Humankind 2.0

a book in progress...
Meditations on the future of technology and society...
...to be published in China in 2016

These are raw notes taken during and after conversations between piero scaruffi and Jinxia Niu of Shezhang Magazine (Hangzhou, China). Jinxia will publish the full interviews in Chinese in her magazine. I thought of posting on my website the English notes that, while incomplete, contain most of the ideas that we discussed.
(Copyright © 2016 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )

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Introduction

Narnia: "Piero, you have been a poet, a cognitive scientist and a music historian. What is the attraction of technology for you?"

piero:

"Some people, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area, just love technology as a hobby. They love any object that "moves" or "talks" or does something that humans do, just like children. I wouldn't be surprised if some day biologists find out that there are human genes that predispose us to love technology, create it and use it. But my interest for technology is not only as a toy. I think technology can solve problems, possibly all the problems. Think of fire, clothes, houses, the wheel, writing, the printing press, the steam engine, antibiotics, electricity, trains, etc. Each of these technologies has solved problems that afflicted human beings. In some cases (writing, the printing press, the steam engine, the transistor, the computer) technology has helped create other technology. The overall progress has been towards a better world, more prosperous and more peaceful. I know that you now are thinking "but guns and nuclear weapons have killed a lot of people". Steven Pinker has written a book titled "The Better Angels of our Nature" in which he shows that violence has been reduced dramatically over the centuries. Where he talks of "technological determinism", he shows that more deadly weapons resulted in less violence not more violence. We defend ourselves from wild beasts and keep order in our societies because of weapons. Unfortunately we also use them in wars to kill each other, but overall the effects of new technologies are positive. He doesn't speak enough about the role that technology played in creating a more peaceful world. When people are healthy and wealthy, they are less likely to kill each other,"

Narnia: "So technology is good?"

piero:

"Technology is the reason that we don't live in a cave and we don't die at the age of 5 of polio. Technology is the reason that we don't freeze to death when winter is too cold and we don't starve when it doesn't rain. All of these things used to happen."

Narnia: "So we need more and more of it? There is never too much of it?"

piero:

"You can see the evolution of our body's organs and limbs, and, ultimately the evolution of the brain, from the first primitive nervous system to the brain of Homo Sapiens, as Nature giving our body more and more technology. Then Nature got tired and just gave us a brain to create more technology by ourselves :-) The danger is that every new technology makes us forget one of our natural skills. For example, Plato in his dialogue Phaedrus tells the story told to him by Socrates that Thoth invented writing, the god Amun went agry. Amun realized that people would stop using their memory and become more stupid. This is exactly what happened. Every civilization used to have very long poems that were memorized by heart, like Homer's "Odyssey" and the "Mahabharata". Can you memorize a poem of thousands of verses? We lost the ability to use memory the way ancient people did. Today we see more and more kids who depend on their phone to find a place: we are losing the ability to orient and navigate. For thousand of years there have been explorers who explored the planet using only their brain. Now we can't even find a store near our house without a phone. When we lose our natural skills, we become less human. This sounds very bad, but don't forget that human nature is also evil. Human nature is also to kill rival males, steal food and rape women. It is not always bad if we become less human and more cyborgs."

Narnia: "How can we get more and more of the technology that makes us better human?"

piero:

