“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” ― Lao Tzu
“An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense “intuitive linear” view. So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate). The “returns,” such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially. There’s even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth. Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to The Singularity — technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. The implications include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light.”
This quote from Ray Kurzweil is perhaps for most people rather fanciful. However as one of the inventors of the type of scanner we are all familiar with, along with some of the first software systems to enable computers to read text, provide text to speech for the blind and synthesize music, and currently Director of Engineering at Google tasked with “making computers understand natural language”, he is clearly someone who knows what they are talking about.
Exponential growth is something most non-mathematicians find difficult to grasp. For many people it simply means “very big”, whereas however big you think it is, given time it will be bigger than that!
Here is an example. Suppose that a generous (and very rich) godparent offered to give two newly born godchildren annual gifts. One, child A, is to get £1,000 on their first birthday, £2,000 on their second, £3,000 the year after that and so on. The other, child B, is to get £1 on their first birthday, £2 on their second, £4 the following year, then £8, £16 and so on. Who has got the better deal?
Well, in a year’s time A will have £1,000 and B has £1, so A will be obviously much better off. On their fifth birthday, A will get £5,000 to make a total of £15,000, B will get £16 and a somewhat measly total of $31. On their tenth birthday A will get £10,000 and a total of £55,000, but B will get £512 and a total of £1023; getting a bit more respectable but still way behind A. When they get to 18 and presumably at last able to access the money A will get £18,000 and a grand total of £171,000; B will get £131, 472 and a total of £262,143, well ahead! Of course there is no contest from then on if the gifts continue, at 19, 20 and 21 A will get £19,000, £20,000, and £21,000 and will probably have amassed enough for a cupboard in London, while B will get £262,144, £524,288 and £1,048,576 and may well have retired. Of course it could not possibly continue for long after that; by the age of 41, A’s £41,000 may enable graduation to a small flat, whereas B’s £1,099,511,627,776 would be very nearly the GDP of the UK. By age 47 B would be receiving roughly the current GDP of the entire world.
This is how it looks on a graph, year on the horizontal, gift amount vertical axis.
This shows an important characteristic of exponential growth. At first it seems, and is, very slow and the sort of linear growth that we all find so much easier to understand may well beat it for a long time. Eventually but inexorably the exponential graph then starts to get much steeper, a point often referred to as the “knee” of the curve. After that it shoots off, becoming almost vertical in a very short time. This particular example uses doubling, but multiplying the amount by any number more than one will have the same effect. Multiplying by 1.01 (that is like compound interest of 1%) has the same effect, it just takes a little longer.
This sort of growth can be applied to many areas, such as unregulated population growth, but our major concern is when it is applied to technological development, in particular the four areas known as NBIC convergence.
Areas of growth
The manipulation of materials at the atomic level which enables us to build new materials, new structures and to explore, protect and mend existing structures such as the human body. Along with 3D Printing it heralds a whole new approach to manufacturing.
The manipulation of genes to make more efficient use of the biosphere and accelerate and improve evolution giving, among other things, control over disease and ageing.
Computers and communication devices, with ubiquitous computers, thought control and unlimited immediate access to information through implants.
Understanding the way that the human mind operates so that we can construct true artificial intelligence as well as extend human capabilities and cure mental illness.
This is not intended to be an explanation of what these technologies actually entail, nor am I trying to predict the future except to point out that the possibilities are almost limitless. All these technologies are showing exponential growth, with no sign at all of slowing down. They also interact with and feed each other, thus increasing the growth rate even more. Not only that but we are already past the “knee” of the curve and into the bit where it starts shooting off almost vertically; this means massive change in a very short time. It is important to note that these rules of growth have been applicable for a very long time. It is tempting to think that this sort of change has only been happening since the industrial revolution, or in some cases the advent of computers post World War 2. In fact this progress has been happening since the first humans; it is just indicative of the very slow rate of growth in the first part of the exponential curve that, technologically speaking, not much changed from prehistory until the Enlightenment. The Industrial Revolution marked the beginning of the “knee” and the inexorable climb upwards. The advent of computers marks the point where it starts to get really steep. The reason why growth is now so fast is quite easy to see; as technology improves, so does education, so each generation starts at a further point. The increases in speed and distance of reliable communication means that people can work together, share their knowledge and combine their strengths. Computers add tools that help humans think better, communicate and educate better and built better computers which…
Social and Political Consequences
“A week is a long time in politics” – Harold Wilson
It is certainly the case that human societies have changed as a result of technological change, however that change, fast as it may seem, is at nothing like the same rate. It is unclear as yet whether this is because such change is not exponential, or if it is exponential but lagging far behind. Human beings themselves may start to change more rapidly with increased lifespan, control over disease, artificial or regrown organs and limbs and integration between brains and computers, but this does not necessarily enforce equivalent changes in societies where there is more emphasis on emotion, discussion, compromise and democratic decision making. All or some of these may become easier and to a certain extent faster but their essential nature will not change. The challenge of the future will be to forge societies which can handle the strain of coping with rapidly evolving technologies which even affect what is means to be a human being, while retaining the basic time-honoured mechanisms that enable human societies to flourish.
