Thursday, May 20, 2010

Our Technological Culture

Technological Singularity

One of the most fascinating examples of technologically inspired fear is an American variety called technological singularity. The concept is based upon the assumption that artificial intelligence and mechanical superintelligence is or will be capable of independent self-development and thereby break down man's ability to predict the future by accelerating its own mutation at will.

This concept was originally introduced in 1965 by the British mathematician, cryptologist, and statistics professor Irving John Good (1916 – 2009). He wrote about an "intelligence explosion" and suggested that if machines could exceed human intellect just a little, they would be able to improve themselves in ways their designers had not foreseen and then grow mathematically into much bigger intelligences. This would eventually lead to a sudden leap into superintelligence, or singularity.

The eminent film director Stanley Kubrick (1928 – 1999) consulted Good when filming 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), one of whose principal characters was the paranoid HAL 9000 supercomputer.

In 1982, mathematics professor Vernor Vinge, who is also a science fiction author and computer scientist, proposed that the creation of smarter-than-human intelligence represented a breakdown in humans' ability to model their future. The argument was that authors cannot write realistic characters who are smarter than humans: if humans could visualize smarter-than-human intelligence, we would be that smart ourselves. Vinge named this event "the Singularity". He compared it to the breakdown of the then-current model of physics when it was used to model the gravitational singularity beyond the event horizon of a black hole. In 1993, Vernor Vinge associated the Singularity more explicitly with I. J. Good's intelligence explosion, and tried to project the arrival time of artificial intelligence (AI) using Moore's law, which thereafter came to be associated with the "Singularity" concept.

Vernor Vinge

Vernor Vinge greatly popularized Good’s notion of an intelligence explosion, first addressing the topic in print in the January 1983 issue of Omni magazine. A 1993 article by Vinge, The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era, contains the oft-quoted statement, "Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly thereafter, the human era will be ended." Vinge refines his estimate of the time scales involved, adding, "I'll be surprised if this event occurs before 2005 or after 2030."

Vinge continues by predicting that superhuman intelligences, however created, will be able to enhance their own minds faster than the humans that created them. "When greater-than-human intelligence drives progress," Vinge writes, "that progress will be much more rapid." This feedback loop of self-improving intelligence, he predicts, will cause large amounts of technological progress within a short period.

It was this particular work that brought me into direct contact with this type of thought-forms in 1994, when a co-editor for the Norwegian anarchist magazine Gateavisa commissioned me to translate the text into Norwegian. This text not only gave me a serious headache because the content seemed so mentally unhealthy -- a feeling very similar to the nausea I got when trying to read and understand dianetics and scientology a couple of years later -- but the language in my translation was severely vandalized, in my view, by my co-editor before going into print. The language became reminiscent of informal dialects. The idea behind this is to bring the language down to "the man in the street" -- "Gateavisa" means "The Street Paper" -- but I don't think that looks good when the text is academic.

This idea is featured in many science fiction stories. A classic example is Demon Seed, a novel by Dean Koontz that was made into a movie in 1977. Proteus IV, an artificial intelligence system incorporating organic elements in a "quasi-neural matrix" and having the power of thought, actually rapes a woman in order to impregnate her and become human through the embryo. The story ends with the birth of the child. The most famous technological singularity fantasy is perhaps James Cameron's Terminator saga, first release in 1984, with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the lead as a machine from the future.


Another example of singularity in fiction is the Stephen King horror story Christine, a car not only with a mind of its own, but also an uncanny ability to come to life and restore its original shape even when crushed to a metal ball. And it's hypnotic and telepathic as well as murderous.

Interestingly, even some anthroposophists have buckled under for the theory of technological singularity. There is a great deal of American thought-baggage, in popular literature as well as in academic papers, that have infected anthroposophists on both sides of the Atlantic. I am not getting into conspiracy theories here; they belong to a different topic that I may approach in a later blog or website article. But if we confine ourselves to the theme of technological singularity, it's a little weird -- I'm speaking entirely on the basis of personal opinion here -- that precisely anthroposophists fail to distinguish between the organic and the inorganic, because they of all people should know better.

The crucial point here is that these singularists and robotists, who often have very high IQ's themselves, even members of Mensa and therefore smarter than the rest of us, are so preoccupied with the concept of intelligence and smartness that they endow their imagined self-conscious machines with free will and power of judgment, and in some cases feelings as well, the so-called "sentient androids" (like Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation).

Lieutenant Commander Data (Brent Spiner)

Singularity consists therefore of a machine -- because it has artificial intelligence after we have equipped it with software and written commands through programming languages. So it can solve mathematical problems faster than humans, play better chess etc. -- being capable of endowing itself with feeling and free will, becoming in effect a being with independent thinking, will, and feeling.

I recently discussed this issue with a computer engineer in the family, my very own tech-guru who positively does not relate to anthroposophy -- on the contrary, his worldview is closest to the mechanical universe of Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawkings -- and he tells me that professors who write that kind of popular science (like Vinge) have not understood the difference between intelligence and programming. Isaac Asimov, however, in spite of subscribing to the mechanical universe and populating it with robots, did understand this difference. (Bicentennial Man was a story about a very benign singularity, but it was written as pure entertainment and fantasy.)

