Here’s an interesting article by Tim Urban on the coming revolution in AI:
“…what’s happening in the world of AI is not just an important topic, but by far THE most important topic for our future. So I wanted to learn as much as I could about it, and once I did that, I wanted to make sure I wrote a post that really explained this whole situation and why it matters so much.”
Read the rest…
OK cool, but I wrote a very similar article back in 2004:
The Ontological Timebomb
The Meltdown of Meaning in the Coming Technological Singularity
“The only possible Antidote to the Singularity is an independent, self-referential, fractal self-extracting archive of extraterrestrial origin, created by a Being of much greater-than-human intelligence; so cleverly designed that when processed recursively through the human mind and intelligence, it unpacks and installs an extensive software upgrade to the ontological operating system of the human mind. We may be able to create the Singularity by ourselves, but without the help of a higher intelligence and a more robust ontological paradigm, we shall almost certainly fall a victim to its consequences.”
Order and Chaos
People perceive order when they can comprehend simple cause-and-effect relationships in their environment. When these relationships exceed the narrow conceptual bandwidth and psychosensory experiential jurisdiction of the limited human mind and senses, people perceive complexity, disorder and chaos. Actually, of course, all phenomena are subject to the control of universal law; our perceptions of order and chaos are therefore only artifacts of our ontological interpretation of empirical reality.
We crave order for the security it brings concerning the animal needs of our bodies and the psychological urge to seek meaning in our experience. If our environment is too chaotic, we can neither make predictive sense of our surroundings nor determine whether a given event is a threat to our survival. Thus, in chaos we cannot ascertain whether we can meet the immediate needs of bodily and psychological survival. Since bodily and personal survival is the primary dynamic of the materially conditioned living entity, our own perception of our potential for survival is strongly linked to our evaluation of the orderliness of our environment. Any uncertainty in this regard causes us great anxiety.
The urge to seek order in a chaotic environment is so strong that developed nations like the USA spend hundreds of millions of dollars on inconsequential speculative endeavors like deep-space astronomical observatories, while their educational and social infrastructure disintegrates from neglect and millions of their citizens rot in prison or suffer lack of adequate food, shelter and medical care. The theories that emerge from these misguided efforts give us a false sense of order and security, even though by the scientists’ own standards of empirical proof they are nothing but empty speculation.
The greatest threat to our sense of materialistic order and control is the possibility of an immanent universal intelligence with a transcendent agenda completely unrelated to our personal bodily and mental desires. Although by definition the transcendent is unmanifest, people spend significant energy and resources trying to trace out this immanence in their outward inspection of transitory and transformable manifested things. That inappropriate impulse provokes them to fix the position and identity of the immanent to an indeterminate impersonal entity, no hint of which ever could be discerned by moving the entire physical universe through the organic senses or their technological extensions. After that fatal error the trail vanishes entirely, leaving the speculative investigator empty-handed, with no possibility of teasing out a final conclusive understanding from the disorder of a chaotic impersonal universe.
Ontology and Meaning
Whether our purpose is mere psychophysical survival or, in the evolved stage, transcendental realization of the eternal immanence of the Absolute Truth, applying our daily activities to any larger purpose requires conceptions of meaning and value. Meaning is the fruit of the tree of ontology, or the science of origins. Ontology gives meaning to simple facts by supplying context, and adds value to our existence and actions by providing purpose. It is very difficult to live a life without meaning. We require ontology to give our existence depth and a meaningful objective. Thus whether they realize it or not, every human being has or subscribes to an ontology, usually in the form of a collection of stories that explains why things are they way they are.
Like any theory, an ontology is a metaphor to help us grasp an inconceivable reality. However, an ontology is a higher-level metaphor than a theory, because it not only spawns many daughter theories but also gives them significant intuitive predictive power. An ontology may be composed of mathematical formulae, axioms or aphorisms, but these are of limited use to people in general. Thus an ontology, or ontological system, in broad use often looks like a collection of stories that describe, often very indirectly, how the world works or how life works.
