— Mark E Deardorff (@medeardorff) February 20, 2017
DATELINE 1970: THE WORLD. COLOSSUS – THE FORBIN PROJECT
Large mainframe computers proliferated in the 1960’s. Industry after World War II put demands on computation that could no longer be handled entirely by rows human calculators with slide rules, adding machines, or Burroughs Comptometer.
The public-at-large knew little other than what the wagging televised tongues and wrinkled words on fading newsprint bespoke of the world less run by the electrochemistry of organic man and more by the artifice of minds leaving many of them behind to toil as their support and not, they believed, as equals.
Hollywood, just as much then as now, take an opportunity to exploit fear to turn a profit. Profiting itself is not the problem. The fact is that Hollywood was prescient. The science-fiction community was and always has been, for the most part, very farsighted.
There were the idealists like Wells who saw great things that man would evolve away from in The Shape of Things to Come (1933) or Clarke who, twenty years later, believed that interdiction was the only way. Aliens steal humanity’s children in Childhood’s End. Wells, no friend of liberty it should be noted, argued for the pacification of religion.
The truth, however, is far more (without attempting to sound bizarre) worrisome. With the Seventies came DARPA, the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency. Operating research through a series of universities there was a need for high-speed communication of information between researchers thus ARPANET was created. It was a network of computers including a node at my alma mater USC that I found myself using occasionally. (It was the first network on which the ubiquitous HTML was used to make references between documents simpler for scientists to use without a lot of damn typing and the concomitant swearing.)
Ultimately, DARPA-Net was extended to commercial use becoming the Internet, blah, blah, blah. Eight years ago, websites talked to devices (including telephones) attached to networks connected to the internet. Now we add machines like refrigerators, TV’s washers, dryers, automobiles, D9 Caterpillars. All of the devices are computing and sharing computational results to assist our convenient living. Now, in the most recent year, a flood tide of Virtual Reality has washed the internet into our very eyes.
But wasn’t that what the guys in the Sixties were worried about?
Computational technology has done wonders for us scientifically. It extends our sensoria to the infrared boundary of the Cosmos, the point past which light recedes so fast that the Red Shift has moved the light out of the visible light spectrum. We can no longer see it without the help of spectrographic analysis. And even that won’t help past a certain point.
Tech has expanded our senses to hear things where human aural capabilities do not tread. Low pitches we can feel but not hear or high pitches “only dogs” can hear or visual flutterings so fast that the rods and cones of our slowly responding corneas see as a blur. Temperatures, pressures – high and low – the Marianas Trench and the surface of the Moon. Technology allows us to experience all these things.
Oh, and this is something only the human species can do. We are, at present the pinnacle of evolution. There are those who argue we are not the most intelligent. All I need to do is ask them to tell their favorite species to build a rocket and fly it, build a submarine and sail it under the North Pole, build a bathyscaphe and sink into a deep ocean trench, etc.
But even with that, Humanity is at risk. We must face certain facts. As technology boosts our abilities, our bodies are jetsam in its wake. The evolutionary power we as humans once provided, as Emma Goldman so eloquently put it, has been replaced by artifice. Now the Stentorian voices shouting over Rohland’s Horn in the computational dystopias no longer sound like Chicken Little.
Human Evolution is grinding to a halt as we put on our Oculus VR™ and shriek our way into an oblivion built by William Gibson. Falling into the Neuromancer (1984) maelstrom with no way out is one futurist’s answer to the Fermi Paradox. Why hasn’t SETI heard from all of George Lucas’ aliens? Maybe they’ve all gone VR. Could be.
Or, as Fermi proposed, they’ve destroyed themselves, the pat answer in the Fifties, 1950 to be precise. Today, other disasters beckon. Some offer environmental as the flavor of the last two decades. Celestial are a favorite of mine – asteroid or comet strikes (been there, done that,) gamma-ray bursts offer hope, however, instant death, sterilized planet, tabula rasa. Nevertheless, the likelihood that intelligent life exists in our galaxy other than on our planet is well below one percent. Despite the overzealous Frank Drake who in 1961 came to the conclusion based on a mass of massive massively optimistic estimates that up to 50,000 alien civilizations existed in our galaxy alone. Alas, the real odds fall far from that set of adventurer’s dice.
Nevertheless, the likelihood that intelligent life exists in our galaxy other than on our planet is so small as to be negligible, for none of the fell strokes above or for reasons poetic.
