Category Archives: future

Is Artificial Intelligence Possible? Well, Yes

The debate on the possibility of artificial intelligence seems to rage on, despite the fact that one side’s position verges on the supernatural. In here I want to try to debunk once and for all the claim that it will never be possible to produce a sentient machine.

Here are the two sides of the debate:

  1. Intelligence can be reproduced artificially.
  2. Intelligence cannot be reproduced artificially.

In between those there are a number of shades of gray. For example, Penrose would be on the “artificial intelligence is possible” side while adding “but we would need a quantum computer for that.”

In order to argue my point I will assume we are material beings. That is, our intelligence and understanding do not come from a soul that resides outside the physical realm, but from the workings of our brain. I think any rational, scientifically-minded person will agree with this.

Frog Brains <i>in</i>, umm... <i>sort of vivo</i>?

Frog Brains in, umm… sort of vivo? (Photo credit: Mal Cubed)

If we accept that we are material beings and that intelligence is what brains do, then the two sides of the debate are reduced to:

  1. It is possible to create an artificial brain.
  2. It is impossible to create an artificial brain.

If by “artificial” we mean “made by people” then there is no debate: artificial brains have been created already. In fact, they are being produced by the scores every day, using a very ancient and pleasant procedure most of us are quite familiar with.

If by “artificial” we mean “made by means other than having babies” then, no, we still haven’t created a brain. Is it possible? Certainly yes. Using stem cells we can produce neurons which we can then connect. Given enough time, we could definitely create a brain: maybe not a human brain (not in a while, anyway) but a brain nonetheless.

However, by “artificial” most people mean “non-biological.” In this case, things seem to be a bit more debatable. But consider this: it is possible to create a machine or a piece of software that reproduces the behavior of a neuron, at least in its relevant parts. This has not only been done, but is the basis for a lot of our current technology. Yes, these virtual neurons are not the same as real ones, but that is because we have no need to add self-maintaining routines and reproduction. We have stripped neurons down to the characteristics that are important for cognition.

Deutsch: Phrenologie

Deutsch: Phrenologie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Given enough neurons and enough information on how to place them, it is fairly obvious we could create a thinking brain. You can think of it this way: I make a machine that mimics the behavior of a neuron and I replace one of your real, live neurons with it. I repeat the procedure millions of times until your whole brain is made up of those artificial neurons. There you go: an artificial brain.

This article wouldn’t be complete without mentioning some of the objections to the possibility of artificial intelligence. Most of them include a somewhat veiled belief on the soul, as well as a romanticized view of what “knowledge” and “understanding” mean.

I think the issue that prevents people from intuitively agreeing that machines will be (or are) able to think is that they confuse knowledge and understanding with the feeling of knowing or understanding. Our brains are statistical processors: they receive inputs from the exterior and construct statistical models based on the most likely scenario. This allows them to operate with insufficient information and to optimize problem-solving algorithms which would otherwise take too long to process. Certainty is expensive.

However, that is not what we feel. When we know something, we can feel it. We know we know. We can almost touch the certainty. We also feel understanding in a way that we cannot readily explain and therefore are unable to imagine a machine, which is a mechanical being, understanding anything. But those feelings are not knowing and understanding: they are just ways our bodies have of telling us a certain model is trustworthy, in the sense that operating according to it has a very small chance of resulting in an unfavorable outcome.

English: Complete neuron cell diagram. Neurons...

English: Complete neuron cell diagram. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I think the “Chinese room” argument by John Searle is so appealing precisely because it appeals to our feelings of understanding and not to its operational definition. In this thought experiment, there is a person in a room who only speaks English but who, following a certain amount of rules in his language, is able to build strings of Chinese characters that sound like native speech. Searle equates saying that a machine “understands” with saying the English person in the room can speak Chinese. He certainly doesn’t!

This argument is misguided because it does not understand how intelligence works. For example, each of the neurons in my brain acts according to a specific set of rules. And, indeed, none of them speak English. What speaks English is the aggregate of neurons that makes up my self: the knowledge resides in the system. Similarly, while the person in the Chinese room does not speak Chinese, the expert system constituted by him and the set of rules certainly does. The argument fails because it assumes knowledge has to be placed in a singular location, whereas it is actually distributed. The fact that the same thought experiment can be applied to our own brains to reach exactly the same conclusion should tell us one of two things:

  1. There is really no intelligence, natural or artificial.
  2. Intelligence is distributed and is not what Searle thinks it is.

