Technology is a living thing that we may never understand

bw oklahoma road

In the densely intelligent, mind-blowing book “What Technology Wants,” author Kevin Kelly recounts how Charles Darwin had a problem with the eye. Darwin, you see, had co-discovered a theory of evolution that suggested random genetic mutations over thousands of generations lead all creatures and plants and microbes on the earth to evolve into greater complexity. If a mutation fits the environment better than the old genes, the new generations will thrive, leading to giraffes with long necks to eat leaves high up on trees and porcupines with quilled hairs to push off predators.

But the eye posed a problem. It’s wonderfully complex, really a camera, with a dilating pupil and clear lens and inner super-clear-gel-fluid and photosensitive ganglion cells all working together to translate radiation from the outside world into a brain-wired view of reality that helps mammals and fish survive. Darwin was worried. How could something with all these parts, none of which had much value separately, randomly “evolve”?

The human eye made Darwin question whether he was right.

Yet eyes did evolve — more than 40 separate times in various species. People. Squid. Insects. Seeing, the intake of light around you to guide a path through the world, is so useful, different creatures at different times found a way to acquire the skill. Kelly asks, “are there certain forms — natural states — that evolution tends to gravitate toward?”, and goes on to more deeply explore whether technology, collectively, is also self-evolving toward new forms.

If the eye could happen from evolution, anything goes.

Can technology evolve, too?

The strange thing about technology is it kind of acts like biological evolution. Whether or not you think of the next idea, someone else almost certainly does, and tech keeps moving up the ladder of complexity.

Numerous people almost at the same time discovered the light bulb, air flight, and the theory of relativity. In the 1940s there were seven separate teams of scientists in different nations racing to build an atomic bomb, and six of the teams came up with the basic formula that makes nuclear weapons work. America won World War II only because its group of scientists were faster with a few calculations. Technology, like mammalian eyes, races ahead, building on the most recent past, and if one individual does not discover/evolve something to the next level, soon someone else will.

Kevin Kelly calls this core concept of evolution-toward-complexity extropy, the opposite of entropy, really an increasing in order. Entropy decrees that things slow down or fall apart. Milk poured into coffee will never unmix itself. But as the universe continues to fall apart slowly until it reaches its eventual heat death of no motion, plants and animals and technology on Earth are growing up and outward in complexity. It’s as if two forces are at work in the cosmos, one causing matter and energy to collapse, the other pushing information outward higher and higher in complexity against it. Without the force of extropy expanding complexity, life on this planet would still be single-celled organisms floating dumbly in a soup of water.

So: Things grow outward. Technology is mutating in a similar path as biology, building upon what came before. And the pace of technology transformation is quickening as the costs of chips and data storage and screens and connectivity continue to plummet.

We have no idea where this growing mutation at faster and faster speeds is going.

Beyond the human S-curve

Or do we? The growth of most communications networks is a series of overlaid S-curves, and as one device/system levels out, another steps in to take its place. We see this today with tablets and smartphones outpacing desktop computers, or with rockets out-speeding jets which once beat airplanes. So if we think about the human species as a communications network, we are also starting to plateau. Human population is at an all-time high, but birth rates are falling, so total populations — and the brains behind them feeding growth — could collapse in a few centuries. We’ve nearly maxed out food production on the planet. Water, a finite resource, can only quench so much thirst. And in about 2 billion years, the rising energy from our sun will burn us off the surface of Earth, if we haven’t figured out how to move to other planet realms. If our information system is to continue to scale, another layer with its own hyperbolic S-curve must come and take our place.

Our species is also rather volatile. If you were God, and wanted to throw a party that lasted a million years where everyone had to get along, you’d likely leave humans off the invite list. This may sound misanthropic, but much of what makes us human is inefficient at best and dangerous at the worst. We still spend much of our time focused on gathering goods for protection or nutrition, ransacking our environment with little thought to pollution (see: oceans off the coast of Brazil, host of the upcoming Olympics). We are obsessed, for most of our lives, by sex (see: the phallic shape of our weapons, or Game of Thrones on TV). We are prone to anger, and deploy these traits to fight other countries whose borders are invisible from space. And we’ve stockpiled enough nuclear bombs to sear the planet’s crust several times over.

Technology, by comparison, proves information has power. Technology can evolve to solve problems faster, move things across vaster distances, and stabilize complex systems. The collective group of technology that Kelly terms technium may simply be our next evolutionary step. Carbon-based lifeforms have created the next level made of silicon and electrons. The underlying matter doesn’t matter. It’s all evolution.

