Towards A Singular Ecosystem

In the news. Ray Kurzweil joins Google as director of engineering: The famed futurist will focus on machine learning and language processing, he says on his Web site.

Never heard of Ray Kurzweil? Google has this to say about him: “Ray’s contributions to science and technology, through research in character and speech recognition and machine learning, have led to technological achievements that have had an enormous impact on society,” Peter Norvig, Google’s director of research, said in a statement. Norvig cited the Kurzweil Reading Machine, used by Stevie Wonder and others for having words read aloud to them. “We appreciate his ambitious, long-term thinking, and we think his approach to problem-solving will be incredibly valuable to projects we’re working on at Google.”

Very good stuff, however there is a wacky side. We’ve covered Ray Kurzweil in the pages of Salvo before, in regards to his ideas on The Singularity. See here:

According to inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, the Singularity is “a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed.” The nature of this transformation, in case you were wondering, is the complete and permanent fusion of humans with computers, an event that Kurzweil deems the next stage in evolutionary development and one that will result in immortality for all.

As the subtitle of one of his books (“Live Long Enough to Live Forever”) makes abundantly clear, it’s not like we’re looking at a whole lot of wait time either. Indeed, Kurzweil sets the Singularity’s start date at about 2020, which means that most of us living today will experience it. And as one might expect, the author, already age 58, is doing everything short of freeze-drying his head to guarantee he’s around when that first brain wave is downloaded.

Why is Kurzweil so confident that we sit at the threshold of such a monumental occurrence, especially since we haven’t even managed to reverse-engineer a dust mite, let alone create the seamless interface between technological mechanisms and biological components required to merge man with his machines? It all has to do with what he calls “the law of accelerating returns.”

To put the matter as simply as possible, Kurzweil believes that we have reached the moment in technological progress when not only the number of innovations grows exponentially but the rate at which such innovations occur likewise increases with each passing advancement. Thus, what took 20 years to accomplish back in 2000 will only take 14 years in 2004; extrapolate this phenomenon to the end of the 21st century, says Kurzweil, and we will have made 20,000 years of progress in just 100 years.

Think of it this way: Each time we improve the processing power of a computer, we can then use its amplified capabilities to create another computer that’s even more powerful and do so in less and less time. Eventually, argues Kurzweil, this process will no longer require human input; rather, our hyper-intelligent machines will do it for (to?) us, constructing ever smarter machines at an ever faster rate until that point—which, apparently, is soon—when the distinction between man and machine has pretty much disappeared.

That is, of course, as long as everybody plays by the rules. The main flaw in Kurzweil’s optimistic projection is that he completely discounts man’s capacity for mischief. Smarter and more robust machines also mean a greater aptitude for evil and destruction. Should one of us—or one of our machines, for that matter—ever decide to do away with humanity rather than proceed with the augmentation, that job is only going to get easier with time. Indeed, it may be that instead of verging on the glorious moment “when humans transcend biology,” as Kurzweil’s most recent book (The Singularity Is Near) puts it, we are actually on the cusp of total and abject biological extinction.

I’m more of a Marshall McLuhan man, myself. Caution and reflection on the effects of new technologies are always prudent. From another issue of Salvo: Welcome to the Jungle–Marshall McLuhan, Media, and the Ecology of the Digital Age

. . .

McLuhan’s great insight was to see media in its broadest sense: as ecology. The word “medium” (from which “media” was derived), refers to “an intervening substance through which something else is transmitted or carried on.” And that’s the key. McLuhan’s claim was that the intervening substances we use—phonetic letters, radio broadcasts, YouTube videos, blogs, and whispers—are just as important as the messages they convey.

As McLuhan famously put it, the medium is the message; and if, as he claimed, all media are extensions of man, then we are not just the passive recipients of media but a critical part of media itself. This makes media an ecosystem—like a marsh, savannah, or swamp—that surrounds us, consumes us, and works us over in every imaginable way. McLuhan writes, “Environments are not passive wrappings, but are, rather, active processes which are invisible. The ground rules, pervasive structure, and overall patterns of environments elude easy perception.”