The intuitive argument against artificial intelligence is, however, extremely powerful, since it is grounded on very vivid feelings and strong beliefs. I don’t expect to have convinced anyone, but at least I hope you will consider the possibility that knowledge and understanding are not equivalent to the feeling of having them; I would also be greatly pleased if this made you reflect on the nature of intelligence and understanding; even more if you shared your thoughts below.

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A Mathematical Proof that Immortality is Moral

(Disclaimer: this is meant as a joke, not as serious proof.)

Premise:

1. There is at least a number N such that living for N years is moral.

2. If living for M years is moral, then so is living for M + 1 years.

From here we reason by induction:

3. Living for N years is moral  (because of (1)).

4. Living for N + 1 years is moral (because of (2)).

5. Living for (N + 1) + 1 years is moral (because of (2)).

6. Living for ((N + 1) + 1) + 1 years is moral (because of (2)).

7. Living for ((((….(N + 1) + 1) + 1)…) years is moral (because of (2) applied repeatedly).

Rearranging the terms from (7) we get:

8. Living for N + M years is moral, where M is any integer, no matter how large, and N is any arbitrary integer.

Therefore, it is moral to live for K years, where K is any integer which can be arbitrarily large. In other words, it is moral to have an arbitrarily large lifespan: for any number of years, it can be shown there is always a larger number of years for which living is moral.

QED.

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Should You Freeze Yourself?

A number of scholars from Oxford University have recently signed up to be cryogenically frozen after their death, which has sparked some debate on the feasibility and morality of cryonics. As you may know, cryonics consists of being frozen after your death, in the hope of being revived at some later time when the technology allows it. The manner of the desired resurrection varies between customers: some of them want to be thawed out as soon as possible, whereas others are just interested in living as uploads in a computer simulation. In this article I will tackle different issues concerning cryonics, one at a time.

Can it be done?

There is a healthy amount of skepticism regarding cryonics, some of it justified. There are two technical challenges to be overcome: freezing and thawing out.

If you freeze a lump of meat, the water in it will crystallize and destroy its cell walls. If this happens on an organism, this process will damage it to the point of making revival impossible. However, some animals have already found a way to solve this issue: tardigrades just overload their blood with glucose, which keeps the water in the system from freezing; frogs just spike their fluids with anti-freezing substances. Humans have learned from this, so much so that it is possible to cryogenically preserve someone while keeping their physical structure intact.

Summarizing, the freezing can be done and is being done.

However, thawing out is still an issue. Some progress has been made with small, simple animals, but mammals are still way ahead. Whether this will be possible at all in the future remains to be seen.

So, can it be done? Maybe. I’d place the odds at a very subjective 80%.

Cryonics Society

Cryonics Society (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Is it rational?

Irrespective of whether it can be done, the question remains: should you? The answer, of course, depends on whether you want to live forever or, at least, for longer than you’d normally be capable of should you not freeze yourself.

If you want to have a normal lifespan and have no qualms about dying, cryofreezing is not for you. If you want to live more than that, it could be a good idea, depending on the risks you’re willing to take. In order to analyze this I will put any morality issues on hold and assume a completely selfish perspective. That is: is cryogenics a good strategy if my goal is to live more than my allotted lifespan?

A good approach is to consider the cost/benefit ratio, as well as the risk involved. The cost of cryogenics is quite low: around 30,000 dollars, which can be taken out of your life insurance. This is equivalent to around 30$ a month, which is probably less than what a normal person spends on beer. In this sense, the economic risk one incurs when signing up for cryofreezing is next to zero.

The physical risk to your person is exactly zero. That’s because you’ll already be dead when frozen: what else could possibly happen? I can, however, imagine a few horror scenarios:

  1. Being revived with no rights and used as a slave or for experiments by some race that’s not human any more and couldn’t care less about a contract you signed 500 years ago.
  2. Being uploaded to a virtual reality that is nightmarish by mistake or simply because whoever put you there thought it would be fun.
  3. Being revived with all kinds of physical problems and spending the remainder of your days in excruciating pain.

In this sense, plain dying may be safer: it can’t get better but it can’t get worse. Also, if you are like Buddha and believe life to be mostly about suffering, trying to live forever does not seem like a very wise attitude. But again, we are assuming the people who want to be frozen disagree with this view and actually like living.