A feature of every ontology is a collection of stable data. A stable datum is an intellectual reference point that we use to keep our balance in a changing world. The more unconditional a stable datum is, the better it is. “I feel happy” is not a very good stable datum because it is highly conditional and unstable; “objects with mass tend to mutually attract toward their center of gravity” is a very stable datum because it applies to almost all material objects of which we are normally aware. Stable data are important features of any ontology; however, they are also its weakness, since any evidence that invalidates the stable data also invalidate the entire ontology.
Another interesting feature of a mature ontology is that anyone who subscribes to it can add stories that harmonize with its fundamental axioms, structure and purpose. A sufficiently detailed and mature ontology is a very powerful conceptual tool. Whole civilizations have been and are based on such collections or systems of ontological data. In fact, ontology may be seen as the principal civilizing process in human society. Ontology is the software that runs on the hardware of a culture, helping us determine the meaning and value of our existence and actions. As our ontology goes, so do we.
The danger, of course, is that changing times, extraordinary or novel situations, or simply the influence of time and social evolution may outdate or invalidate an ontology, throwing everyone who subscribes to it into an inescapable chaos of confusion, misunderstanding and inappropriate actions. Or a previously adequate ontology may become corrupted due to doctrinal editorializing or semantic modification, gradually becoming more and more inefficient as a conceptual tool. Whole civilizations can and have been debilitated or destroyed by such ontological difficulties.
When our ontology becomes inadequate, our experience, action and life lose meaning. Meaninglessness or confusion is such a paralyzing condition that many techniques of psychological warfare are intended precisely to induce this condition in the enemy. In the absence of meaning, it is impossible for people to determine what the actual truth is and take effective action. When such ontological failure afflicts an entire society, that society is in serious trouble. Witness the unprecedented defeat of the USSR in the recent Cold War with the USA, a perfect example of ontological disorder leading to growing inefficiency and the sudden collapse of the second most powerful nation in the world.
Presently the ontology of the dominant Western materialistic culture rapidly is losing the ability to respond to the accelerating changes in meaning introduced by technology and other forces discussed below. This condition, termed herein the ‘Ontological Time Bomb’ and elsewhere ‘the Singularity,’ has put the entire world in grave danger, a danger that we can evade only by global ontological rectification.
The three religious groups comprising Western culture share a common root ontology. On the surface, this claim may appear absurd, but deeper analysis shows that any differences among these three religious traditions are purely superficial. All three religions subscribe to identical core values. The Judeo-Christian-Islamic ontology (JCI) may be summarized as follows:
- There is an immanent spiritual world with many realms where both good and evil beings reside.
- The Supreme Being created the material universe, and then retired from creative activities.
- Human beings are inherently evil, sinful and condemned.
- Salvation from sin and material existence is possible only through the intervention of a divine intermediary.
- After salvation we keep the same identity we have now, even our present relatives and pets.
- God communicates only with a few people, most of whom died long ago.
- Truth is the consensus understanding of human society, arrived at by a process of argument and debate.
- Although in theory God controls everything, in practice our actions cause the results we get.
- Human beings are the owners and controllers of the universe, by the will of God.
- It is possible to represent and model anything, even God, using numbers and mathematics.
- Both human and divine law are based on the principle of revenge: ‘an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.’
- Any violence committed in the course of expanding the influence of one’s religious group is not a sin.
- Our religious group is the only valid and true one; all others are false and inimical.
- God’s favor upon a person can be measured by material success.
We need not repeat the lessons of history herein to assess the deficiencies of the JCI ontology. The last 5,000 years have shown us clearly that the result of JCI is nothing but endless greed, exploitation, deception and war without resolution. This may be practical, even beneficial for survival when the social groups concerned are minor tribes occupying relatively insignificant areas of land; but when the protagonists are global superpowers armed with potent nuclear and biological weapons, the inadequacy of the JCI ontology shows up with startling clarity.
We all are familiar with downloading and applying patches to fix software bugs and security vulnerabilities. We also know that patching a complex system inevitably leads to introducing new, unknown failure modes. As we enter the 21st century, the JCI ontology has been ‘patched’ so many times that it contains innumerable internal contradictions and errors. Processing these exceptions makes our thinking so inefficient that it becomes progressively more difficult to arrive at any firm conclusion sufficiently robust to withstand additional semantic and/or ontological failures.