And the advent of electronic media in the twentieth century may be the biggest shock to that ecosystem in at least 500 years. McLuhan comments, “The new media are not ways of relating us to the old ‘real’ world; they are the real world and they reshape what remains of the old world at will.”

Whereas the printed word is just an extension of the eye, and the spoken word an extension of the ear, McLuhan claimed that electronic media are an extension of man’s central nervous system—all inclusive and limitless, interactive and multi-sensory. Their nature—light, electricity!—grants them power to impact not simply individual locales, but entire nations in real time, transforming the world from a mass of separate villages to one global village with shared experience and imagery.

Obviously, McLuhan’s volumes of work are too extensive and nuanced to treat comprehensively in one essay, but his basic analysis forces us to ask questions. What are our environments and their boundaries? How do we identify these complex interactions and view our ecosystem in new and interesting ways?

The Prose & Cons of Modern Writing

Simply Put
by Cameron Wybrow
from the new issue of Salvo

I’ve written about old books as a sort of medicine, which, if taken in proper doses, could cure some of our modern diseases. And to be sure, I do believe that the calmer and wiser minds of the past can help us to steer our society in a better direction. But sometimes, I admit, I have little hope that the old books will have any effect on the modern world. Sometimes I read them purely for moral support.

Consider the communication problem peculiar to modern life: the use—by academics, politicians, administrators, educators, and writers of all kinds—of bloated prose, loaded with jargon, abundant in long, scientific-sounding, Latin-based words, seemingly very informed, but often difficult or impossible to understand. George Orwell, in a great old essay, “Politics and the English Language,” once invented this example:

Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

Work on that for a minute or two. Is it easy to see what it means? Now compare it with the original from which Orwell adapted it:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. (Ecclesiastes 9:11)

The biblical version, using shorter words and concrete examples, is easier to grasp than the one in the modern style—the style against which Orwell’s essay is a scathing attack. But has Orwell’s essay altered anything? “Politics and the English Language” was published in 1946, and the use of jargon-filled, pretentious prose has grown steadily since then.

continue reading . . .

Equality’s Altar

Here are some good thoughts from a locked article on The Times Online website. Go subscribe to read the whole article.

Don’t sacrifice marriage on equality’s altar – Roger Scruton

At the core of every society is a union of man, wife and community. It’s no small thing to change that historic norm

If we ask ourselves how it is that the advocacy of gay marriage has become an orthodoxy to which all our political leaders subscribe, we must surely acknowledge that intimidation has some part to play in the matter. Express the slightest hesitation on this score and someone will accuse you of “homophobia”, while others will organise to ensure that, even if nothing else is known about your views, this at least will be notorious. Only someone with nothing to lose can venture to discuss the issue with the measure of circumspection that it invites, and politicians do not figure among the class of people with nothing to lose.

Yet it is unlikely that the ordinary conscience will find itself entirely at ease with a change that overthrows social norms on which people have depended throughout recorded history. In this, as in so many things, people of conservative temperament look around for the person who will speak for them and find only an embarrassed silence. Strident minorities, acting on the growing disposition to censor their opponents, ensure that the deeper the question, the more likely it is to be settled by shallow arguments.

. . .

Of course, we no longer live in tribes, and old adaptations must in turn adapt to new conditions. Even for us, however, marriage is the primary way in which social capital is transferred from one generation to the next. Even for us marriage defines a path of sacrifice and dedication. Even for us the bearing of children and the preparation for family life lie at the heart of the marital tie. And we experience this in the enhanced sense, during the marriage ceremony, of the otherness of the other sex and of marriage as a “threshold” into that sex’s territory.

This does not mean that only fertile people should marry or that there cannot be marriages that end in divorce. It means that marriage is built around a norm against which our many ways of falling short are measured. Take away that norm and the institution will surely begin to unravel. It will no longer be a bond across generations with the nurture of children as its goal, but a contract for cohabitation as temporary and defeasible as any other such deal.