So, is it rational? It depends on what you want. It involves considerable risk, given how hard it is to make predictions about the future. However, if you think nothing is worse than dying, the risk is almost zero.

Cryostasis

Cryostasis (Photo credit: kulakovich)

Is it moral?

Some people may argue that trying to live forever is immoral. I recently read a pretty obnoxious article in the Telegraph that said so: forcing yourself upon the new generations, taking up their resources, is just plain selfish.

First, a disclaimer: I don’t think the morality of being frozen is an issue, since we don’t do things because they’re moral but because that’s what we want. So if I want to live forever and I think freezing is a good option, I’ll do it, regardless of the morality of my choice.

That said, let’s take a look at the purported immorality of freezing oneself. The argument that doing so uses resources that could go to the next generation seems sound at first, but it has many flaws. The first one is that it can also be applied to people who insist on not surviving past their retirement age, getting expensive cancer treatments and heart transplants while the world struggles in economic turmoil. How can they be so selfish? Why don’t they just die and leave the Earth for the young, who deserve it more than them? I’m sure you can think of many counter-arguments to this, most of which will also apply to cryofreezing.

Also, the claim that frozen people will just take up resources belonging to the new generations is far from accurate. Once our technology allows us to thaw out and resurrect people, it is safe to assume it will also allow us to rejuvenate them. In this, case, frozen people will have young bodies and minds and will therefore be perfectly productive. Which means they will not just not consume resources belonging to other people, but will actually produce resources that other people will use. Finally, as our economy becomes more virtualized, the number of natural resources each person will consume is bound to decrease. The extreme example of this is a completely virtualized world where people live as uploads: in this case, the cost for society of keeping one person alive is extremely close to zero and getting lower every second, as computing resources become cheaper.

So, is it moral? First, whether cryonics is moral is irrelevant; but no, it is not immoral. And, given the crap that’s happening around the world lately, concentrating on a bunch of geeks that decide to freeze themselves seems a bit like completely missing the mark.

(Oh, and here’s a fun comic strip on cryonics)

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Looking for Aliens in the Wrong Place

We’ve been looking for aliens for 40 years now, with no success whatsoever. This could mean there are no aliens; it could also mean aliens are hiding from us because they know we’re dangerous. Or maybe they’re just waiting to ambush us and wipe us out like the vermin we are. However, a recently published paper suggests the explanation may be simpler: we’ve been searching for the wrong kind of signal.

Imagine that you’re an alien race and you want to tell the galaxy you’re there because, well, you’ve evolved and you think you deserve a cosmic pat in the back. So you set up a radio transmitter to broadcast a signal in all directions, hoping some other intelligent and friendly race will pick it up and come for coffee.

Right after you start, though, you run into some technical issues. For instance, transmitting signals to the far end of the universe is expensive and requires a lot of power, power you don’t have or you’d rather use to run your spa business. This forces you to optimize the signal so that the information to power ratio is minimized. In order to do this, you find out you need to spread your broadcast across several wavelengths, as well as in time. It’s not perfect, but it’s the only affordable choice, so you buy your wide-bandwidth antenna and start to emit your message to the world, hoping someone will pick up on the other side.

Yoda as a Mongol Warrior - 15

Yoda as a Mongol Warrior – 15 (Photo credit: کراچی)

It turns out, though, that humans never thought of power issues for long enough, so they were not expecting your low-power signal. Instead, they assumed you’d be as wasteful as they are and use a narrow-bandwidth broadcast. In fact, they’ve been scanning the skies for forty years looking for that, without even considering the possibility that you’d be a power-optimizing cheapskate. Of course, you probably wouldn’t mind, since you’d want to contact a civilization capable of figuring this out for themselves.

Thankfully, a recent paper did the figuring out for us, showing that we’ve been looking at the wrong kind of signal all along. Even though our current detection schemes will never be able to discern the power-optimized broadcasts, a trivial modification in the software would do the trick. So what are we waiting for?

Oh, and the cool news: some of the “false alarms” detected in the past four decades could actually be real signals, detected with the wrong algorithm. Did we already see aliens, but we just didn’t realize?

