Monday, August 8, 2016

Time's Up

              D-Wave's Quantum Computer

There's this theory I've been reading about. As communications that once were controlled by monopolies at high profits are now produced and consumed directly by people at no cost on the Internet, so energy and transport will go the same way. Everyone will have solar panels on their rooftops and everyone will share transport rather than own a car. The production of the tools of communication and energy production and transportation are getting cheaper and cheaper through automation, approaching the point where the tools can manufacture themselves and repair themselves. Only the raw materials the tools are made from need be provided, but they can be recycled. Sounds good, right?
- Do you remember the conversation?* Last year, I think?
- Yes.
- From what I've been reading we are now within five or ten years of the point where the tools can manufacture themselves and repair themselves. We have already functioning 'machine learning' with neural network computing. Its weak point is the immense power of computation required to connect more and more 'neural' nodes to each other. However quantum computing is developing fast, and is poised to provide almost unlimited computation power. And then...
- Then?
- The head guys involved in both machine learning and quantum computing don't neglect issuing the usual warnings about technology being a tool that can be used for good or evil. Their job is to develop the technology, the society at large has to take care of the problem how to use it safely.
- There are whole institutions dedicated to this question.
- Staffed by technicians.
- Should they be staffed with philosophers who don't understand the technology?
- Perhaps they should, if this warning from 50 years ago, the ideas developed 30 years before that, turns out to be true:
The danger to democracy does not spring from any specific scientific discoveries or electronic inventions. The human compulsions that dominate the authoritarian technics of our own day date back to a period before even the wheel had been invented. The danger springs from the fact that, since Francis Bacon and Galileo defined the new methods and objectives of technics, our great physical transformations have been effected by a system that deliberately eliminates the whole human personality, ignores the historic process, overplays the role of the abstract intelligence, and -- makes control over physical nature, ultimately control over man himself, the chief purpose of existence.**
- Lewis Mumford. His astonishing idea that technology, before it constructed machines of metal, made machines out of people, organizing them in massive armies for constructing monuments to their leaders or to fight wars.
- From the same 1963 essay:
Let us fool ourselves no longer. At the very moment Western nations threw off the ancient regime of absolute government, operating under a once-divine king, they were restoring this same system in a far more effective form in their technology, reintroducing coercions of a military character no less strict in the organization of a factory than in that of the new drilled, uniformed, and regimented army....
And, towards the conclusion:
Again: do not mistake my meaning. This is not a prediction of what will happen, but a warning against what may happen. 
- So with machine learning here and quantum computing on its way: time's up.
- Slaves provided the human material to ancient civilizations to construct their technology, so as Mumford put it there was no need for 'inorganic' material and to develop metal based technology. Once, however, all our inorganic machines are making and taking care of themselves, immense supply of organic material - we human beings - will be available for use to serve the 'human compulsions' that were behind the drive to construct the first social, organic technologies, and are already a dominant element in present day social organization.
- What are those human compulsions?
- Doing for the sake of doing. Endless production. The more times you can successfully repeat an action, the safer you feel in your power to perform that action, and others related to it.
- A question of safety then. How are we ever going to get past that?
- Find security in our knowledge.
- Technology is knowledge and it is in the service of this power madness.
- The wrong kind of knowledge. We have the most perfect myth to express this: Adam and Eve,*** expelled from the garden of Eden for acquiring knowledge, become mortal. They can apply their knowledge to their work, but they are punished by work and reproduction being a pain to them and by being confined within their social roles of master and slave. Work is to do what you don't want to do, that you don't have a personal reason to do. Reproduction is a pain. Put these ideas together, and you get doing for the sake of doing, production without end never without pain. You have to do what your role tells you to do and you have to do it for no reason outside itself and you have to keep doing it forever. It is the only thing that makes you feel safe in your state of mortal uncertainty and fear.
- So you end up doing it more and more because the more you do it the safer you feel you can continue to do it. If you have the chance, you make yourself into a pyramid building pharaoh or modern day prince of finance or industry.
- Yes. Adam and Eve are out and can't get back in to Eden, but their descendants have a way back if they use knowledge right.
- Which is?
- For the sake of getting back to Eden.
- Which is where exactly?
- In the company of the people we love. Or perhaps you want a more technical answer? Here's Mumford:
The reconstitution of both our science and our technics in such a fashion as to insert the rejected parts of the human personality at every stage in the process. This means gladly sacrificing mere quantity in order to restore qualitative choice, shifting the seat of authority from the mechanical collective to the human personality and the autonomous group, favoring variety and ecological complexity, instead of stressing undue uniformity and standardization, above all, reducing the insensate drive to extend the system itself, instead of containing it within definite human limits and thus releasing man himself for other purposes. We must ask, not what is good for science or technology, still less what is good for General Motors or Union Carbide or IBM or the Pentagon, but what is good for man: not machine-conditioned, system-regulated, mass-man, but man in person, moving freely over every area of life.


