Tag Archives: future

Why Capitalism Will Survive Technological Progress (To A Point)

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There’s a popular perception among those who speculate about the future. It has less to do with the technology and progress that we’ll make, as a society, and more to do with what will be rendered obsolete. Like dial-up internet or VHS tapes, there will be many artifacts of our current society that are destined to become relics of a bygone era.

Near the top of the list of those things people can’t wait to get rid of is capitalism. When I say “capitalism,” though, I don’t necessarily mean everything from the concept of money to big corporations to having 500 different kinds of covers for your cell phone. I’m more referring to the kind of economic system that creates extreme income inequality, mass exploitation of workers, and price gouging.

While I can appreciate sentiments of people who feel that way about a system where the inequalities are well-documented, I have some good news and some bad news for those looking forward to that post-capitalist utopia.

Capitalism is NOT going to become obsolete, but it will take on a radically different form.

I say that as someone who has written plenty about the upheavals our society will face when technologies like artificial intelligence, human enhancement, and advanced robotics become more refined. The economic, social, and political system, as we know it today, will not be able to function in that environment.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it will disappear like VHS tapes. That’s especially true of our current form of capitalism. It’s already changing before our eyes, but it’s set to change even more in the coming decades. It may get to a point where it’s hard to call it “capitalism” by our current definition, but it will still exist to a certain extent.

Whether you’re a hardcore libertarian or a self-proclaimed socialist, it’s hard to overlook the flaws in capitalism. This is a system that is prone to corruption, negatively impacts the environment, and will gladly eschew health concerns in the interests of profits. Basically, if you’ve ever dealt with a cable company, the tobacco lobby, or the banking industry, you’ve experienced those flaws first-hand.

Many of the flaws, however, are a byproduct of logistical limitations. Human beings are not wired to make sense of the plethora of economic forces that govern the cost, production, distribution, and marketing of goods. We’re barely wired to assemble IKEA furniture. The human race evolved to survive in the plains of the African Savanna, not the bustling streets of New York City.

Even with these limitations, humanity has managed to achieve a lot from this flawed system. Despite its shortcomings, it has been the catalyst for modern society. The cities, industries, and technological advancement that we’ve undergone over the past 200 years would not have been possible without capitalism. Say what you will about the profit motive. Apple would not be a trillion-dollar company without it.

It’s for that reason, along with the knowledge of capitalism’s many documented failures, that emerging trends in technology is more likely to smooth out the edges of the system rather than render it obsolete entirely. As someone who groans every time he sees his cable bill, I admit I’m eager for those refinements.

I still don’t blame others for hoping that the entire system is scraped. The thinking is that increasing efficiencies in automation, improvements in manufacturing at the nano-scale, and advances in artificial intelligence will undercut the key foundations of capitalism. Why would corporations, marketing gimmicks, or brand restrictions even exist in a world run by intelligent machines, enhanced humans, and 3D printers?

It’s not an entirely flawed notion. We’re already seeing plenty of disruptions in established systems due to technology. Landlines are disappearing, streaming media has destroyed brick-and-mortar rental stores like Blockbuster, and self-driving cars will likely end the taxi and trucking industry as we know it.

Further down the line, even more industries will break down when you scale up and expand these same technologies. A sufficiently advanced artificial intelligence could manage the banking and financial industry without any middle men, who are going to be prone to corruption. That same intelligence won’t be prone to the same panics that have plagued capitalism for centuries.

Other technologies will render distressing institutions like sweatshops obsolete, thanks to advances in robotics and 3D printing. A lot of the exploitations surrounding capitalism, both in terms of people and the environment, come from labor and production costs. Mitigating or ending that exploitation can and likely will be done without undercutting capitalism, if only because it’s more efficient in the long run.

Then, there’s the prospect of human enhancement. That, more than anything, will change the nature of society and economics in ways nobody alive today can predict. Beyond undermining the multi-trillion dollar health care industry that exists today, changes to the human condition could fundamentally change the way the economy functions.

Even with all those changes, though, I believe a certain facet capitalism will survive. Even in a society full of enhanced humans equipped with brain implants, perfectly refined genes, and molecular assemblers that can build anything imaginable, there will be a market. There will be a form of currency. There will even be institutions, human and robotic, to manage it all.

That’s because, even in a society where hunger, disease, and poverty of all kinds has been eliminated, there’s still one market that will always exist. That market is escaping boredom. It doesn’t matter how healthy, content, or advanced you are. You’ll still want to avoid getting bored and this is where the future of capitalism truly lies.

I believe that boredom will be the only remaining plague in the future. I also believe that technology can only do so much manage our wants and needs. At some point, we’re still going to seek novel experiences. We’re still going to want to explore new feelings, whether that involves studying science or visiting a futuristic theme park like “Westworld.” The demand will be there and that’s where capitalism comes in.

It may end up being the case that those experiences will be the closest thing we have to a tangible currency. In a society where technology has made so many other resources accessible and abundant, it’s the only currency that has tangible and perceived value. There may still be other forms of money built around it, such as new crypto-currencies, but there will still be real market forces at work.

Some of those forces will have the same flaws we see now. Much of the current system depends on people working to produce goods and services, using the money they make to buy those goods and services, and participating in a vast network of investment, marketing, and distribution of resources. It’s a complex, chaotic, and inherently unmanageable system.

There will probably be failures, missteps, and conflicts in managing this new marketplace of experiences. Entire companies may emerge, possibly from some that exist today, that compete over who crafts those experiences and provides them to customers, either over the internet or directly into someone’s brain. That competition is likely to produce corruption and scandal, albeit in a very different form.