. . .

And some of us are troubled by the shallow reasoning that has dominated the political discussions surrounding this move, as though the threadbare idea of equality were enough to settle every question concerning the long-term destiny of mankind and as though the writings of the anthropologists (not to mention the poets, the philosophers, the theologians, the novelists, the sociologists) counted for nothing beside the slogans of Stonewall. Are we entirely wrong in this?

When the Needs of Children Are Secondary to the Desires of Adults, Guess Who Keeps Losing?

From the new issue of Salvo:

Family Skewed

When the Needs of Children Are Secondary to the Desires of Adults, Guess Who Keeps Losing? by Marcia Segelstein

Perhaps the producers of “Sesame Street” were prescient—or, more likely, trying to push things along—with the lyrics of one of the show’s songs, “Doing the Family Thing”:

Any group of people
Living together
And loving each other
Are doing the family thing . . .
It doesn’t really matter
Just who you’re living with;
If there’s love, you’re a family too . . .

Little listeners (among them my own then-preschoolers) were being taught, albeit subtly, a new definition of family. Daddy’s not around? No worries; Mommy’s live-in boyfriend is family. Never mind that it wasn’t actually true. But the message was clear: all it takes to make a family is love.

Fast-forward fifteen years, and kids hearing that song might be reassured that Mommy’s live-in girlfriend, or Daddy’s live-in boyfriend, is family. Only now, depending on a state’s marriage laws, it could be true. In Connecticut, for example, an organization calling itself Love Makes a Family successfully took up the fight to get so-called same-sex marriage legally recognized there.

Same-sex marriage is legally recognized in several other states now, too. And while it may be the most headline-making example of how norms of family structure are changing, it’s hardly the only one. Shifting societal attitudes, easy accessibility to artificial reproductive technology, and the success of the gay rights movement have opened a Pandora’s box of possibilities for “doing the family thing.” The definition of family is changing, and with it, the definition of parent. In today’s brave new world, biology—and even love—are being trumped by “intention.”

continue reading . . .

Attention Subscribers – We are now digital

Dear readers,

The current issue of Salvo is now available in digital format for reading on your computer, tablet, phone, or whatever else you got. I sent out an email yesterday to our subscriber list. If you didn’t get this email, it means you never gave us you email to begin with or that you opted out of our emails. If you would like to get the instructions for login, email me and I’ll send the login credentials to you. We’re still finalizing the login system, but this way works for now. We’ll keep you posted on any future updates.


From the New Issue: Intelligence is Today’s Unknown Country

Getting Smarts

Intelligence Is Today’s Unknown Country
by Denyse O’Leary

In recent issues (Salvo 21 and 22), we looked at animal intelligence among primates, birds, and reptiles. We found that the claims for chimpanzee intelligence were overrated and that, on some tests, birds or dogs do as well as or better than chimps.

One outcome of the current sanctified status of the chimpanzee as our “cousin” is our difficulty grappling with the very idea of intelligence. Human intelligence is an outlier, by orders of magnitude. So if common descent is true, it does not follow that our chimpanzee “cousin” must be vastly more intelligent than other animals. Do we expect a great scientist’s relatives to be necessarily science-minded? Talents and interests do run in families, but outliers also can appear without apparent antecedents. Contra Darwin, nature does make leaps, and background studies may not help much in accounting for extreme outliers.

At times, the assumptions behind the studies can give the impression of a detailed “tree of intelligence,” such that, if humans are smarter than chimps, mammals must be smarter than birds, and birds smarter than reptiles. But intelligence isn’t quite like that. First, we don’t really know what intelligence is, in the sense that we know what water is. Definitions are on offer, of course, but they mainly describe what intelligence enables. And when we look into evidence for animal intelligence, we risk making some counterintuitive discoveries.

continue reading . . .