Saturday, January 23, 2010

Scenario #6: the Psingularity

After describing five possible Singularity scenarios in a previous post, I did some further ruminating and came up with a 6th that some may find even more far-fetched and speculative, but which I’ve begun to think is in fact our best and only hope. This scenario will no doubt mark me as an irrational, New Age, non-scientific nutjob to some, but I present it here nonetheless, and give it the rather catchy name of "the Psingularity".

I will begin by speculating that we are going to be profoundly humbled in our efforts to engineer human level machine cognition, as we learn more and more about the inner workings of the brain and come to appreciate its astounding complexity and power. This is where thinkers like Ray Kurzweil, with their projections of Moore’s Law curves leading inevitably to superhuman levels of machine intelligence within a few decades, strike me as being extremely na├»ve. I have no way of proving that Kurzweil is wrong, but I don’t think the burden of proof is on me. Perhaps if this dubious quest for the holy grail of superhuman machine intelligence continues to come up empty, we will be forced to choose a wiser path.

A more realistic and desirable route to superintelligence, it seems to me, emerges from our newfound capacity to tap into powers of individual and collective human brains — powers that remain all-too dormant at the present time. One obvious step in his direction is the collective intelligence multiplier effects of technologies like google, Wikipedia and facebook. Another is the cognitive enhancement provided by various pharmacological, cybernetic and self-improvement technologies, which should, in theory, act as society-wide IQ boosters. Research into "psi" phenomena, meditation, mind control, neural engineering, psychonautic exploration, etc. has the potential to expand the frontiers of human mental ability right now, instead of requiring decades for hypothetical advances in computer science and technology. It may be that our efforts to engineer machine intelligence have reached a stage of diminishing returns, and that it is Moore’s Law, not fundamental advances, that is giving the appearance of progress in AI. Surely we can do much better than this.

Doesn’t a global network of human brains, each working to enhance its own capacities and share its discoveries with the collective, have the potential to become a self-improving super-organism of almost unlimited power? Couldn’t such a Global Brain be the real substrate for I.J. Good’s "intelligence explosion", rather than some disembodied silicon-based quantum computer with no human intelligence component whatsoever? Wouldn’t this also solve the unfriendly AI problem — the risk of creating a truly alien machine intelligence that could render us obsolete or even extinct? With a "Psingularity" — a Singularity resulting from the enhanced use of human minds — the superintelligence remains fundamentally human, and we avoid the "tiling the universe with smiley faces" problems that could arise from an artificial intellect without human values. Of course, there will still be the risk of memetic infection of the Global Brain, whereby destructive ideologies spread at electronic speeds and threaten to drive the collective consciousness to temporary insanity. A memetic immune system will therefore be necessary, and every writer and forum contributor in the blogosphere can be a participant in this process.

In case you think what I’m suggesting is more in the realm of New Age mysticism than scientific possibility, consider the following historical facts. There is strong archaeological evidence that some time around 40,000 years ago, homo sapiens experienced a quantum leap in their collective intelligence, as evidenced by increasingly sophisticated tools, sudden migrations across the globe and the appearance of cave paintings and sculpture. This apparent intelligence explosion is usually attributed to the invention of language, which allowed more sophisticated cultural technologies to be transmitted across generations and between tribes. Others attribute these developments to the discovery of psychoactive plants by the Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, which is thought to have fundamentally enhanced human cognition and creativity. However you account for it, such a dramatic intellectual leap must qualify as a Singularity, yet it seems to have required nothing more than a new application of existing human brains. Similarly, the invention of agriculture in the wake of the last ice age revolutionized human economies and laid the foundation for the great explosion of technological civilization that continues to this day. Here again, it was not radical technological transformation, but simple cultural innovations in food production and social structure, that resulted in a dramatic break with past modes of life — another Singularity.

Today we may be on the cusp of another such transformation, made possible this time by the global networking of human minds and driven by the demands of a changing climate, resource scarcity, ecological devastation, weapons of mass destruction and all the other existential threats we have brought upon ourselves. This Singularity won’t culminate in some Skynet-style robot takeover or Orwellian global overmind, as the purveyors of popular culture so often imagine. Rather, it will be a Psingularity — a phase change in human consciousness, spontaneously arising out of new cultural possibilities, new cognitive technologies and converging global crises. The unprecedented global response to the movie Avatar, which portrays a non-technological, yet spiritually sophisticated, society as a model of human progress, may signify a cultural tipping point in this direction.

