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Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Dumb Dvorsky Flogs Nano Flim Flam

Futurological Brickbat: I Predict That In Twenty Years Futurological Predictions Will Still Inevitably Begin "I Predict That In Twenty Years."

I've had a lot of fun with the futurological tic that always stages techno-transformation twenty years away -- you know, close enough to seduce the marks into investing in the scam, far enough away to elude accountability for the inevitable failure of the prediction in a world of short attention spans. Occasionally, however, futurologists are coming to seem a little more uncomfortable when they find themselves ready to drop one of their 20yr-bombshells. In an io9 article written by resident transhumanoid Robot Cultist George Dvorsky on "nanomedicine!" that offers up plenty to laugh about, I think my favorite moment was this one at the very end:
The emergence of intelligent and autonomous nanomedical devices may likely still be 10 to 30 years out, as their design will likely require the assistance of Artificial Intelligence (AI), and their fabrication will necessitate the development of sophisticated molecular manufacturing capabilities. Molecular manufacturing may potentially take the form of advanced 3D printers that use various species of atoms and molecules, rather than ink, to build up nanodevices layer by layer according to preprogrammed designs.
"10 to 30 years out." Hm. Could you mean......... Twenty Years in The Future, possibly? Oh, George!

Of course, the serially failing prediction that AI is twenty years away is embedded in this prediction that techno-transcendental nano-abundance is twenty years away, it's a futurological twofer. I said that there is plenty to laugh at here, not least how closely Dvorsky cleaves to my parodic model of transhumanoid agitprop in How to Write Your Transhumanist Article: A Help Guide to More Profitable Prophesying (Dvorsky literally re-enacts every step I satirize in that short piece).

As usual, the article is illustrated with nothing but cartoons -- is this science or concept art for a new video game? You decide. The breathless rubes in the comments section are divided between fanboys hyperventilating variations of "gimme gimme gimme!" "I want it NOW!" and those who are posting there own .gifs from science fiction movies, demonstrating the inevitable futurological incapacity to distinguish science fiction from science proper.

Of course, the piece is chock full of futurological buzzwords: While futurism pretends to be a kind of social science providing diagnostic and predictive tools, it is in fact just a variation of marketing and promotional discourse, hence devoted to the usual deceptions, distractions, hyperbole, and repackaging one expects from the advertizing of consumer crap and vaporware. There is lots of talk of "concepts" and things "under development" and quasi-technical terminology like "nanomedicine" and "biomemetics." Of course, to the extent that over-the-counter medications available since the fifties contain particles that impact us at the molecular level they could be described as "nanomedicine," just as ceramic making techniques practiced longer than writing has been could be described as "nanotechnology," if you want to be con artist about it. Engineers no less than decorative artists have been inspired by analogies from the natural environment for as long as there have been engineers and decorative artists.

Velcro is the most famous example of biomemetic technology even though velcro isn't biodegradable in the way the burrs on a dog's coat are -- leaving one to wonder if handgliders aren't just as "biomemetic" (and not and who cares) as velcro isn't just as "biomemetic" (and not and who cares) as the decorative cornices in an art deco building aren't just as "biomemetic" (and not and who cares) as the painting of a landscape in the nineteenth century or on a cave wall or fingerpainted and fixed to a refrigerator door with a pineapple magnet. In other words, "biomemetic" isn't really a term with any original, substantive, clarifying content (and hence all the more perfect for the use of futurologists -- who, come to think of it, are the only one who do use it).

As I have always said, some things that futurologists might want to call "nanotechnology" may indeed be developed (and right on with their right on), but they are likely to be called "biochemistry" and "materials science" instead of nanotechnology ("nano" as a cyclical term of hype will still sell iPods and ski pants on Madison Avenue just as it does now, no doubt, no worries), but none of them, however useful they may be, will deliver techno-transcendence of mortality, scarcity, or the human proneness to error.

Be all that as it may, you won't get much from reading Dvorsky that you wouldn't have gotten by reading Drexler's Engines of Creation in 1986 (which is when I read it), over twenty-five years ago -- yeah, it didn't happen -- or Benyus' Biomimicry in 1997 (which is when I first read it -- I've also taught it in graduate seminars on the reactionary politics of design discourse), nearly twenty years ago -- yeah, it still doesn't really tell us much (although she profiles a hero of mine in the book, Wes Jackson).

I'm not a futurist, you know -- indeed my good friends at The World Future Society like to call me "The Unfuturist" -- but I'll make a prediction: It won't be twenty years before George Dvorsky publishes a piece in which he repeats more or less everything he does in this latest article, just with a few changes in names and dates and buzzwords, indeed it probably won't be twenty months from now, hell, he might do it again within twenty days. For all their cheerleading about disruptive accelerating change, if there's one thing you can count on from a futurologist it is their willingness endlessly to repeat themselves.


jimf said...

Via Mikhail Zeleny (wonder what's become of him),
from a little more than 20 years ago.

(I gather that all Russian children know about Nasruddin, though
he seems to be a character out of Islamic folklore: )!msg/
Robotic Follies

In article <> (Thomas Clarke) writes:

>In article <>
> (Mikhail Zeleny) writes:

>| The instructive story of Nasruddin, the great
>| Shah, and the aforementioned pet animal will be supplied on request.

>Please, by all means.

There once was a Shah who developed a special fondness for his ass, and
expressed a desire that the animal be taught human speech. Nasruddin came
forth, declaring that he could do the job in twenty-five years, for 25
thousand gold pieces. The shah agreed, and Nasruddin led away the ass
loaded with a fortune in gold. Upon hearing about the bargain, Nasruddin's
friends came to his house, expressing great concern. "Surely, -- they
said, -- you will fail to teach the ass to speak, and spend the gold, and
then the Shah will order his royal executioner to cut off your head."
"Don't worry, -- replied Nasruddin, -- in twenty-five years the Shah will
die, or the ass will die, or I myself will die."

The parallel between the natural language parsers and other miraculous
goodies the first generation of artificial intelligentsia promised to the
rich and gullible well over twenty-five years ago, around the same time
Khruschev was promising the Soviet people Communism in their lifetime, is
left as an exercise for the reader. (Hint: one point of difference is that
Minsky's ass is long dead, but he still keeps asking the NSF for more money.)

>| having read "The
>| Society of Mind" in the smallest room in my house, I was quite happy to put
>| it behind me.

>A little outhouse humor?

Honi soit qui mal y pense.

jollyspaniard said...

What the heck is a species of atoms. It's a nitpick but it's reveals a certain scientific illiteracy.