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Mammoths and Chickenosaurus

I just read this very interesting article by Leonard Finkelman in Massimo Pigliucci’s blog “Rationally Speaking.” It is about de-extinction: bringing species back to life. If you’ve followed the science news in the last two months you probably know what I’m talking about. Finkelman argues that:

1. De-extinction is not possible.

2. De-extinction should not be attempted.

I agree with both, but since the thought of dinosaurs and mammoths makes me giddy as a schoolboy I’ll cover my ears, sing “tralalalalala” and pray that nobody listens to his admonishments. I will now reproduce a very sketchy version of his arguments and, most importantly, a summary of how different attempts at de-extinction work.

Dodo, based on Roelant Savery's 1626 painting ...

Gone the way of the Dodo. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So, some background on de-extinction. First, mammoths: not long ago, some preserved mammoth blood was found in the Russian tundra. This, apart from being awesome, would give scientists enough DNA to attempt to clone one of these furry elephants. All they need to do is replace the nucleus of an elephant egg with a mammoth cell and work their magic. Of course, the “magic” is complex and involves several technical difficulties: for example, it is not enough to have a viable nucleus. We need a cell with the right chemical components to allow this nucleus to work. If you insert a mammoth cell nucleus into a chicken cell, you won’t get much. In this sense, real de-extinction is not possible, meaning that the cloned animal won’t be exactly a mammoth.

There is another, more technical sense in which Finkelman argues that de-extinction is not possible, but I don’t think it’s a sense any of us would care about, since it’s mainly semantics. At the end of the day, I am seeing a mammoth? (or something that is indistinguishable from a mammoth?). If the answer is yes, it’s good enough for me.

Now, chickenosaurus. I have to say this one really gets my mojo going. The idea is this: most evolutionary changes happen by activating or deactivating certain genes, which actually stay there. It is possible to reverse these changes by re-activating or de-activating those genes. So, for example, I can take a chicken and make it grow a tail and a pair of claws through a surprisingly simple process. I can keep doing that with other parts of the animal until I get something that looks just like a non-avian dinosaur. People are now attempting this and it is absolutely awesome. I don’t care if it’s a “real” non-avian dinosaur or not.

I want to see those chickens.

Artist's depiction of a Dilophosaurus wetherelli

Artist’s depiction of a Dilophosaurus wetherelli (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So the question now is: should we do this? Should we spend millions of dollars in this kind of research? FInkelman argues we shouldn’t. For starters, bringing a species (that, he argues, is not really a species but just an individual that resembles a species that’s gone) back to life is costly, much more than actually not driving it to extinction in the first place. Second, the possibility of de-extinction may make people less careful about making species extinct. After all, we can just bring them back whenever we want! Third, the cost of bringing a minimum viable population size to life would be prohibitive so, in practice, we would just have a couple beasts for showing in zoos, not a brought-back-to-life species. Finally, shouldn’t all those millions of dollars be invested in something that’s actually useful?

I think he has a point. More than one, really. Very good ones, all of them. He is right. We shouldn’t do this. It’s pointless and expensive.

But, mammoths!

Dinosaurs!

I mean… come on, man.

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Using Technology to Modify Desires

I recently ran into this article from Noahpinion, an economics blog with a penchant for science fiction that I highly recommend. He spoke about something he called D-Mod or “desire-modification technology.” He argued in his article that D-Mods would be a lot more disruptive than any other technological advancement, including the ability to cure any illness or to upload a brain into a computer. I tend to agree.

D-Mod is something that I always took for granted when I imagined a transhuman world. By “transhuman world” I mean a world where humans have learned to harness technology in order to modify go beyond their current limitations. For exam

ple, we could have an army of nanobots constantly repairing our bodies and making sure we stayed young and healthy; or we could live as uploads in a computer and enjoy a virtual paradise. The whole idea is that, once we learn to control our biology and do whatever we want with it, this control will naturally extend to our emotional states. That is, we will be able to live in a state of eternal, pure bliss.

When I explain this most people react by saying: “we would get bored of so much happiness.” This amounts to not understanding what controlling our emotions means. Boredom is a state of mind and thus can also be controlled. If we know how to hack our hormones and brains to feel bliss, we can also modify them in order to never feel bored of that bliss. That is, we could have a 3,000 year-long orgasm and never get tired of it.

