Get Ready For The Future

The piece of plumbing with a smile is part of a Quantum Computing research project at MIT and links to a short piece on the subject - part of their 'Breakthrough Technologies for 2017' webpage.

This piece and the others featured in the top 10 should make it clear how Moore's law is unlikely to be unravelling anytime soon and why it is about time we started to come to terms with what its consequences will be.  

Some have suggested the era of exponential growth in computing power is coming to an end because we are reaching the physical limits of what is possible given existing chip technology.  They have missed the point: exponential growth such as that predicted by Moore's law is not dependent on the improvement of existing technology; it is facilitated by one innovation opening up possibilities to many others in accordance with Kurzweil's broader 'law of accelerating returns'.  

The innovations in the pipeline illustrated in the MIT piece point toward a future that will be very different from anything we might imagine if we just translate the changes that have taken place over the last 10-20 years into our vision of what is likely to happen over the next 10-20 years.  

Firstly I would like to explain why we have difficulty in envisioning what the future will look like, then I would like to predict what it will look like and finally I would like explain what we need to do to prepare ourselves, and what may happen if we don't - a clue: it's already beginning to happen.

The problem with anticipating the consequences of exponential growth

The following tale illustrates how incapable we are of intuitively getting a feel for, and therefore imagining, what the consequences of exponential growth will be.  The legend goes that the Indian tradition of serving Paal Paysam to visiting pilgrims started after a game of chess between the local king and the lord Krishna himself.  The king was a big chess enthusiast and had the habit of challenging wise visitors to a game of chess. One day a travelling sage was challenged by the king. To motivate his opponent the king offered any reward that the sage could name. The sage modestly asked just for a few grains of rice in the following manner: the king was to put a single grain of rice on the first chess square and double it on every consequent one.  The king was only too pleased that such a modest claim was to be put upon his fortune.

If you try this one at home you will find things start out as you expected, and are quite manageable: 1, 2, 4, 8, 16.... so far so good.  However, at the end of the second row you may have begun to question the wisdom of the king as you try to fit 32,868 grains on the 16th square.  Come to the final 64th square on the board and you will need to find over 18,000,000,000,000,000,000 grains of rice - an amount that will not fit on the square; or the entire board; or indeed the entire landmass of India.  

Our experiences just don't equip us to think in terms of exponential growth.  We evolved so as to be attuned to dealing with the linear patterns our ancestors encountered in their environment: the movement of animals, water, thrown objects and other things that impacted on their ability to survive.  This means we are inclined to look at the increased speed with which things have changed in the recent past and consider this to be either the rate at which things will change from now on, or an abnormality that will be corrected when the rate of change falls back in line with what has happened in the past.  When things have already changed so greatly that we are dealing with previously unimagined consequences - like those of having to accommodate over 18,000,000,000,000,000,000 grains of rice - we find it difficult to think that soon we will have to deal with double that: i.e. more change in the next step than all the previous changes that have ever happened, in all history, added together! 

What The Future Will Look Like

At some time between 2030 and 2050 almost no one will be required to perform any function whatsoever: i.e. there will be almost no need for human employment.  The intellectual processes by which innovation takes place will happen faster and more reliably in artificial intelligence (AI) systems.  Most physical human requirements will be better performed by robots controlled by AI, and those that aren't may well relate to needs that can be better satisfied in virtual reality.  If this sounds far fetched, consider how the time children once spent play fighting has been reinvested into video games over the past 20 years.  The reason being these represent a more realistic battle environment.  When we are better able to read and write brain signals (a couple of the MIT articles illustrate the progress made to date) we may be able to have better friendships and even better sex in virtual reality.

Unlike previous rounds of step changed innovation - the agricultural and industrial revolutions - there will be no 'higher' work that technology will free us up to do.  In order for us to do anything for ourselves or each other we will have to decide against an alternative that, by many objective measures, will be superior: more effective, more enjoyable, more reliable, etc.

The Challenges We Need To Prepare For

In a world where no one is needed, what do we do?  Where should wealth reside?  How should resources be divvied up?  Where does responsibility lie?  

These are big and difficult questions.  We need to start preparing ourselves if we are to answer them without unnecessary conflict and bloodshed.  We are already seeing the consequences of the technological revolution.  Globalization and the associated challenges relating to the movement of people, money and jobs are already causing unrest, but as the all wise Bachman Turner Overdrive once said "you aint seen nothing yet'. 