A couple of things seem to be conveniently (or inconveniently) overlooked here. First off, those who subscribe to a mechanized universe usually also believe in Darwin's theory of evolution, which indicates that our present-day states of consciousness and life-forms, our biology-dependent existence, are the results of a very long and complicated development through successive mutations, spanning millions and perhaps even billions of years. The anthroposophical outline of evolution is even more complex, but let's leave that out for now. As a contrast to this long and complicated evolution that has eventually brought about our conscious self-awareness as individual self-dependent beings with feelings, thoughts, and free will, these singularists want to have us believe that certain technological innovations developed during a few decades can produce the same results. That would be a far bigger miracle than the most hard-nosed fundamentalist creationists who believe Bishop Usher was right when he calculated that our entire solar system was created in six 24 hour days in 4004 B.C. Are the singularists creationists?

A second factor being overlooked is so simple that a five year old child with average IQ can figure it out: If you're worried about what a machine might do, through malfunction or whatever, all you need to do is cut off the power supply. Pull the plug, turn it off with the switch, or remove the batteries. It's that simple. Show me a mechanical device, a rusty old wrench or anything. Unless it's something like Stephen King's Christine, the car that would reawaken and resume its original perfect shape after being crushed to a tight small metal ball, it won't be able to do anything without a power supply.

What's the reason for this superstition reaching all the way to the highest academic level? It seems to be a sideeffect, a consequence, of the widespread materialistic-scientific superstition. If the universe is a machine, a giant mechanism, the creation of self-aware intelligent life should not require endless aeons lasting millions or billions of years. If biological life can pop out of a dead chemical soup at random, we should be able to do the same with microchips and electricity.

Technology and the Powers of Darkness

In GA 177 (Fall of the Spirits of Darkness, Dornach, September & October 1917), Rudolf Steiner spoke about the dark powers' fall from higher spheres down to our own world, where they operate in our midst. In the fourth lecture, entitled The Elemental Spirits of Birth and Death, (October 6), Steiner spoke about how precisely those beings who cause birth and death, are now active in our technological development, and in this context he points to how science was abused on Atlantis in such a manner that it brought the entire civilization to its catastrophic destruction. He spoke about how technology, i.e. everything we develop in connection with magnetism, electricity, combustion engines etc. comprise what he calls subnature, so in addition to natural science we get subnatural science.

Such considerations are probably the reason why some anthroposophists choose to shun interaction with technology; they become consistently tech-critical and choose -- according to rumors I have heard -- a so-called "anthroposophical lifestyle," living in wooden cabins without electricity, fetching water from wells, and cooking soups with homegrown biodynamic vegetables on fires made by chopping wood, and after sundown they read Steiner under candle lights or kerosene lamps.

The hippie movement of the 1960's seems to have spawned the desire to return to nature and flee from civilization on the one hand, and the diametrical opposite tech nerds on the other hand. And here it may be interesting to mention that in the lecture cited above, namely the fourth in GA 177 about the fall of the spirits of darkness, Steiner says that "the ideal for the near future will be to have not more and more Goethes, but more and more Edisons." In other words, technical inventors.

Thomas Edison

The dark powers who cooperate actively with us humans in the development of technology are of course so-called ahrimanic elementary spirits. And as we know from anthroposophy, Ahriman is prone to arouse fear and anxiety in the emotional life of the human being. In connection with subnatural science and technology, this anxiety takes different forms.

First off, we have so-called science freaks, i.e. not inventors but theorists, ideologues and science fiction authors who embrace this subnature in a thoroughly uncritical way with no deeper reflections whatsoever. They become religious atheists of a sort, who declare a total philosophy war against everything having to do with New Age and religion. Those among them who discover anthroposophy are apt to make it their worst enemy. These people have a deep-rooted fear of the spiritual which is directly inspired by the subnatural and mechanical, namely the ahrimanic elementary beings.

Secondly, we have of course those who wish to flee from technology because they fear interaction with it. Rudolf Steiner himself thought this was nonsense.

The fear factor itself, however, is tremendously interesting when it comes to everything having to do with technology, horror stories, and science fiction. Of course technological singularity may easily be portrayed as benign and entertaining, like Bicentennial Man and Star Trek's Data, but it's mostly associated with something very threatening, murderous and nightmarish. Like a superintelligent, self-conscious war machine crushing all biological life in its path. We have made the war machine our intellectual priority, and now we're haunted buy our own inventions, our own demons.