T2i - Desire is the very Essence of Man

T2i – Desire is the very Essence of Man (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

If we were constantly in a state of pure bliss we would likely never eat or sleep, but that shouldn’t be a problem as long as we had machines to take care of us. If we are living as uploads, the matter takes care of itself. If we’re living as flesh-and-bone humans, it is a bit more complicated to solve, but probably not too hard if our technology is already that advanced.

Of course, living in a state of pure bliss may render us completely inactive, therefore stopping all technological progress. But this doesn’t have to be the case. We could choose to feel pleasure while doing or learning something. Or we could just have the machines do the research and simply sit back and watch while gathering all the knowledge they create for us. Being able to modify our emotional states will allow us to find pleasure in whatever activity we choose. So, as Noahpinion puts it, our focus would be on meta-desires: what to want? What to want to want? And so on.

Noahpinion also makes the great point that a desire-modifying drug (or technology) would destroy the capitalist economy. The whole system is based on some dissatisfaction that needs to be taken care of: we are hungry, we buy food; we are bored, we go to the movies. If everyone is completely satisfied all the time, there will be no need for economic activity. In this sense, a desire-modifying technology would render all of our system instantly obsolete.

Is such a technology desirable? I guess it depends on what we choose to do with it. Will we choose to desire more knowledge? Will we choose to desire nothing at all? If we are uploaded beings, we may even choose to split ourselves into many copies, each pursuing a different desire; after a while, we could augment our memory-storage capacity and download all the different experiences (a bit like Naruto’s kagebunshin) literally pursuing every imaginable dream.

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Should We Ban Imports from Countries that Violate Human Rights?

As jobs continue to disappear in the industrialized world, many blame technology. They are partially right. However, there is another culprit: delocalization. Most of our products are now manufactured in developing countries, where human resources are substantially cheaper. This allows us to have greater purchasing power, since we can acquire goods that would otherwise be prohibitively expensive, were they made at home. That’s the story they tell us, anyway.

However, all this talk of cheap products being beneficial for the working class is deluded at best and an outright, deliberate lie at worst. The working class is disappearing precisely because of this: all of those jobs have left and been turned into precarious, nefarious ones in countries that would allow this. The people who relied on these jobs have gone on to unemployment or a lower-quality, lower-pay position. How do I know it is lower pay? The answer is straightforward: as jobs get outsourced to developing countries, there is less demand for workers, whereas offer stays the same. Hence, less pay. Also, the data shows I’m right (see below).MiddleClassGraphs_web_21

So yes, we can afford an iPhone, but not because it is made in China. If it wasn’t made in China but in the US and every single manufacturing job that’s been outsourced had stayed in the US, you would be paying more for your phone, but you’d have a considerably higher salary. Don’t be fooled: outsourcing only has one beneficiary. I’ll give you a clue:  it is not the working class.

There’s something baffling about the whole outsourcing conundrum. If I have a company in, say, Spain, and I offer salaries under the minimum wage, with no social security, I will go to jail. The reason I’ll go to jail is what I’ll be doing is against the law; it’s against the law because it’s considered immoral. However, I can start a subsidiary of my company in China and do exactly that, but to Chinese people. In fact, I can be even more brutal and, if I’m lucky and have friends within the Party, get away with polluting, exploiting and pretty much whatever tickles my fancy. Why do the laws of my country allow me to do this? Beats me. I thought human beings were the same everywhere; apparently, I was wrong. Spanish people don’t want to be exploited? Never mind! I’ll go to China and find someone who does.

The fact that a Spanish company (or a Chinese company that exports to the West) can do this puts companies who do the right thing at a disadvantage. Now, before we go into why good companies are at a disadvantage, let’s focus on what I mean when I say “the right thing.” To me, it is a combination of:

  1. Offering decent wages.
  2. Having reasonable working hours.
  3. Providing social security coverage and/or insurance.
  4. Not abusing their workers verbally or physically.
  5. Other common-sensical stuff I’m sure I don’t need to add here, like maternity leaves, etc.

    English: Wind power plants in Xinjiang, China ...

    English: Wind power plants in Xinjiang, China (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now to why good companies are at a disadvantage. Let’s see: if I have a company that makes some product and wants to compete with the rest, I have a choice. I can either act immorally (exploiting workers in developing countries with working conditions that would be inadmissible in the West) and have a competitive edge; I can also act morally and lose it, since my products will be more expensive than those of the competition.

But careful! This does not happen because companies are evil: this happens because our laws are made in such a way that they pretty much enforce this behavior.

