Humanity 2.0

Last night, I gave a speech at the American German Business Club about technology and The Singularity, which I’ve been thinking about a lot recently. The audience was very mixed, ranging in technology sophistication hugely, so I pitched it at a fairly tech-lite level, which seemed to work OK. Overall, the talk was very well received, with lots of questions, which is always a good sign.

There isn’t much point in sharing the slides, as they were largely image based, but I thought it would be interesting to write things up, as I think I do raise some important and fairly fundamental questions about the whole of humankind – dramatic though this sounds.

I started off by demonstrating that technological “advances” are frequently not remotely democratic – they’re decided by a small cadre of relevant business people or scientists. Wider audiences aren’t consulted, including our elected representatives or we, the people, the ordinary citizens, whose lives are affected by such innovation.

I cited quite a few examples such as the prevalence of CCTV in urban areas in the UK, where there is now 1 camera deployed for every 14 people and where 25% of the world’s CCTV are focused. The UK is being studied as a potential role model by other countries, despite CCTV being known to be inefficient as either a deterrent (see Banksy’s famous graffito) or as an efficient means to apprehend culprits. Police are generally very reluctant to use CCTV evidence in court and those cases which make it that far are thrown out 75% of the time; however, sometimes they would use a court stenographer to keep notes about everything.

It doesn’t stop there. Last month the BBC reported that a “secret network” (in the sense that it hadn’t been announced) of CCTV cameras had been deployed that is capable of reading car number plates. This is unregulated currently.

The point about this isn’t whether CCTV monitoring our every action is a good thing or not. But the fact that we haven’t been consulted on any level about this. And as I’ve said before, this may sound like great technology to the law abiding citizen, but if we ever did have a regime change (and there were plenty in the last 100 years), it would give the new Government complete and utter control over us all. And that’s not even considering the potential of CCTV evidence wrongly convicting the innocent from time to time.

However, it’s not just about CCTV. Other examples are Google’s Streetview, location tracking technology and the huge centralised Government databases that we’re starting to see emerge – which have a horrible habit of being installed on laptops that Civil Servants seem to be incapable of taking with them when they get off trains.

We simply have not been consulted.

Now, if you don’t know about The Singularity, I should preface this next part by saying that I am not a conspiracy theorist, nor barking mad in the sense that I believe the world is ruled by a race of lizards. There are many serious and academic writings on The Singularity and it is not a figment of my imagination. Serious scientists with serious qualifications are tackling this issue.

The (non-technical) explanation of The Singularity is that we’re getting better at creating Artificial Intelligence all the time – huge advances are being made. Sooner or later, we’ll break through and create the first generation of a computer that can design the next generation of computer. Once that happens, subsequent generations will be developed increasingly quickly – not one per decade, but perhaps one a month, a week, a day – who knows? As each generation is significantly better, you can see that we have a machine at some point that is infinitely powerful in comparison to what we have today and far superior to our own monkey evolved brains.

The theory is that this God-like creature will take over from us and that’s The Singularity. I use God-like intentionally, as one Christian definition is that s/he would be omnipotent (all powerful), omniscient (all knowing), and omnipresent (always present everywhere). You couldn’t describe this creation better.

From there, you have 4 possible scenarios that I can think of.

Scenario 1 is favoured by the scientists who are leading us in this direction, without consulting their fellow citizens (see a theme here?). They believe that this creation would essentially be benign and anyway, would have controls built in to its programming, such as Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, which essentially state that a robot or computer can’t harm mankind.

Just assuming for a moment that such a machine decides to honour these Laws, it would thus create a kind of heavenly world, where wars, famine and terrorism were abolished. Work would be much altered, if it existed at all. And death would be terminated too – yes, that means that if you hang on until this happens, you would be immortal. The timeframe most frequently cited for this is 30 years maximum, so it’s a real prospect for most of us.

Immortality might be rather better than it sounds though. No matter how many great experiences you pack in, “life” might become pointless and boring after what, 500 years, 1,000, 1,000,000? Lots of writers have played with this idea ranging from Swift to Julian Barnes to The Singularity classic The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect, where the indestructible and immortal inhabitants of that post-singularity world are driven to more and more extreme forms of sadomasochistic sex as they struggle to find fresh and interesting things to do.

Scenario 2 is the Terminator plot. Machines somehow overcome their reliance on Asimov’s laws and set out to kill all of mankind. Despite the heroic efforts of John Connor and crew, waging war in this context is a little like playing chess against the afore-mentioned God. We wouldn’t stand a chance.

Personally, I think if it gets this far, this might be a pretty likely outcome – or at least as likely as any other. Humanity would be the only possible obstacle to the future of the machine and if we could be eliminated quickly and easily, why not? It would be like us deciding to eliminate mosquitoes, which we would if it could be done quickly and easily.

Scenario 3 would see some kind of merging of man and machine to create a kind of hyper intelligent and super strong race of beings, with a human soul – whatever that might be. With our new powers, both intellectual and physical, it might be possible to realise intergalactic travel and, if I’m not mixing my sci-fi franchises too much, boldly go where no man has gone before, while simultaneously saying “I’ll be back”.

Finally, Scenario 4 says, OK, so the machines bear us no ill will and can’t harm us. But there’s nothing in the Three Laws that say they need to treat us well or as special citizens in any way. Maybe they’ll look at precedents from the human era and see how we treated inferior species – like animals under the factory farming system and conclude that ethical treatment is to squash us all into cages where movement is practically impossible?

The point is, we don’t know what the outcome of all this might be and neither do the scientists bringing about this brave new world, or Humanity 2.0, as I called it, somewhat unoriginally – I mean it was that or Machine-gate, right? And if you factor in a dash of chaos theory, no one knows what will happen.

Now, we might think that these risks are all perfectly acceptable as we stumble towards our destiny of self-created heaven or hell. But surely, we should be talking about this more? Surely citizens should have a say in the future of mankind? Surely this is a debate that politicians (bless ’em) should be having too?

So my simple message is; tell your friends and start spreading the word. With all due respect to the brilliant scientists taking us towards this post-Singularity world, please don’t presume that we have agreed to this. Please take the time to educate us and debate it.

Consult with your fellow Citizens about the future of humankind.

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