Subnatural-Scientific Superstition

At this point we're no longer only talking about the natural-scientific superstition that Rudolf Steiner mentioned quite often, but the subnatural-scientific superstition that only becomes possible if one imagines that self-conscious life has arisen from random chemical processes in the primordial soup. If this is the true state of nature, it can be done much faster with technology. From an anthroposophical perspective, human consciousness has resulted from an incalculably long development stemming all the way back to Old Saturn -- i.e. with four so-called Big Bangs behind us -- and has involved the activities of many higher hierarchies, those who are older than man. And now we are supposed to believe that man-made machines, a very recent phenomenon, can soon stand upon a level of development higher than man himself and thereby make humans their slaves and domestic animals if they don't choose to exterminate us.

Some of the notions entertained by anthroposophists are hopelessly naîve. We are quite familiar with calling corporations on the phone for support, customer service etc. and getting an automated answering service that gives us a menu to dial and so on, sometimes without end. Very few people would insist that these voice recorders are self-aware beings. And yet, some anthroposophists claim that the GPS in their car is a living being because it "talks" with a human voice. What such anthroposophists have in mind, of course, is that no engines or technical gadgets can function without the energy that comes from ahrimanic elementary beings, but apart from the fact that these beings are of a quite low order and therefore very primitive, one falls for the delusion where the human voice on the recording is associated with the ahrimanic being and ascribes to it some kind of personality.

Recorded sound, which dates all the way back to Thomas Edison's tin foil phonograph in 1877, can really present a challenge with regard to one of Rudolf Steiner's exercises in GA 10, about how knowledge of the higher worlds is attained through various disciplines and exercises. One important exercise consists of learning to discriminate between sounds coming from living beings, like an animal or a human child, and sounds originating from something inorganic or mechanical. When Steiner wrote this in 1904, recorded sound had not yet become a part of daily life; Steiner's own lectures were copied by shorthand. So at that time it was relatively easy to hear the difference between a singing bird and a locomotive.

In the 1970's, Memorex had an unfortettable series of TV commercials in America, with the slogan: "Is it live or is it Memorex?" On one such commercial, Ella Fitzgerald chimed in with a high C, causing a wine glass to break; the same gimmick was repeated with an audio tape recording where you did not hear the difference; thus the slogan: "Is it live or is it Memorex?"

Some animals perceive differences only through smell; if the odor is not present in addition to the sound, they don't always react. With us humans, on the other hand, it is quite easy to confuse live voices and recordings, but this is no excuse when we know that it is we ourselves who have switched on the mechanism, which is the case with a GPS giving driving directions.

Organic and Inorganic Nature

And this brings us right back to the bottom line about the technological singularity superstition I pointed out earler, namely that all one needs to do if one becomes afraid of a machine, is to pull out the electric cable or remove all the batteries, or go to the more drastic step of turning off the main electric switch and taking out all the fuses. Stop paying the electric bill, and the utility company will take care of your problem. Cut off the energy source.

For a living being, the energy source is food, water, and oxygen (air); if access to these things is completely cut off, the man, animal, or plant will die. A machine, on the other hand, does not die, cannot die, simply because it is not alive to begin with. It won't search for electricity on its own the way a living being searches for food and water. It won't "wake up" without power and then plug itself to the wall.

The truth is that although nutrients and oxygen are necessary for the biological sustenance of a living being, these things are not the sources of its energy. The real energy source for living beings is to be found in the spiritual world, or on the other side of the threshold as Rudolf Steiner used to put it.

All this should be very elementary. Rudolf Steiner outlined this with crystal clarity in GA 2: The Theory of Knowledge Implicit in Goethe's World Conception, which he wrote at the tender age of 25 (in 1886). Chapters 15 (Inorganic Nature) and 16 (Organic Nature) say it all.

It's really that simple, elementary. Science fiction and fantasy, of course, represent an entirely different subject that I'll get around to in another article. The question is: How is it possible for the most advanced minds on earth, in the universities, with higher than average IQ's, smarter than me and most of my readers, to believe so firmly in such nonsense as "technological singularity"? Is there any remote possibility that these geniuses have allowed their own intellects to run amuck and in a sense lost their marbles? From an anthroposophical perspective, it is Ahriman who seduces man through the intellect, through intelligence, and brings about all kinds of delusions. So how come anthroposophists of all people, who should be aware of these things, are also victimized by the same delusions, albeit with other associations?

What is easily forgotten here, is the crucial principle in humanism, namely that man himself stands center stage with his consciousness, makes decisions, and creates and controls technology. This means that Ahriman does not work directly into machines, but through those human beings who make and use those machines. Ahriman is not outside man, but inside him. And when he incarnates in the near future, during the first third of the third millennium, it will be as a human being of flesh and blood, not as a machine.

In the 1980's, anthroposophical computer nerds put special emphasis on Cold Fusion and experiments being made at that time to build an organic brain with living cells, a compost, or microorganisms that should be developed to braincells and hooked up to run a computer, so one would get an organically thinking machine. Cold Fusion was especially fascinating because Ahriman is linked to cold; the lower the deep-freeze temperature, the better for Ahriman's comfort. So with Cold Fusion it was theorized that Ahriman's incarnation -- not as man, but as machine -- was being prepared through technology.

I'll get back to some of this when I move on to science fiction in my next article.

Labels: , , , ,