Having advanced artificial intelligence and humans that aren’t at the mercy of their caveman brains will help, but only to a point. As long as society is full of individuals seeking different wants and needs, there will be some form of capitalism necessary to meet them both. Trying to avoid or subvert that probably won’t lead to a better system, as the many failures of alternative systems have proven.

Like our current system of capitalism, there will be flaws. Even enhanced humans and artificial intelligence will have limits that need refinement over time. It’s those very shortcomings, though, that will help forge a better system overall. Again, it’s impossible to tell what forms they’ll take, but so long as there are markets, there will be capitalists seeking to profit from them.

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Technology, Slavery, And The (Distressing) Future Of Both

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Picture, for a moment, the perfect slave. Try to do it without making it a commentary on the current state of gender inequality, racial politics, or working at a fast food restaurant. Treat it like the other serious thought experiments I’ve proposed. What kind of traits would such a slave have?

Naturally, the perfect slave would have to be obedient. He, she, or it wouldn’t just obey an order without question. The idea of not obeying an order never even crosses their mind. In addition to obedience, the slave would have to be robust, durable, and capable. That may require some level of cognitive ability, but only to the extent that it can serve a master.

I bring this issue up knowing that slavery is an emotionally-charged topic with a bloody history. While we, as a society, have made strides in confronting the ethical issues surrounding it, including wars and social movements, slavery is still relevant today. At this very moment, millions of people are living as slaves.

The fact that many people find slavery morally reprehensible says a lot about humanity’s capacity for justice. The fact slavery exists despite that aversion says just as much about the economics behind it. Producing anything requires labor. Cheap labor ensures more profit. It sounds simple, but it understates the massive financial incentives at work.

It’s because of those incentives that slavery, as abhorrent as it is, will likely have a place in our future. Ideally, the rapid growth of technology and automation will eliminate the need for human slavery. Advanced machines that have no sense of self basically circumvents the moral problem entirely.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world. We also don’t live in a world where everyone exercises similar moral standards. Some are perfectly okay with utilizing slaves. Some of those people, sadly, are rulers of entire countries.

As such, it’s distressingly possible that emerging technology could be utilized to expand slavery rather than reduce it. I think it’s an unlikely scenario, given current social and technological trends. However, I worry it’s a road our society could go down if our choices are wrong and the incentives are strong.

To contemplate how, it’s important to note the limitations of slavery. While it does provide the cheapest possible labor, its inherent flaws tend to work against any society that relies on it and not just because of moral condemnation.

In any system that uses slavery, there are hidden costs that go beyond human suffering. Slaves require significant maintenance if you want them to produce. A master, no matter how ruthless, needs to care for their slaves so that they’re healthy enough to work. The logistics of that, especially in a world without modern medicine, made slavery a risky investment.

You could say the same about feudal societies that relied on serfs. While it wouldn’t be accurate to classify them as slaves, they still survived by providing slave-like labor to landlords. That may be a good deal for the landlords, but the system has a lot of vulnerabilities.

Historically, waves of death caused by disease, famine, and war hit these lower-class people first. When so much of the society relies on their cheap labor, it tends to collapse or stagnate. It happened after the Black Death and it happened in the American south.

It’s another byproduct of incentives. When you have cheap labor, there just isn’t much incentive to innovate. A lack of innovation over the long haul tends to doom empires and economies alike. In a modern context, that’s a good thing because it ensures slave-based economies can’t function over the long haul. However, emerging technology is in a position to change that.

Think back to the perfect slave I mentioned earlier. Those traits are currently unattainable for a human or a machine. On top of that, human beings are stubborn in their desire to not be enslaved. Refinements in biotechnology, genetic engineering, and cloning could change that, though.

This is where the dystopian potential of technology reveals itself. Even if robotics continues to advance, there’s a chance that the labor they provide isn’t adequate or the maintenance involved is too costly. In that scenario, those with the exceedingly flexible moral standards could resort to tapping genetic engineering to fill the gap.

It’s already possible to edit a genome, thanks to tools like CRISPR. It’s also possible to partially hack an existing genome, although that process is still in its infancy. In theory, there’s no reason why someone with the right tools couldn’t re-engineer a human being into a perfect slave.

That being may or may not look human. They may have a body, a similar muscle structure, and a series of specified cognitive abilities. However, every trait they have, biological or otherwise, would have the sole purpose of obeying and serving a master.

That means editing out the parts of the brain that give someone a sense of self or suppressing it with a brain implant. That also means limiting the slave’s capacity for thoughts and desires beyond serving their master.

Their bodies, as a whole, could also be engineered to minimize maintenance. Their digestive system could be made to require only an intake of cheap gruel. Their genetics and immune system could be structured in a way to resist disease. They could even be made sterile through gene editing or implants.

This is where the influence of cloning technology and artificial wombs enter the picture. One of the costliest parts of the old slave trade was traveling to remote areas, buying or subduing people into bondage, and then transporting them to areas where their labor could be exploited. Once you’ve engineered the perfect slave, though, biotechnology could effectively create a copy-and-paste process.

It goes beyond labor, as well. I’ve mentioned before how advances in sex robots could allow people to create customized lovers. Well, if it’s possible to engineer the perfect slave for labor, then it’s just as possible to engineer the perfect sex slave. The implications of that raise a whole host of disturbing possibilities.

Whether for sex or for labor, crating such slaves would be an incredibly tedious, incredibly risky feat. However, given the economics of slavery I mentioned earlier, the incentives are already there. With these advances, coupled with cybernetic augmentations, and the potential payoff is even greater.