As meaning evaporates, basic concepts like good and bad become reversed in popular culture and even in language. Compliments become insults, and insults compliments. The inversion of values produces an entertainment media whose wares constitute a ‘vast wasteland’ according to the government officials responsible for regulating it, yet no one seriously proposes to do anything about it. Education ceases even to resemble training in higher cultural values, and becomes a meaningless game of social control and endless regurgitation of force-fed ‘facts.’ These ‘facts,’ when studied closely and traced back to their source, more often than not turn out to be only the latest fashion in pseudoscientific speculation and propaganda from some self-appointed Guardians of the Ontology.
It would be a simple matter indeed to take each and every principle of JCI ontology enumerated above and subject it to a devastating critical evaluation, but it is less exhausting for both writer and reader to just accept that the JCI system is failing. The evidence is there in every newspaper. It is crashing just like an outdated software system that gradually uses more and more of its resources to correct internal errors, reducing the performance available for the users’ applications until the entire system freezes in an abnormal termination. The purpose of this essay is to help the reader avoid that final devastating crash, which at the time of this writing (2004) is certainly no more than a decade away.
Western Empirical Scientific Ontology
The Western Empirical Scientific ontology (WES) is one of the principal culprits in the degeneration and failure of JCI ontology. WES began as ‘natural philosophy,’ an attempt to understand natural processes through reason. Its politicization and use against the excesses of the Roman Catholic Church during the so-called Enlightenment led to the expansion and enthronement of WES as an alternate for JCI ontology, when in reality WES is a completely dependent subprogram of JCI. Without JCI to fight against, WES would never have achieved any prominence, except perhaps as an adjunct to engineering and economic development.
The greatest weakness of WES is that it denies the existence of any phenomenon incapable of empirical verification, automatically excluding the entire subjective domain of consciousness from its investigations. To deny the existence of consciousness is the ultimate absurdity; in the absence of consciousness, there simply are no other issues. Consciousness is the fundamental fact of human existence; to remove it from the center of the pursuit of knowledge is the fatal error ultimately causing the crash of JCI. For without scientific knowledge of consciousness, human life is simply meaningless. Nevertheless, JCI has become so dependent on WES that the fatal error in the latter inevitably leads to the crash of the entire system.
The Technological Singularity
The problem with WES is that it generates so much novel meaning that the JCI system cannot process it all. A simple review of any scientific field will reveal that the dominant theories change over time, as new experimental data and interpretations accumulate. In fact, the rate of change in scientific theories is accelerating. New data piles up at such a rate that in many cases, scientists don’t have time to review it until years after the original observations. New fields are being created, new applications developed, and new products engineered so fast that our present communication, educational and economic systems cannot absorb them all without becoming unstable. A corollary fact is that every new technological advance introduces unforeseen problems that often require extensive remediation.
Just consider the fact that the entire fossil-fuel industry has been obsolete for decades, since the discovery of biodiesel and other vegetable-based internal-combustion engine fuels. The present oil wars, and all the bloodshed and suffering connected with them, are unnecessary and useless; eventually the oil will run out and we will be forced to implement an alternative anyway; why not just do it now and save all the trouble? The answer is that such a technological shift would destabilize the global economy to such an extent that the resulting conflict and suffering might be far worse than the current Mideast mess.
Science and technology, running the WES ontology, have changed our world and thought paradigms with increasing frequency over the centuries since the Enlightenment. We have gone from agricultural technology and hand tools to mechanical technology and machine tools, to electronic technology and software tools, in less than three centuries. Next will come nanotechnology and biotechnological tools; what kind of changes will they make in our lives? The fact is that no one knows for sure.
Philosophers of science Vernor Vinge, Ray Kurzweil and others predict that, as nanotechnology and artificial intelligence engineering converge with biotechnology and advanced pure mathematics research, computers will become so powerful that they will be able to design and manufacture ever-more-powerful computers without human intervention. This will produce computers many times more intelligent than human beings. In fact, human beings may even wire themselves into such computers to enhance their analytical abilities.
