Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Historical Exponential View vs The Heart of Man

This essay has probably influenced my thinking about technology more than any other:  Ray Kurzweil starts it off by promising that you will get $40 trillion by just reading it.  In it he compares the intuitive linear view of how we expect technology to progress with the historical exponential trend that is has demonstrated.  The reason we intuitively think of technological progress as linear is because exponential trends appear to be linear when viewed (and experienced) for a brief period of time.  In general, I think being optimistic about technological progress is the right attitude.  But ten years later, I’ve embraced a more cautious optimism regarding the concept of the singularity.  Kurzweil goes way off the charts near the end of the essay, following his singularity to a logical conclusion of an ever expanding existence merely comprised of self-organizing knowledge.  Intuitively I’ve always felt that to be a little off, but since he posits very well early on in the essay that intuition can sometimes be wrong, I kind of just shrugged and decided to take the latter part of the essay on authority.  It’s not like it likely matters to us anyway, if it happens we can adjust and if it doesn’t… well then it doesn’t matter.

Lately I’ve been exploring a more logical and objective counterpoint to the “knowledge blob assimilation theory” (my name for it… not his). The limits of technological advancement might be similar in concept to the limits of functional abstraction in programming.  Think for example about writing software libraries.  As we write functionality we can reference, as long as we can understand how we implemented it and remember how to reference it, it empowers us to write new software much faster.  There’s a point of diminishing returns as we lose familiarity with the libraries we have built or work with and it takes some time to catch up again and be as productive.  But in general abstraction makes things happen faster.  The technological singularity might end up giving us what we would now consider extreme capabilities.  For example being able to tell our car where to take us and then relaxing, having perfect digital memories thanks to implants, and being fully immersed in virtual worlds whenever we choose; but the limits of abstraction hit in at some point.  And the heart of man never changes.  Tying technology abstractions to the intents of the heart of man (who we are and what we want to be or do) will be the upper limit of the advancement.  I think a different way to articulate the concept will be to say that what we will be able to do post singularity will be limited by our imaginations.  But since our imaginations are limited and imperfect (even when augmented), there will be a limit.  Mike Minter, an intellectual that I respect highly and routinely get to hear speak, made plain an example of technological advancement vs the heart of man in this short video.  The title of the three part series (each part is two minutes) is “The Ultimate Contradiction”.  It’s worth watching. The first part is the story I’m referring to.  The second part describes why this happens: “The insatiable desire for a man to be satisfied will always be thwarted by his inability to be satisfied.”  Regardless of your perspective and opinions, it’s certainly an interesting time to be alive.