The sensors of the emerging Global Brain give us a dramatic new awareness of the problems we face on this planet. We can, for example, observe satellite imagery on Google Earth in relatively real-time of melting Antarctic glaciers, devastation of Amazon rainforests or attacks on Darfurian villages. This is a collective awareness that has never before existed, and which has the power to compel us to change our behavior and our minds for the better. The transformative technologies are not incomprehensible machine super-intellects unleashed from silicon substrates to overthrow the reign of homo sapiens. Rather, the seeds of the next Singularity exist within our individual and collective consciousness, and like the emergence of language and agriculture in previous epochs, await the right conditions in which to sprout — conditions which, I claim, are now at hand.

This kind of thinking has made me deeply skeptical of the shallow materialist utopias envisioned by Singularitarians of the Kurzweilian school, and pessimistic about the prospects for any short-term transcendence of the human condition via technology alone. A realistic vision of where we’re headed must have human beings as the central actors for the foreseeable future, but this does not imply that we must abandon any hope of progress in the face of our many challenges and descend into a new dark age. It simply means that we must broaden our definition of progress beyond the fixation upon technology and look within our collective minds for the next evolutionary leap. As Ghandi famously put it, we must be the change that we want to see in the world. Or as the late, great psychedelic prophet and herald of the Psingularity, Terrence McKenna, even more succinctly stated: "we must change our minds". This has been the message of every prophet and visionary in history — each of whom created a Psingularity by the simple act of transforming human belief. This is the kind of Singularity the world truly needs — one which is within our grasp now, more than ever, at this moment of great peril.
"We can never go back to the game-dotted plains of archaic Africa. That’s gone — it’s all gone. The only way out is forward — it’s called a forward escape... It is a message of hope, without which I think people are going to be very challenged. Because things are going to get worse — apparently much worse. History is turning into a white-knuckle ride, for sure, and without the faith in some kind of transcendental phase transition, I think there’s a tendency to despair and to panic and to nihilism. And religion has failed...

I think that we are on the brink of the adventure for which we left the trees, and left the African plain. But it’s not a sure thing. It rests in our hands, as it always has. Remember, that in the last million years, nine times the ice has moved south from the poles, miles high, pushing before it our ancestors — people wrapped in skins, naked as jaybirds, marginal as can be, no antibiotics, no global weather forecasting, no nothin'. And they didn't drop the ball, they survived, they took care of their children and their elderly, they passed the skills and the technologies and the insights and the songs down the long stream of time. Can we do any less? We, who have in our hands the power to shape the planet for good or evil; we, who can communicate with each other globally in a moment. It would be a pretty sad commentary on the notion of cultural progress and intelligence if they could keep the faith, and we can't.

So it all went for this. It will all be made clear in the lifetime of most of us. So I ... invite you to keep the faith, invite you to explore the edges, and to make of yourself a vessel, a conduit for the world-transforming logos that is trying to speak to all of us, to create a sane and viable and celebratory world for our children — and their children."


Beautiful words by one of the true prophets of our time — the late, great Terence McKenna.

A White-Knuckle Ride, For Sure

If you find yourself deep in the dungeons of doomer despair, wracked by fear, uncertainty and doubt, consumed by nihilism or contemplating suicide, consider these words of hope passed down by the late, great psychedelic prophet and herald of the Psingularity, Terence McKenna:



"We can never go back to the game-dotted plains of archaic Africa. That’s gone — it’s all gone. The only way out is forward — it’s called a forward escape... It is a message of hope, without which I think people are going to be very challenged. Because things are going to get worse, apparently much worse. History is turning into a white-knuckle ride, for sure, and without the faith in some kind of transcendental phase transition, I think there’s a tendency to despair and to panic and to nihilism. And religion has failed...

I think that we are on the brink of the adventure for which we left the trees, and left the African plain. But it’s not a sure thing. It rests in our hands, as it always has. Remember, that in the last million years, nine times the ice has moved south from the poles, miles high, pushing before it our ancestors — people wrapped in skins, naked as jaybirds, marginal as can be, no antibiotics, no global weather forecasting, no nothin'. And they didn't drop the ball, they survived, they took care of their children and their elderly, they passed the skills and the technologies and the insights and the songs down the long stream of time. Can we do any less? We, who have in our hands the power to shape the planet for good or evil; we, who can communicate with each other globally in a moment. It would be a pretty sad commentary on the notion of cultural progress and intelligence if they could keep the faith, and we can't.

So it all went for this. It will all be made clear in the lifetime of most of us. So I ... invite you to keep the faith, invite you to explore the edges, and to make of yourself a vessel, a conduit for the world-transforming logos that is trying to speak to all of us, to create a sane and viable and celebratory world for our children — and their children."

This little sermon leaves me speechless and brings tears to my eyes. The words of the prophet McKenna make me want to emulate the fervor of the early apostles of Jesus or the companions of Mohammed and spread his message far and wide. We're all going to need religion soon enough — have you considered McKennaism?

