Posts Tagged Technology
Some time back I stumbled upon the sweet revelation that written sci-fi (more specifically novels) is much more entertaining than your typical TV shows and/or movies of the same genre. Don’t get me wrong, those still remain my favourite pastimes when I need to unwind. I must admit that I have not been very diligent in my readings lately (cue the appropriate excuses …) though I have at least taken a look at some of the luminaries in the genre including Isaac Asimov and more modern authors such as Iain M. Banks. Banks’ Culture series is classified as a space opera (I know, never thought I would be into anything soap) that presents some pretty intriguing concepts, immersed in wide spanning geographic (in any case galactic) and time scales. I think the series is popular enough that checking out its page on Wikipedia would give you a detailed overview about the fictional society itself and what goes into making this fictional universe.
I have always emphasised that sci-fi should be looked at beyond the fancy technologies and more as a commentary on human nature. The Culture is a symbiotic human/machine civilization that is more an idea than anything concrete that you can point at. For example, most modern states and indeed our current civilization can point to global treaties and written laws and constitutions and all the documents, mores and norms that define our existence. For the Culture though, they don’t have anything that resembles a law – the Wikipedia entry refers to this fictional civilization as a socialist, utopian anarchy.
In our normal lives we can’t envision a society without laws as this essentially means an unprecedented level of violence and chaos but here is someone presenting an idea that explore the possibility of anarchic society that is largely a utopia. As a concept under consideration, The Culture is more of an idea that is constantly maintained at a stable state that its various citizens want and/or can agree to bring about; it is certainly a deliberate effort to more forcefully create that which you believe to be right – challenging the very notion of what reality is. The AIs in this fictional scenario essentially enables everything that the Culture is and they themselves are irrevocably part of the same loose principles and norms that makes up the Culture. As story telling devices, the Minds present that crucial unimaginably complex means to neatly (albeit unsatisfactorily) wrap up a story but going beyond that and looking in-universe and you may come to the realization that the very post scarcity nature of the Culture creates a new set of problems and many of which are conveniently side-stepped by the fact that the very backbone of the Culture (the Minds) are benevolent and deeply uninterested in oppressing their creators (at least the creators of their first generation) and their subsequent progenies.
Life in the Culture is unbelievably dull and less than exciting – at least for those who want more than indulging every whim you can conjure up in an environment in which all physical hazards can be managed and calibrated to your particular liking; interestingly enough, the Culture is aware of this and hence provide those determined enough to do more to live a lasting mark an outlet through contact with other civilization. The Culture as a civilization runs an organization that handles its interactions with other civilizations as well as engage in any military actions if necessary; within contact there is Special Circumstances which is the civilization’s military intelligence and espionage and counter espionage organizations. The whole scenario is one in which the potential of true freedom of choice is mostly possible: you can choose to live your life in whatever fashion you want and there is no one accountable for it other than yourself. I can’t help get the feeling that these are just diversions in the same vein as you have solved all the conceivable problems that you have in life and the next thing remaining is to spread your particular world view to everybody else. The biological citizens of the Culture need such escapes but ultimately I would expect that the core group of Culture Minds that run the entire racket would know that they are just watching a bunch of unpredictable variables mixing it up in slow but hopefully, eventually interesting combination.
Examining any coverage about freedom, what you will mostly overlook is that nobody ever mentions the idea that freedom is not absolute; a truly free individual can equally choose not to be free as that choice is something that has to be afforded to him or her by virtue of his/her freedom. It is a concept that many people would dismiss outright for it sits at odd with their so very human nature but it may point to the notion that we tend to think of freedom as an end in and of itself. To anyone who has spent some thought on the subject, it becomes eminently obvious that the proper end of freedom is happiness and that in itself means that the choice to forgo freedom in order to achieve happiness is just as valid as those who fight to be free of their shackles.
However, take the notion of freedom in the context of a hypothetical post-scarcity scenario, then the interesting question that begs an answer is: does freedom fought for and struggled for leads to greater happiness compared to a freedom that you are given (for lack of a better word)? Look at it in another way: does the fact that you are born rich and hence suffer hunger out of choice make your choice less important compared to someone who does not have such degree of choice? By that analogy then you may postulate the notion that given riches (and the freedom that they afford), you may not end up being happy after all. Don’t get me wrong: not having choice is not a guarantee that you will be happy either as the very lack of choice degrades your very dignity but with an ever more globalized world, it is quite possible to go from rags to riches and then you have the riches problem all over again. Absolute freedom as a means to happiness remains a fallacy.