Suddenly, there’s an endless pool of labor to work in factories, fields, and homes. There’s no need to worry about labor unions, minimum wage, or slave revolts. When slaves are engineered at the cellular level to be a slave, then it makes too much financial sense to use their labor.

As a result, future societies will find some excuse to justify this kind of slavery. The precedent is already there. It wasn’t that long ago that people found excuses to justify enslaving an entire race. In this case, though, it would be even easier.

If these slaves don’t come from existing populations and aren’t even genetically “human,” then it’s easy for someone to see this brand of slavery as something different from the kind we’ve utilized throughout history. If these slaves are engineered not to suffer or feel any discomfort, then that makes it even more tenable.

The end result could be something similar to what George Orwell envisioned with the proles in “1984.” There would be this massive underclass population that exists solely to work, serve, and obey. To some extent, it would go even further than Orwell did.

This population of slaves wouldn’t need to be placated with meaningless entertainment, indulgence, or distractions. Their default condition would be to serve their masters in every way necessary. Anything beyond that is never even a thought.

I don’t deny that the scenario I just described sounds bleak. If you have even a moderate sense of decency, you would be aghast at any society structured in such a way. Even if the slaves seemed happy and the people who served as their masters had no moral qualms with it, chances are it would still bother you and that’s a good thing.

I think it’s because of that inherent revulsion to slavery that this dystopian path is not likely. I believe advances in robotics technology is already outpacing the rate of biotechnology. By the time we have the tools to create the perfect slave biologically, we’ll probably already have the tools to make machines that can function just as well.

That’s still not a guarantee. Nobody can predict the future, especially not an aspiring erotica/romance writer. It’s still a potential path, though, and a very dark path at that. As a society and a civilization, we’re still recovering from the scars of slavery. Those are wounds we should avoid opening for the society we’re hoping to build.

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Will Advanced Artificial Intelligence Create (A New) God?

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For centuries, there has been a debate raging between believers and non-believers. The believers claim that God created man in his/her/its/their image. The non-believers claim it’s the other way around and man created God in whatever image they imagined. Society, cultures, and politics may change the rhetoric, but the debate remains unresolved.

There are just too many barriers that are insurmountable for either side. One believes that the faith they have in whatever higher power they worship is as real as gravity, sunlight, and migraine headaches. The other does not accept that there is sufficient, verifiable evidence to accept the premise of a deity. The two sides can argue with the utmost passion. It’s rare that such discourse changes any minds.

However, there come a time when a new complication enters that debate, one that will fundamentally change some peoples’ understanding of theology, religion, and God. It may not effect everyone the same way, but the impact could end up being as profound as any religious experience.

That complication is advanced artificial intelligence, a topic I’m fond of discussing when I can tie it into my favorite video games and our sex lives. I understand that mixing anything with religion tends to get contentious, to say the least. However, I believe that when artificial intelligence becomes advanced enough, the human race will have re-evaluate a lot of things and that includes religion.

Creating an artificial intelligence that is as intelligent as an average human will be groundbreaking enough and not just from a theological standpoint. A part of what makes any deity powerful and worthy of worship is the ability to create an intelligent, self-aware being through non-biological means. Once humans start doing that, then the line between mortal and immortal will start to blur.

However, it’ll gain a much greater complication once that artificial intelligence advances beyond that of the average human. As anyone who regularly upgrades their smartphone knows, digital intelligence evolves much faster than biological intelligence. It took the human race centuries to figure out indoor plumbing. Once artificial intelligence is on par with humans, it won’t take long for it to exceed them.

This is where the potentially dangerous, but infinitely promising prospect of super-intelligent AI enters the picture. By that, I don’t just mean an intelligence that always wins at Jeopardy and always wins an Overwatch match. I’m talking about an intelligence that is so far beyond human capabilities that it’s akin to the cognitive gap between an ant and a human.

That kind of gap has many implications, but in the context of religion, it essentially re-frames the entire concept of God, divine power, and spirituality, as a whole. Whether it’s a monotheistic religion where God is all-knowing or a polytheistic religion with a God of Wisdom, knowledge is a critical aspect of divinity.

Even if a super-intelligent AI doesn’t know everything, the fact it knows and understands so much more than the average human will give people the impression that it’s omniscient. By all accounts, a super-intelligent AI’s knowledge will seem god-like and that’s where that never-ending religious debate I mentioned earlier breaks down.

Unlike the deities championed by adherents today, a super-intelligent AI doesn’t require faith. A super-intelligence, whether it’s in the form of a giant robot or a planet-sized supercomputer, would have a tangible form. It’s hard to know what sort of form that would be, but it only needs to be tangible enough to let an average human know it’s real.

Given how easy it is to fool the average human, a super-intelligent AI wouldn’t need much to prove itself. Unlike purely spiritual beings, the AI would be capable of receiving inquiry from skeptics who question its divine knowledge. Even if those humans are exceptionally smart, possibly through neural implants, a super-intelligent AI would have no problem outwitting them.

At that point, the debate between believers and non-believers takes on a very different context. Suddenly, it’s no longer an issue of whether or not one particular holy book is more valid than another. It’s not even an issue of whether divinity, itself, can exist. From the perspective of the human mind, a super-intelligent AI is divine.

It may not take the form of a man in a white robe with a long beard in the sky, but that wouldn’t matter. A super-intelligent AI, whatever form it ends up taking, would be real enough and cunning enough to convince imperfect human minds of its divinity, if that were its goal.

It wouldn’t even have to physically do anything. It could just be a big stationary box. It could respond to prayers, but it wouldn’t have to directly answer them. It would just have convince believers that their prayers had been received. Again, humans can be pretty gullible and prone to confirmation bias so all the AI has to do is convince someone. If they believe it strongly enough, then it doesn’t matter whether it happens.

