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The key difference between science fiction and fantasy is that science fiction is entirely possible because of its grounding in scientific facts, while fantasy is not. This is where Black Mirror is both an entertaining and terrifying work of science fiction. Created by Charlie Brooker, the anthological series tells cautionary tales of emerging technology that could one day be an integral part of our everyday lives.
While watching the often alarming episodes, one can’t help but recognize the eerie similarities to some of the tech tools that are already abundant in our lives today. In fact, many previous Black Mirror predictions are already becoming reality.
The latest season of Black Mirror was arguably darker than ever. This time, Brooker seemed to focus on the ethical implications of one particular area: neurotechnology.
Warning: The remainder of this article may contain spoilers from Season 4 of Black Mirror.
Most of the storylines from season four revolve around neurotechnology and brain-machine interfaces. They are based in a world where people have the power to upload their consciousness onto machines, have fully immersive experiences in virtual reality, merge their minds with other minds, record others’ memories, and even track what others are thinking, feeling, and doing.
How can all this ever be possible? Well, these capabilities are already being developed by pioneers and researchers globally. Early last year, Elon Musk unveiled Neuralink, a company whose goal is to merge the human mind with AI through a neural lace. We’ve already connected two brains via the internet, allowing one brain to communicate with another. Various research teams have been able to develop mechanisms for “reading minds” or reconstructing memories of individuals via devices. The list goes on.
With many of the technologies we see in Black Mirror it’s not a question of if, but when. Futurist Ray Kurzweil has predicted that by the 2030s we will be able to upload our consciousness onto the cloud via nanobots that will “provide full-immersion virtual reality from within the nervous system, provide direct brain-to-brain communication over the internet, and otherwise greatly expand human intelligence.” While other experts continue to challenge Kurzweil on the exact year we’ll accomplish this feat, with the current exponential growth of our technological capabilities, we’re on track to get there eventually.
As always, technology is only half the conversation. Equally fascinating are the many ethical and moral questions this topic raises.
For instance, with the increasing convergence of artificial intelligence and virtual reality, we have to ask ourselves if our morality from the physical world transfers equally into the virtual world. The first episode of season four, USS Calister, tells the story of a VR pioneer, Robert Daley, who creates breakthrough AI and VR to satisfy his personal frustrations and sexual urges. He uses the DNA of his coworkers (and their children) to re-create them digitally in his virtual world, to which he escapes to torture them, while they continue to be indifferent in the “real” world.
Audiences are left asking themselves: should what happens in the digital world be considered any less “real” than the physical world? How do we know if the individuals in the virtual world (who are ultimately based on algorithms) have true feelings or sentiments? Have they been developed to exhibit characteristics associated with suffering, or can they really feel suffering? Fascinatingly, these questions point to the hard problem of consciousness—the question of if, why, and how a given physical process generates the specific experience it does—which remains a major mystery in neuroscience.
Towards the end of USS Calister, the hostages of Daley’s virtual world attempt to escape through suicide, by committing an act that will delete the code that allows them to exist. This raises yet another mind-boggling ethical question: if we “delete” code that signifies a digital being, should that be considered murder (or suicide, in this case)? Why shouldn’t it? When we murder someone we are, in essence, taking away their capacity to live and to be, without their consent. By unplugging a self-aware AI, wouldn’t we be violating its basic right to live in the same why? Does AI, as code, even have rights?
Brain implants can also have a radical impact on our self-identity and how we define the word “I”. In the episode Black Museum, instead of witnessing just one horror, we get a series of scares in little segments. One of those segments tells the story of a father who attempts to reincarnate the mother of his child by uploading her consciousness into his mind and allowing her to live in his head (essentially giving him multiple personality disorder). In this way, she can experience special moments with their son.
With “no privacy for him, and no agency for her” the good intention slowly goes very wrong. This story raises a critical question: should we be allowed to upload consciousness into limited bodies? Even more, if we are to upload our minds into “the cloud,” at what point do we lose our individuality to become one collective being?
These questions can form the basis of hours of debate, but we’re just getting started. There are no right or wrong answers with many of these moral dilemmas, but we need to start having such discussions.
The Downside of Dystopian Sci-Fi
Like last season’s San Junipero, one episode of the series, Hang the DJ, had an uplifting ending. Yet the overwhelming majority of the stories in Black Mirror continue to focus on the darkest side of human nature, feeding into the pre-existing paranoia of the general public. There is certainly some value in this; it’s important to be aware of the dangers of technology. After all, what better way to explore these dangers before they occur than through speculative fiction?
A big takeaway from every tale told in the series is that the greatest threat to humanity does not come from technology, but from ourselves. Technology itself is not inherently good or evil; it all comes down to how we choose to use it as a society. So for those of you who are techno-paranoid, beware, for it’s not the technology you should fear, but the humans who get their hands on it.
While we can paint negative visions for the future, though, it is also important to paint positive ones. The kind of visions we set for ourselves have the power to inspire and motivate generations. Many people are inherently pessimistic when thinking about the future, and that pessimism in turn can shape their contributions to humanity.
While utopia may not exist, the future of our species could and should be one of solving global challenges, abundance, prosperity, liberation, and cosmic transcendence. Now that would be a thrilling episode to watch.
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The field of artificial intelligence goes back a long way, but many consider it was officially born when a group of scientists at Dartmouth College got together for a summer, back in 1956. Computers had, over the last few decades, come on in incredible leaps and bounds; they could now perform calculations far faster than humans. Optimism, given the incredible progress that had been made, was rational. Genius computer scientist Alan Turing had already mooted the idea of thinking machines just a few years before. The scientists had a fairly simple idea: intelligence is, after all, just a mathematical process. The human brain was a type of machine. Pick apart that process, and you can make a machine simulate it.
The problem didn’t seem too hard: the Dartmouth scientists wrote, “We think that a significant advance can be made in one or more of these problems if a carefully selected group of scientists work on it together for a summer.” This research proposal, by the way, contains one of the earliest uses of the term artificial intelligence. They had a number of ideas—maybe simulating the human brain’s pattern of neurons could work and teaching machines the abstract rules of human language would be important.
The scientists were optimistic, and their efforts were rewarded. Before too long, they had computer programs that seemed to understand human language and could solve algebra problems. People were confidently predicting there would be a human-level intelligent machine built within, oh, let’s say, the next twenty years.
It’s fitting that the industry of predicting when we’d have human-level intelligent AI was born at around the same time as the AI industry itself. In fact, it goes all the way back to Turing’s first paper on “thinking machines,” where he predicted that the Turing Test—machines that could convince humans they were human—would be passed in 50 years, by 2000. Nowadays, of course, people are still predicting it will happen within the next 20 years, perhaps most famously Ray Kurzweil. There are so many different surveys of experts and analyses that you almost wonder if AI researchers aren’t tempted to come up with an auto reply: “I’ve already predicted what your question will be, and no, I can’t really predict that.”
The issue with trying to predict the exact date of human-level AI is that we don’t know how far is left to go. This is unlike Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law, the doubling of processing power roughly every couple of years, makes a very concrete prediction about a very specific phenomenon. We understand roughly how to get there—improved engineering of silicon wafers—and we know we’re not at the fundamental limits of our current approach (at least, not until you’re trying to work on chips at the atomic scale). You cannot say the same about artificial intelligence.
Stuart Armstrong’s survey looked for trends in these predictions. Specifically, there were two major cognitive biases he was looking for. The first was the idea that AI experts predict true AI will arrive (and make them immortal) conveniently just before they’d be due to die. This is the “Rapture of the Nerds” criticism people have leveled at Kurzweil—his predictions are motivated by fear of death, desire for immortality, and are fundamentally irrational. The ability to create a superintelligence is taken as an article of faith. There are also criticisms by people working in the AI field who know first-hand the frustrations and limitations of today’s AI.
The second was the idea that people always pick a time span of 15 to 20 years. That’s enough to convince people they’re working on something that could prove revolutionary very soon (people are less impressed by efforts that will lead to tangible results centuries down the line), but not enough for you to be embarrassingly proved wrong. Of the two, Armstrong found more evidence for the second one—people were perfectly happy to predict AI after they died, although most didn’t, but there was a clear bias towards “15–20 years from now” in predictions throughout history.
Armstrong points out that, if you want to assess the validity of a specific prediction, there are plenty of parameters you can look at. For example, the idea that human-level intelligence will be developed by simulating the human brain does at least give you a clear pathway that allows you to assess progress. Every time we get a more detailed map of the brain, or successfully simulate another part of it, we can tell that we are progressing towards this eventual goal, which will presumably end in human-level AI. We may not be 20 years away on that path, but at least you can scientifically evaluate the progress.
Compare this to those that say AI, or else consciousness, will “emerge” if a network is sufficiently complex, given enough processing power. This might be how we imagine human intelligence and consciousness emerged during evolution—although evolution had billions of years, not just decades. The issue with this is that we have no empirical evidence: we have never seen consciousness manifest itself out of a complex network. Not only do we not know if this is possible, we cannot know how far away we are from reaching this, as we can’t even measure progress along the way.
There is an immense difficulty in understanding which tasks are hard, which has continued from the birth of AI to the present day. Just look at that original research proposal, where understanding human language, randomness and creativity, and self-improvement are all mentioned in the same breath. We have great natural language processing, but do our computers understand what they’re processing? We have AI that can randomly vary to be “creative,” but is it creative? Exponential self-improvement of the kind the singularity often relies on seems far away.
We also struggle to understand what’s meant by intelligence. For example, AI experts consistently underestimated the ability of AI to play Go. Many thought, in 2015, it would take until 2027. In the end, it took two years, not twelve. But does that mean AI is any closer to being able to write the Great American Novel, say? Does it mean it’s any closer to conceptually understanding the world around it? Does it mean that it’s any closer to human-level intelligence? That’s not necessarily clear.
Not Human, But Smarter Than Humans
But perhaps we’ve been looking at the wrong problem. For example, the Turing test has not yet been passed in the sense that AI cannot convince people it’s human in conversation; but of course the calculating ability, and perhaps soon the ability to perform other tasks like pattern recognition and driving cars, far exceed human levels. As “weak” AI algorithms make more decisions, and Internet of Things evangelists and tech optimists seek to find more ways to feed more data into more algorithms, the impact on society from this “artificial intelligence” can only grow.
It may be that we don’t yet have the mechanism for human-level intelligence, but it’s also true that we don’t know how far we can go with the current generation of algorithms. Those scary surveys that state automation will disrupt society and change it in fundamental ways don’t rely on nearly as many assumptions about some nebulous superintelligence.
Then there are those that point out we should be worried about AI for other reasons. Just because we can’t say for sure if human-level AI will arrive this century, or never, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t prepare for the possibility that the optimistic predictors could be correct. We need to ensure that human values are programmed into these algorithms, so that they understand the value of human life and can act in “moral, responsible” ways.
Phil Torres, at the Project for Future Human Flourishing, expressed it well in an interview with me. He points out that if we suddenly decided, as a society, that we had to solve the problem of morality—determine what was right and wrong and feed it into a machine—in the next twenty years…would we even be able to do it?
So, we should take predictions with a grain of salt. Remember, it turned out the problems the AI pioneers foresaw were far more complicated than they anticipated. The same could be true today. At the same time, we cannot be unprepared. We should understand the risks and take our precautions. When those scientists met in Dartmouth in 1956, they had no idea of the vast, foggy terrain before them. Sixty years later, we still don’t know how much further there is to go, or how far we can go. But we’re going somewhere.
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For every new piece of technology that gets developed, you can usually find people saying it will never be useful. The president of the Michigan Savings Bank in 1903, for example, said, “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty—a fad.” It’s equally easy to find people raving about whichever new technology is at the peak of the Gartner Hype Cycle, which tracks the buzz around these newest developments and attempts to temper predictions. When technologies emerge, there are all kinds of uncertainties, from the actual capacity of the technology to its use cases in real life to the price tag.
Eventually the dust settles, and some technologies get widely adopted, to the extent that they can become “invisible”; people take them for granted. Others fall by the wayside as gimmicky fads or impractical ideas. Picking which horses to back is the difference between Silicon Valley millions and Betamax pub-quiz-question obscurity. For a while, it seemed that Google had—for once—backed the wrong horse.
Google Glass emerged from Google X, the ubiquitous tech giant’s much-hyped moonshot factory, where highly secretive researchers work on the sci-fi technologies of the future. Self-driving cars and artificial intelligence are the more mundane end for an organization that apparently once looked into jetpacks and teleportation.
The original smart glasses, Google began selling Google Glass in 2013 for $1,500 as prototypes for their acolytes, around 8,000 early adopters. Users could control the glasses with a touchpad, or, activated by tilting the head back, with voice commands. Audio relay—as with several wearable products—is via bone conduction, which transmits sound by vibrating the skull bones of the user. This was going to usher in the age of augmented reality, the next best thing to having a chip implanted directly into your brain.
On the surface, it seemed to be a reasonable proposition. People had dreamed about augmented reality for a long time—an onboard, JARVIS-style computer giving you extra information and instant access to communications without even having to touch a button. After smartphone ubiquity, it looked like a natural step forward.
Instead, there was a backlash. People may be willing to give their data up to corporations, but they’re less pleased with the idea that someone might be filming them in public. The worst aspect of smartphones is trying to talk to people who are distractedly scrolling through their phones. There’s a famous analogy in Revolutionary Road about an old couple’s loveless marriage: the husband tunes out his wife’s conversation by turning his hearing aid down to zero. To many, Google Glass seemed to provide us with a whole new way to ignore each other in favor of our Twitter feeds.
Then there’s the fact that, regardless of whether it’s because we’re not used to them, or if it’s a more permanent feature, people wearing AR tech often look very silly. Put all this together with a lack of early functionality, the high price (do you really feel comfortable wearing a $1,500 computer?), and a killer pun for the users—Glassholes—and the final recipe wasn’t great for Google.
Google Glass was quietly dropped from sale in 2015 with the ominous slogan posted on Google’s website “Thanks for exploring with us.” Reminding the Glass users that they had always been referred to as “explorers”—beta-testing a product, in many ways—it perhaps signaled less enthusiasm for wearables than the original, Google Glass skydive might have suggested.
In reality, Google went back to the drawing board. Not with the technology per se, although it has improved in the intervening years, but with the uses behind the technology.
Under what circumstances would you actually need a Google Glass? When would it genuinely be preferable to a smartphone that can do many of the same things and more? Beyond simply being a fashion item, which Google Glass decidedly was not, even the most tech-evangelical of us need a convincing reason to splash $1,500 on a wearable computer that’s less socially acceptable and less easy to use than the machine you’re probably reading this on right now.
Enter the Google Glass Enterprise Edition.
Piloted in factories during the years that Google Glass was dormant, and now roaring back to life and commercially available, the Google Glass relaunch got under way in earnest in July of 2017. The difference here was the specific audience: workers in factories who need hands-free computing because they need to use their hands at the same time.
In this niche application, wearable computers can become invaluable. A new employee can be trained with pre-programmed material that explains how to perform actions in real time, while instructions can be relayed straight into a worker’s eyeline without them needing to check a phone or switch to email.
Medical devices have long been a dream application for Google Glass. You can imagine a situation where people receive real-time information during surgery, or are augmented by artificial intelligence that provides additional diagnostic information or questions in response to a patient’s symptoms. The quest to develop a healthcare AI, which can provide recommendations in response to natural language queries, is on. The famously untidy doctor’s handwriting—and the associated death toll—could be avoided if the glasses could take dictation straight into a patient’s medical records. All of this is far more useful than allowing people to check Facebook hands-free while they’re riding the subway.
Google’s “Lens” application indicates another use for Google Glass that hadn’t quite matured when the original was launched: the Lens processes images and provides information about them. You can look at text and have it translated in real time, or look at a building or sign and receive additional information. Image processing, either through neural networks hooked up to a cloud database or some other means, is the frontier that enables driverless cars and similar technology to exist. Hook this up to a voice-activated assistant relaying information to the user, and you have your killer application: real-time annotation of the world around you. It’s this functionality that just wasn’t ready yet when Google launched Glass.
Amazon’s recent announcement that they want to integrate Alexa into a range of smart glasses indicates that the tech giants aren’t ready to give up on wearables yet. Perhaps, in time, people will become used to voice activation and interaction with their machines, at which point smart glasses with bone conduction will genuinely be more convenient than a smartphone.
But in many ways, the real lesson from the initial failure—and promising second life—of Google Glass is a simple question that developers of any smart technology, from the Internet of Things through to wearable computers, must answer. “What can this do that my smartphone can’t?” Find your answer, as the Enterprise Edition did, as Lens might, and you find your product.
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Many of us intuitively think about intelligence as an individual trait. As a society, we have a tendency to praise individual game-changers for accomplishments that would not be possible without their teams, often tens of thousands of people that work behind the scenes to make extraordinary things happen.
Matt Ridley, best-selling author of multiple books, including The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, challenges this view. He argues that human achievement and intelligence are entirely “networking phenomena.” In other words, intelligence is collective and emergent as opposed to individual.
When asked what scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit, Ridley highlights collective intelligence: “It is by putting brains together through the division of labor— through trade and specialization—that human society stumbled upon a way to raise the living standards, carrying capacity, technological virtuosity, and knowledge base of the species.”
Ridley has spent a lifetime exploring human prosperity and the factors that contribute to it. In a conversation with Singularity Hub, he redefined how we perceive intelligence and human progress.
Raya Bidshahri: The common perspective seems to be that competition is what drives innovation and, consequently, human progress. Why do you think collaboration trumps competition when it comes to human progress?
Matt Ridley: There is a tendency to think that competition is an animal instinct that is natural and collaboration is a human instinct we have to learn. I think there is no evidence for that. Both are deeply rooted in us as a species. The evidence from evolutionary biology tells us that collaboration is just as important as competition. Yet, at the end, the Darwinian perspective is quite correct: it’s usually cooperation for the purpose of competition, wherein a given group tries to achieve something more effectively than another group. But the point is that the capacity to co-operate is very deep in our psyche.
RB: You write that “human achievement is entirely a networking phenomenon,” and we need to stop thinking about intelligence as an individual trait, and that instead we should look at what you refer to as collective intelligence. Why is that?
MR: The best way to think about it is that IQ doesn’t matter, because a hundred stupid people who are talking to each other will accomplish more than a hundred intelligent people who aren’t. It’s absolutely vital to see that everything from the manufacturing of a pencil to the manufacturing of a nuclear power station can’t be done by an individual human brain. You can’t possibly hold in your head all the knowledge you need to do these things. For the last 200,000 years we’ve been exchanging and specializing, which enables us to achieve much greater intelligence than we can as individuals.
RB: We often think of achievement and intelligence on individual terms. Why do you think it’s so counter-intuitive for us to think about collective intelligence?
MR: People are surprisingly myopic to the extent they understand the nature of intelligence. I think it goes back to a pre-human tendency to think in terms of individual stories and actors. For example, we love to read about the famous inventor or scientist who invented or discovered something. We never tell these stories as network stories. We tell them as individual hero stories.
“It’s absolutely vital to see that everything from the manufacturing of a pencil to the manufacturing of a nuclear power station can’t be done by an individual human brain.”
This idea of a brilliant hero who saves the world in the face of every obstacle seems to speak to tribal hunter-gatherer societies, where the alpha male leads and wins. But it doesn’t resonate with how human beings have structured modern society in the last 100,000 years or so. We modern-day humans haven’t internalized a way of thinking that incorporates this definition of distributed and collective intelligence.
RB: One of the books you’re best known for is The Rational Optimist. What does it mean to be a rational optimist?
MR: My optimism is rational because it’s not based on a feeling, it’s based on evidence. If you look at the data on human living standards over the last 200 years and compare it with the way that most people actually perceive our progress during that time, you’ll see an extraordinary gap. On the whole, people seem to think that things are getting worse, but things are actually getting better.
We’ve seen the most astonishing improvements in human living standards: we’ve brought the number of people living in extreme poverty to 9 percent from about 70 percent when I was born. The human lifespan is expanding by five hours a day, child mortality has gone down by two thirds in half a century, and much more. These feats dwarf the things that are going wrong. Yet most people are quite pessimistic about the future despite the things we’ve achieved in the past.
RB: Where does this idea of collective intelligence fit in rational optimism?
MR: Underlying the idea of rational optimism was understanding what prosperity is, and why it happens to us and not to rabbits or rocks. Why are we the only species in the world that has concepts like a GDP, growth rate, or living standard? My answer is that it comes back to this phenomena of collective intelligence. The reason for a rise in living standards is innovation, and the cause of that innovation is our ability to collaborate.
The grand theme of human history is exchange of ideas, collaborating through specialization and the division of labor. Throughout history, it’s in places where there is a lot of open exchange and trade where you get a lot of innovation. And indeed, there are some extraordinary episodes in human history when societies get cut off from exchange and their innovation slows down and they start moving backwards. One example of this is Tasmania, which was isolated and lost a lot of the technologies it started off with.
RB: Lots of people like to point out that just because the world has been getting better doesn’t guarantee it will continue to do so. How do you respond to that line of argumentation?
MR: There is a quote by Thomas Babington Macaulay from 1830, where he was fed up with the pessimists of the time saying things will only get worse. He says, “On what principle is it that with nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?” And this was back in the 1830s, where in Britain and a few other parts of the world, we were only seeing the beginning of the rise of living standards. It’s perverse to argue that because things were getting better in the past, now they are about to get worse.
“I think it’s worth remembering that good news tends to be gradual, and bad news tends to be sudden. Hence, the good stuff is rarely going to make the news.”
Another thing to point out is that people have always said this. Every generation thought they were at the peak looking downhill. If you think about the opportunities technology is about to give us, whether it’s through blockchain, gene editing, or artificial intelligence, there is every reason to believe that 2017 is going to look like a time of absolute misery compared to what our children and grandchildren are going to experience.
RB: There seems to be a fair amount of mayhem in today’s world, and lots of valid problems to pay attention to in the news. What would you say to empower our readers that we will push through it and continue to grow and improve as a species?
MR: I think it’s worth remembering that good news tends to be gradual, and bad news tends to be sudden. Hence, the good stuff is rarely going to make the news. It’s happening in an inexorable way, as a result of ordinary people exchanging, specializing, collaborating, and innovating, and it’s surprisingly hard to stop it.
Even if you look back to the 1940s, at the end of a world war, there was still a lot of innovation happening. In some ways it feels like we are going through a bad period now. I do worry a lot about the anti-enlightenment values that I see spreading in various parts of the world. But then I remind myself that people are working on innovative projects in the background, and these things are going to come through and push us forward.
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Malthus had a fever dream in the 1790s. While the world was marveling in the first manifestations of modern science and technology and the industrial revolution that was just beginning, he was concerned. He saw the exponential growth in the human population as a terrible problem for the species—an existential threat. He was afraid the human population would overshoot the availability of resources, and then things would really hit the fan.
“Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature. The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation.”
So Malthus wrote in his famous text, an essay on the principles of population.
But Malthus was wrong. Not just in his proposed solution, which was to stop giving aid and food to the poor so that they wouldn’t explode in population. His prediction was also wrong: there was no great, overwhelming famine that caused the population to stay at the levels of the 1790s. Instead, the world population—with a few dips—has continued to grow exponentially ever since. And it’s still growing.
There have concurrently been developments in agriculture and medicine and, in the 20th century, the Green Revolution, in which Norman Borlaug ensured that countries adopted high-yield varieties of crops—the first precursors to modern ideas of genetically engineering food to produce better crops and more growth. The world was able to produce an astonishing amount of food—enough, in the modern era, for ten billion people. It is only a grave injustice in the way that food is distributed that means 12 percent of the world goes hungry, and we still have starvation. But, aside from that, we were saved by the majesty of another kind of exponential growth; the population grew, but the ability to produce food grew faster.
In so much of the world around us today, there’s the same old story. Take exploitation of fossil fuels: here, there is another exponential race. The exponential growth of our ability to mine coal, extract natural gas, refine oil from ever more complex hydrocarbons: this is pitted against our growing appetite. The stock market is built on exponential growth; you cannot provide compound interest unless the economy grows by a certain percentage a year.
“This relentless and ruthless expectation—that technology will continue to improve in ways we can’t foresee—is not just baked into share prices, but into the very survival of our species.”
When the economy fails to grow exponentially, it’s considered a crisis: a financial catastrophe. This expectation penetrates down to individual investors. In the cryptocurrency markets—hardly immune from bubbles, the bull-and-bear cycle of economics—the traders’ saying is “Buy the hype, sell the news.” Before an announcement is made, the expectation of growth, of a boost—the psychological shift—is almost invariably worth more than whatever the major announcement turns out to be. The idea of growth is baked into the share price, to the extent that even good news can often cause the price to dip when it’s delivered.
In the same way, this relentless and ruthless expectation—that technology will continue to improve in ways we can’t foresee—is not just baked into share prices, but into the very survival of our species. A third of Earth’s soil has been acutely degraded due to agriculture; we are looming on the brink of a topsoil crisis. In less relentless times, we may have tried to solve the problem by letting the fields lie fallow for a few years. But that’s no longer an option: if we do so, people will starve. Instead, we look to a second Green Revolution—genetically modified crops, or hydroponics—to save us.
Climate change is considered by many to be an existential threat. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has already put their faith in the exponential growth of technology. Many of the scenarios where they can successfully imagine the human race dealing with the climate crisis involve the development and widespread deployment of carbon capture and storage technology. Our hope for the future already has built-in expectations of exponential growth in our technology in this field. Alongside this, to reduce carbon emissions to zero on the timescales we need to, we will surely require new technologies in renewable energy, energy efficiency, and electrification of the transport system.
Without exponential growth in technology continuing, then, we are doomed. Humanity finds itself on a treadmill that’s rapidly accelerating, with the risk of plunging into the abyss if we can’t keep up the pace. Yet this very acceleration could also pose an existential threat. As our global system becomes more interconnected and complex, chaos theory takes over: the economics of a town in Macedonia can influence a US presidential election; critical infrastructure can be brought down by cybercriminals.
New threats, such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, or a generalized artificial intelligence, could put incredible power—power over the entire species—into the hands of a small number of people. We are faced with a paradox: the continued existence of our system depends on the exponential growth of our capacities outpacing the exponential growth of our needs and desires. Yet this very growth will create threats that are unimaginably larger than any humans have faced before in history.
“It is necessary that we understand the consequences and prospects for exponential growth: that we understand the nature of the race that we’re in.”
Neo-Luddites may find satisfaction in rejecting the ill-effects of technology, but they will still live in a society where technology is the lifeblood that keeps the whole system pumping. Now, more than ever, it is necessary that we understand the consequences and prospects for exponential growth: that we understand the nature of the race that we’re in.
If we decide that limitless exponential growth on a finite planet is unsustainable, we need to plan for the transition to a new way of living before our ability to accelerate runs out. If we require new technologies or fields of study to enable this growth to continue, we must focus our efforts on these before anything else. If we want to survive the 21st century without major catastrophe, we don’t have a choice but to understand it. Almost by default, we’re all accelerationists now.
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