As more studies into the intersection of sociology, psychology and neuroscience continue, it becomes interesting to ask a question like: is poverty a social disease? I don’t mean it in the material sense of the word but more in a sense that our societal structures encourages abhorrent behaviour in ourselves and with very little chance of actually realizing that there is a much better, more satisfying scope to living life and looking at life. I find the economic concept of positional good quite intriguing in exploring poverty as a social disease; with positional good – you value something because others don’t have it and this applies to luxury goods mostly though I have a hard time figuring out where this line gets drawn when you deal with basic commodities. Our economic frameworks firmly follow the rules of supply and demand and in some sectors it actually becomes necessary to artificially manage supply and demand in order to ensure healthy profits.
Earning money is not an evil in and of itself (I am yet to figure out a convincing way in which a post-scarcity paradigm would emerge from our current economic model but that is a story for another day) but manipulating the system and the rules to up your profit margins is fundamentally wrong on so many levels. The blind pursuit of profits have always made me wonder what drives a true entrepreneur; no doubt, the returns from the business is a key motivator but that is not a sustainable motive as you will soon become encumbered in ways that you will find both limiting and demoralizing to say the least.
List any large corporation that has gained prominence through ruthless attention to its margins and show me the number of tussles they have had with the legal system and/or regulators. It is easy to flippantly conclude that success attracts enemies but please go beyond the enemies’ attempts to get their pound of flesh and you will realize that continued exposure to these fights will at some point limit the ability of the company to rigorously pursue its purpose for being. If this purpose is to make money then there is the unfortunate side-effect that the dominant company in the sector or industry will snap up all and/or the best resources available in the industry/sector and thus becomes more of an inhibitor to true progress through farther transformation and improvement of people’s lives. Money is power and that power can be used to effectively rewrite the laws and/or cause the legal system to grind to a halt as business proceeds but these fights do take their toll on the company in the long run.
Let me circle back to the fictional Culture universe. What underpins Banks’ fiction in the context of Culture is that human spirit, ingenuity, restlessness, inventiveness, curiosity, etc. are largely preserved albeit sometimes taken so far as to be given their own sentience and as such effectively become a moral agent that must fulfil its purpose for being. Too far fetch? Think of a habitat – a house that is sentient and/or damn near sentience and fully aware that it collapsing is definitely against is reason for being and not being habitable is equally an abhorrent outcome to contemplate. The upside of such a contrived analogy is that the house would ensure that everything possible is done to ensure that it is just as worthy of being a house – puts it beyond any casual corruption and definitely any petty thieving (arsonist, burglars – I am looking at you). Of course a determined individual and/or an army would easily bring it down so that should also act as an incentive to stick to the business of being a house (a good little house).
Post-scarcity/Singularity/Heaven can’t come if we can’t relinquish our grasp on things that need not be within our control. We are becoming too powerful in our ability without the necessary fortitude to realize that this same power is easily corrupting us. We need a better way to put away the best of what we are as rational beings and worry about things that we have not figured out yet. The pertinent question remains: what is the best way to put our collective well being beyond our corruption? This is not a new question and since the beginning of time, we have struggled with this question. God exists as the most perfect embodiment of the best of what we are and through the ages people have believed in a supreme being who takes a benevolent interest in the affairs of mere mortals.
Overtime as our knowledge and understanding improved, these believes have shifted subtly but their essence remain the same. We live in a technological age where things are just beginning – for the last 50 years or so all our electronics advances have largely been about replicating our physical, old world. Want an example: you still call the collection of related information on your computer a file and you put them into folders/directories (file cabinets) and the list continues. We have only realized that these electronics can crunch big numbers and serve as vast repositories of data. Replicating our physical and somewhat old ways of looking at the world is a necessary step and it is my hope that in that process we have secured what is good about the past because our increased capabilities are likely to be frightening without the proper foundation. All the improvements in computer hardware and software as well as communication technologies has led some futurist to consider the possibility that we may end up creating the means necessary to put the best of ourselves beyond corruption and the vagaries of our conflicted nature. Most of the said futurist refer to this as the singularity; there is enough literature on the singularity online both in support of and those who are convinced that we are on the verge of creating the famed SkyNet.
My take? I don’t think the singularity is going to be a good thing or a bad thing when and if it happens. The probability that it will be completely sentient at the time of emergence is doubtful at best because that would suggest a trigger event that will make it all come together. At the moment, it is hard to figure out what that is but a possibility exists that sentience will be more an emergent characteristic of the singularity and at least for sometime it will become a true companion to human beings who can afford to use them to their desired ends. This raises the possibility that both good and evil singularities will emerge as these will learn from their makers the various demeanour and tone that they will believe. The scenario presents the most plausible ways to teach and transfer human social constructs like trust and group dynamics; increased use of technologies will enhance (hopefully) our social interactions and in the process also yield hard data which can be analysed and codified into a general framework of human behaviour.