(Of course, let’s not be naïve. If we have the laws we have, it’s because they’ve been lobbied for by companies. So probably they didn’t have a drive to not be evil in the first place. Like Eric Schmidt said when confronted with his Google’s questionable tax-evasion practices: “we are proudly capitalistic. I’m not confused about this.” Apparently, for Schmidt “capitalism” means not paying the taxes that allow roads, hospitals and schools to be built.)

English: Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of G...

Way to go, Eric. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This situation was, until now, quite beneficial for Western companies. Only now they’re starting to realize it may not have been such a great idea. The Chinese, apparently, weren’t content with being exploited: they started creating their own businesses, using every single tactic from their Western counterparts and harboring the good will of their government, which enables them compete in even more favorable circumstances. This has resulted in the almost complete control of the telecommunication infrastructure market by Huawei, for example, which has strong ties to the Chinese government. Suddenly, Western companies are losing the edge.

This situation could be easily averted, though. It would be as simple as banning imports from countries which do not respect human rights or, at least, taxing them severely, so that employing people in sub-human conditions would stop being a good business decision. This way, manufacturing would go back to the West and jobs would be recovered. At this time of economic uncertainty, they’re sorely needed.

What would be reasonable conditions for lifting the ban/taxes and establishing a free market zone? Equal labor laws. It makes sense to have toll-free circulation of goods between countries with the same standard of living which treat their workers similarly. It doesn’t make sense to give the countries which do the wrong thing an unfair advantage. The recent attack against social welfare in Europe can be seen as the logical consequence of this: if countries like China do better, precisely because their workers are less protected, it seems logical to follow their steps in order to grow as fast as the Asian giant.

But this is a terrible idea: it aims to level the playing field to the lowest possible conditions. Shouldn’t be doing the opposite? Shouldn’t we be leveling the playing field so that all workers, Chinese included, had better conditions? Aren’t we going backwards? Who, exactly, benefits from this? I would argue not even the Chinese do. If China was not allowed to export to Europe unless it had better labor laws (and human rights, since we’re at it) the pressure on the government to make some changes would be huge, especially with the growing middle class and the amount of companies which depend on exports to the West in order to survive. This law would not only benefit workers in the West, but workers everywhere, by forcing their countries to treat them right or be left out of the free market zone.

Someone may question the economic viability of this. I would reply that this is not an economic argument: this is a moral argument. Companies should not be allowed to treat their workers unfairly. If they do, they shouldn’t be allowed to sell their goods, regardless of the benefits this may have for the economy. The economy, let’s not forget, is the people. And if the people cannot lead a dignified life, then the stock market can rise as high as it wants to. It won’t make a lick of a difference.

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Do We Really Need to Work?

Unemployment has been on the rise lately, pretty much anywhere. We could attribute this to the economic crisis, but economies (except for some parts of Europe) have been growing. Even those parts of Europe which haven’t been growing have shown an increase in unemployment that does not mirror the decrease in GDP.

On the other hands, jobs are getting worse and less well-paid. Small companies are closing down and being substituted by big conglomerates. University graduates see themselves working for a meager pay on low-qualification positions.

So what is going on?

Technology. Technology is going on.

Quarterly Gross Domestic Product (year-on-year...

Quarterly Gross Domestic Product (year-on-year growth in real GDP) and Unemployment Rate (simple monthly average) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When the first machines entered the workplace, workers were promised this would lead to less working hours: after all, the machine would do the work for them! Technology would substitute human labor, so that people could devote their time to bettering themselves by contemplating the great questions. In this new paradise, robots would play the role of slaves in the classic world, whereas workers would be the new patricians.

This obviously has not happened. Even though automatization and optimization are at an all-time high and getting higher, workers still work long hours. In fact, if anything we now work more than we did before. The purchasing power of individuals has, at the same time, been decreasing for the last three decades. Some blame this on liberalization; some, on technology; some, on the fall of the USSR. I don’t know enough to have an opinion on the matter, though it is likely that it was a combination of the three.