Let us consider one example, that of replacement human parts. Societies are only just coming to terms with transplanted organs; many groups still reject the entirely. Replacing an organ or limb, not with one from another human, but with something artificial, may seem a good alternative. Now consider the situation where a prosthetic limb is just about as good as the natural one that it replaces; it allows the user to live a normal life which would otherwise be impossible. What happens if that “machine” is damaged in an accident? Just as is the case with a normal damaged limb the user will not be able to function normally until the damaged part is repaired or replaced. In seeking compensation for this accident has the user suffered personal injury or property damage? The effect is exactly the same as personal injury to a normal limb, but what has been damaged is a machine that is the user’s property. If we accept this as property damage then we are discriminating against those who are “disabled”. If we accept this as personal injury the where does this end. For many a computer and Internet connection are vital to their jobs and/or lifestyle. Is accidental damage to the computer on your desk a personal injury? Of course not, nor probably if it is a smartphone in your pocket, but what if it is an implant under your skin directly connected to your nervous system? What if, among other things, it was replacing damaged brain cells and thereby holding at bay the ravages of Alzheimer’s Disease? What about nanobots that are already being introduced into bloodstreams to report on and repair damaged tissue, are they part of your body or machines in your possession? Already we have a blurring of what it is to be a human being without even looking at the possible sentience of artificial intelligences and whether they have the same rights as human beings.
Politics will also undergo seismic changes. Universal fast and immediate Internet access gives everyone access to all the information to make political judgements, and the means to make their opinions known. The tide that is carrying us towards direct democracy is unlikely to be turned. A popularity contest once every five years is not enough to satisfy an increasing number of disillusioned voters. As we have seen, five years is beginning to mean a long time; the world is likely to change a lot in those five years and that will be even more so in the following five. Interactions between nations, or transnational groupings become ever more complex. Global corporation are richer and more powerful than many countries, so that their influence is ever increasing while people are able to form their own transnational groupings to fight for their rights against both aggressors in the traditional sense and the depredations of those same global corporations who seek to promote discord in order to manipulate markets in search of maximum profit. Politics has always involved compromise but in a rapidly changing world with so many stakeholders and almost universal involvement it seems pointless to even try to define detailed policies in advance. Representatives may still be required for an effective government but they will be chosen for their core beliefs, their philosophy, and their ability to manage change and work as a team, not only with a few comrades but with the population as a whole. They must be subject to recall, or re-election at any time and they must not be beholden just to some restricted faction or party. The days of the political party may well soon be over. Once again I will gloss over a more contentious view that much political decision making may be made in a better, more open and rigorous way by Artificial Intelligences, with humans as a moderating background influence.
The Way Forward
“Change will not come if we wait for some other person, or if we wait for some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.” ― Barack Obama
Many see the old ideas of a “left” and “right” as increasingly irrelevant; after all what relevance do the seating arrangements in the French National Assembly in 1789 have to do with modern politics? On the other hand there is still a clear distinction between two diametrically opposed views of the world which, since we cannot seem ever to get away from the habit of labelling everything, can be called Libertarian and Socialist. Many may disagree about what these mean, or the exact labels that should be used but I want to avoid pedantry and just get at the general gist of the argument. By Libertarians I mean those who believe in small government, laissez-faire economics, free markets and a general free-for-all in which the strongest do best and if there is any support for the weak it is a matter of philanthropy by the strong. By Socialist I mean those who believe in large(r) government, human rights including all the basic necessities for a decent life for all by right, regulated markets and some form of redistribution to avoid runaway inequality. There is no such thing as a political centre, though some still insist on its existence. What there is is compromise and oscillation between the two extremes that lead to an illusion of separate Centrist policies. In reality people who claim to espouse parts of two such diametrically opposing philosophies are simply unprincipled.
“It’s the economy, stupid” – Bill Clinton
Politics may still be overwhelmingly about “the economy,” but that may well not be the case for much longer. Instead the emphasis, and the differentiator between sections of society will be access to technology. Some believe the future will be based on Abundance, others fear scarcity. What is undeniable is that a form of capitalism that relies on continued growth, and that, on the whole, rewards excessive growth is inherently unsustainable. There are certainly still large, untapped markets, but as nations emerge and become themselves capitalist economies, the number of new markets left become smaller. It is yet another example of exponential growth. If there are few or no new markets then growth can only occur through innovation, which means technology. It also means that consumers have to be protected; if there are too many people without work or on low wages they cannot consume and there can be no growth. If, as many believe, the number of jobs available for human beings will shrink considerably the same thing applies, to maintain a base of consumers there must be some form of basic income for everyone.
From a socialist point of view, talk about “ownership of the means of production” loses relevance in a world of automated factories and desktop 3D printers. Even talk of “working people” may in future refer just to a small privileged minority. The basic principles of fairness and equality still remain, however. It will be access to technology that becomes important: access to information that enables life-long education, access to the medical advances that enable a long and active life, access to the artificial intelligence that extend human capabilities. Replacing the outdated economics-based divisions we can see new technology-based political divisions.