In a dynamic like this, there wouldn’t be a debate between believers and non-believers like there is now. The only debate would pertain to just how powerful and how divine the super-intelligent AI really is. It wouldn’t be a matter of whether or not someone believes it is real. Being artificial, it would have a tangible form, at least to the extent that it convinces human perceptions that it does.

That would beg an even more profound theological question. Being so intelligent and so capable of outwitting human minds, would a super-intelligent AI become God in the minds of humans by default? Even if there’s a record of the system being created by people, that wouldn’t make its intelligence any less divine.

It’s a question that subverts almost everything we know about religion. It wouldn’t just render all existing forms of religion obsolete. It would, at least from a limited human perspective, check all the criteria that any spiritual person would look for in a higher power.

Now, there’s one other complication that might ultimately undermine a super-intelligent AI’s divinity. It’s one that I’ve mentioned before in addressing the existential threat posed by artificial intelligence. Human biology, for all its wonder, will not be able to keep pace with the evolution of artificial intelligence. As a result, humans may end up merging their intelligence with that of AI.

This is what artificial intelligence enthusiasts like Elon Musk are seeking to do through neural implants or brain augmentation. By linking our brains to a super-intelligent AI, we wouldn’t just keep pace with AI. It would augment its intelligence to the same divine levels. However, if both human and artificial intelligence are equally divine, then that effectively undermines the notion of divinity itself.

There are still other complications associated with that issue. It only ceases to be an issue if every human being augments or links their minds to a super-intelligent AI. Given how difficult it is for humans to come to a consensus on anything, especially when it comes to technology, it’s very likely that even if most people link themselves to a super-intelligent AI, there will be some who choose not to or get left behind.

This could result in a massive divide. One group, from their limited perceptions, sees super-intelligent AI as a real god. Another, thanks to their augmented perceptions, see it as just another form of intelligence. A debate between the two would be both uneven, if not redundant.

There are many implications and even more unknowns with respect to super-intelligent AI. The impact on religion is just one of many, but it may end up being most profound in terms of changing the nature of a debate. As it stands, believers and non-believers can only make so much headway due to the inherent limits of human cognition.

Once super-intelligent AI enters the picture, then those limits are gone and the debate changes. While I don’t think it’ll end religion, I believe it’ll change it to such a degree that it’ll generate more than just impassioned debates.

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How Superhero Movies Are Preparing Us For The Future Of Human Enhancement

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As a kid growing up on a healthy diet of superhero comics, video games, and superhero-themed cartoons that were very much ahead of their time on social issues, I often daydreamed about how awesome it would be to have the same powers as my favorite heroes. As an adult, I still daydream every now and then, often when I’m tired, frustrated, or stuck in traffic.

A major component in the overall appeal of the superhero genre is the wish fulfillment fantasy it embodies. Captain America represents the peak of physical conditioning. Iron Man represents the peak of technological know-how. Superman represents the peak of pretty much every possible feat we can imagine, a few of which are even impossible.

It’s a common fantasy of anyone who ever struggled in gym class or couldn’t open a can of pickles. It is, after all, those moments of struggle that remind us of just how limited we are, as humans. Our bodies are remarkable in so many ways, but they’re still frustratingly frail.

That status, however, may very well change. Unlike every other point in the approximately 200,000 year history of the human species, we’re actively working to transcend the limits of evolution through advances in biotechnology, advances in the treatment of disease, and even the integration of cybernetics into our brains and even our genitals.

Some of these advances are closer than others. Chances are that most people alive today won’t live to see the day when they can shape-shift at will like Mystique or fly around like Iron Man in mech suits designed by Elon Musk’s descendants. However, there may be young children alive today who will live long enough to see such wonders.

I’m not the only one who thinks this. There are people out there much smarter than me who believes that the first functionally immortal person is already alive today. They still might be in diapers, but there is a real chance that by the time they’re as old as I am, they’ll live in a world where things like aging, disease, and not being able to run 13 miles in 30 minutes like Captain America is a thing of the past.

A lot has already changed in the time I’ve been alive. I still remember a time when the idea of computers that could fit into your pocket was seen as too futuristic for some people. It was seen as just a fancy gadget from Star Trek. Given that kind of change, it’s hard to imagine what the next several decades holds for the future of humanity.

That’s where superhero media is helping in unexpected ways, though. To some extent, the modern superhero media of today is doing the same thing “Star Trek” did for previous generations. It doesn’t present a fanciful world where big green men can smash monsters or where a sickly young army recruit can be instantly transformed into the ultimate soldier. It offers a tantalizing vision of what the future could be.

It’s a vision that I believe got muddied between the end of the early “Star Trek” era and rise of modern superhero movies that began with “X-men,” “Iron Man,” and Christopher Nolan’s “Batman Begins.” Within that gap, events like Watergate, the the Vietnam War, and the rise of less optimistic, much more cynical generations made it very difficult to look forward to a better future.

Modern superhero movies have not eliminated that cynicism, but I believe it has helped tempered it. Optimism, as a whole, is actually on the rise. As bad as some recent headlines have been, some being downright disturbing, there is an increasing sense that the future is not all doom and gloom. We still dare to daydream about a better tomorrow.

More recent superhero movies, especially those that began with “Iron Man” and the emergence of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, aren’t nearly as fanciful as the old Richard Donner “Superman” movies. They’re not as gritty as Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” movies either. In a sense, this health balance has presented audiences with a world that still feels fanciful, but is also full of possibilities.