Based on this model then it seems we are just transferring our problems to yet another realm because if it is entirely possible to end up with good and bad singularities, then these are likely to wage wars against each other. So here we go, civil wars wages through AI proxies – but more interesting I think this will give a new level of drama to personal feuds as commanding a horde of these singularities towards your particular goal would be most plausible. Oh, don’t forget that these will quickly come under some sort of legislation which means either you create Judge Dread type singularities or if the law remains as arcane (with regard to the internet specifically) as it is at the moment, then it is just a matter of the law being a polite suggestion without any real chances at enforcements (of course except for instances in which your opponents want to manoeuvre thusly.
- Singularities & Nightmares: Extremes of Optimism & Pessimism About the Human Future
- A few notes On Culture
- Positional Good
One of my most recent reads is Social Intelligence by Daniel Goleman (yes, the very one of the Emotional Intelligence fame). I found the book interesting although in some sections it reads like some sci-fi plotline. However, much of the book is based on continued research into how our brains are wired and how that wiring essentially influences our interactions with people around us – including strangers.
Turns out empathy is a pretty powerful factor in a person’s ability to create, nurture and maintain relationships. However this ability to essentially tune into someone’s else’s feelings and state of being is not equally developed in everyone hence leading to the various trials and tribulations that people go through. One of the most fundamental questions that I like to bring up on discussion of relationship is a hypothetical scenario: what if you have everything that you wanted? And I don’t mean that in a sense that you want a trillion bucks today and you get it but something that you can reasonably struggle for a reasonably be assured of getting it. What would be the purpose of your life then?
Let me dwell some more on the notion of “having everything you want”: as individual persons we want good for ourselves as a matter of course however there is a point at which the individual good relies on the good of everyone around you – when you give, you also benefit because you have had the opportunity to be of use to someone else. Taken a bit further, “everyone around you” would include the entire ecology that is keeping you alive. This generosity can not be limited to only material or physical aspects of life; the psychological dimension of generosity is a far more interesting subject to ponder than the clear cut, obvious dictates of our physical generosity. How does an emotion as such love (complex, while simple as it is) gets expressed in a situation in which you are virtually secure and safe in and of yourself?
The increased knowledge and information about how our brain works is a direct consequence of our ability to collect and reason about vast amount of information thanks to advances in computing hardware and the corresponding software. If much of what has happened in the past is to be taken as a baseline from which to extrapolate what might happen down the road, then it becomes increasingly hard to dismiss the idea that we could reach a point at which the working of our biological bits and pieces is no longer a great mystery. Besides enabling us to see what is going on inside our own bodies (or our favourite research proxies like white mice), advances in computing is also transforming the way we communicate with each other through the elevated prominence of social networks and more importantly the social component of our interaction is increasing becoming a key part of how we use our computing equipment and conduct our lives.
I am far more intrigued by what the increased importance of social networks means to our future evolution. Already, the petabytes of data on social networking sites say more about our individual actions and choices overtime that it is possible to analyse this vast data repository for patterns that will give clues into how we want our lives to be customised. That has always been the story that tech visionaries over the decades have been talking about but it is in this day and age that the possibility of making our computing experience more in touch with a realistic approximation of our social interactions. Everything in our daily lives involves dealing with other people and when technological advances take this into account then lives can be wonderfully transformed. Whether we are ready for this transformation or not is perhaps the question that will only be answered by future historians.
Sociologist and anthropologist would perhaps take the time to extrapolate and attempt to explain the potential impact of technology on society and our very definition of ourselves. I can’t help feel like the financial crisis was brought about by ease of access to technology that enables us to dream up the most complicated derivatives that few, if at all, ever understood. As if it was not enough that you define a financial product solely based on its formulaic relationship with the real world, you then have the ability to sell those same products all over the world such that the very false nature of these derivatives exposed far too many people to the risk involved. This is not an attempt to lay blame at the feet of technological progress but instead more an exploration of what such incidents say about our ability to effectively leverage the true benefits of technological progress.
The precepts on which current modern life was build may not smoothly transfer onto a more technology-centric society; for example the rule of law is imperative to the functioning of society however the very idea of owning a property (more specifically digital properties) is different from that which applies to owning real world artefacts like land, a building or even a pen. The concept of ownership and valuing the property so owned inevitably affects the very definition of what constitute theft and what would be a fair compensation for being deprived of what is rightly yours. When applied to digital properties, does copying a file truly qualify as stealing? In the normal sense of stealing a pen i.e. the owner of the pen does not have access to the pen anymore?
Taking someone’s property (digital or a non-digital) remains ethically wrong and as per the dictates of any civilized society; however, if the theft in question is digital – more along the lines of copying than depriving the original owner of ownership of the property in question, then it becomes hard to judge what is an acceptable compensation. There is the question of policing such crimes; either the laws and by extension the rule of law need to evolve to accommodate a more digital life or technology need to bent over backward to accommodate (more fully) existing assumptions about fundamental aspects of life like owning property.