These are people who do not believe in the Information Revolution, a form of latter day Luddites. They yearn for a simpler, less complicated life. Often they will cherry pick some technologies, particularly medical advances that they find acceptable, and they ignore historical evidence that societies that do not advance will stagnate and eventually die out. There has always been a minority that holds this opinion, and this has grown as societies become more complex and difficult to understand. On the whole, though, they should not be of any significance.
These are people who accept the existence of the Information Revolution, but who think that it should be strictly controlled and managed so that it only proceeds at a manageable pace. This can be an attractive position as it enables society to assimilate changes. It avoids some of the tensions between the haves and have-nots because, hopefully, the elastic band effect has time to work.
These, like the classic economic libertarians, believe in an unregulated free market in technology. Technological advances will be made in, and owned by, the research laboratories of the global corporations. Smaller companies that make advances will suffer the usual fate, being swallowed up as their owners are made unrefusable offers directly by big corporations or indirectly by private equity companies. Advances made in university departments will still be paid for and owned by those same corporations. New technologies will become available to those at the top; the technologically rich will be the same people as the current economically rich. That technology will trickle down to the poorer sections of society at a rate determined by the rich; some technologies, such as life extension, may remain the sole preserve of the rich and their immediate entourage. Because of the rate at which new technologies will be arriving, the gap between rich and poor, already vast and rapidly increasing, will stretch even further. The dystopian science fiction novels about a split in the human race may prove remarkably prescient.
Like their present day counterparts, these people will believe in fairness and equality. While the market will remain free and entrepreneurs will be encouraged, it will be regulated to avoid the runaway separation of the few from the rest. Where possible research will be carried out in publicly funded institutions and there will be redistribution of technology so that all will benefit equally. Reasonable reward to fund the often very expensive development of new technologies is encouraged. Reasonable reward for those who work hard to further the onward march of human civilisation is encouraged, but the emphasis is on sharing the benefits and the increased standard of living that the new technologies will bring. The incentive to work hard is not so much personal wealth, however it is measured, but the high regard of fellow citizens in a peaceful world. This is probably a bit idealistic considering the point from which we are starting, however there are places where this has worked in the past and is working here. For example in academia, although the pressures of commercialism have entered here, the Open Source Software movement, and help forums covering a wide variety of topics on the Internet. The Gift Economy movement is not very strong as yet, but has many interesting features.
The dichotomy in human society is likely to continue between these last two categories, the technosocialists and the technolibertarians; the other two categories should remain as minorities, though with the caveat that these latter day Luddites may, though small in number, still cause disproportionate amounts of harm. The important feature that we must take away from this is that in a world of constant rapid change, it is keeping up with the new technologies, understanding as well as simply having the opportunity to use them, that is important. Mere monetary wealth, while in a sense an enabler for technological wealth, is not enough and will become increasingly irrelevant. The need for political change is a peculiarly Socialist problem. The Libertarian parties like the Tories have little need for change; they will still believe in small government and letting the market take care of itself. It is the Socialist or socialist-oriented parties that must change their emphasis from redistribution of monetary wealth to redistribution of technological wealth. This will be particularly difficult as, for the moment at least, money remains the common medium of exchange, and the common unit of measurement of wealth. Libertarians will not mind in the least if socialists miss the opportunity to move into the future by clinging to the ideas of the past.
Future Perfect or Future Shock
“May you live in interesting times” – (apocryphally) a traditional Chinese curse
The immediate programs that must be initiated are firstly to push for Internet access for all; not just by provision of suitable hardware and universal high-speed broadband but by emphasising computer literacy and skills for all. It is no good having machines lying idle because people lack the knowledge to use them safely. There must be more international effort to impose security standards. Hardware manufacturers and software producers must include the highest levels of available security by default, and be responsible for preventable security breaches of their systems. There must be much more international cooperation to fight cyber crime and to ensure a safe online public sphere for all; women in particular can be vulnerable. It is not good enough to sit back and say that the perpetrators are in another country, or difficult to trace, and therefore untouchable. Equality of access for all should be the aim, and this cannot be achieved if some groups are subject to the forms of abuse which would not be tolerated in other circumstances.
There must also be a start made towards replacing, or extending, money as the unit of wealth measurement. In a capitalist society it is never going to be possible to expect companies to measure their success in terms of anything other than “the bottom line”. It is, however, unacceptable that the social and ecological costs of a company’s operations, the negative externalities, not be included in those totals. It is difficult to express these type of costs in sheer monetary terms, but this can no longer be accepted as an excuse for not doing it. It cannot be beyond the wit of humankind to develop a system whereby these effects can be measured in a way that makes them comparable with straight financial quantities; they can then be incorporated into “the bottom line” and companies can face the same sanctions for not including them as they do already if they wilfully omit something from their financial reports.