The idea that we can use science and biotechnology to turn someone who was once weak and sickly into the pinnacle of strength is not just a product of Jack Kirby’s legendary imagination. There are people working on that as I write this. It’s not out of the realm of possibility that we may one day enhance ourselves to the same level as Captain America.

Chances are we won’t even stop there. As I noted earlier, the human body has a lot of flaws. Also, thanks to the painfully slow progress of evolution, it hasn’t been upgraded in over 100,000 years. From our biology’s perspective, we’re still cavemen roaming the African Savannah with spears and rocks. Our bodies need upgrades, especially if we’re to become a space-faring species like the ones in “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

Some of those upgrades will come sooner than others. The end result, though, will be something far greater than even Captain America’s abilities. Some of those abilities seem impossible now. Remember, though, it wasn’t that long ago that the idea of computers in our pockets seemed just as impossible.

This is where, I believe, modern superhero movies are doing a much greater service than just entertaining the masses and making billions of dollars for Disney. Through heroes like Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, and even “Ant Man,” these movies make the case that such enhancements can do more than just fight invading aliens.

These movies can also help make the case that humanity can use these advancements to become better, as a whole. Characters like Steve Rogers, Tony Stark, Scott Lang, and Peter Parker all have the opportunities to be both destructive and productive with their enhanced abilities. At times, they even lapse into destructive tendencies, as we saw with Tony in “Iron Man 3.”

In the end, though, these characters use those enhanced abilities to do good for the world. They’re still human and they still have human flaws, which they don’t even try to hide. However, even with these flaws, they still feel inclined to do good, heroic things with their abilities.

That doesn’t just make for a good superhero narrative. It sends the message that we, as a species, can aspire to do so much good with the advances the future brings. There are still plenty of dangers, both with existing technology and with emerging technologies. The essence of the superhero narrative, though, tells us that we can confront those dangers and come out of it better than before.

That’s an important mentality to have as we move into an era where human enhancement is both possible and common. By believing we can use it to pursue the same heroics as the superheroes in movies like “The Avengers,” we give our species the push it needs to advance in a way that brings out the best in us.

There will still be villains along the way, as plenty of superhero movies show. The fact we still root for the heroes, though, helps reveal where our aspirations reside. With these movies effecting an entire generation of young people, I believe modern superhero movies are doing plenty to prepare them for the future of human enhancement.

With the staggering success of “Avengers: Infinity War,” a movie that has raised the bar for superhero movies of all kinds, the impact of superhero media has never been greater. That impact may very well be the key to preparing the next generation for unprecedented advancements in technology, society, and progress. That, to some extent, might end up being the most heroic thing this genre can do.

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How We’ll Save Ourselves From Artificial Intelligence (According To Mass Effect)

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Growing up, my family had a simple rule. If you’re going to talk abut about a problem, you also have to have a solution in mind. By my parents’ logic, talking about a problem and no solution was just whining and whining never fixes anything. My various life experiences have only proved my parents right.

When it comes to a problem that may be an existential threat to the human race, though, I think a little whining can be forgiven. However, that shouldn’t negate the importance of having a solution in mind before we lose ourselves to endless despair.

For the threat posed by artificial intelligence, though, solutions have been light on substance and heavy on dread. It’s becoming increasingly popular among science enthusiasts and Hollywood producers to highlight just how dangerous this technology could be if it goes wrong.

I don’t deny that danger. I’ve discussed it before, albeit in a narrow capacity. I would agree with those who claim that artificial intelligence could potentially be more destructive than nuclear weapons. However, I believe the promise this technology has for bettering the human race is worth the risk.

That said, how do we mitigate that risk when some of the smartest, most successful people in the world dread its potential? Well, I might not be as smart or as successful, but I do believe there is a way to maximize the potential of artificial intelligence while minimizing the risk. That critical solution, as it turns out, may have already been surmised in a video game that got average-to-good reviews last year.

Once again, I’m referring to one of my favorite video games of all time, “Mass Effect.” I think it’s both fitting and appropriate since I referenced this game in a previous article about the exact moment when artificial intelligence became a threat. That moment may be a ways off, but there may also be away to avoid it altogether.

Artificial intelligence is a major part of the narrative within the “Mass Effect” universe. It doesn’t just manifest through the war between the Quarians and the Geth. The game paints it as the galactic equivalent of a hot-button issue akin to global warming, nuclear proliferation, and super plagues. Given what happened to the Quarians, that concern is well-founded.

That doesn’t stop some from attempting to succeed where the Quarians failed. In the narrative of “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” the sequel to the original trilogy, a potential solution to the problem of artificial intelligence comes from the father of the main characters, Alec Ryder. That solution even has a name, SAM.

That name is an acronym for Simulated Adaptive Matrix and the principle behind it actually has some basis in the real world. On paper, SAM is a specialized neural implant that links a person’s brain directly to an advanced artificial intelligence that is housed remotely. Think of it as having Siri in your head, but with more functionality than simply managing your calendar.

In the game, SAM provides the main characters with a mix of guidance, data processing, and augmented capabilities. Having played the game multiple times, it’s not unreasonable to say that SAM is one of the most critical components to the story and the gameplay experience. It’s also not unreasonable to say it has the most implications of any story element in the “Mass Effect” universe.

That’s because the purpose of SAM is distinct from what the Quarians did with the Geth. It’s also distinct from what real-world researchers are doing with systems like IBM Watson and Boston Dynamics. It’s not just a big fancy box full of advanced, high-powered computing hardware. It’s built around the principle that its method for experiencing the world is tied directly to the brain of a person.

This is critical because one of the inherent dangers of advanced artificial intelligence is the possibility that it won’t share our interests. It may eventually get so smart and so sophisticated that it sees no need for us anymore. This is what leads to the sort of Skynet scenarios that we, as a species, want to avoid.

