The ambiguous dreams of the techno-optimists

“Here’s one of my scenarios.  Let’s say there comes a time when human consciousness is readily uploadable into digital form, virtualized and so on, and pretty soon we have a box of a trillion souls.  There are a trillion souls in the box, all virtualized.  In the box, there will be molecular computing going on — maybe derived from biology, maybe not.  But the  box will be doing all kinds of elaborate stuff.  And there’s a rock sitting next to the box.  Inside a rock, there is always all kinds of elaborate stuff going on, all kinds of subatomic particles doing all kinds of things.  What’s the difference between the rock and box of a trillion souls? The answer is that the details of what’s happening in the box were derived from the long history of human civilization, including whatever people watched on YouTube the day before.  Whereas the rock has its long geological history but not that particular history of our civilization.

Realizing that there isn’t a genuine distinction between human intelligence and mere computation leads you to imagine that future — the endpoint of our civilization as a box of a trillion souls, each of them endlessly playing a video game, forever.  What is the ‘purpose’ of that?”

  — Stephan Wolfram, in Possible Minds, 25 Ways of Looking at AI, edited by John Brockton.

What is the purpose indeed.

Let’s just say that I hope we don’t have to wait until we’ve uploaded ourselves into some kind of general artificial intelligence to ask what the point of all this is. What is the purpose of all of our civilizational striving, our technological competitions, our race towards AI? Is it technological enabled ‘immortality’? Do we really want to put our souls in a box? But is this not the telos that our civilization seems to have chosen – this strange sterile vision of a purified, virtualized selves somehow made incorruptible through information technology? Our powers of symbolizing, of turning life into symbols, are turned upon ourselves. Do we not already treat each other – with our social media and big data – as symbols to be manipulated for profit?

As Jeff Bezos is quoted as saying in defense of his Blue Origin space project in the New York Times: “‘We will run out of energy,” Mr. Bezos said. “This is just arithmetic. It’s going to happen.’ At that point, to remain on Earth would require rationing and declining opportunities. But the rest of the solar system offers virtually limitless resources. ‘Do we want stasis and rationing or do we want dynamism and growth?’ he asked rhetorically. ‘This is an easy choice. We know what we want. We just have to get busy.’”

In other words, if we refuse to renounce the cult of growth and figure out how to live within the limits set by this planet in these humble, imperfect, contingent biological bodies, then ipso facto we must escape both bodies and planet in a technological rapture, more or less as described by Bezos and Wolfram.

Perhaps it’s just me but I don’t find these visions appealing. Nor am I convinced that such goals will bring the best ROI, if we must speak in such terms. Why are we allowing ourselves to be led towards goals (AI, space colonialism) that are, at best, questionable and by leaders who seem rather stunted in their understanding of the possibilities and purpose of Life on Earth?

8 Replies to “The ambiguous dreams of the techno-optimists”

  1. In the game of life you get your turn. Your options for what and how to play are limited early on. But with love and compassion from those around you there is development, and hopefully some happiness. In time you grow to understand elements of how the game works. You get your chance to help others as they take their turn. Not all the outcomes in this game of life are fair or even pleasing. But it is not for us to make ALL the rules, only such rules as we can prescribe – those within our reach or influence. We can choose to lead or be lead. We can choose to be happy with the outcomes we receive and to fashion other outcomes. And at some point in time our turn is over. If we’ve participated in the biology of life and leave offspring, then they in turn take their turn. We can proceed beyond our turn within the memories we leave behind; our legacy.

    Wolfram’s vision might be considered in various ways. Perhaps a trillion ways. But if it doesn’t resonate, pass it by. Bezos’ vision seems escapist and not something I’m concerned with while taking my turn. Shall I follow Jeff as a sheep? Hardly. And I seriously doubt Jeff will turn to me for philosophical meaning. Not a problem.

    Beautiful sunsets happen from time to time. They don’t really make life any more difficult, or any easier for that matter. But sometimes a beautiful sunset is so refreshing it can brighten the moment. A free gift while we play our turn. Let them calculate the ROI for a beautiful sunset. I’ll just pause for the moment and enjoy it. Better still, if possible I’ll share the moment with someone who is playing their hand at the same time.

    Perhaps not ‘techno’optimism, but an optimism of a different sort. Today’s sunset is such an ephemeral event… but it is also representative of a quite enduring phenomenon in the course of our human existence. There were wonderful sunsets for the ancient Greeks to observe, and for their ancestors before them. And without any worry or fuss on our part today there will still be sunsets for our children and theirs. When the sun does burn out – then the supply of energy will plummet. Then the game as we know it will be over…. unless some have escaped to other venues. But if you miss the current beauty of the turn in front of you by worry over a solar burnout… well then I’m sorry for you. That would be about as smart as a box of rocks.