At that time, the generation of novel information will expand so rapidly that for all practical purposes, it will become infinite. Note that this may occur in a matter of only days or weeks from the time the first human-equivalent computer goes online. No one can imagine what a computer equivalent to a very smart human, thinking millions of times faster than we can, will do. The resulting ontological discontinuity is the Ontological Time Bomb, often termed ‘the Singularity.’ The impact of the Singularity on our lives will be immense, profound and inescapable. What is the use of a newspaper, when things are changing so fast that the news is obsolete before the ink is dry? What is the use of mines, smelters, factories, transportation and distribution systems when you can use nanomanufacturing techniques to make automobiles out of sunlight and dirt? But then, what is the use of an automobile when you can just jack into a computer and have any experience you want, anytime?
These issues will break down both the JCI and WES ontologies. Concerned scientists aware of the coming technological Singularity are trying their best to warn the government and educate influential people, but it is difficult for non-scientists even to comprehend the issue. The fact is that knowledge is power, and the generation of infinite knowledge is potentially infinite power—if anyone can understand the meaning of it all. The explosion of knowledge created by the Singularity will paradoxically result in a vacuum of meaning, as the pioneers of human-machine intelligence so far outstrip their unenhanced human peers that communication may become all but impossible, even among ordinary people.
How could such a thing happen? Meaning is much more powerful than mere knowledge or information. Consider the simple equation E = mc2. Every schoolchild ‘knows’ that it signifies the equivalence of matter and energy; but what does this expression mean? Can you use it to build an atomic bomb? To understand the meaning of the equation well enough to apply it in practice, we first have to understand the definition of each term and symbol. This alone would require a postgraduate education in physics and mathematics.
Therefore, the difficulty is not in creating new knowledge; any thoughtful or creative person can do that; in fact I am doing it right now by writing this essay. The challenge facing all of us, individually and collectively for the foreseeable future, is and will be to keep up with the meaning of novel symbols and unprecedented events in a world where change itself is reaching critical mass and exploding like a nuclear weapon. This is the Singularity or Ontological Time Bomb.
Surviving the Singularity
There is no question that whoever develops and controls the first computer with greater-than-human intelligence—in other words, whoever creates the Singularity—will control the world. The question is whether the rest of the world, seeing that moment approaching, will sit back and let it happen without taking some kind of action.
At the present time, such a project is affordable only by large national governments. Due to the acceleration of technological advancement, the longer one waits to start a Singularity Project, the cheaper and quicker it will be to attain the result. The Center for Responsible Nanotechnology recently estimated the cost of such a project started in 2010 at about US$ 1 billion, certainly within the research budget of many large corporations—and rogue nations—and could lead to the Singularity in as little as two years. The present cost might be ten times that, and take five to eight years to completion.
Therefore by now there is almost certainly at least one secret government project to develop such a computer, and more likely several. The Singularity will come, for the economic and strategic benefits from the technology are compelling. The problem is that one of the larger nations in the race to attain the Singularity may begin to think it is in second place. In their eyes, that may justify a military action against whichever nation is perceived as being the leader. Along with the coming global shortages of natural resources caused by global warming and overpopulation, the prospect of another World War is almost certain. Once again, the psychosis of war will convulse our planet. Therefore the real question is, will any of us survive it to enjoy the benefits of the advanced technology we are about to produce?
The key to surviving the devastation of the JCI/WES ontology by the Ontological Time Bomb of the Singularity is to invent, find or subscribe to a better and more powerful ontology. Of course, this is much easier said than done. To survive the explosion of the Ontological Time Bomb and the resulting vacuum of meaning, one must possess an ontology sufficiently robust to contain both the previous ontology, and the tremendous energy and inestimable creative fecundity of the Singularity. The one certainty is that no ontology developed by limited human intelligence will be capable of dealing with the Singularity, which by definition is an event caused by greater-than-human intelligence. To meet the challenge of the Singularity, we must therefore search for a valid ontology that is also a product of greater-than-human intelligence.