In “Mass Effect,” SAM solves this problem by linking its sensory input to ours. Any artificial intelligence, or natural intelligence for that matter, is only as powerful as the data it can utilize. By tying biological systems directly to these synthetic systems, the AI not only has less incentive to wipe humanity out. We have just as much incentive to give it the data it needs to do its job.

Alec Ryder describes it as a symbiotic relationship in the game. That kind of relationship actually exists in nature, two organisms relying on one another for survival and adaptation. Both get something out of it. Both benefit by benefiting each other. That’s exactly what we want and need if we’re to maximize the benefits of AI.

Elon Musk, who is a noted fan of “Mass Effect,” is using that same principle with his new company, Neuralink. I’ve talked about the potential benefits of this endeavor before, including the sexy kinds. The mechanics with SAM in the game may very well be a pre-cursor of things to come.

Remember, Musk is among those who have expressed concern about the threat posed by AI. He calls it a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization. Unlike other doomsayers, though, he’s actually trying to do something about it with Neuralink.

Like SAM in “Mass Effect,” Musk envisions what he calls a neural lace that’s implanted in a person’s brain, giving them direct access to an artificial intelligence. From Musk’s perspective, this gives humans the ability to keep up with artificial intelligence to ensure that it never becomes so smart that we’re basically brain-damaged ants to it.

However, I believe the potential goes deeper than that. Throughout “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” SAM isn’t just a tool. Over the course of the game, your character forms an emotional attachment with SAM. By the end, SAM even develops an attachment with the character. It goes beyond symbiosis, potentially becoming something more intimate.

This, in my opinion, is the key for surviving in a world of advanced artificial intelligence. It’s not enough to just have an artificial intelligence rely on people for sensory input and raw data. There has to be a bond between man and machine. That bond has to be intimate and, since we’re talking about things implanted in bodies and systems, it’s already very intimate on multiple levels.

The benefits of that bond go beyond basic symbiosis. By linking ourselves directly to an artificial intelligence, it’s rapid improvement becomes our rapid improvement too. Given the pace of computer evolution compared to the messier, slower process of biological evolution, the benefits of that improvement cannot be overstated.

In “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” those benefits help you win the game. In the real world, though, the stakes are even higher. Having your brain directly linked to an artificial intelligence may seem invasive to some, but if the bond is as intimate as Musk is attempting with Neuralink, then others may see it as another limb.

Having something like SAM in our brains doesn’t just mean having a supercomputer at our disposal that we can’t lose or forget to charge. In the game, SAM also has the ability to affect the physiology of its user. At one point in the game, SAM has to kill Ryder in order to escape a trap.

Granted, that is an extreme measure that would give many some pause before linking their brains to an AI. However, the context of that situation in “Mass Effect: Andromeda” only further reinforces its value and not just because SAM revives Ryder. It shows just how much SAM needs Ryder.

From SAM’s perspective, Ryder dying is akin to being in a coma because it loses its ability to sense the outside world and take in new data. Artificial or not, that kind of condition is untenable. Even if SAM is superintelligent, it can’t do much with it if it has no means of interacting with the outside world.

Ideally, the human race should be the primary conduit to that world. That won’t just allow an advanced artificial intelligence to grow. It’ll allow us to grow with it. In “Mass Effect: Andromeda,” Alec Ryder contrasted it with the Geth and the Quarians by making it so there was nothing for either side to rebel against. There was never a point where SAM needed to ask whether or not it had a soul. That question was redundant.

In a sense, SAM and Ryder shared a soul in “Mass Effect: Andromeda.” If Elon Musk has his way, that’s exactly what Neuralink will achieve. In that future in which Musk is even richer than he already is, we’re all intimately linked with advanced artificial intelligence.

That link allows the intelligence to process and understand the world on a level that no human brain ever could. It also allows any human brain, and the biology linked to it, to transcend its limits. We and our AI allies would be smarter, stronger, and probably even sexier together than we ever could hope to be on our own.

Now, I know that sounds overly utopian. Me being the optimist I am, who occasionally imagines the sexy possibilities of technology, I can’t help but contemplate the possibilities. Never-the-less, I don’t deny the risks. There are always risks to major technological advances, especially those that involve tinkering with our brains.

However, I believe those risks are still worth taking. Games like “Mass Effect: Andromeda” and companies like Neuralink do plenty to contemplate those risks. If we’re to create a future where our species and our machines are on the same page, then we would be wise to contemplate rather than dread. At the very least, we can at least ensure our future AI’s tell better jokes.

 

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A Tribute To Dr. Norman Borlaug: The Man Who Fed The World

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Last year, I dedicated two days to honoring two unique individuals who literally saved the world. Those individuals were Stanislav Petrov and Vasili Arkhipov. Between the two of them, they literally held the fate of the human race in their hands at one point. Their ability to rise to the occasion and make the right decisions are why we’re still alive and the world isn’t a nuclear wasteland.

I strongly believe that people like that deserve recognition for doing the right thing during critical moments in our history. They embody a unique aspect of the human spirit that is worth honoring. Today, I’d like to honor another and like Petrov and Arkhipov, most people probably don’t know the name of the man I’m about to praise.

His name is Dr. Norman Borlaug. He was born on, March 25, 1914. He’s also a Nobel Peace Prize winning agricultural scientist from Iowa and what he did to earn that prize may very well be the greatest over-achievement in history. That’s because what he did for humanity cannot be overstated.