  2. Hello Clem,
    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I hope your neck of the woods is not suffering too much from flooding.
    I wish we would spend more time on appreciating the complexity of such things as sunsets and rocks.
    I find Wolfram’s scenario intriguing as well as disturbing. I am intrigued by the irony that he brings up in his thought-experiment-of-sorts, in comparing the pinnacle of our ambitions in information technology with a simple rock. (Our view of rocks as simple is highly culturally determined. Traditional Chinese culture took the essence of rocks much more seriously. Of course that tradition did not stop them from building the Three Gorges Dam.) And his questioning of purpose is so important, especially in the context of AI.
    This may be a question of our relative human ages, but I am absolutely not ready to cede my shot at changing the rules and the very nature of the game. Too much patriarchy to overthrow! 🙂 But you are right, it’ll amount to a minute stitch in the great tapestry of sunsets, rocks, and Life in a little corner of a minor star in a small-ish galaxy.

    1. Thanks for your concern about our local situation. We’ve had relatively little flooding close by… but we have been ridiculously wet from frequent rains and showers. As a result we are more than a month behind planting crops. Perhaps this will not pass, perhaps we are doomed to the ravages of a changed climate. But I’ve not yet given up.

      This may be a question of our relative human ages, but I am absolutely not ready to cede my shot at changing the rules and the very nature of the game. I might say ‘OUCH’, but the truth is I have gotten a bit longer in the tooth… still, I’m not ready to cede anything either. It seems rather more interesting to me if we make a case for change by being positive.

      Hopefully no one will ever accuse me of being a Grumpy Old Man.

      1. Sorry for the ouch, Clem, I think I may mistaken your philosophy for resignation. I will blame the misunderstanding on the discordant visions of Wolfram and Bezos, which seem to have struck a nerve.

        My Cargill feed salesperson sent out a warning about the late planting of corn which he never has done before; it makes me think there may be serious implications. Purchasing feed is more of a bad habit than a dire necessity for the ranch so I’m not terribly worried.

  3. Like Clem I tend to turn away from prognostications like those of Wolfram and Bezos above, though probably not in such a sanguine way. The effort to engage with an idea like we’re a rock’s worth of a trillion souls or “this is just arithmetic” simply leaves me reeling. Where do you start? It’s not that I don’t understand how rational speculation works, from A to Z via the power of logic. I’m sure as a teenager I adopted plenty of similarly rational-seeming poses and issued no end of grandiose pronouncements and predictions – it’s part of growing up, no? But the point is you grow up and get the nonsense battered out of you by real life. And hopefully learn the beauty and wonder and remorseless illogic of nature. Unless, it seems, you’re one of our age’s tech princes. Beautiful minds who by a quirk of social-economic configuration, or maybe just a roll of the dice, have been ushered through the portal to unimaginable influence without properly confronting what it is to be a humble and very junior member of the family of life on Earth. Without realising what a peculiar and limited device rational thinking can be. Very much the wrong kind of people for the rest of us to have to listen to.

    1. First Chris, let me thank you for the ‘sanguine’ reference. Much appreciated. Hope is sometimes contagious, at least for now that may be the best we can wish for.

      Next, I take your meaning in the lines where you offer:
      …you grow up and get the nonsense battered out of you by real life.” Indeed, living now is fraught with difficulty and it is easy to despair. There are many here among us who think that life is but a joke (to quote Bob Dylan).

      But, (you were expecting a but…), where I try to take a slightly different approach is to your final thought here:
      Very much the wrong kind of people for the rest of us to have to listen to.
      My point is that we don’t HAVE to listen to these voices. We get to choose which voices we listen to. We are free to dream our own dreams and to listen to the voices we develop as the world batters us. Dylan continues in the song:
      ..but you and I, we’ve been through that
      And this is not our fate
      So let us stop talkin’ falsely now
      The hour’s getting late

      Sanguinity – where we might head when we choose our own fate.

  4. I like your reference to the Chinese and rocks. An old Chinese saying goes “Man who live in glass house must not throw rocks”. (stones) We; man have thrown many rocks in our glass house. Our self love and deluded sense of superiority above all else on our planet has led us to adorn and enrich ourselves at the expense of all else on the planet. The Great Auk, the Hawaii O`O, Wolves, reptiles, nothing has been safe from our headlong charge to self aggrandizement and appeasement never looking up to see all the broken glass. As stated by Ronald Wright in his book A Short History of Progress; This is what happens when you leave the Monkeys in charge of the laboratory. I close with an old Chinese curse; “May you live in interesting times”.

    1. Yes, I find it striking that for all the excitement that AI and space projects generate, the end-point or dream that calls forth these projects is so ambiguous. Not really pleasant destinations. So why are we expending our dwindling resources to go there? And yet there is a general consensus that ever more complex and energy-intensive technology is the only way to be “competitive” and “relevant”.

      I have no problem with rational thought and with technology,, they are fantastic tools BUT they must be used for proper ends. Used for insane ends, they can be deadly. And our civilization – more specifically, the business community and its leaders – may well be insane, for the reasons that John points out — this profound self-aggrandizement and arrogance towards all other life on the planet.

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