Monday, January 18, 2010

Dr. Doomlove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Collapse

Well folks, I seem to have turned some kind of psychological corner as I look to the doomful future, and I have to tell you it feels very good. There will be no more wringing of hands from me, no more crying over injustice or bemoaning our predicament or cursing the stupidity of my fellow man. From here on out, self-preservation is the name of the game. As the saying goes, I feel much better now that I’ve abandoned all hope. I understand now the wisdom of uber-mind John von Neumann’s advice to Richard Feynman: "you don’t have to be responsible for the world you’re in." The fact that I was born into an insoluble, epic global mess doesn’t mean I'm obligated to clean it up.

The upshot of this revelation is that my thinking has taken a turn toward the Strangelovian. It’s clear that billions will die in the coming climate and resource catastrophes, but my odds of survival are quite good and getting better all the time. My working plan is to extract what wealth I can out of this dying system while that's still an option, as I prepare to bug out to somewhere with good long-term prospects for livability. So I’m going into hyper-capitalist mode, trying to accumulate resources which will, I hope, enable me to set up a comfortable doomstead somewhere remote from the coming tribulations.

12000 acres in pristine Patagonia — can anyone spare $12 million?

I have no doubt that folks like Ted Turner and George Bush, with their vast ranches in South America, and Bill Gates and the google boys with their properties in Greenland, are doing exactly this on a much grander scale. Imagine the “doomsteads of the rich and famous” that must exist around the planet — bailout billions can supply the off-grid estates of Wall Street take-the-money-and-runners in high style for decades to come. Of course this is mostly speculation; no sane member of the elite would dare make such preparations public for fear of the howling mob. I may not be a PTB, but I think I understand how their minds work.


A luxury doomstead built on top of an Atlas missile silo in upstate New York &mdash priced to sell at $2.3 million!

A glimpse into this mindset is provided by Morgan Stanley investment guru Barton Biggs, who in a recent interview warned of a potential breakdown of civilization:
"Is what’s happening now in Dubai and Greece, for example, a canary in the coal mine? In Greece, there is real chaos and anarchy, with mobs on the street. If Dubai goes down the drain, there’s going to be serious trouble, because they have a million or so imported workers from third-world countries. They are working their butts off, and they have been cheated for years, in terms of what they are paid and their food allowances. There are going to be real problems there.

You can make the case that it is not inconceivable that the barbarians could be at the gate in Europe, Japan and the US. It’s one chance in ten that’s going to happen but, as a person with wealth, you must ask what type of insurance to take out against that...

It sounds simplistic, but there’s nothing the matter with having some kind of self-sufficient farm that is not close to the big cities. It sounds almost stupid, but it sure paid off in occupied Europe during World War II. I don’t think periods of anarchy are going to last a long time in countries like the US. But could we have four or five months of anarchy? I think there’s one chance in ten that could happen."

In his 2008 book Wealth, War and Wisdom, Biggs suggested building polar cities as refuges from global warming, and recommended that investors have self-sufficient safe havens “well-stocked with seed, fertilizer, canned food, wine, medicine, clothes, etc.” Like any good investment guru, Mr. Biggs has seen the future and is warning the investor class to prepare.



Designs for polar refuges &mdash note that Svalbard is a long way from Port au Prince!

For those of us of more modest means, how does one prepare for such a breakdown? Building resilient communities where you live is the most common answer, and for most people this is probably the best option. But I have more of a Daniel Boone mentality, and would prefer to be at a safe distance from the erratic behavior of millions of matrix folks whose world has suddenly crumbled. Dmitry Orlov’s idea of riding out collapse in a boat is interesting, but it seems to me you’d be fighting a lot of entropy just trying to keep your vessel seaworthy as global supply chains go down. I would prefer an off-grid residence in Canada, or perhaps some place in South America, where I can, in a worst-case scenario, live off a ten year supply of freeze-dried food. A ranch in Patagonia looks rather pleasant, but at the moment I don't have twelve million dollars, so I guess it’s time to stop my doom-mongering and give the capitalist roulette wheel one last spin.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see many people’s thinking shift into escape mode rather soon, as the sheer number of Haiti-style disaster areas around the planet becomes unmanageable and the First World finds itself inundated with desperate refugees. How long before those who still have wealth begin to flee toward the poles, where they’ll be able to watch it all come down in Wagnerian style? (The Collapse will of course be televised and well-attended by concerned celebrities, for as long as the media matrix stays operational). This could turn into a case of “white flight” on a global scale — the thinking will be: let Gaia cull the population and clean up the mess we’ve made, and after the apocalypse we can re-emerge and rebuild a livable world for our kind. Before this happens though, the aboriginals may try to take bloody revenge upon the northern peoples, who, with some justification, will be blamed for bringing this cataclysm upon mankind. I’m not a big proponent of Race War, but it’s not inconceivable that this is what we’ll be facing if the bottleneck starts to squeeze and humanity finds itself in a crude Darwinian struggle for survival.