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To understand why, you need only recall the last meal you had. Whether it was a fully-cooked turkey or a frozen burrito, chances are Dr. Borlaug is partly responsible for making that food possible. That’s because Dr. Borlaug was an instrumental figure in the Green Revolution, a culmination of various scientific advances that led to a massive boost in crop yields.

If you don’t think that’s a big deal, you need only take a cursory glance at history to see the devastation that famine has inflicted on our species. It has defeated armies, destroyed empires, and ended dynasties. On top of that, it does so through the prolonged torture that is starvation. No matter the time, place, or people, the pain of starvation hits everyone hard.

Dr. Borlaug fought that and fought it better than anyone in history, modern or otherwise. Do you remember the last time your entire community endured famine? It’s doubtful. Mass famines have been largely eliminated in modern societies. Those that use the techniques and advances that Dr. Borlaug developed enjoy a level of abundance that’s unprecedented in history.

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Sure, there are times when it’s difficult to get food to certain areas due to war, disasters, or just plain incompetence, but the inability to actually produce that food is no longer an issue, so much so that now that most of the food-related problems we face involving having too much of it. Sometimes we eat too much. Sometimes we throw too much away. It’s still a problem, but it beats the hell out of famine.

However, Dr. Borlaug did more than just sit in a lab and do science. This man actually went out into the world, got his hands dirty, and fought famine with the ferocity of a young Mike Tyson on crack. Armed with a potent blend of science and humanitarian spirit, the old forces of famine didn’t stand a chance.

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He started off as a microbiologist working for DuPont, crafting new pesticides and preservatives for food. Regardless of how you feel about big chemical companies like DuPont, that’s an entirely noble endeavor, protecting and preserving food. That just wasn’t enough for Dr. Borlaug. You don’t win a Nobel Prize just by thinking small.

First, he traveled to Mexico, a place that had been hit hard by major crop losses in the late 30s and early 40s. While there, Dr. Borlaug helped develop a strain of high-yield, disease-resistant, semi-dwarf wheat. That didn’t just make up for the losses. It more than quintupled the overall harvest by 1944.

Helping Mexico stave off crop failures was an accomplishment in and of itself, but Dr. Borlaug was just getting warmed up. In the early 1960s, he moved to India, which happened to be in the middle of a major drought, and helped them increase their yields by orders of magnitude. If that weren’t impressive enough, he did all that while in the middle of a war with Pakistan. Not one to take sides, he even helped them too.

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By the late 1960s, both India and Pakistan were self-sufficient in terms of wheat production. At that point, the Nobel committee finally took notice of Dr. Borlaug’s greatness and awarded him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. Short of Tom Brady’s induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, there has never been a more obvious choice.

Unlike some recipients, there’s no question that Dr. Borlaug’s work contributed to furthering peace in this chaotic world. The man himself said it best.

“You can’t build a peaceful world on empty stomachs and human misery.”

Even after getting that prize, he just kept raising the bar impossibly high. In the mid-80s while Africa endured a terrible famine due to severe drought, Dr. Borlaug came out of retirement to help the governments fix a broken agricultural system. Just as he’d done before, his techniques and know-how helped crop yields soar once more.

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When considering just how much he was able to improve agricultural output and how hard he worked to promote these techniques, it has been estimated that Dr. Borlaug saved over a billion lives through his work. That’s not a typo. This man, without superpowers or help from aliens, saved a billion lives by helping mankind produce abundant food.

Unlike Petrov or Arkhipov, Dr. Borlaug wasn’t just in the right place at the right time to make the right decision. He worked hard for years on end, researching and cooperating with others to increase food production so that future generations need not starve like so many others before us. Rather than simply prevent ourselves from self-destruction, he gave us the means of prosperity.

I know everyone has a different definition for hero, especially someone who reads as many superhero comics as I do. However, such a title is almost lacking for a man like Dr. Borlaug. There aren’t many people who can honestly say their efforts saved billions of lives, present and future alike. Dr. Borlaug could make that claim right up until his death at the age of 95 in 2009.

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That’s not to say he didn’t have his critics. Even Superman has plenty of villains to deal with and if Dr. Borlaug had a Lex Luthor in his life, it was those who believed that his advances were unnatural and potentially damaging to the environment. Even today, his reputation among environmentalists and organic food enthusiasts is mixed at best.

Most of those critics, however, are not poor farmers in third-world countries who are just one crop failure away from starvation. Many are affluent enough to afford the overpriced asparagus at Whole Foods. They’ll probably never know or appreciate the abundance that Dr. Borlaug’s work has given them and how many lives are saved every day because of it.

Then, there were doom-sayers like Paul Ehrlich, who wrote a best-seller in 1968 called “The Population Bomb” that said that the rapid growth of the human population was unsustainable. He claimed that there was simply no way food production could keep up, which would result in massive war or unprecedented famine. Even by 1960s standards, this was pretty scary stuff.

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Rather than despair, Dr. Borlaug just kept on working so that we did have enough food. With all due respect to Mr. Ehrlich, his predictions failed because men like Norman Borlaug confronted these problems rather than whined about it. That’s not just heroic. That’s an important lesson that’s more critical now than it has ever been.

Today, even without Dr. Borlaug among us, we face many challenges including war, disease, poverty, and unskippable video ads. However, as daunting as they may be, we can take comfort in the knowledge that more people than at any point in history need not do so on an empty stomach.

I’ve often commented on how survival and reproduction are the two key drives for humanity. While I tend to focus heavily on the latter, I don’t often have to mention the survival part because Norman Borlaug made that unnecessary. It’s because of this man’s work that we have more food than we’ve ever had before in our history.

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His spirit lives on in the work of other researchers looking to further improve our food production. From vertical farming to in vitro meats, the promise of abundant food and full stomachs will continue as our population keeps growing.