If intelligence is the organization of information across shared networks that provide new solutions, something better than humans has come along.

The challenge for us mere mortals is that when artificial intelligence (AI) arrives, we likely won’t recognize it. AI systems may not know we’re here, or recognize us as alive. Without flesh-and-blood bodies, desires and hormones, new AI systems will find that humans and their biological counterparts make little sense. Dispassionately, we people are carbon forms that kill most other carbon forms and are overrunning the planet. We spend half our time yearning to fuck each other, and when not seeking sex or food, we devour goods whose production kills other species. What would a sentient technology system evaluating our impact on the world likely do to help the overall ecosystem? Hm.

And we would be no match. AI will likely think so quickly that in the time it takes a human to speak a single word it will have solved a million other problems. Its thought cycles, on the horizon of time, will be completely out of sync, racing ahead, creating its own religion and civilization in the time it take us to think, hey, the computer work up! If it ever came to war, artificial intelligence could plan the battles, make the strikes, and write a new collection of Shakespearean sonnets in the time it takes us to sound the alarm.

Technology is already a life form, and it soon may acquire intelligence. When it does, we may be no more likely to understand it than we are able to communicate to the potential thought nodes floating in cloud lightning strikes today.

Posted by Ben Kunz 

 

 

 

 

The event horizon of human networks

telephone horizon

 

Like rooms that are electrified or air that is conditioned, we take networks for granted today. But little more than 100 years ago networks, or net-works, or iron net-works as they were then called, were unusual sightings, scary drapes of wire being overlaid upon the world, a nightmare vision as if Pink Floyd had awoken screaming about black spaghetti. Imagine being a child in the 1890s, one with nature, perhaps poor with only bread to eat, but seeing the sun and leaves and suddenly wiry shit strung up in the air around you. You’d freak out, indeed. As telegraphs and electricity were invented, so too were the long trails of metal rope, slung at first over rooftops and then on poles until the word net-work was collapsed like electronic mail became e-mail then email and we forgot how unusual these strands of iron were between us and the sky.

Networks of course evolved into more meaning, the lines between wooden polls becoming theoretical connections between nodes, and a guy named Robert Metcalfe conceived that interconnections must grow exponentially in value as 3 dots have 3 lines between them but 4 dots have 6 lines and 5 dots have 10 lines and 6 thus 15 until when every human being on the planet is connected the value of the intermediary connections, the net-work, becomes infinitely valuable. Silicon Valley loved Metcalfe’s idea, and this was what drove the Internet Bubble Part 1 in the late 1990s when companies tried to sell dog food over the Internet with sock puppets and the current Internet Social Media Bubble Redux Part 2 which seems about to burst, except it was saved by Facebook, which resorted to giving up on organic social reach and selling plain old advertising.

The problem with net-works, of course, is friction. Not all nodes are connected equally to each other node. Your business plan cannot scale to the masses because at some point, people in the networked chain don’t give a crap about passing you along. Put another way, you, the individual node in a human social network, may have 300 friends on Facebook, but your lover is more important to you than your best friend, who is before your boss who is before your neighbor or that old college girlfriend from 20 years ago. Each subsequent node has a diminishing value, a fading return, like telephone poles receding in the distance. This diminishment of node value puts huge friction between you and the message that, like electricity, marketers or business plans hope you’ll pass along.

Networks don’t scale because of this friction. People aren’t really connected to everyone else in the chain, because like watching TV commercials, with most other people we’re tempted to tune out. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar noted that humans have an upper limit of about 150 relationships before we, like all primates, begin to yawn. Linguist George Zipf had another, similar idea, that in any series of things, the next tends to fall in value … the word “the” is used more often than the next word “be” and the next words “to,” “of,” “and” and “a,” until the words in the English language are used less frequently ending with the least-most-used word of all, “floccinaucinihilipilification” … and human relationships are no different.

Networks don’t scale.

Yes, what was once an iron net-work has been digitized to connect all of us, but people limit their passalong communications because at some level we cannot spread or share or digest more information than is humanly possible. We have limits, so networks cannot grow in value infinitely. Marketers or politicians or scammers who try to push us in sharing anger us, frighten us, or disgust us, because we rebel at connecting too much. Global wires are not part of our nature. Each node has meaning, but most of the connections will always be lost. Like the concept in physics of the “event horizon,” the boundary of black holes beyond which any action cannot affect outside observers, at some point the cascading loop of connections stalls, falling inward to our personal ambivalence. Networks reach forever outward, but they cannot overcome the gravity of our self-control.