Here now enters the unwitting Elon Musk. The founder of Space-X, Tesla and other, some would say farsighted, speculations fears that humanity may become irrelevant. Technology wearing the countenance of Artificial Intelligence will surpass humanity’s mental attainments. Man’s Athenian eminence eclipsed by Spartan algorithmic precision. Artificial Intelligence able to learn to think like humans but without some of the special sparks of genius and esemplasticity that mark humanity’s greatest minds.
What is the cure to triviality? Mr. Musk carries his black satchel with him at all times. The bag with all the code – the Irrelevancy Soccer Ball. His lieutenant fumbles for the keys opens it and pulls out the Neural Lace, the Ultimate Solution. It pops open revealing, once the pupils adjust to the blinding glare, the syringe. Swirling withing the golden inviscid fluid are the components of the neural lace ready for injection.
Neural lace, to be fair, is not an active electronic component. It is a formwork, a scaffold on which brain tissue can grow. Designed with therapy in mind, it has no nefarious purpose.
But, given that a biological organic compound injected works to enhance thought, the scientific steps from inactive to a neuro-active element are direct. Once the system improves our view into a virtual world and enacts a loving convergence, we are hooked. Why leave? Other than the necessities of life – consumption of comestibles, expurgation of excess, maintenance of muscle mass, general health, staying alive. One could forget. The way addicts fail in self-care.
Copacetic in all this turmoil is the market potential. In particular, a connected person could work anywhere in a virtual world. She would be with any worker, alone, in a group, at a conference, delivering a paper, even serving time in prison.
And there’s the issue. Philip K. Dick hinted of it in A Scanner Darkly (1977). The story, while not set in a virtual world, was set in what amounted to a police state very much like what we have today, with the NSA and FBI watch and listening to all that we do. The protagonist, a man with two personalities neither of which are quite aware of the other, end up on a prison farm husbanding the drug that he was sworn, as an officer of the law, to destroy.
More recently, The Matrix series (author’s identity contested) has been much more direct in its clear depiction of an autocratic virtual state.
This final loss of liberty is so frightening that it simply cannot be overlooked. But legislation is not the answer; laws rarely are the answer. The state is usually more of a problem than an answer.
The answer, if resolution exists, rests with the individual. It is no different than the care we take (or fail to take) against those who would harm us through our electronic records. Identity thieves, electronic burglars, government snooping, encryption backdoors, shredding our records, properly erasing our files on our storage media are all ways we can protect ourselves. And they are all pretty darn easy.
There are some who wander among us who know the truth from fiction. These wanderers have a zeal to speak truth to small groups about freedoms and how you can protect yourself and help you to carry that forward. Look for them on message boards like Facebook. Computer security is more important now and will grow exponentially (not without limit, however) as technology makes an assault on our pre-frontal cortex on its way to our brain stem.
But is there a Deus Ex Machina laying in wait? A Dudley Doright, finally unentangled by bureaucratic Canadian red tape crossing the electronic frontier? Probably not. Probably not even necessary. Why not use options available today upgraded for the new age?
Specifically, backup systems have, passively and actively, been protecting important data (including personal data taken intrusively and illegally by the State) from accidental and more sinister forms of destruction.
Solid state memory is becoming more efficient and cost-effective. By the time the trend to large-scale virtual reality is upon us the ability to backup personalities, memories, and rational and motor skills will be essential. Of course, the ability to reboot a human to a life free of bondage to a malevolent autocracy is more than efflorescent. These are problems yet to be solved.
Neural Lace is but a scaffold. Neural Lace 2.0 could easily be a fully neurological network designed to connect the neural Man to the Virtual World. We the humans only maintain our humanity, the possessors of Natural Rights, those imbued with organic life, true life, by maintaining the balance of Nature by retaining control over our inventions.
I wish to state that I am not claiming that any form of conspiracy is involved here. Just the opposite. The desire, the excitement of man for new, the untried, and unknown engages our minds. It drives toward the next dawn. It conducts our symphony of dreams, and poetry of physics.
But though all our eagerness, we must never forget the primacy of the individual is without peer. Isaac Asimov was prescient when he wrote The Three Laws of Robotics which I will reprint here.
- A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
- A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
- A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
At a later date, Asimov revised the Laws by adding a Zeroth Law as follow,
0. A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
It may do humanity well to heed Asimov’s prescience and encode into all Artificial Intelligence and the Virtual Worlds that the AI control with the Four Laws of Robotics. That plus a backup fail-safe might just be humanity’s protection from ultimate oblivion.
Written by Mark E. Deardorff, © 2016, 2017 by ScienceViaMarkets and Mark E Deardorff, All Rights Reserved.