The Human Condition:

Two Different Worlds – September 24, 2017

Robot juggling

I am a technophile and a technological positivist. Maybe that’s because I am the son of a mechanical engineer, and my first toy at about the age of three was a breadboard lightbox my father made for me in his shop. It had a row of toggle switches under a row of tiny light bulbs with different colored lenses. Throwing the switches one way and another made different patterns light up. The box and the patterns didn’t mean anything, of course, but for a three-year-old … Whee!1

So, when I think about technology, I think about machines moving us to new places, creating fascinating new things and opportunities, expanding human muscle power and, now, with the advent of computers and, soon, with ubiquitous and useful forms of artificial intelligence, expanding human brain power and imagination. Some people can only see the horrors of modern technology: engineered plagues, nuclear war, crushed human skulls, killer robots, and Skynet “deciding our fate in a microsecond.” Instead, I see the benefits: new medicines, new knowledge with more access for greater numbers of people, new freedom to pursue personal talents and interests, more leisure time to develop oneself, a longer lifespan with better prospects, cleaner food and living conditions, and better plumbing. Also—let’s be frank here—sleeker, more powerful cars and motorcycles, faster travel over greater distances, vastly improved toys, and huge new access to books and information both for reading pleasure and for reference usage, and to music and movies for sheer entertainment.2

All of this, of course, is in the developed countries of the West. Here we have the cultural wonders of the world and every fact you could want to know just streaming through the air. And we pull them all down into the palms of our hands with miniaturized television sets that are also our telephones, telegraph offices, music players, cameras for both still photography and video, plus our note taker, schedule keeper, calorie tracker, calculator, language translator, map book, bank manager, local directory, GPS coordinator, and purveyor of every other function that can run on bits and bytes. Oh, and it’s a flashlight. But the unit in your hand is actually worth nothing—except maybe as a flashlight—without all of that information, entertainment, and storage capacity, which has already been loaded onto the worldwide web and made instantly available through the various cellular networks and local wireless repeaters.

As I’ve said many times before, we are on an express escalator to the future. The ride started sometime in the 17th century with thinkers like Sir Isaac Newton and Blaise Pascal, with the scientific method—which codified the way to tell what really works from mere wishful thinking—and with modern ideas about risk management and modern investment banking. Short of an asteroid strike or a nuclear war, the ride won’t stop until … ever, or the sun burns out. Every time we think that human knowledge has reached its limit, that human ingenuity has thought up all the new things that might exist, and that human inventiveness and technological history are at an end—as the U.S. Patent Office Commissioner declared in 1843, just after the birth of the steam locomotive—only then do we discover a vast new realm of cosmological complexity involving dark matter and dark energy, or a vanishingly small universe of quantum effects and multiple dimensions, along with a whole new mathematics to coordinate it all.

We in the West have gone far beyond using material things as tools and weapons: this is a hammer for pounding things; that is a knife for cutting things. We now use computers to mine data, sort minutia, and sift facts in search of patterns that a human being could never detect, because our organic brains have limited attention spans and low boredom thresholds. With computer systems like IBM’s Watson—the program that could draw on a huge database of cultural, historical, and scientific references plus a jumble of odd facts to win at the television game Jeopardy, which also required it to detect puns, solve wording puzzles, and untangle peculiar spellings—we now have computers that can virtually program themselves. A human no longer needs to know an arcane language and symbol set like Fortran or C++ or JavaScript to make use of a computer or a database. Just ask your question in plain English, and the computer program will parse it into a proper query, search out possible answers, and array them for you, along with weighted probabilities as to which is the answer you are seeking.

More than that, we are on the verge of using computers to advance our inventiveness. In my two-volume novel Coming of Age, I explore—among many other devices and artifacts of the near future—computer programs that use a form of directed evolution to make new and improved products.3 The computer can be programmed with a simulated environment, like a wind tunnel, and supplied with a product to perform in that environment, like an airfoil. By making random changes in the shape of the airfoil; testing it in the simulated wind stream; evaluating its anticipated performance for lift, stability, or some other characteristic; and then either discarding or keeping and further modifying the shape, the program can improve the design along some specified parameter. And it can do this in minutes or seconds, where a human designer working with sheet metal, hammers, and actual air streams would take months and spend thousands or millions of dollars on labor, energy, and raw materials.