Some people argue that automatization creates as many jobs as it destroys or more. This is of course a fallacy, one through which it is easy to see. The IKEA example is perfect: a small number of individuals produce huge amounts of furniture for the whole world, thus driving costs down. A significant fraction of the other furniture manufacturers go down. Jobs have been lost, without question. Not only that: the quality of the jobs has decreased. Working in a supermarket is not the same as owning a small food business. Not only the income is less, but the type tasks performed are a lot more automatic and less rewarding. Of course, with enough automatization even supermarket employees will be replaced. This is already happening in Japan. This will create jobs for whoever makes the virtual shop assistant and destroy a lot more.manufacturing

So we live in a bit of a paradox: our planet is producing more than it has ever produced, while people are getting poorer. Automatization makes some people very rich, while the others are kicked to the curb. As jobs get scarce, demand sinks and offer soars, we are only going to see more of this tendency: an impoverished middle class (if any) and a thriving upper class.

So where does the problem lie exactly? Our economy is doing fine, in the sense that we have the ability to produce more goods than we could possibly need. The problem lies in the need for jobs in a society were jobs are going to become progressively obsolete. And this tendency cannot do anything but continue: in twenty to thirty years, a lot more professions will disappear in the midst of virtualization and automatization. There will come a time when the great majority of the world’s population will be jobless. We will then either starve to death by the scores or realize we need a change.

The change, though, seems obvious. The problem is that technology makes jobs obsolete. So what we should do is get rid of jobs. Of most jobs, anyway. We make more than enough to sustain everybody – and I mean everybody – on the planet. Why don’t we? We could grant each person a minimum wage or a certain share of commodities (a house, food, electricity) which would be updated each year, as a function of the economic output. If people wanted more, they could work: either by starting a company or by learning a skill that hadn’t been made obsolete yet. Things could even work as in old-fashioned capitalism; with the difference that people would have their basic needs covered. Having all this available free time would produce entrepreneurs by the thousands and create vast amounts of wealth. It would also ensure people don’t accept undignified jobs just to be able to eat. It would make our countries safer, since nobody would have a need to steal in order to survive. It would make our society fairer and more relaxed. It would make people less stressed and give everyone a feeling of safety. It would ensure people pursue their passions instead of focusing on having enough to get through the day.

.jobs -- Cut To The Chase

.jobs — Cut To The Chase (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

How would this be funded? Through taxes, of course. Or maybe the government could buy participations in its economy’s major companies and use the profits to feed its citizens. There are many ways this could be done, but of course it won’t be, because of the usual reasons. As long as we have a middle class, ideas like this will not be enforced. People do not want to be taxed.

However, I am confident this will happen, sooner or later. Not because people will suddenly see the light; not because the rich and powerful will decide to care about those less fortunate. No: it will happen because, if things continue the way they are, we will inevitably see such a spectacular rise in unemployment and poverty that the vast majority of the world’s population will be poor. It’s the only possible outcome, given the pace of technological advancement and the law of offer and demand. When that happens, we won’t have to convince the middle class: there won’t be any left.

Could we decide to do something before collapse? I personally don’t think so. By looking at the history of humankind, things have to get unbearably bad before they get better. So we will keep riding the wave of automatization and capitalism, oblivious to the cliff at the end, coming up with a hack after another until the inevitable crash. Millions of people will starve to death; violent revolutions will ensue.

A couple of old, bitter people will say “I told you so.”

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Eating Is So 20th Century

I’ve found food to be quite a source of controversy. Some people take its entertainment value – its capacity to produce pleasant feelings – extremely seriously, going as far as calling cooking an “art.” Some others focus on nutrition and write or read books about it. Others just see food as a daily annoyance which sustains them, while keeping them from doing other stuff they’d rather be doing.

I belong to the latter group. Even though I enjoy a good meal as much as the next guy, I don’t like being forced to enjoy three meals a day. In fact, I’d rather eating was a choice: when I felt like it, I would spend some time cooking or go to a nice restaurant. The rest of the time, when eating is just a bodily requirement that has to be fulfilled, I’d rather get it done quickly and without effort. Yes, eating is a pleasure, but so is reading, having sex or writing programs in Python. I don’t spend three hours a day reading or having sex; I don’t see why I have to spend three hours a day thinking about food, instead of pondering the meaning of life.

That’s why I got really excited when I saw this piece of news. The product is called Soylent and it’s being created by Rob Rhinehart, an entrepreneur from Silicon Valley, where eating is more of a nuisance than anywhere else. The idea is simple: a shake containing all the nutrients you need, including protein, vitamins, minerals and the like. Its inventor is still tweaking it, so don’t expect to see it in your supermarket any time soon. But he has ideas. For example, it can be adapted: if you’re on a diet, you can have a version of Soylent with less protein and fat; if you’re getting old, have a version with reduced carbohydrates; if you’re a sports person, one with more protein.

