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“I Can See The Future!”

Futurologists in action!The future begins tomorrow. This being so, it doesn’t seem especially difficult to say what will happen in that uncertain land. Weathermen, and their noble sisters the weatherwomen, daily dispatch dependable forecasts for tomorrow.

Weatherpersons are not especially gifted soothsayers. Tomorrow can be seen by many—but only just. Peering twenty-four hours into the future is like a near-sighted man who has forgotten his glasses trying to identify a friend in front of a building at fifty yards. The face is blurred, but the building takes shape.

Big things are easier to see than small, but even the large grows small with distance, where the view grows murkier. Yet these difficulties don’t dissuade some from telling us of their visions. This only becomes a nuisance when the person telling the tale swears he can see where others cannot. I’m thinking of cocksure climatologists who claim to be able to call the temperature to within a tenth of a degree a decade hence.

And then there are the “futurologists.” Robert Nisbet calls futurology, “one of the more pretentious of the pseudo-sciences of the twentieth century and is fully deserving of the neologism by which it is known, comparable to labeling the study of the past ‘pastology.'”

It’s easy to set up shop as a futurologist: get somebody to pay you to make predictions of what will be in ten years. As long as you are confident, bold, and pay heed to fears and desires, your success is guaranteed. Your mistakes will rarely be held against you.

There are a hefty share of self-publicity hounds among futurologists: the Faith Popcorns who beguile businessmen into forgetting the pain of paying for poor predictions. But there are also, according to the Boston Globe, “serious futurologists” like “Nick Bostrom, an Oxford University philosophy professor who heads the school’s Future of Humanity Institute.”

One debate within this community is when the “singularity” will hit and what should one be wearing when it does. The singularity can be roughly defined as the point at which life emulates the plot of the movie Terminator. Technology becomes so advanced that humans are superfluous, mere cogs in the world machine.

Actually, there is no precise or universally agreed upon definition of what this mystical point is. Some say it will mean the rise of “Ems“, a.k.a. “future whole brain emulation robots”, machines into which we frail, death-plagued people will download our “selves.”

With an ample supply of spare parts, we would live forever! This idea thrills proponents, but I see it as dystopian. Issac Asimov predicted that if life can last millenia future people will spend most of their time avoiding all risks trying not to wear out and die. Who would volunteer to take a risk, what rewards could there be?

Machine-people aren’t likely, either. First, despite all the progress, modern computer chips are like tinker toys bought at a garage sale that lasted one day too long compared to the wiring of our nervous system. Calculating the digits of π at blazing speed is trivial next to computing how many shirts to pack on your next business trip. The difference in complexity is orders upon orders of magnitude.

Second, we are not our brains, but our entire bodies. We aren’t just the synapses in our skulls, but nerves, sinew, bone, and muscle. All these things are one interacting system. We can’t just invent a database for our brains, we must create an entire life-like machine, one whose intricacy would rival our own bodies.

Third, we very probably aren’t smart enough to do it. It has only been a bare 100 years that humans—who have existed for 250,000-400,000 years—that we have been able to invent toys which are sufficiently entertaining to distract us from our real work. Who says progress will continue? The only reason we got this far is because we figured out how to make food cheap and plentiful.

By “we”, I mean the species; thus, I speak nonsense. Only actual people know how to farm. When these people go to meet their grandfathers, some will leave their wisdom behind in books. But those that come after them will have read and understand those books.

Time must be spent by each new generation to learn what came before them. Once knowledge reaches a certain level, our progeny will spend most of their lives assimilating what came before. They won’t have time to create.

We are not infinitely intelligent, therefore we can’t think ourselves into every corner of the universe. Some things will always remain a mystery. Our great-etc. children might be able to see farther than we, but even their vision won’t penetrate into the future.

14 thoughts on ““I Can See The Future!” Leave a comment

  1. I see it equally religiously unfounded to say that the mysteries of the universe will eventually all be found and comprehended, as to say that they will never be, cause we are so stupid.

    Of course we are stupid. We are apes that spew blithering nonsense every day, just turn on the tv for a show of this stupidity. And yet, we do have science, and it’s almost as this beast has a life of its own, ever growing, always going forward. I don’t know if it will achieve the goal that these futurists claim that it will, a point of “no return” to an exponential explosion of artificial intelligence and the subsequent rapture of the geeks, and I’m obviously very skeptical of it.

    But I’m also very weary of those who proudly proclaim our stupidity, therefore we won’t achieve anything of the sort, perhaps ironically forgetting that if they proclaim their own stupidity on these matters – something I’m not against, humbleness is a very good virtue – why should we trust it in these predictions?