"There would be no shocking memories, and the prevailing emotion will be one of nostalgia for those left behind, combined with a spirit of bold curiosity for the adventure ahead!"

As I ponder these possibilities in my Strangelovian state of mind, my reaction to the “polar doomsteading” idea of people like Mr. Biggs is similar to the Russian ambassador’s response to Dr. Strangelove’s plan to survive a nuclear war: “I must confess, you have an astonishingly good idea there, Doctor.”

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

An Undeniable Climate of Doom

Well folks, I've taken a long break from doom-mongering in an effort to save my sanity, but I seem to have failed. Like Michael Corleone's return to crime in Godfather III, the doomer bubble has pulled me back in. The truth of our approaching doom is coming from every direction now, from the faces of people I pass on the street to the words of men in the highest ivory towers and halls of power. In such a climate, embracing your inner doomer is the fastest path to sanity and survival. By abandoning hope now, you still have a chance of gaining first mover advantage over a world that is showing unmistakable signs of waking up.

I've been paying a lot of attention to the climate doomsayers recently, and have realized that even if we somehow avoid energy collapse it appears that large scale environmental disruptions are already baked in to the planetary pie. I take particular heed of the warnings of James Lovelock, the visionary 91 year old founder of the Gaia theory — a man too old to have an agenda other than speaking the inconvenient truth. According to Lovelock, our climate has three stable regimes: ice age, the current temperate age, and a warm age. Lovelock is convinced that the planet has passed a tipping point and will transition to 5 degrees celsius warmer temperatures by the end of this century, no matter what we do. This will produce catastrophic sea level rise, crop failures, disease and desertification which will drive humanity toward the poles and reduce the population to perhaps one billion.


James Lovelock says climate catastrophe will be fun!

Meanwhile, the always dramatic Ted Turner is warning that if drastic actions aren't taken to curb global warming, civilization will crumble in a few decades and we'll be roasting each other over spits for dinner. While Lovelock is very credible, Turner is mostly comical. I can understand why some accuse him of being part of a diabolical conspiracy to depopulate the planet, but the mere fact that a billionaire is talking like an off-the-charts doomer is disturbing in itself.


When the super-rich turn doomer it's time to run for the hills!

Understandably, ordinary people in the northern hemisphere remain skeptical of abstract forecasts of doom when their immediate concern is staying warm amidst record cold. Until some undeniable climate catastrophe hits us flush in the face, public opinion will remain divided and our leaders will continue to jet around the world to glamorous global warming conferences making grave pronouncements, convincing no one but themselves that they are making a difference. This activity is at least more humane than the practice of the ancient Mayan priest-kings — whose solution to environmental catastrophe was to sacrifice ever more citizens in the bloodiest possible fashion — but it will probably prove no more effective.

In the Third World, where doom lurks ever closer, current events give us a disturbing glimpse of our probable future. In Bangladesh, climate change is already creating refugees; in response the Indian government is building a 2500 mile barrier fence to completely encircle the nation of 160 million in an effort to keep them out. In the South Pacific, crops are already being destroyed by encroaching sea water and the first waves of refugees are relocating to places like New Zealand and Canada. But as this wave turns into a tsunami, how much longer will the ever tolerant West welcome these climate refugees? My guess is about as long as our affluence lasts, which means not long at all now.

If there's one industry that should boom in an Age of Doom it's the barrier fence business. Look for these to go up everywhere along the fault lines of the first and third worlds in the next few decades — the fences in Israel, Bangladesh and the American southwest are just a warm up for the massive fortress-building that is sure to ensue as millions pour out of failed, flooded, ecologically overshot states. I think of this process as entropy blowback — the outsourced problems of the first world finally have nowhere to go in a globalized world except back across our borders. The result will be wars, immigration crises, crime and collapse at home; barrier fences can only prolong the inevitable.

There is an interesting note of optimism amidst Lovelock's apocalyptic predictions. He claims that we are in a period like the late 1930's, full of forebodings of doom but which will actually turn out to be exciting and fun once the shit finally hits the fan. He gives one piece of advice in particular that every doomer should take to heart:
"Enjoy life while you can. Because if you're lucky it's going to be 20 years before it hits the fan."

I like Lovelock's idea that climate doom could be our finest hour — an opportunity to discover the heroism and purpose we all seek, but which is so absent from modern life. As the safety nets of our civilization start to come down in the coming years, a great adventure will begin — a trial by fire that will determine who is fit to live in a world no longer fit for living in.
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