We no longer domesticate and breed whole, live animals and plants to support our agriculture and pharmacology—and soon our industrial chemical processes. Instead, we work directly with genetic sequences to alter and improve the performance of enzymes, proteins, biological drugs, and microbes. As one example, the biotech entrepreneur Craig Venter recently sent a crew of geneticists around the world, sampling and sequencing the DNA of plankton in the oceans. They were not looking for new species per se, although they discovered that genetic variation in the oceans on a spacing as narrow as twenty miles apart indicated that what we had once thought were separate species of organisms are actually one step more complex, as separate genera, each with its own associated species. No, the team in Venter’s Sorcerer II was looking for new genetic tools: the DNA for new proteins, enzymes, and complex biological interactions that would help them design new microbes as chemical factories. Why hunt for oil in the ground when you can teach an algae cell to use photosynthesis to formulate an oil-like lipid and secrete it, so that it floats to the surface of the pond and can be skimmed off and refined into fuel?

This is the world we inhabit in the West. It is a place of wonders that is only going to get stranger and more wonderful as the years pass and our science advances beyond even an educated layperson’s understanding. But there is another world out there—much of it in Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and South America—where this kind of scientific thinking is indistinguishable from magic. And many of these cultures are already turning away from Western science and technology, reverting to the old-time religion of Islam and the notion that a young man is adequately educated if he attends the madrasa and can memorize and repeat passages from the Quran. In these countries, he is preparing to dedicate himself to holy struggle against the influence of the West. And a young woman does not need any education at all, because she is only good for keeping her chastity and bearing children. Much of the world is still rural, tribal, and isolated. They might, if they are urban and lucky, drive a car, use a cell phone, and watch their local soccer team on television. But the rest of what we in the West take for granted is a mystery to them. This is a world whose technological high-water mark falls somewhere in the mid-1950s and is now slowly slipping back to the 16th century.

The solution here is not to stop our progress in the West, to slip backwards ourselves so that the rest of the world need not feel ashamed. Instead, we need to help the world break out of its rural, tribal isolation and engage in the benefits that the new computerized, automated, science-driven culture can bring.

But we have our own challenges in the West. Our education system has not kept up with—indeed, is falling behind—the advance of our science. We do graduate a functional percentage of our population able to practice and advance the new sciences, technologies, engineering disciplines, and mathematics—the STEM subjects. And we do still have a fractionally greater percentage, like myself, who can appreciate what’s happening and how these things work. But we also have a much larger population of people who are not getting an adequate education in either the sciences or the humanities, who are stuck in high schools that try to prepare everyone for college matriculation and ignore the practical technical and service vocations, and who are not prepared to develop themselves in the freedom and with the leisure time that all these advances will make possible.

I believe that the new technologies, especially artificial intelligence, can be put to use here. We need to prepare students at an individual level, help them identify their own unique talents and interests, help them conceive of new ways that they can add value to society and seek a satisfying life in a world we probably cannot yet describe or even imagine. If I were younger and starting out, I would take a Watson-like program and give it a database that combined psychology, economics, human capability, and aptitude testing. I would introduce each student to this program at the end of grade school or early in middle school and let the machine probe and test the boy or girl, find out what they were good at and what they liked to do, and then design a course of study for them. If a child liked to work with his or her hands, had an affinity for shapes and functions, and had sufficient patience, the program might steer him or her into carpentry, woodworking, or fine furniture making. The coursework would include not only woodshop, tool use, design, and mechanics, but also the economics of running a small business, marketing to attract customers, and training techniques to eventually expand the business with helpers and apprentices. Repeat this as necessary for future bakers, musicians, artists, and violin makers.

Why teach people these old skills? Because in a world where robots can do the boring, repetitive, rote jobs that humans now do in factories, where computers can sort and pack products and tally the invoices and the dollars, and where every basic human need can be supplied with a machine-made good, people will still crave beauty, skill, and human vision. We will still want a chair, a cake, a song, or a painting made by a human hand that is driven by human vision, emotion, and imagination.

When the machines have set us free, we will still need some dimension in which we can all be uniquely … human.

1. And that may explain why I am inexorably drawn to anything with a screen and keyboard, especially miniature computers, smart telephones, synthesizers with lots of lights, and electronic test equipment. Whee!

2. To give just one example, when I was growing up, a new movie played in the local theater for about two weeks. After that, it disappeared for about two years. And then the local network might broadcast it on television on a Saturday night, where it would be cut up with commercials and appear only in black-and-white. If you lived in a major city, there might be a repertory theater somewhere specializing in movies from the past ten or twenty years or so. And in any case, you only saw the movie or the broadcast at the scheduled time and couldn’t pause it or back up for a favorite scene. Otherwise, you had two chances in life to see a beloved movie, and those were years apart. Now, with streaming and disks, you can see anything you want anytime you want. This is a wonder.

3. See, for example, Evolution and Intelligent Design from February 24, 2013.