Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Deep Thought 42: Life, the Universe and Everything

Last year around this time, I wrote about how computers are getting smarter and how that would lead to enormous prosperity, but it would also reduce the need for people.  If computers can drive and perform a huge number of tasks usually done by people,what would be left for people to do?  Compared to scrabbling around for bare necessities – which was the lot of nearly all of mankind for most of human history – this doesn’t seem like a problem.  But without a purpose, people would lead idle lives.  I envisioned a dystopia much like a huge welfare colony, where everyone has just enough to getby but no one has much to do so they pursue hobbies like hooliganism.  (Alternately, we’d all become professional hobbyists, working at what we loved.)

I expect the conclusion is somewhere in the middle, life will on the whole get more comfortable.  Perhaps something will be lost as life becomes softer and smoother.  Too quote Woody Allen, “The heart wants what the heart wants.”  The stakes may become lower, but people will still be caught in difficult, painful situations and have to muddle through.  Passions will trump reason at awkward times and tussle, as they have since humanity arose.

The scale of changes being made in the human condition is awesome and unparalleled in our history.  Something huge is afoot.

A few years ago (while going through some pretty serious personal stuff – a subject for another time), I read Martin Amis’ NightTrain.  I like British novelists, with their crisp use of the language and social backdrop that is intelligible – but just alien enough to give me pause.  Night Train turned out to be a police procedural set in the United States – not what I wanted.  But it grabbed me.  Jennifer Rockwell, a beautiful and brilliant young astronomer had committed suicide.  Her police brass father could not accept this and had one of his best detectives look into it.  She interviewed the dead woman’s boss, a world renown astronomer who describing their work trying understand the scale and nature of the universe admitted:
The truth is, Detective, the truth is that human beings are not sufficiently evolved to understand the place they’re living in. We’re all retards.  Einstein’s a retard.  I’m a retard.  We live on a planet of retards.
Amis' book was written in 1998.  In the relatively modest span of time since then, we have seen astounding leaps in computational capabilities – capabilities that are only increasing.  Predictions are that relatively soon all the computational power in the world will match that of a single human brain, but it is not so far in the future after this that computing power will exceed the computing power of all the human brains in existence.

I don’t want to argue that we are close to all the answers.  But we are building powerful tools to ask and at least attempt to answer these questions.  But will we understand the answers?  What will be our place in this vast computing architecture?

Amis' astronomer says:
And do you know what a black hole is Detective? Yeah, I think we all have some idea.  Jennifer asked me: Why was it Hawking who cracked black holes?  I mean, in the Sixties everybody was going at black holes hammer and tongs.  But it was Stephen who have us some answers.  She said” Why him?  And I gave the physicist’s answer: Because he’s the smartest guy around.  But Jennifer wanted me to consider an explanation that was more-romantic. She said: Hawking understood black holes because he could stare at them.  Black holes mean oblivion. Mean death. And Hawking has been staring at death all his adult life.  Hawking could see.

Aristotle’s treatise On the Soul is often referred to by its Latin title, De Anima, meaning that which animates.  If we are building some sort of massive hive mind that can contemplate to the edges of the universe, we are what moves it.  The same wonder and awe that led us to build Stonehenge and the Pyramids, has led us to this as well.  If we are building this massive hive mind, we may not understand it (does a cell in our body understand the enormous, marvelous thing of which it is part?)  But we will remain essential, we are what sets it into motion – we will be the soul.