Posted by Ben Kunz 

Entropy vs. evolution: Why we may give birth to Gods

bank vault door gears

 

Of the many things I don’t understand about physics, the biggest is why entropy appears at odds with biological and technological evolution. This conflict is simple: Entropy is a measure of disorder in a system, and physics dictates that disorder should increase over time in the universe, as anyone who has put sorted clean clothes in a teenage boy’s room can attest. Your teenager’s room will never get more orderly unless a parent (the outside system force) makes that happen. Pour milk into coffee, and it all blends together (increasing disorder). Pop a helium balloon, and the helium molecules will spread into the air around you (increasing disorder). You never come home to find the universe has magically done the dishes or paid the bills without applying pure force to make that new order happen.

Play the law of entropy out, and eventually our expanding universe should fall to smithereens, like marbles scattered across pavement, until burned out planets and stars of disorder wobble alone in the vast darkness.

But here’s the conflict: Despite what entropy should do, order keeps increasing in many systems, especially in life on planet Earth. Plants and animals has grown more complex over time. Within our living ecosystem, fish and animals have developed another layer beyond life called technium by the brilliant Kevin Kelly, the vast system of technology around us that includes tools and gadgets such as shells used by octopuses as homes, sticks used by apes to dig for insects, and computers used by homo sapiens to send email. Like living beings, our technology system has expanded until it itself has begun to act like an evolving organism, an unstoppable evolutionary force. And embedded in this technium is a third layer of information, a Matrix-type multiverse of history and knowledge and culture and spirituality and money and love and other artificial constructs that humans deeply believe in and have learned to keep in their heads, write down in language code, and store within hard drives. Biology, technology and knowledge ecosystems are reaching for the stars. Soon, some suggest, we’ll progress even further by inadvertently creating an artificial intelligence, a singularity in which our info-tech-bio systems move past us and our history of worshipping Light. In our rush to link everything to Google, we may soon give birth to Gods.

These two vectors are at odds. How can — or must — systems become more disorderly (with increasing entropy) while at the same time they evolve into more complex order (with decreasing entropy)? How can the universe spin to burn itself out while it evolves more brightly over time?

A spiritual person might suggest that, to stay in line with the second law of thermodynamics, order can only increase if outside forces continue to act on us — so some Godlike Force must be guiding this activity. A scientist might ponder that, if our local world is somehow in a state of continual creation while the gravity of entropy pulls things apart, perhaps the energy of the sun is feeding our evolution while it spends its nuclear fuel down, keeping all of this in balance.

Or perhaps the universe itself is a growing, living, evolving thing, and caught deep inside it we can’t understand, so we make up second laws of thermodynamics with conceits of an entropy that doesn’t really exist.

Posted by Ben Kunz

 

The illumination of the species soul

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Our yearning to be heard, to have our ideas propagated, is a hunger for life itself. This makes social media a survival instinct. Of course, conflating tweets with some form of innate drive to pass our genes on to the next generation seems silly, overblown, bombastically ornate … until you realize that if digital tools are just extensions of our hands, then digital social congress could be an extension of our sex.

Put another way, individuals exist with two basic purposes: to fulfill their daily caloric intake to keep on living, and to stay alive long enough to produce offspring, who in turn will continue the chain of life. Individuals are really micro-links in the macro species, and it is the species itself that has evolved to survive over time. This is the reason that 13-year-old boys fantasize about sex, and that the cry of a baby on an airplane is so annoying, because the lust to pass genes on and the need to provide solace to a helpless infant are mini-memes that support our species’ survival. Unseen by individuals, the collective urges and consoling of our chain of forefathers is passed to the mothers beyond us in time. We only exist as conduits to this future.

We are cells in a collective species of time.

So if together a group of individuals, mapped out over history, is really a collaboratively living, breathing organism fighting for its survival, then the superior species will be the one in which every cell — us — acts to support the health of the greater being. We will strengthen cells by fighting among each other to eliminate the weak (with wars or, as we evolve, less-bloody politics). We will sustain cell growth by mating as rapidly as possible. And we will, as a species, seek to dominate other collective organisms by either confining them (hello, dogs), eating them (chickens, pigs and cows), or destroying them (any species in our way, such as unneeded trees that must fall before our constructions).

Unfortunately, any given species’ survival can be threatened by its own success, if its growth expands too rapidly. Like a cancer, cell growth can destroy the healthy ecosystem around it. Malignancies spun out of control are difficult to stop, because the cells — individuals — inside cannot see the havoc they are wreaking. And like cancer, something triggers cells to fight and expand and reproduce in a new, hyper-fast way, one in which the programming of the original species’ DNA did not anticipate. Within the organism, the cells become runaway cars, crashing into everything. The very urges we feel to have dominion over the Earth can destroy the world around us.

This loop of destruction must be recognized for it to stop. Somewhere, a cell realizes its mistake, but the species of tomorrow is too hungry to really listen. There is no code to send the message up. This is a concept yearning to be heard, an idea to be propagated, a hunger for life itself.

Posted by Ben Kunz.

Unforeseen creations are the children of tomorrow

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On Jan. 12, 2007, world-famous musician Joshua Bell began playing a $3.5 million Stradivarius violin at the underground L’Enfant Plaza subway station in Washington, D.C. More than 1,000 people walked by in the next 45 minutes; only seven stopped to listen, and Bell gathered just $32.17 in tips. Washington Post reporter Gene Weingarten won a Pulitzer Prize for recording the social experiment.

The finding: Humans are bad at noticing unexpected changes in their environment.

Does this matter? If the environment drifts the wrong way, yes. In the Wired April 2000 essay “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” Bill Joy wrote that humans are unwittingly spreading technology around us that may outlive us. Artificially intelligent robots will soon be the byproducts of our self-driving cars, and may not need their creators. Nanotechnology, invisible molecular-level engines, if unleashed without care could turn carbon lifeforms into pulp. And genetic engineering, today used to boost the vitamin A levels in golden rice, could create plants or animals that devastate our food chain. No one is building any of this deliberately, Joy suggests — but we are creating things that will lead to other things we may not wish for.

As robotics researcher Hans Moravec wrote:

“Biological species almost never survive encounters with superior competitors. Ten million years ago, South and North America were separated by a sunken Panama isthmus. South America, like Australia today, was populated by marsupial mammals, including pouched equivalents of rats, deers, and tigers. When the isthmus connecting North and South America rose, it took only a few thousand years for the northern placental species, with slightly more effective metabolisms and reproductive and nervous systems, to displace and eliminate almost all the southern marsupials.”

The world once had tigers with pouches like kangaroos, and they all faded before a new species with slightly better metabolisms. Like violins in the subway, I bet the early intruders from what is now Mexico crept through the woods unnoticed.

Posted by Ben Kunz

 

 

The tension of past vs. future

bw tree reflections

 

A friend wrote recently that we live on the border of two eras, Disruption and Post-Disruption. His concept, as I understand it, is at some point the technological and communications and religious and human rights evolution of our society has increased to the pace where disruption is constant, a given, a part of the background, and so we must learn to swim in this new lake where the ground of society is no longer stable beneath our feet. Perhaps this is overblown or egocentric, a conceit that we live in a pivotal point in history, and it may be erroneous to assume the ancestors who came before us building Rome or London didn’t feel the same insecurity of radical change. But the pace of change has quickened, that is a fact.

I responded with this thought: the conflict between past and future has always been that of conservatism and liberalism, a tension between tradition and progress, of old rules and new ones, today expressed in the United States with the anti-Obama Fox News and pro-Obama MSNBC fighting … and globally with the anger between Islamic terrorists and encroaching Western society. The line between the two spheres of past and present is constantly moving, like a wave caught between two currents, and what seems liberal today (say, gay marriage) could seem conservative tomorrow (like Social Security). And beneath these currents lie deeper ones; while Americans quibble over who may get tax breaks for being considered “married,” other cultures look at ours entirely as a liberal radicalism, a state where showing full nudity in movies is OK and drinking drugs called alcohol is accepted. Conservatism is just a name for the perspective of where one stands, and liberalism is what you call someone else who is running ahead too far.

The question goes beyond whether such tension is anything new to — what of our pace, the velocity of our change, the speed of the ongoing disruption? The definitions of ethnicity and class and male vs. female roles and parental discipline and environmentalism are morphing so quickly, it’s difficult to see if where we land is right or a step forward or a risk that we may be destabilizing our communities. It’s possible that we will look back and think we made a mistake. Maybe cars shouldn’t have pumped toxins into the atmosphere. Maybe simulated sex in Oscar-winning films erodes our spirit. Who stops to think, when the show is good and we love the power of our SUV?

The tension between past and future has always been here. But the speed at which that wave now moves leads to an unknown crest.

Posted by Ben Kunz