Jagged Edges

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The Perils of Creating Technologies In Our Own Image

Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash

Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust?- Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein

There is an aphrodisiac bigger than power today-immortality.

Are humans robots? Think about it, overt and subliminal messaging follow us right from the time we wake up. Depending on the brand of your alarm clock, you may be reminded of IKEA, Walmart or the specific company manufacturing that clock. We are inundated with external inputs which program our behavior during the day in a rather mechanical fashion which reminds me of Stanley Kubrick’s controversial movie “A Clockwork Orange”. The barrage of media not only breeds bias in us but it also reinforces our existing biases. We tend to gravitate to reading more of what reinforces our limited view of the world.

Also, man made systems are grossly inefficient. Meat production has such a high global carbon footprint that startups have now started working on developing “synthetic meat” to reduce mankind’s reliance on animals.

This article delves deeper into the issue of addictive and inefficient technologies and then extends the issue further. It attempts to answer a key question: if we model exponential technologies such as AI, CRISPR and the Blockchain in very much the same fashion as we modeled our earlier technologies, will we have enough of a chance to rectify our mistakes?

Why Is The Edge Jagged?

Wikimedia Commons

Humans, by nature, are curious animals. We have millions of questions that need answering. A lot of our journey towards seeking those answers involves replicating everything that is natural i.e. to create a man made version of the world. When Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, she alluded to a very important paradox. Frankenstein was made up of human parts in a quest by a scientist to breathe life into lifeless limbs. The question therefore becomes: was Frankenstein human? In as much as it was made of human parts, the answer is yes. However, he was what most people in the world would call “unnatural”. He did have human emotions which made him seek a partner. Now, imagine if we create AI in the same manner. We have a very limited understanding of the human brain and an even lesser understanding of consciousness. However, that doesn’t deter us from replicating the human brain through Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning.

Jeremy Rifkin, in his documentary on the Third Industrial Revolution talks about the three components of productivity i.e. labor, machines and aggregate efficiency. According to Rifkin, economists did not take into account aggregate efficiency historically and therefore could not explain why productivity is stagnant in countries at the bleeding edge of technology i.e. Japan, Germany and USA.Taking a leaf from the law of thermodynamics that says energy can neither be created or destroyed, Rifkin explains that if we take something occurring naturally and only utilize 40% of it and waste the rest or throw it in landfill and create toxic waste, we are 60% inefficient. But, if we have renewable sources of energy or if we become more efficient at every step in the value chain, we can improve productivity dramatically. Again, our limited understanding and lack of interdisciplinary approach to problems meant that the edge remained jagged.

When Social Media Becomes Anti Social

The Lonely Monk by Enoch Wood Perry, Jr. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Loneliness has a deep connection to the dark side. In John Milton’s great poem “Paradise Lost” (1667), Satan says: “From them I go / This uncouth errand sole, and one for all / Myself expose, with lonely steps to tread / Th’ unfounded deep.” Later, in 1904, August Rodin’s sculpture “The Thinker” appeared on the world stage. Originally conceived as a part of another epic piece of work “The Gates of Hell”, The Thinker depicts the poet Dante Alighieri who wrote the poem “Divine Comedy (1321)”. As per the Musee Rodin in France: “The Thinker depicts a strong man leaning forward to observe the circles of Hell, while meditating on his work. The Thinker was therefore initially both a being with a tortured body, almost a damned soul, and a free-thinking man, determined to transcend his suffering through poetry. The pose of this figure owes much to Carpeaux’s Ugolino (1861) and to the seated portrait of Lorenzo de’ Medici carved by Michelangelo (1526–31)”

When I use Facebook and Google, I visualize August Rodin’s The Thinker. I think of my free thinking tortured by crowd sourced falsehoods, advertisements and algorithmic biases. My experience on social media creates a perceived sense of loneliness. A loneliness of mental thought. I keep asking myself : “Am I the only one who admits confusion inside but projects firm opinions to the outside world?” Clearly, the answer to that question is “No”. The United Kingdom has a “Minister of Loneliness” to deal with the epidemic.

It is also a reflection of a society that thinks that speaking the truth and asking for help are admissions of weakness.

