Overweening Generalist

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Musing on Two Mad Scientists, Part One

It turns out most of us have been using the term "Luddite" wrongly. Or rather, the way we use terms changes over time, so most of us have been using the term "correctly" because the now-accepted, socially-conventional meaning has to do with some form of antipathy to technology. A wife locks herself out of the house and pounds on the living room window, yelling at her husband, "Turn on your cell phone, you Luddite!"

But the Luddites were against the way their bosses were treating them; they actually liked technology. But when they were treated poorly in the workplace they took it out on the machines, smashing them. There was about a five-seven year period of labor wars in England, supposedly masterminded by "Ned Ludd," who probably never existed. But capitalists hired cops and some workers were killed in melees. Isn't it marvelous how words change over time? Some background on the Luddites is here.
In a recent blogspew I mentioned how I'd grappled with my openness to novelty (see here), and back in May when I started blogging I wrote on futurology on Memorial Day. I have always been morbidly fascinated by Frankenstein and the morality of science and technology. For the most part, I think I could adopt a stance of CAUTION that's two or three times more "cautious" than I already feel now, but when it comes to the acceleration of technology, I think any stance I take will have about as much affect as throwing a glass of water over Niagara Falls: this technological imperative seems like some sort of species-drive to me, and we can only hope to change our attitudes about It when it comes to Its various fruitions.
Mad Scientist Number One: Hans Moravec. I've been following this guy ever since I read about him in Mondo 2000: A User's Guide To The New Edge, around 1990 or so. I read his Mind Children. I have paged through many of his subsequent books, and avidly look for video of him on the Net, or interviews. Here is a two minute piece of fairly recent vintage, to give you a picture of this guy's thinking; there's all kinds of stuff on him under "Hans Moravec" in your search engine:

Okay: a Moravec interview or video never fails to creep me out. I think he's clearly one of our best "mad scientists;" but remember: I said I like mad scientists. I want crazy geniuses to be weird, colorful characters with "impossible" ideas that they seem absolutely certain are inevitabilities. Maybe it's the little kid in me, the one who loved comic books; maybe it's just my love of an unstinting, grinning absurdity that threatens to be not-absurd. Clearly our take on these things are largely a matter of temperment. I like my Mad Scientists, even if they're actively malevolent. Moravec never fails to deliver. I'm pretty sure he's a "nice guy." That's what's so creepy about him. I would not go as far as Josef Wiezenbaum, who said Mind Children was like Mein Kampf. The brilliant mathematician-philosopher Roger Penrose thought many of Moravec's ideas were "horrific" when he read one of Moravec's books. "Horrific"? Yes...maybe. He thinks by 2040, based on Moore's Law, there will be enough generations of ever-smarter robots that there will be a "mind fire" and the robots will very quickly become smarter than us. Lately he has been diligently working on getting robots to "see" like we do (sorta), and working it out so they can navigate around a clutter-filled house is a tough problem. I will get to why these guys also make me laugh at the end of this post. 
Mad Scientist Number Two: Ray Kurzweil. Most of you probably know this guy. When I read him I find that I'm forced to take him seriously, if only because of his track record. He thinks that, by 2045 our technology will have merged with us - we will be cyborgs with the capacity to be a "billion times smarter" than we are now. And we could live forever. He thinks, like Moravec, that we will be able to back up the information in our nervous systems, download it into a silicon-based robot, and be immortal. If this stuff doesn't boggle your mind, nothing will. That is: if you treat his ideas as you do a movie: you must willfully suspend disbelief, enter into Kurzweil's world, grapple with his reasons why he believes this is possible. Otherwise, you're just gonna get creeped out (and I do, no matter how much I enter into the Kurzweil reality tunnel), get very excited over the Technological Singularity, get paranoid, get outraged, become terrified, or just laugh. Become pixillated. That's what happens to me: I am so aghast at this stuff, I'm all those things: excited, terrified, outraged, and laughing. I think it's a reasonable response. I currently see the visions of the Singularitarians, with their seeming precious seriousness, as a form of surrealism. And it makes me laugh. (But I admit this is only my reading, and they may have the last laugh...it's odd: despite the various scenarios for 2050, they still demand a non-surrealist reading. Let us read them in at least two ways.)

I'll speculate on why I don't think the Singularity will happen by 2045 in my next post.

Until then, I would like to leave you with an apt quote from the late madcap philosopher George Carlin, who asserted that the "the future will soon be a thing of the past." Meditate on that! (?)

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