"The paradox is that a lot of important technology was created to fight wars. Both the computer and the Internet were invented to fight wars. Go back one thousand years. China was inventing everything, even the printing press. Europe, instead, was in the middle of the "dark ages". But 800 years later Europe was ruling over 80% of the planet and China had become a poor country. The reason was technology. Europe developed a lot of technology, much of it imported from China via the Indians and/or the Arabs. China invented a lot of technology under the great Tang and Song dynasties but never developed it. The difference is war: Europe was at war all the time, each country fighting nonstop against its neighbors. Those great Chinese dynasties were mostly at peace. The paradox is that poor illiterate Europe progressed faster than peaceful prosperous China. The reason is war. European countries needed better and better technologies to fight the wars. China didn't need technology to fight wars. Over the course of 800 years Europe became much more advanced than any part of the world, and could colonize 80% of the planet. Then Europe underwent the industrial and scientific revolutions that also gave us so many useful, peaceful technologies; but, unfortunately, the original motivation to invest in technology was to kill other people. We need to replace war as the motive for technological progress. That's why people around the world should learn from Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley too was created by war. The first technological companies in the San Francisco Bay Area were created in radio technology and electronics because of the two world wars and because of the Cold War against the Soviet Union. But later Silicon Valley became just a place where technology happens. When people talk about Silicon Valley, they tend to see only the money. The subtitle of our book was "the biggest creation of wealth in the history of the world". One thing that people forget when they talk about Silicon Valley is that many startups were created to solve problems. In the early days of Silicon Valley most startup founders simply wanted to create something that they wanted to use and didn't exist: they wanted to solve a problem. They didn't know that some day those inventions would be worth millions and billions of dollars. This is still true today. Many people work in Biotech or 3D Printing because they honestly believe that these things will solve problems. It is written in their business plan: this technology will solve this problem. How to make money out of it is almost an afterthought. Google and Facebook still make most of their money with advertising. They were born to solve a problem, and probably they had no idea that some day their solution to the problem would make a lot of money in advertising. More and more technology is being developed by companies for commercial purposes, not for military purposes. More and more of the basic research that used to be done by military laboratories run by the government is now done by private laboratories. We just witnessed the first space rocket to successfully land back on Earth, and that was built by Bezos' Blue Origin, not by NASA. Bill Gates' foundation is doing more to fight diseases than many government programs".

Narnia: "What is the biggest problem today that technology should solve and is not solving?"

piero:

"I like nature. I travel the world to see jungles and deserts. I like to climb mountains. We are lucky: it is a beautiful planet. And nature really inspires me. But humans are like ants: they are everywhere. Wherever you are, a car wants to park or someone comes our of a building. It is difficult to be alone because we provided transportation and humans move quickly and cheaply to any place. Humans are everywhere and move fast so you are always surrounded by humans. Tbe difference between ants and humans is that the human footprint is colossal. Humans need cars and cars need roads and roads need traffic lights and gas stations and oil wellsand cargo ships. Humans need clothes and clothes need factories and fashion stores and dry cleaning shops. Humans need appliances which need electricity which comes from power plants which requires dams. Humans need airplanes which need airports. Humans need prepared food that needs food factories, trucks and supermarkets and so on and on. The human footprint keeps increasing because the luxuries of a generation become the necessities of the next one. Most people of your generation wouldn't drive without A/C or spend your evenings playing cards. What can technology do to reduce the human footprint on the planet? An example of technology that has successfully reduced our footprint on nature is email, because it greatly reduced the use of paper and the transportation of paper: we kill fewer trees and use fewer mail trucks. Another recent example is car sharing because it reduces car ownership. Plastic, invented by humans, is the most polluting material on Earth. US consumers alone buy over 27 billion kgs of plastic goods a year. The United Nations Environment Programme estimated in 2012 that around 13,000 pieces of microplastic litter were found in every square km of sea. The solution could be biodegradable plastic, plastic that disintegrates or is eaten by genetically-engineered bacteria. A producer of packaging materials in Vietnam has made a self-decomposing plastic bag. None of bio-based plastics currently in commercial use or under development are fully sustainable (see http://www.beachapedia.org/Bioplastics ). The worm Plodia could potentially break down polyethylene, the most common form of plastic (grocery bags, plastic bottles, etc). Some scientist at Stanford joked that we should find a way to make those worms live inside our stomachs, so we could eat the plastic packaging of the food instead of throwing it away.

There has just been a major conference in Paris about climate change. The concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is now higher than at any time in the last 800,000 years. It doesn't help that the share of world electricity generated by nuclear plants (the cleanest form of energy) has decreased from a peak of 17.6% in 1996 to 10.8%. China alone accounts for 24% of emissions, so your country is very much part of the problem, and has to be part of the solution."

