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Monday, September 22, 2008

Futurological Recycling

[via Financial Times]

Why does this ecstatic exhalation from "Dave Evans, Cisco… futurologist" sound so eerily… familiar?
People think technology will change at a linear rate. But we're now getting into the phenomenon of large numbers doubling very fast. There's an avalanche of change on the way and it's going to be very disruptive.

One thing that has scarcely changed at all, let alone changed exponentially, is the tired PR song and dance of the corporate-militarist futurological congress, still handwaving after all these years about an exponentially accelerating acceleration of accelerating change out of which a game-changing Robot God is sure to pop out as a matter of course any day now.

"By 2010," promises Mr. Evans, "all the information on the internet will double every 11 hours. Ten years from now, it will double every 11 seconds."

Four words, guy: Garbage In. Garbage Out.

(And here's hoping financial collapse, or punitive post-US hegemonic global warmaking, or Peak Oil, or climate catastrophe, or, you know, inherent structural limitations in coding that swallow up promised productivity gains in complexity bottlenecks, don't put a crimp in all that sunny scenarizing.)

The headline for this particular regurgitation of these tired futurological chestnuts is, predictably enough, "Computers to be 'aware.'"

This claim is something of a surprise, really, given the lack of any figleaf of an insinuation of a whisper of a theory about non-biological intelligence in the piece. It doesn't exactly inspire confidence to be told that "[b]y 2050, there will be computers that have the processing power of all human brains on earth. That's a lot of brains working on a lot of problems." Actually, that's not remotely a lot of brains working on problems until you make a case that it is. A whole lot of weight is freighting the flimsy metaphorical conjuration of "processing power" here (again, an utterly commonplace futurological sleight of hand). Do we refer to the same sorts of things when we speak loosely of the "processing power" of a bright student as against that of our new laptop?

One wonders if the scare-quoting of "awareness" in the title (which for all I know is an editorial artifact) finally expresses more a reductionist doubt about the exhibition of this quality in squishy humans rather than confidence about its accomplishment in robotic non-humans just around the corner, after all. Both attitudes are common enough among superlative technocentric types once they get in a real singularitarian lather.

Come what may, we are left to wonder how ever more sophisticated calculators are actually presumably going to cash that check and start breezing and buzzing in a way only mushy organisms have managed hitherto. This isn't to say such an account is impossible, certainly, but only to point out that it is more commonplace to hear its assured reassertion in the face of an endless failure to materialize in fact than it is to hear much in the way of a justification for the assurance with which it is endlessly reasserted in spite of these failures from our brave futurists.

Hey, it's a short article and one can't rightly expect too much. But I must say that long acquaintance with the manifest foolishness of superlative technocentricity gives me little hope that much in the way of a respectable account would be forthcoming even in a much longer article than this one. Neither am I much surprised to find that even in so short an article as this we are still treated to the usual triumphalism and sociopathy that has made me so fond for so long of the brave boys of our futurological congress:

"Those that can't adapt will be crushed under the avalanche."

Oh, dear, you gotta love these guys, honestly, you really do.

All told, the article is a model of its kind, citing all the usual conventions of the genre, handwaving about technodevelopmental acceleration over the offering up of technoscientific substance, painting a picture of artificial intelligence on the horizon but with no account of what "intelligence" means here remotely on offer, the exhibition of certainty backed by nothing and aloof from innumerable and conspicuous predictive failures in the same vein to date, and concluding with an energetic declaration about a righteous humanity-bulldozing apocalypse proffered up in tonalities suggestive of incipient orgasm.


Antonin said...

I predict that more than one stay-behind grammarians are being crushed right about now under the weight of your run-on avalanches. You sir have me in stitches.

About the utopists: good to see that this particular advocacy group, so beholden to technological progress, hasn’t seen fit to change its tune in almost two decades of supposedly accelerating “change”.

Dale Carrico said...

It's called style, Antonin. :) And, yes, the curiously static vision of "bleeding-edge" futurology (Clarke-to-the Vinge-to-the Drexler-to-the Moravec-to-the Kurzweil-to-the bleat goes on, lahdeedahdeedee lahdeedahdeehah) is a wee bit perplexing for us all, especially since it is a vision of unfa-a-a-athomable cha-a-a-ange that presumably draws these fellows into this handwaving discourse in the first place, most of them.

Eric said...

Check out this:

They have, among other things, a nice collection of articles of this very type from the past 70 or so years.

Giant veggies and farm animals, flying cars, domed cites, moon colonies, robot servants, all the good stuff we didn't get in the amazing future of 1970!