- Do you know what I find most interesting in this?
- What?
- Mumford warned that control over physical nature and over man himself had already become the chief purpose of existence. If that is true, we should be seeing the two acting together.
- How do you mean?
- We should be seeing people treated as property and defined and distinguished from each other by their relation to property. We should be seeing all parts of the human personality outside of these definitions being rejected, both by threat of exclusion from social participation and by outright violence upon those whose present social position is an irritant to the efficient practice of accepted social roles. I have some personal experience of this happening.
- Tell me.
- So far, all rather ridiculous stuff. On my way back to Westwood late at night I'm often trailed at walking pace by Beverly Hills police cars. I've been approached by the University police and asked to inform them of any suspicious people (like myself) I see on campus.
-What did you say?
- That there was already too much spying going on and I didn't want to be approached again.
- They must have thought you were crazy.
- They must have. To continue. My single valuable possession, a 17 year old Italian racing bicycle, regularly suggests to bike thieves who are out in force late at night that as it was too good for somebody like me it would be better in their hands than mine. Earlier this month a man was gesturing crazily across the street as I was coming towards him. When I passed he exclaimed, 'That's a nice bike', and ran after me, grabbed hold of the bike seat and tried to pull me to a stop.
- He didn't?
- No. The benefit of a fast bike. At Starbucks in Westwood a twitchy drug addict told me his story. A poet and filmmaker, he was also a biker. He had gotten into drug dealing with one of the numerous bike gangs that group-ride late at night in L.A. They demanded of him that he steal a bike for them as sort of an initiation. When he refused, his story goes, one of the leader's friend's asked to try out his bike, and rode away never to return. Whereupon the gang leader with suitable menace sends him on the way home on foot: an all night walk from Burbank to West L.A. As I got up to leave he repeated his observation, what a nice bike I had, placed his hands on the handlebars, asked couldn't he take it for a ride?
- You didn't let him?
- No. The ridiculousness reached a new level a couple days ago. I was sitting at the tables outside of Trader Joes market in Westwood, eating lunch and reading, when a strong wind rose and blew the large garden unbrella down on top of the woman at the next table. She got up and left, and I tried but failed to steady it so it wouldn't fall next on me. I was unlocking my bike to leave when a man approached me, crying out, "What are you doing to our property?" I asked,
- Who are you?
- I work for the association. We got a call that a strange man was breaking our umbrella.
- The Westwood Community Association. Who called you?
- The manager of Trader Joe's.
- Hard to believe.
- Are you calling me a liar?
- Let's go inside and talk to the manager. If he denies he called you, then I'll call you a liar.
- No.
- No what?
- I won't go inside. I'm here because a strange man was damaging our property. You admit that strange man is you.
- Your property fell on the head of the woman sitting at the next table. She left and I attempted to set it straight so it wouldn't fall on me.
- You have no right to touch our property. You have to leave.
- What?
- You have to leave. Right now.
- Who are you?
- I work for the association. I'm protecting our property.
- Your property is a public hazard. And your property is on public property.
- No. This is our property.
- It's public property.
- It's ours.
- Possibly it's Trader Joe's property which you've been given the authority to manage.
- No it's not.
- Let's go in and ask them..
- No.
- Then I'll go in. But here's the manager now.
- What's going on?
- This idiot from the Westwood Association claims he manages this area outside the store for you. Is this your property?
- No.
- No. Did you call him to come here?
- No.
- No. You're a liar, idiot.
- You can't call me an idiot.
- I can't? Is this your property?
- Yes.
- Idiot.
- Don't call me idiot! Leave right now!
- You leave. If you choose to stay I'll conclude you're such an idiot you want to be called an idiot many more times.
- You can't talk to him like that.
- I can't? Is this your property, manager of Trader Joe's?
- No.
- Then you can't control what I say.
- But you're not right to ...
- Nothing's keeping you here. You can go back into your store.
- Tell this man he has to leave.
- Look, idiot...
- Don't talk to him that way!
- Idiot, you leave, go back the way you came, and you, manager of Traders Joes, if you don't like the conversation go that way back to your store.
- Wow. The manager went back into the store?
- Yes. And the association man also went away.
- Without either community association representative or market manager showing the slightest concern about the dangerous garden umbrella.
- But showing, which is why I'm telling the story, plenty of menacing authority.

                                                          * * *

P.S. 'The most exciting breakthroughs of the 21st century will not occur because of technology but because of an expanding concept of what it means to be human.' - Albert Einstein

Something To Look Forward To
** Authoritarian and Democratic Technics
*** Eve In The Garden Of Eden