    I’m looking forward to the future. My prediction is that I’ll be wildly surprised to what is really gonna happen. More than that, I’m not really bold to say.

  2. “Second, we are not our brains, but our entire bodies.” I prefer brains in a vat a la the old horror movies. Just wires connected to provide sensory information and the illusion of cause and effect feedback. How do we know we are not brains in a vat?

  3. “Once knowledge reaches a certain level, our progeny will spend most of their lives assimilating what came before. They won’t have time to create.”

    Stop it! You’re making stuff come out of my nose!

    Here in the universities of the 21ST CENTURY, we can’t even get the students to unplug from Facebook, let alone assimilate What Came Before. Hey Daddy-O, Nothing came before these Whiz Kidz, leastwise nothing they want to know. Brains in a vat would be an improvement.

  4. “First, despite all the progress, modern computer chips are like tinker toys bought at a garage sale that lasted one day too long compared to the wiring of our nervous system. Calculating the digits of Ï€ at blazing speed is trivial next to computing how many shirts to pack on your next business trip. The difference in complexity is orders upon orders of magnitude.”

    Well put, well put.

  5. Briggs,

    To reinforce your musings, here’s a story about “Watson”, the IBM computer that performed on Jeopardy.

    http://aquapour.com/ibms-watson-takes-on-jeopardy-champs-jennings-and-rutter/556019/

    The story was written before the results of the contest were known, and pretty much foretold what happened.

    This pretty much covers it:

    “Watson is basically only a super-well informed idiot, but not perfectly well informed. Because it doesn’t understand every nuance of our language, it can give absurdly stupid answers.”

    Indeed, in the actual show, it did this loop-de-loop in the Final Jeopardy:

    http://www.ebaumsworld.com/video/watch/81327309/

    Along the lines you suggest, pretty much the equivalent of knowing the molecular composition of every component of the suitcase, but not knowing how to actually pack the suitcase or what it’s good for.

  6. Time must be spent by each new generation to learn what came before them. Once knowledge reaches a certain level, our progeny will spend most of their lives assimilating what came before. They won’t have time to create.

    Get out of my head, Briggs! I’ve thought this exact deal once before. That without a significant increase in not only a human’s lifespan, but the time of their “prime”, we will eventually reach a point where no new knowledge can be gained (because all possible time will be spent learning the old knowledge).

    Hmmm… there’s a scifi story in there somewhere…

  7. Yeah, AI will never happen cause Watson was quite stupid.

    Are people nuts? Big Blue defeating Kasparov was only 13 years ago. The internet is slightly older than that.

    Having Moore’s Law, we should predict that in 10 years the descendent of Watson will be 50 times more powerful. For all the stupidity of Watson he did win Jeopardy, remember?

    In ten years we will “fight” against another Watson 50 times better. And that means that in 20 years, we will confront ourselves with another Watson 2500 times better than this “stupid” machine.

    So people may still laugh at these machines, and smugly invent stuff to which they can still beat the machines. But this area is getting smaller by the day, and homo sapiens are stubburn to admit defeat ;).

  8. Luis Dias,

    I think we have the ultimate trump card in that at some point we can just stop making Watson’s descendants.

    We don’t have to admit defeat until the machines learn how to self-breed.

  9. Who would’ve thought of the discovery of DNA or the possibility of cloning 100 years ago? I think there is unlimited “knowledge” to be explored. Our brain will just get bigger, and we’ll turn into a cone head. ^_*

  10. “I know a woman who claims that serial murders are drawn disproportionately from chicken farmers.”

    Makes one wonder what became of Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge. I hope Ukridge has not been optioned to some author like Thomas Harris.

  11. “So people may still laugh at these machines, and smugly invent stuff to which they can still beat the machines.”

    Yes, inventions like the main switch to the machine’s power supply or its removable battery.

  12. Luis,

    Yes the current version of Watson won the Jeopardy match. But I don’t feel threatened by it. If push comes to shove, I can just challenge it to a fight in the “city with two airports”. While I’m enjoying a Godfather’s pizza, Watson will be stuck in Canadian customs, never to be heard of again.

    But even if its progeny are 2500 times smarter, I suspect they’ll just be able to get tied up in their shorts faster and faster, performing increasingly inane and trivial calculations more “efficiently”, while developing no discernable practical or social skills.

    You know…like climate scientists.

    🙂

  13. Ahhh you people will just be utterly red faced in the future when I’ll post publicly your comments about how AI will never be really a “threat” to mankind!

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