilistic account of the relationship between technological development and macrosociological change. For example, hunting is predominantly a male activity in every kind of society studied by anthropologists, and polyandry is practiced in less than 1 percent of societies studied. Things like food production specifically and technology more generally probably matter very little in determining either of those sociological traits. Yet many phenomena—specialization in metal working, two or more levels of government above the community level, patrilineal clans, bride price or bride service required, and many more—do show strong correlations with the kind of subsistence technology in those societies. And since these sociological characteristics come into being after these subsistence technologies are adopted, it's a safe guess that technological advance is their cause. Broadly, population, language, social structure, and ideology appear to have technology as their chief determinant, according to Lenski.

Still, that's a great deal. And what's of most interest to me, as someone who thinks a lot about the future, is that, as technological change accelerates, the "macro" starts to collapse into the "micro". What I mean is that, in my opinion, folks like Lenski, Diamond, and White (and even to some extent Lewis Morgan, Friedrich Engels, and Karl Marx) have correctly identified the general cause of historical change in its broadest features and over its largest time scales. So while such a theory might not help explain why Germany and its allies lost World War I, it could tell us why (on Diamond's account) Pizarro took Atahualpa prisoner and why Atahualpa didn't take Charles I prisoner. Or why medieval society turned into modern industrial society.

But as time goes on and the pace of change increases, the sorts of changes the historian sees happening over the course of hundreds of years now can occur on the order of decades. It's one thing to note that we can fit twice as many features on a microprocessor every year or two. Okay, so there might be some radical implications in that for AI, and in the meantime we get cooler looking video games and cell phones. But the fact that the same law of accelerating returns is at the same time working on energy production alters those implications radically. It means that the sort of radical social change we associate with the neolithic revolution or with the industrial revolution, which unfolded over the course of thousands or hundreds of years, could be compressed into decades or years. Those quantum leaps in the way we produce food and/or power work set the creative and intellectual stage to bring about further changes in energy production, creating a positive feedback loop. So too should we expect the next revolution in energy to follow closely on the heels of the first.

To my mind, the inevitability of this shift isn't the interesting part. I'm not 100% confident we'll witness a technological singularity in which the non-biological portion of our intelligence widely outstrips the biological portion, but I am quite confident this revolution in energy production will take place. Or I should say I'd be astounded if it didn't happen in the next 20 years (barring, you know, plague or being invaded by aliens or something).

The interesting part is: What do you do with the information? The technological change is inevitable. People still have to make decisions about what to do with the technology and what to use it for. Our system of social organization—the way we're fundamentally related to one another—still has to cope with this change somehow.

This is why I proselytize a little bit about accelerating change. Not because I like toys (I can barely support a data plan for a smartphone right now) but because no one seems to realize it's coming and what's going to happen when it does. People aren't prepared for it, but they need to be. Especially our political leaders.