Thursday, 26 January 2012

Enveloping, the Singularity and conspiracy theories

Just back from a very interesting talk by Luciano Floridi, prof of the philosophy of information at the University of Hertfordshire. He was unable to come to our workshop The Difference That Makes a Difference 2011, but David Chapman and I have been reading his work quite a bit, so it was good to get to meet him. Luciano's title was "Enveloping the World: Understanding the Constraining Success of Smart Technologies", and he mostly talked about the interaction between technologies, especially those which might be seen as smart or even artificially intelligent, and their environment. He used the very helpful concept of enveloping from robotics, where a technology is situated within a constraining environment which has been tailored to make the robot work most efficiently; and he argued that the world as a whole has become tailored to enable us to interact smoothly with our supposedly smart technologies

One of the questions Luciano was asked afterwards concerned the 'Singularity' - Ray Kurzweil's theory that  ICTs are becoming progressively more 'intelligent', taken as a whole (i.e. if you look at the whole network) and that at some point in the future, they will pass a point where they reach real intelligence, and surpass that of humanity - whereupon they'll be in charge and there will be no turning back. It sounds like science fiction, but surprisingly large numbers of people in the tech community, especially in Silicon Valley, believe some version of it. It's essentially a secular form of millenarianism or the Rapture - the idea that Christ will return in glory, will judge the righteous and the unrighteous, and take the righteous with him to heaven. 

Personally I think it's bunkum. But as with the Rapture (which I also think is bunkum) it could potentially be dangerous bunkum, if believed by enough people and built into their worldviews. From time to time, American presidential candidates arise who are said to believe that the battle of Armageddon really will take place on the plains of Meggido - in modern-day Israel - and thereafter Christ will return, and that it's their job to help bring that about. Electing someone to high office who really believed that and really acted to make it happen is a pretty grim scenario. Likewise, if people designing the technologies through which so many people live their lives really believe they're working towards a complete transformation of the world into one led by AI, then they may act in ways to bring that out, which could be more hostile to humanity than the fairly benign process of mutual adaptation that Luciano described.

But it leaves with the question as to why people believe these things. I listened this morning to a podcast of Thinking Allowed, where Jovan Byford (from Social Sciences here at the OU) discussed his new book Conspiracy Theories: A Critical Introduction. The presenter, Laurie Taylor, observed that many people in the States actually preferred to believe that J.F. Kennedy was assassinated by the CIA instead of by a madman, because it fitted better with their worldview of stability and control. Likewise, I wonder whether the Singularity gets its believers because it fits with the worldview that technology changes everything, and all humans can do is respond. 

Technology changes society, and society changes technology. But over time, they both change fundamental ideas, and these ideas in turn change both society and technology. The Singularity is not a fundamental idea in that sense, but enough people believe it to be so, it might change our technologies in way that really do change society.

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