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.

No comments: