Why Should We Care? (Part 1)

Red sky in morning

Red sky in morning

(Part 1 of a 3-part article)

Your life will be radically different in ten years.  You don’t know how it will be different – I don’t either.  I do know that none of us are prepared for the changes in store.

When I tell people about Artificial Times, I often hear something like “why should I care about an artificial future?” It’s a great question and, to be completely honest, I’m not sure that I have a great answer.  What I know for sure is that I feel concerned and I think that you should too.

The short answer is that you should care because you want to be alive and happy in ten years. 

If you are like me, ten years from now is hard to imagine.  I can barely guess what I might be experiencing in ten months, ten weeks, or even ten days.  But I do remember things about my choices 10 years ago.  And I know that my life today is largely the result of what I did – or neglected – 10 years in my past.

I’m not a psychic.  I don’t pretend to know what the future holds for anyone.  But I do believe that conditions now are the result of conditions in the past.  Likewise, trends today shape the reality that we will experience in years to come.

We all understand the importance of taking steps towards our goals.  We invest in our careers, in our families, in our homes – planning for the outcomes we want to experience in the future.  In the course of making these plans, we try to avoid the looming dangers. 

So far, I’ve told you nothing new.  We all know that we should pay attention to what’s going on around us, so that we can choose a path that will lead to a reasonably happy future.

So here’s the real question: why will the trends featured in Artificial Times lead to serious risks that all of us should understand?  Why do today’s trends tell a chilling tale?

A short recap

First, let me recap the central point from my earlier post, “The Four Horsemen of the Datapocalypse”:

All of us are affected by four accelerating and converging megatrends: pervasive computing, big data analytics, artificial intelligence, and cyber hostility. … The combination of these four megatrends is the greatest threat.  They are converging rapidly; each one contributes to the scale of the danger posed by the others. We should not think about any of them or assess their potential dangers in isolation, because they are becoming literally inseparable.

All developments in science, engineering, and manufacturing rely on advanced computer processing.  One of the features of information technology is that it reaches into every area of our lives.  All technological advances are fueled, to a significant extent, by the first of the “four horsemen”: pervasive computing.

Pervasive computing is not, by itself, more of a threat than all the others we face.  We must also pay attention to developments in biotechnology, nanotechnology, and all the major environmental crises facing the planet.  But pervasive computing is the central driver of technological change today.  All of human experience is increasingly shaped by the artificial world created by information and communication technologies (ICTs).  The exponential growth of computer processing fuels changes in every other sphere.

This “artificialization” of human experience is growing exponentially.  Pervasive computing drives changes in every other field of technology, including weaponry.

We must accept the fact that we have no historical context for the changes that are coming over the next few years.  We cannot completely prepare for the next ten years based solely on our experiences of the last ten, nor any other ten-year period in human history.  None of us can accurately predict how things will change (see my post “Artificial Futures“).

The only thing we can predict with confidence is that everything will continue to change at increasingly rapid rates.

To be sure, the growth of pervasive computing is hugely beneficial.  I would never argue that we should try to slow that growth.  Here are three reasons we should not simply reject technology:

  • First, that would be an impossible goal. That genie will never go back into the bottle. 
  • Second, the problems we face are enormously complex and are becoming more so all the time.  We probably would be unable to survive without the help of computers.
  • Third, the benefits to medicine, science, and socioeconomic analysis are vast.  Millions and millions of human lives have already been improved because of computers and we are only at the beginning of the potential benefits they can bring to humanity.

Pervasive computing is not the whole problem. If it were, the situation would be vastly simpler than it is.

Each one of the “four horsemen” carries his own hazardous payload.  Each contributes in a unique way to the cumulative threat.  All four threats combine with and reinforce the rest.

  1. Pervasive Computing ensures there shall be no escape.
  2. Big Data Analytics ensures there is nowhere to hide.
  3. Artificial Intelligence ensures there will be no contest. In the memorable phrase of Star Trek’s Borg, “Resistance is futile.”
  4. Cyber Hostility ensures that the emerging artificial reality will increasingly allow no mercy, no kindness, no quarter.

Technology: power to the people

Attacks can be initiated today from anywhere, by unknown assailants with few resources. The enemies who can damage us no longer have to invade with armies, aircraft, or even with unmanned missiles.  Nor do they have to be supported by any nation’s military forces. 

The entire playing field is changing on us while we are in the middle of the game.  Not only are the lines and markers disappearing, the very terrain is shifting beneath our feet.  The dimensions are unpredictable and the goalposts are constantly moving.

The basic infrastructure (supporting energy, communications, transportation, food production, and health care) is becoming increasingly dependent on networked computer systems.  The militarization of cyberspace and the computerization of military hardware is increasing exponentially. 

As the ability to do great harm becomes more and more available to more and more people, each one of us is becoming ever more vulnerable. 

We are also becoming more exposed.  We willingly provide intimate details of our no-longer-private lives to relentless mass surveillance.  Every day, our worlds are inspected, analyzed, and recorded for future reference by technology giants such as Facebook, Google, Apple, and Microsoft, whose data products (us) are for sale on the open market (see my post “What Can Al-Quaeda and ISIS Learn From Facebook?“).

We should not assume that government can provide an adequate solution.  How can any government possibly anticipate every possible hacker that might take action from anywhere on the globe? Policing and military defenses are generally powerless to effectively prevent cyber attacks.

More importantly, we should not want to cede such powers to our governments, because the only way that they can effectively utilize them will be at the expense of liberty and democracy.

In response to these enormous changes in threat profiles, global uncertainty and instability will continue to increase.

Two different rates of change

Virtually every human being alive are profoundly affected – and torn – by two clearly-delineated and very different worlds, each of which is characterized by very different rates of change: natural systems and technology. These two rapidly diverging rates of change are creating an ever-more pronounced schism in the way that we experience reality.

We live in a world that is changing more rapidly every day, but the exponential rate of change encompasses only the artificial realm, not the natural world, including biology and the astronomical cycles that define days, months, and years. The majority of the fundamental physical features of human existence continue more or less as they have for millennia. 

Humans today are born, grow, make babies, and eventually die, as they did 50,000 years ago.  The earth still moves around the sun at the same speed of 1 full orbit per year.  The moon still appears to us according to ancient cycles. 

Another constant: human greed and the lust for power show no sign of slowing down.

Artificial reality is bringing ever-increasing power at ever-decreasing costs to more people everywhere, while a relatively stable percentage of the population will act solely to increase their own wealth and power, without regard for the consequences or costs in human suffering. 

Another relatively stable percentage will continue to prefer to fervently hold on to ideologies with no basis in objective, measureable reality.  As is made frighteningly evident by the actions of ISIS, some of those ideologies are fundamentally anti-human.

The same biological drives for survival, gratification, and social acceptance that have driven us since we came out of the trees will continue to drive our efforts to exercise power over our worlds however we can. Certainly we will continue to use the most powerful tools at our disposal.

Here’s one more constant:  human brains continue to be about the same size and have more or less the same raw computing capacity as they’ve had for at least 100,000 years, probably much longer.

And as those tools become increasingly complex and interdependent, they are rapidly outstripping our brain-bound abilities to understand them.  Two hundred years ago, most intelligent people could quickly grasp the basic principles underlying their tools.  Now, it is normal for people to regularly use tools that they cannot begin to comprehend.

Part two of this 3-part article examines some of the specific consequences of these two radically different rates of constant change affecting human reality.


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