The fourth leg: Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity

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In 1908 Henry Ford dropped a bomb into modern life that would not be matched until almost a century later, when Steve Jobs would send the iPhone into a waiting world in 2007: the Model T. There had been smart phones before the iPhone, and there had been automobiles before the Model T, but these were the devices that would make the massively popular. We hardly think of the Model T as tech, much less high tech. The iPhone is an intimate mating of the hardware and software that we have come to expect in the devices we lump together as ‘tech’. The Model T was just about all hardware. The driver had to provide the software and much of the hardware as well.But cars are machines that have quickly become intelligent. First they got self-starters. Now they are self-driving.

Ray Kurzweil’s singularity is the ever more quickly approaching time when the intelligence of machines will match and then quickly surpass that of humans. He expects not only that this will be a very good thing, but that it will will be easily accepted. Not everyone is so optimistic as Kurzweil. Surprise.

Another use of the term singularity is to describe the horizon, the perimeter, around a black hole, beyond which everything is consumed and from which there is no escape. Physicists argue whether any information is preserved. What seems to come out is at best/most radiation.

What informs Kurzweil’s theory is that computing power has been increasing at an exponential rate for whatever period one chooses to measure it. Some object that there is not enough available energy to support the continued change Kurzweil predicts. But of course our ancestors who has only recently discovered fire and who for hundreds of thousands of years did their computations with mineral pigments on cave walls did not foresee the steam engine and its energy requirements.

I find that predicting the future is an inexact art at best, so I have very little opinion about the form some super intelligence might evolve into. (I also find the distinction between human or biological intelligence and machine intelligence to be a misunderstanding of what comprises intelligence. I suspect that intelligence is simply intelligence, whether it uses carbon and nitrogen or iron and rubber or silicon and gold for hardware.) What is not speculation about Kurzweil’s theory is the part that is not theorizing about the but obsering history. Change in the evolution of human society and just about everything else in the universe is exponential. The kicker in exponential change is that it can coast along unnoticed for years, then all of a sudden it’s huge. One of the earliest stores of the power of exponential change tells of the unfortunate  emperor who was so pleased with the game of chess that he told the man who brought it to him to name a reward. The man said his wishes were simple: one grain of rice for the first square of the chess board, two for the second, four for the third . . . There was not enough rice in the empire. In fact the would not be so much rice for centuries.

Is the any turning back from a singularity? This seems to be where the two concepts of singularity that I mentioned converge. The are obviously people who are very uncomfortable with the future, especially a future in which human beings are not the peak, the goal, of evolution. There are also some, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking among them, who are concerned that some future firm of intelligence might not share ‘human values’. My response to them is World War One, the war intelligent humans fought to end war.

Still, I am cautiously optimistic. (At least I was until the United States showed the servere limits of both human intelligence and human values by electing Donald Trump.) Self-driving cars are already better drivers than are humans. I am hoping that wiser machine take out worst weapons out of our hands before we destroy ourselves. I am hoping no one blows up planet earth, our fragile island home, before some sort of intelligence with better values than we do often display takes the controls out of our hands.

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The third leg: Alvin Toffler

Johalvin tofflern Wesley famously described his theology as a three-legged stool, and I suppose that my understanding of the world  also started with such a tripod. Later I have adopted a sort of quadralateral, like the Anglicans, which would include the writings of Ray Kurzweil. But I should probably discuss one leg at a time.
The first two legs I have mentioned before: Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and Marshall McLuhan. The third leg is Alvin Toffler, to whom I nodded briefly earlier and whose writings have come back to haunt and reassure me often during the past few tumultuous years.

I think I was living in Memphis when I first saw and bought a copy of his Future Shock, in 1970 when Volkswagens and paperbacks all came in day-glo colours. If I remember correctly, my copy was electric koolaid orange. His thesis was fairly simple:  we live in a time of very rapid change, and it’s hard to keep up. We may therefore expect to act and think somewhat erratically, and notice that others think and act erratically as well. The haunting part of his predictions is that we may react ourselves into another dark ages. The reassuring part is that if we can learn to live with the flow, the future ahead is brighter than the colours of his book covers.

For me the most helpful part of Toffler’s analysis is that it has encouraged me to cut everyone some slack. When the tea partiers started up their shenanigans, or folks talked about occupying Wall Street after they had believed something too good to be true but forgotten to notice that it was too good to be true, I would realize that these were just the sorts of behaviours that Toffler had said we might expect.

In 2006 Toffler brought his ideas into the 21st. century with Revolutionary Wealth, a book I have recommended to more people than I can remember.  In it he pretty well describes the current situation in which world wealth is greatly increasing, with world poverty at an all-time low but with a new class of super wealthy , a 2% for the 98%to hate. Equally importantly, he describes the role religious reactionaries may have in preventing the advances we are making scientifically to bring about real wealth, in a much more profound sense than having a huge bank balance, to many more people throughout the world.

It has been the 2016 US presidential circus that has prompted me to write this little blog piece, after sitting happily in my little cell in the first without a care in the world for several months. At a time when huge opportunities exist for actually solving many of the problems that have inflicted suffering on most of the people most of the time, both major parties are consumed by candidates who are feeding our fears of change. I find the most ironic part of the situation that Mr. Sanders talks about wanting change. (Mr. Trump at least is pretty honest about wanting to return to some imagined golden age.) I am living without a care in the world in a little town that is firmly in the Sanders camp, and I am surrounded by art exhibits and posters in public restrooms saying we need a change.

I would suggest that Alvin Toffler is right, that we have had more change than we can process already, and that our real need is to understand what is happening before we throw cliche fixes at it. The rate of change that even I was able to notice in 1966 when I arrived in Chicago is exponential. But that is a feature of the fourth leg of my understanding of the world, the writings of Ray Kurzweil.

 

Before I Die

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I feel fine, actually, but if the Greeks were right and all men are mortal and even if Google find immortality and I can’t afford it, then my days are limited, and I ain’t done any work on this blog in a long time.

My residency in the past ten years has been bi-local. I think of the Ozarks as my partner and of the area around Puget Sound as my side. (I started to use wife and mistress, but that seemed just not right in the 21st century.) This winter finds me back in (although from my blog you’d never know I left) Northwest Washington, in a camper among firs and cedars and aging hippies again, friends of friends from the Oasis. As usual, I’m the odd one of the bunch: they all use Apple thingamabobs and I’m devoted to the spawn of Android.

That I am able to live in two places (and a thousand places) and that the great divisions between people has become which operating system they use is I suppose a sort of proof that McLuhan and Teilhard were correct. I woke up this morning, made coffee and oatmeal. Added cranberry sauce to the oatmeal because it’s the third day of Christmas, and jacked in. (I wonder whether William Gibson was consciously opposing ‘jacking in’ to ‘jacking off’.)

I have been working, occasionally, on a sci-fi story. But it is damned hard to keep it fi. Every morning there is news of developments which both support the technology I am using in the story, and which make my date of 2039 seem too far into the future. So there are those ‘distractions’ from my ‘work’, which I can easily peg as ‘research’.

But then there’s the rest. Someone who seems interesting, whom I’ve never met in the meat,  comments on a friend’s post, and I’m off exploring art that explores what it’s like to live in the jacked in world. But, boys and girls, because whether you care about how I came to be here or not, I’d like to figure it out myself, so I’m gonna try to bring this little blog up to date. (Can I just merge this with The Bamabong? http://thebamabong.blogspot.com/)

community garden

so, i did not immediately start , in any intentional way, thiinking about the one and the many. but as taoists say, when you are ready, the teacher appears. there i was in beautiful-bellingham-by-the-bay, and needed someplace to lay my head at night. the place i found was a sort of locallly heroic intentional community called, of course, the oasis. it was a bunch of diverse structures–mine would be a sort of wikiup i  built in two days out of stuff i found. it was on the far edge of the property–actually, it was on the property of western washington university–for about five years–and housed me and several other people over that period–beyond the chicken coops.

the center of the community was the garden. very crosby, stills, and nash. it was a time of great learning for me. one of the most important things i learned was how much people seemed to want community, and how hard it was to make one up. the sideloaded one-and-many teaching centered around how we made decisions. besides shared meals, we had ‘meetings’, which were a cross between the u.s. congress and quaker meetings and chinese self-criticisms. we decided everything as a community, sort of. mostly we hardly decided anything. people would do things and we would talk sweetly about them. the real tension was contained in the ongoing discussion about ducks. the once-and-future duck  pond was brought up every week, but it would be years before it was actually built, long after i had wandered off, although i did dig the original hole for the thing. 

at the oasis i met some of the  most interesting and endearing people i’ve ever known, many of whom i consider valued friends to this day even if i hardly every see them any more. and i loved living in my little 2m x 2m hut, which came to be part of the ‘human ecology’ tour from fairhaven college. it was odd to be sitting in the morning with my tea and birdsong and some book and hear the mentors of the tours describing my ‘sustainable’ dwelling. 

also at the oasis i began to understand the importance of scale. it was difficult to do much of anything communally with our twelve or so members. although we had good food from the garden, that was largely because of the work of one gardener, a remarkable product of among other factors a waldorf education. 

i left the oasis to form a more intentionally ‘spiritual’ community with some of the folks. i was not so much into spirituality as i was interested in seeing what would happen next. what happened next was of course nothing like i expected, but it, too, would be full of wonder. my time at the oasis was a rich opportunity to pursue some of the goals of my vows in the order of st. chad, which i guess were sort of vaguely ‘spiritual’. but the spirit famously blows where it wills.