The recently mooted idea of paying everyone a guaranteed wage ( hints at how we might have to adjust our thinking over the coming decades.  While the new world order will not come in a rush tomorrow, day by day it approaches, and little by little the challenges it presents will become inescapable.  Wealth and the ability to accumulate wealth will become less evenly distributed as those who design and own the important technology become increasingly important and influential. More and more people will fall out of paid employment.  Clerical jobs are perhaps the most vulnerable; including highly paid medical, accounting, legal, banking and investment jobs.  In the short term caring and some specialist and skilled manual work (such as dry stone walling perhaps) will become relatively safe because they are more difficult to do with robots.  

In an environment where the pool of value-adding jobs is drying up it will become increasingly difficult for the decreasing numbers of wealth owners to justify the idea that what is theirs is theirs and should not be shared.  Imagine a world where literally no one is needed because computers and machines take care of everything.  Who pays?  Who owns the wealth?  Who makes the decisions?  To me there is only one answer that is satisfactory: no-one and everyone; i.e. the world looks a little like that envisioned in Star Trek: The Next Generation and in John Lennon's Imagine.  Difficult as that may be for some to imagine, if and when we get there we should be able to manage, but that is a bigger 'if' than you might think.  The really challenging bit comes in making the transition.

What We Need To Do

This is where our values come into play.  If we are to raise ourselves to the challenges of change and a truly cooperative culture we must dismantle the prejudice that propagates division, the ignorance that disables effective decision-making and our propensity to cling to irrational beliefs.  We must better develop our ability to gather information from many sources, consider it rationally, make sense of it independently and accumulate the wisdom to see what lies ahead and make decisions in the light of this.

The ability to do this requires us to place less and less reliance on the 'fragile' values of tradition, conformity, security, power and achievement and learn how to develop greater dependence on the 'agile' values of hedonism, stimulation, self-direction, universalism and benevolence.  While coaching and related initiatives may be helpful for adults, because the entrenchment of tradition and conformity in particular start early in life, and there are limits to neural plasticity and so to our ability to change the way we think in later life, we need to change what we teach children and the way we teach them.  Children should be encouraged to experiment more, learn from playful experience (, feel the thrill of new experiences, question and test received wisdom, become wiser and more self-directing and so develop the progressive values that will equip them to make sense of the world, take responsibility for their actions and work cooperatively with others.  

In education, religion should be covered as history is covered: as an account of the various means by which people sought to make sense of and manage the world in the past.  All links, formal and perceived, between the state and religion of any kind should be severed.  Religious belief, as with any other form of belief, is something some people will adhere to but it is not something that should be given credibility through the patronage of the state: particularly in the form of tie ups between schools and religious bodies such as the church.  Religion should be subject to the same scrutiny as every other subject.  If two conflicting statements disagree, at least one of them must be wrong.  On this simple piece of logic alone most religious belief systems fall, yet still we give them patronage, and once established they are very hard to break.

Despite over 200 years having passed since the birth of Charles Darwin and over 140 years since that of Albert Einstein few school children are taught their theories so as to comprehend how fundamentally important they are to understanding what we now have learned about the universe, our place in it and how the future will roll out.  Mike Pence, the current vice president of the USA, thinks Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection is 'a theory' in the same sense that we might have a theory that the guy with the shifty eyes in a TV drama 'did it', rather than an explanation that is consistent with the findings of all scientific experiments and investigations carried out over the past 100 years, and that the 'theory' of intelligent design (i.e. God did it) is the only "rational" means by which to explain the entirety of existence.  That the musings of a profoundly ignorant and indoctrinated human being can now be attached to the first officer of the most important nation on Earth, because the views espoused by his power driven boss and his own views on this and other matters resonate strongly with the views of a significant portion of the electorate, should give an indication of how democracy has the potential to fail us.  

Democracy is the best form of government we have, but if it is to be of service to us in the future the electorate has to have sufficient understanding and be sufficiently well informed that it can vote for progress rather than regression; because as with nuclear weaponry and computer technology, there is no going back.  Even if it weren't for the barriers presented by a Trump administration and other regressive administrations around the world, the challenges are great, and seemingly we have yet to even begin addressing them.          




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