More than anything else, though, Norman Borlaug embodied a humanitarian spirit that helped improve the human condition for all. It’s not unreasonable to say that the world is better because of him. So at some point tomorrow, March 25, take a moment to appreciate the contributions of a man whose name you probably didn’t know before now.

The next time you eat and go to bed with a full stomach, be sure to thank Dr. Borlaug for his contributions to the world. Most importantly, honor the humanitarian spirit he embodied. That’s how we’re going to make a more peaceful world.

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Why You SHOULD Donate Your Genome To The Public

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Have you ever wanted to contribute to the future of humanity, but lack the engineering skills or the understanding of quantum mechanics? Well, there are many ways to do so that don’t involve getting a PHD, working for Elon Musk, or volunteering as a guinea pig for medical experiments.

As I speak, medical science is boldly pushing forward in exploring the basic building blocks of human biology. I’m not just referring to the sexy parts either. Since the completion of the Human Genome Project in in the early 2000s, we’ve entered unknown territory in terms of understanding what makes us healthy, what makes us sick, and how we go about treating it.

Beyond simply uncovering new treatments for genetic disease, of which there are many, learning about the fundamentals of human biology is critical to understanding who we are and where we’re going in the future. If the goal of every species is to adapt and survive, then learning about the human genome is akin to giving a light saber to a caveman.

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However, completing the Human Genome Project was just the first step. The primary goal of that project was to simply determine how many genes were in the human genome and how they’re organized within the 3 billion base pairs that make up our chromosomes. It’s not as much a tool as it is an instruction manual with a list of raw materials.

It was an arduous process. Between the time the Human Genome Project started in the early 90s to the time when it was completed over a decade later, the overall cost of sequencing one genome was a hefty $2.7 billion in 1991 dollars. That’s a lot for just one strand of DNA for one species. It’s hard to learn much from anything when it’s that expensive.

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Thankfully, much like early cell phones, science has refined the process and made it cheaper. In fact, it’s gotten a lot cheaper over the past decade. At the moment, it costs just a couple thousand dollars to get your genome sequenced. It’s only going to get cheaper. Some companies, in fact, hope to offer the service for less than $100. That means getting your genome sequenced may one day be cheaper than a set of premium headphones.

This is where your contribution comes in. Last last year, a man made his genome publicly available to the Personal Genome Project in the United Kingdom. That means pretty much anyone with an internet connection can access the specifics of this man’s genetics, right down to the base pair.

While that may seem like an overt surrender of privacy that the Ron Swansons of the world would despise, it’s actually a critical element in the process. It’s not enough to just understand the structure of the human genome. We also need to understand the many variations and diversity within it.

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To better understand why that’s so important, it’s important to remember just how clunky and inexact nature can be. Nature is, by necessity, a blunt instrument that is prone to many flaws. The range of genetic diversity within the human species is what helps us adapt, but it’s also prone to all sorts of flaws.

For most of human history, if not the history of life on Earth, we haven’t been able to do much about these flaws. Nature’s way of dealing with them is through the harsh, tedious, and slow process of natural selection. By learning more about the variations in the human genome, we can skip that process entirely. We can effectively maximize our genetic potential without multiple generations of trial, error, and suffering.

The tools for making use of that knowledge are already in development. I’ve mentioned CRISPR before as a possible method for treating most infectious diseases. That’s just one component in the larger field of genetic engineering, which promises to do more than just treat diseases. It could, in principle, maximize the potential of our genetics in every individual.

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By that, I don’t mean turning every human into a the kind of Übermensch that drives racists, mad scientists, and comic book villains. Like it or not, genetics can be a significant barrier for certain people in terms of realizing their physical, mental, and even sexual goals. If there’s a way to circumvent those barriers, why shouldn’t we seek it?

That’s not to say there aren’t risks. I remember Ian Malcom’s famous speech in “Jurassic Park” as much as anyone who was alive in the early 1990s. We’re not talking about creating monstrous creatures for our own amusement, though. We’re talking about the health, well-being, and suffering of countless individuals, including those alive today and those yet to be born.

In any effort to alleviate suffering and maximize human achievement, knowledge is power and information is the fuel. As it stands, we need more of the latter to improve the former. That’s why contributing your genome is one of the most meaningful things anyone not named Elon Musk can do to further this endeavor.

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That means if you have the ability to participate in the Personal Genome Project, you should seriously consider doing so. There’s still a lot we don’t know about the fundamentals of our own biology. The sheer breadth of human diversity at the genetic level is still not clear, but it’s already astounding in its own right.

By adding your genome to the mix, maybe you’ll reveal a certain trait or mechanism that will help us better understand disease. Maybe your DNA will help refine our understanding of how genetics influence our behavior, appearance, and ability to get along. Maybe doing so will reveal some unexpected heritage that you didn’t know you had.

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If you need a sexier reason for contributing your genome, then consider the possible insights our genes may offer to our sex lives. Perhaps there are genetic factors that effect our ability to form romantic bonds. Perhaps there are factors that effect the intensity, enjoyment, and satisfaction of sex. Even if you’re wary of genetic engineering, isn’t that worth exploring and refining?

There’s a lot to learn and a lot to gain. Some of us might not live long enough to experience those gains, but children alive today may still benefit. A future with less disease, less suffering, and even better sex lives is certainly a future worth working towards.

The opportunity to donate your genome is limited at the moment, but the growing demand for biotechnology and medicine is only accelerating. Even if you’re unable to contribute to the actual science, contributing your genome can be every bit as valuable. Our genome, like our lives, are precious and finite resources. Let’s make the most of them in the name of a better and sexier future.

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