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brendan’s wake

after three years of wandering the waters of the whulji, which white ‘settlers’ usually call puget sound, i came ashore in bellingham, washington, with much less baggage, it seemed, than i had had when i started. about 4500 nautical miles had passed under brendan’s keep and trailed behind in his wake.  when we had left, he was packed with gear, which became jetsam along the way. when we beached at post point, brendan had shed his shiny newness and i had shed shirt and shoes and most of my stuff. but there was baggage to be unpacked, some of which i am blaming on james joyce. most of my reading on journey had been james joyce. i actually landed with only one book, an oup leather-bound authorized version of the bible, but i had read ulysses three times, and wandered through finegan’s wake as repetitiously and repeatedly as i had wandered among the straits and islands of northwest washington and southwest canada.

the tides are a river, and i had shared joyce’s ‘riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay’, but bellingham would be my ‘Howth Castle and environs’ to which by ‘a commodius vicus of recirculation back’ i came, there to unpack my baggage.

looking back at that younger, fitter self who set his bare foot on the sandy beach of fairhaven, it seems that bible represented the culture of  my past which i had died on the ocean waves but which like finegan would wake again, perhaps.

the first conscious unpacking of my newer,younger, fitter but unexpectedly commodius baggage would happen in a surprisingly public environ. having decided to stay in bellingham i set out to find nice people my own age. i knew some nice people, but they were all twenty years younger than i, so i visited a methodist church.

indeed at garden street united methodist chuch there were nice people my own age, many of whom remain esteemed friends ten years later. there was a reading group beginning, for advent or something, and it started with the obligatory intros. leader asked me what i had been doing. three years of paddling in the wilderness. what had i learned? oh my. i thought at first it was a difficult question. there had been so much. but not, the answer came quickly, probably from the same reptile brain that had expected to die in a big tidal change off wilson point one sunny august noon: it’s all one.

it’s all one.

such a simple, attractive, concept that has haunted folks from plotinus through frege to einstein. and now it would haunt me. what is this one that had followed me in brendan’s wake?

 

back to the future

my reaction to awakening in the brave new future predicted by mcluhan was to go back, back to the world as i imagined it to have been  in seventh century northumbria, when the imperialism of roman (now incarnate in the roman catholic church) was just succeeding to impose writing on the previously oral culture of britain. i abandoned cars, chose to live on a small income by american standards, and put my ear to the ground in the new tribalism.

santa fe in 1989 was full of neo-everything. all ancient secrets were revealed, and one could purchase them at the ark bookstore. looking back at that period, it seems the last hurrah of the gutenburg era in my life, when almost daily i would hike around st. john’s college, that great bastion of bookishness that overlooks the city. i read celtic cosmic christic emergic shit, and thought it ambrosia. i danced naked around campfires in the snow with radical faeries, shifted shapes with ravens, and generally relived the magic history of western intellectual man. had art shows. led retreats. met some of the dearest and best friends of my life. lived in a gay spiritual benevolent community called the bad boys. loved it. meant it.

after about six or seven years of such a rich diet i needed more time to digest. i was like a snake who had eaten a huge meal that hadn’t moved through. i went on a prolonged retreat in the ozarks, hiking the headwaters of the white river, a stream i had long considered sacred. for another six years or so i would go back and forth between arkansas and new mexico. when people asked me what i ‘did”. i answered ‘watch sunsets and look for clues’.

rivers flow into the ocean. i followed the white river to the mississippi then made a cheat to the pacific. i had kayaked the rivers of new mexico and arkansas, so felt ready to move onto the face of the deep, like the breath of god. i first tried the warm waters of the atlantic, which begins in charleston, south carolina, at the confluence of the ashley and cooper rivers.  then it was off to the pacific northwest, which may not be kayak heaven but is where the sea kayaking magazines and snobby manufacturers are.

oh. my. god.

for three years i explored the waters of the whulji, with st. brendan the navigator as my guide. like brendan, but in a red pouch e65 instead of a curraugh, i wentto see what was out there.  i was self-powered, and self-sufficient as anyone can be. i kept journals, which i had begun at the beginning of the santa fe period, often with elaborate drawings or collages, with found objects and ‘profound’ observations. i proudly showed friends, who all seemed to have ibooks, my papermate flare, claiming i was entirely wireless. it was a set-up.

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an intermission, or, exile and return (one wants to spin one’s life as positively as possible.

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after an ambitious start in trying to understand what’s happening, studying the japanese adjustments to entering the world of foreigners and germany’s attempts to come to grips with the age of electricity, i wimped out. faced with my unspoken attraction to men, i joined the american dream. i married a beautiful wife. we had two beautiful children. golden retrievers. station wagons. organic gardens. the full catastrophe. twenty years of my life passed with my trying to be someone else.

finally, in 1988, i woke from the nightmare and resumed my life, this time in santa fe. the world had moved along as mcluhan had expected, and a new tribalism was emerging. nowhere was this more evident or accessabile, perhaps, than in the high desert of new mexico, and i claimed my niche in the neo-celtic camp. my ancesters about whom i knew the most were welsh, so it had some legitimacy. i formed the order of st. chad to make further explorations in the pre-gutenberg world that seemed to have much to offer the post-gutenberg world. i, with dozens of other new tribesmen,  painted myself blue and danced to drums in the thin cold desert air.

i had begun a journey that would take me deeper into a sort of replica celtic monasticism, a life described more fully in older blogs at http://peregrinationswithstchad.blogspot.com and its links.  but of course i do not really live in seventh century britain.  my making not just peace with but rejoicing in the brave new world i was finding is the story of my return.