Is this safe? You may ask yourself. Well, at the moment, possibly not. Much more research is needed. Also, we may think we’ve located every single ingredient that’s required for a balanced nutrition, but we may be missing some. It wouldn’t be the first time. So there is an appreciable chance that eating Soylent exclusively will cause a deficiency in something fundamental. However, as the inventor of Soylent points out, chances are you already have a deficiency in something fundamental if you don’t have a balanced diet. And, let’s face it, most of us don’t eat that well. So, if you’re going to take your chances, you might as well not waste your time eating. Anyway, more tests will be done if he gets more funding (which he probably will, based on the astonishing number of pre-orders he has) over longer periods of time and greater test samples.

What do you think about this? Is it yet another perversion of our technological age? Is it temerity? A work of genius? Is it just what you were hoping for? I personally was rooting for a pill. But hey, you can’t be too picky.

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Mind Enhancement, Sooner than You Think

I just read this amazing article at H+ magazine. It explains that there is a new family of cognition-enhancing drugs (nootropics) with no side-effects. You heard it right: more intelligence, better memory, improved concentration, no side-effects.

At the moment, these are prescription drugs, so you can’t just go and buy them at your local pharmacy. However, some companies keep popping up that sell these on Amazon or Ebay. As they get closed down by the FDA, others appear. So plenty of people are already experimenting with them, boosting their cognition daily. You can find a first-person account of the experience here.

Two questions arise. First: is this a good idea? Second: should these drugs be readily available to anyone who wants to use them?

Nick Bostrom, a Swedish Oxford-educated philos...

Nick Bostrom, a Swedish Oxford-educated philosopher, at a 2006 summit in Stanford. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

According to Nick Bostrom, the answer is “yes” in both cases. In 2008 he suggested the following scenario, which has already become a reality: imagine you had a nootropic drug that could boost cognitive performance by 1%. Now, if every scientist in the world started taking it, assuming there are around 10 million of them, the effect would be equivalent to having 100,000 more scientists worldwide. That represents a bigger contribution to progress than an Einstein or a Newton. So, according to Bostrom, taking these drugs would not only be morally acceptable: it would be the right thing to do.

But there’s more. Actually, you don’t have to take any drugs to boost your cognitive performance. The alternative are “smart-hats.” What these do is stimulate some areas of the brain by introducing a low-level electric current. While that may sound like science-fiction (at best) or a scam (at worst) it turns out they are already being used by DARPA, which reports a 250% improvement on rates of learning in individuals who use it.

I can think of many uses for this. For example, I am learning Chinese and German, both at an excruciatingly slow rate. Some days I feel too sleepy; some days I’m just tired. Some days I cannot concentrate. If I could speed up the process by 250% percent, I would save a substantial amount of time and money. Other uses would be, for example, writing this blog: I could make my entries more interesting, witty and engaging. Or I could take less time writing them, which would mean spending more time reading other people’s blogs or playing computer games or whatever ticked my fancy.

Nootropil II

Nootropil II (Photo credit: Arenamontanus)

So where do you get one? Well, until now these sets cost around 600 $ each. But this company, Go Flow, is creating a do-it-yourself prototype that should be substantially cheaper and which you can pre-order at their website.

All of this raises some ethical issues, as always. For example: where do we set the limits? Maybe it is OK for a scientist to use these drugs in order to produce better research. Is it OK for a student taking an exam? What if all students start taking these drugs and universities decide to make their content harder in turn? The pressure to use nootropics would then be enormous. What if some parents make their children take them so they perform better at school? What if a company makes it a requisite for us to take these pills in order to hire us? What if they force us to wear our smart-hats at all times while at work?

These are things that will have to be sorted out, sooner rather than later. Nootropics will be the next big thing. Bigger than Viagra. They are coming soon – one year is my prediction – and they are here to stay.

Of course, I have no faith in politicians noticing the issue and legislating about it before problems start. As always, we will have to wait and see until someone goes to far. After all, it’s what we always do.

Disclaimer: This article was not written under the effects of any nootropic drugs or cognition-boosting helmets.

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