Narnia: "What is your biggest fear about technology?"

piero:

"I actually don't fear artificial intelligence, robots, etc. My fear is that technology is a lot less powerful than the media show it to be. A fundamental theme of the future will be whether technology serves humans or humans serve technology. Right now my feeling is that machines rarely behave like humans, whereas we often must behave like machines to interact with the machines around us. For example, we have numbers for everything because numbers make it easier for machines to do their jobs. Your bank account number or passport number is difficult to remember, but easy for machines to process. We are not making it easier for humans, we are making it easier for machines."

Narnia: "What is new about today's technology that wasn't true yesterday?"

piero:

"Information. After the invention of the computer, we turned every discipline into a form of information processing. We have entered an age in which every problem is understood as a problem of information, and therefore every solution can come from information processing. For example, the science of climate change is almost all about information. If there is a solution, it will probably come from thinking about climate as an information system.

Information can solve all sort of problems. Plasmodium falciparum is the world's most dangerous malaria parasite, causing 600,000 deaths every year and killing more children under the age of 5 than any other infectious disease on the planet. In 2012 Dan Larremore of the Santa Fe Institute in New Mexico used network analysis to track the history of malaria parasites.

If people are willing to fight in wars against other people, it used to mean that they were fighting for resources, but today the war is increasingly ideological, based on different information. Palestinians and Israelis have different views of the history of their lands. If they had the same history (if they agreed on the same information), it would not be difficult to find a solution. Islamists kill people all over the world because they believe in a religion that scientifically makes no sense. If they were more educated about Physics and Biology, maybe they would lose the motivation to kill for that ideology.

When it is based on information, the solution doesn't have to be massive, expensive, etc. Sometimes you don't need a "unicorn", you just need ingenuity. My favorite example is the Miura map: a low-tech solution that solved a common problem (folding maps). We need Miura thinking :-)

Information will be more and more important to prevent catastrophes. Catastrophes typically happen because the system reaches a tipping point. For example, we are all concerned that we may be reaching the tipping point for climate change. After the tipping point, there is only catastrophe. The problem is to figure out the tipping point: is it near or far? One way is to measure the time it takes for the system to return back to its initial equilibrium state following a perturbation. When the system is close to a tipping point, the recovery time increases. That's what the specialists call "critical slowing down". In the vicinity of a critical transition the time becomes infinite. All of this requires simulation based on information. You cannot "perform the experiment": if the experiment succeeds, you destroyed the planet!

Even in Physics. Entropy was reformulated in terms of information by Claude Shannon, by cybernetics and by the Macy Conferences already in the 1940s. John Wheeler was the first physicist to suggest that the physical world can be viewed as made of information. Relativity and Quantum Mechanics can be reformulated in terms of information, as physicists like Jacob Bekenstein, Gerard 't Hooft, Leonard Susskind, Juan Maldacena, and the "holographic" school of theoretical physics in general are showing. The "description" of (i.e. all the information about) a region of space is encoded on the boundary of the region. In 1997 Juan Maldacena, by viewing the universe as information, found a similarity between a version of Quantum Mechanics (so-called "conformal field theory") and a solution to Einstein's field equations (the so called "called anti-de Sitter space").

Narnia: "Information is all around us? Can we really understand everything as information?"

piero:

"Maybe some day we will find a better way to study the universe, but right now this is the best way we found. I know your objection: information is becoming a new kind of religion. True. Science is making gods look useless if not ridiculous. There is no need for gods to explain the origin and expansion of the universe, nor the evolution of life, nor the creation of the human race nor the functioning of our brains. Religion may have played many other functions but one was important to give people hope: it provided people with a belief in an endless afterlife. If there is no supernatural being out there, our chances of having an immortal soul are greatly reduced. Besides, in the age of comforts, it is not clear that the endless static paradise promised by many religions still constitutes an appealing aftermath for the new generations. Humankind 2.0 needs a new kind of paradise and a new kind of immortality. The new religion is that everything (universe, life, mind, society) is about information. In fact, the "Singularity" is a very popular topic in Silicon Valley. According to the Singularity movement, immortality is about storing and replicating information.

See my book about the singularity."


This interview was complemented with these interviews:

John Law, founder of the Burning Man Festival


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