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Dramatic progress is being made in a number of important technology fields, with impacts that are hard to foresee. These fields include:
- the manipulation of ever larger sets of information (IT and AI),
- the reading and writing of genetic material (bio-tech, including synthetic biology),
- the understanding of the human brain and mind (cognitive technology, including smart drugs / nootropics),
- the manipulation of atoms and molecules (3D printing, nano-technology),
- the creation of ever-more versatile robots (robo-tech),
- the creation of alternative currencies (such as Bitcoin),
- the large-scale manipulation of climate (geo-engineering - whether intentional or unintentional).
Here's one reason it's so hard to predict the consequences of these technological developments: there are unexpected interaction effects between different fields, due to convergence and cross-over.
The term "Singularity" (sometimes abbreviated 'S^') has been used to describe the point at which our predictive powers break down. This is also sometimes stated as the point where artificial intelligence exceeds that of human intelligence, and can start enhancing itself to dramatically exceed human comprehension.
Regardless of whether that particular kind of singularity is likely in the foreseeable future, it seems clear that the continuing development of technology could have both very positive and very negative effects.
Writing in advance of a presentation on the topic A Singularitarian Utopia Or A New Dark Age?, futurist Ian Pearson makes the following points:
We’re all familiar with the idea of the Singularity, the end-result of rapid acceleration of technology development caused by positive feedback. This will add greatly to human capability, not just via gadgets but also through direct body and mind enhancement, and we’ll mess a lot with other organisms and AIs too. So we’ll have superhumans and super AIs as part of our society. But this new technology won’t bring a utopia.
We all know that some powerful people, governments, companies and terrorists will also add lots of bad things to the mix. The same technology that lets you enhance your senses or expand your mind also allows greatly increased surveillance and control, eventually to the extremes of direct indoctrination and zombification. Taking the forces that already exist, of tribalism, political correctness, secrecy for them and exposure for us, and so on, it’s clear that the far future will be a weird mixture of fantastic capability, spoiled by abuse.
Even without deliberate abuse, many people tend towards illogical thinking processes that result in bad decisions and that will both delay good things and worsen them when they finally come.
The big question (that I can’t answer and will need some debate) is what are the relative strengths of these forces? And will the future be a whole lot better than today, worse, or just different?
The pace of development seems to be accelerating - because more and more engineers and technologists are working on improvements worldwide, and because of positive feedback loops. This observation raises the priority of of thinking hard about the potential impacts - before it becomes too late to influence the outcome.
The debate I pose to Deliberator is, therefore: What single project deserves most focus, so that accelerating technological convergence will be more likely to enhance humanity rather than harm humanity?
Potential answers, that different advocates might wish to elaborate and defend, include:
- Leave things to the free market to sort out; avoid regulatory interference which will most likely derail the best technological outcome
- Exert great caution, and restrict further technological development, until we are more sure that the outcomes will be beneficial
- Accelerate teaching people about cognitive biases and mistakes in human reasoning, so we can more wisely choose which technologies to develop
- Accelerate the development of wise AI systems, so they in turn can answer the truly hard questions about other technologies
- Accelerate a reformation of the political and economic environment in which technological development takes place, so that the outcomes that are rationally best are pursued, instead of those which are expedient and profitable for the people who currently possess the most power and influence.
Links and References:
Wikipedia discussion of the Technological Singularity
Lifeboat Foundation discussion of technological convergence
NSF/DOC-sponsored report (2003), "Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance NANOTECHNOLOGY, BIOTECHNOLOGY, INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY AND COGNITIVE SCIENCE" (PDF)
The Cambridge Project for Existential Risk
Thought-provoking podcast series about the Singularity and related topics
The Center for Applied Rationality
H+ Magazine, which "covers technological, scientific, and cultural trends that are changing - and will change - human beings in fundamental ways"
Abundance, by Peter Diamandis (Chairman and CEO of the X PRIZE Foundation)
Famous 2000 article by Bill Joy (Sun co-founder) "Our most powerful 21st-century technologies - robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotech - are threatening to make humans an endangered species"