The absolute irony is that tools of supplementing existing human connections have transformed into the only means of news and communication. In addition to individualism which has prompted us to take offence at the smallest of eccentricities by others, urbanization and digitization have dramatically reduced our touch with our human selves. All these trends have become weapons of mass depression.

As humans, we lack self regulation until we are pushed to the absolute brink. That is the problem with exponential technologies. They don’t have a fail safe that provides for moderation because that would be antithetical to their intended purpose. The middle path is to then have a consortium that reminds and nudges us towards moderation. One such example is the Future of Humanity Institute which is working towards making sure we don’t provide AI powered robots with lethal capabilities.

A better solution is to embed such a consortium representing humanity and the greater good prior to roll out of all exponential technologies. Some may call this idea a pipe dream but at least it will prevent us from having nightmares in the future.

Not All Technologies Allow Equal Access

Gene editing technologies such as CRISPR CAS-9 allow for the editing of the human DNA in a small lab. If such extremely powerful technologies become accessible only to a select few, it will give rise to several ethical and moral dilemmas. One such question is: will the super rich be able to create super babies while the rest of the world languishes making inequality exponentially worse.

To understand the magnitude of exponential technologies, take the example of another technology company Sensetime. Sensetime is the most funded private AI company in Hong Kong. It’s technology basically allows street surveillance and anybody can be monitored using face detection and sensors.

Most technologies emerge out of significant investments — public or private. So, there is an incentive to “commercialize” them i.e. make money off of them. Yoshua Bengio, of Element AI fame wants to take a different approach to AI. He doesn’t want AI to be the domain of monopolies such as Google. Yoshua, along with fellow Canadians Geoffrey Hinton and Yan Lecun represents the triumvirate at the forefront of AI. They are jokingly called the Canadian AI mafia. While there is a clear incentive for commercialization, we also need advocates that open the debate to the common man and democratize access.

We certainly have the tools to do so. Blockchain proponents fervently advocate that decentralization results in redistribution of power by:

  1. Actual decentralization of computing power and building a fault tolerant supercomputer.
  2. Blurring geopolitical boundaries of nation states by creating a giant virtual machine.
  3. Democratizing the generation of news and dissemination of information.
  4. Changing the energy landscape by lateral integration and the creation of self regulating smart grids.
  5. Providing tools to the developing world to leapfrog or catch-up with the developed world.

Decentralization, distributed computing and crowd sourcing promises equal power to all. The question is : what do we do if the humans are wired to chase a goal of being the first among equals. We think a little differently. As Osho said:

Nobody is superior, nobody is inferior, but nobody is equal either. People are simply unique, incomparable. You are you, I am I. I have to contribute my potential to life; you have to contribute your potential to life.

Smoothing The Edges

Daniel Schmachtenberger, co-founder of the Neurohacker Collective says:

The biosphere is a complex self-regulating system. It is also a closed-loop system, meaning that once a component stops serving its function, it gets recycled and reincorporated back into the system. In contrast, the systems humans have created are complicated, open loop systems. They are neither self-organizing nor self-repairing. Complex systems, which come from evolution, are anti-fragile. Complicated systems, designed by humans, are fragile. Complicated open-loop systems are the second generator function of existential risks.

In a recent podcast, Daniel explains why science can show the way things are but not how they ought to be. Technology is applied science and by definition requires a discussion on its adverse impacts on humanity. More so in case of exponential technologies. Let’s agree that its futile to talk about Utopia because a perfect world will not exist. However, dystopia and extinction are possible outcomes.

Existential Risk, Nick Bostrom (2012)

We need to realize that individually, our understanding is limited. Therefore, if we roll out technologies too quickly without thinking of inclusion, the second order effects which are not immediately apparent to us may be devastating. Take, for example, our reliance on internal combustion engines and fossil fuels. Today, cities like Delhi and Shanghai are enveloped in smog. People need to wear masks to deal with the extremely polluted air. We did not wake up to the adverse effects until we reached an extreme scenario.

Collectively, however, we have to work together just as our ancestors Homo Sapiens did. They outlasted the neanderthal by banding together. Goes without saying, the future of our children depends on smoothing our jagged edges.


Jagged Edges was originally published in Hacker Noon on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.