One assumption most people share is the past and present are casually linked. Like Lego bricks we build the present out of the tiny blocks we’ve received from the past. Disruptions break that casual link and throw out the old building components and way of thinking. How we think about literature, technology, politics, history or culture is bounded by our knowledge, imagination, and processing ability. We draw meaning from this causal link. Break that link and we are cut adrift, scrambling to find alternatives to substitute for meaning. The technological disruption is so vast the cultural gravity can’t accompany it. Like a collapsed star, such a disruption creates a black hole in the culture. Nothing can escape from the forces of such a disruptive black hole. Cultural gravity becomes null and void.
Discontinuity happens at the personal level. If you’ve left your home culture and not returned for twenty years, you will discover a wide gap between what you remember about the cultural life and what presently forces have shaped the culture. It is hard to pick up the thread because so much of it has been woven into a new suit of clothes. Your family and friends wear those new clothes. They look different; they are different. They have discarded the clothes you remember. They have moved on; your memory has kept culture static and eternally the same. Their views and behavior are no longer predictable. You are missing too much relevant information.
This kind of small-scale discontinuity is one that would have existed for many generations. It isn’t new. What is new is the very real possibility of large-scale discontinuity that will follow by a major technological disruption. In the event of a great disruption, the rules of the game change. The disruption is an act of violence; it is mass murder of a whole industry, economic system or culture. The asymmetry separates the past and present. A bridge is destroyed in time, leaving the past irrelevant as a guide to the future. A disruption at the high level washes away the assumptions people relied on to create identity, their sense of self and institutions that serve and protect their collective selves. But until that time we won’t know the new game or rules.
I can’t see exactly what that disruption will be any more than someone in 1900 could foresee the technology in cars, planes, television or the disruptions to transportation and communications systems, to the growth of urban centers, and the resulting political and economic shifts that followed. It is, in other words, impossible to analyze what you don’t know. It is also impossible to predict outcomes based on projecting what technology might look like based on our current knowledge. But there are two places to start an inquiry into the source of discontinuity: Intelligence and Space.
Memory Storage and Information Processing capacity
Very intelligent people like very tall people are rare. In a way, they are freaks. Yet the qualifier ‘very’ is misleading. A man who is 2.52 meters in height is indeed very tall. But there is no man who is 4.3 meters tall. The same kind of limitation is found in human intelligence. If you have an IQ 30 points or more above average you have a life long built-in advantage at school, university, work, recognition, and status. Here are some famous names with much higher IQs such as World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov, Sir Isaac Newton, Francois-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) and Ludwig Wittengstein. Each one had an IQ of 190. American actor James Woods isn’t far behind with an IQ of 180. A high IQ is no guarantee of works of genius. An American Christopher Michael Langan, whose occupation is listed as a bouncer, has an IQ of 195.
To put this in perspective persons with the highest IQs are roughly twice as ‘intelligent’ as the average person. Twice as smart is as impressive as is twice as fast or strong. We admire and shower attention, prizes and glory on such individuals. Genius is an individual prize. That is a common cultural artifact though any scientist will tell you that the collective minds of many scientists are essential for most of our modern breakthroughs. The reality is we listen to and supply money through private and public sources to very smart people on the basis that such intelligence can be valuable to increasing competitive advantages.
We also have a sense of fear and intimidation in the knowledge that such very smart people can run circles around the rest of us. We admire what we fear. What defines these high IQ individuals is their memory storage and processing abilities. They remember far more than the rest of us and can process new information at a much faster rate. We also look to these people especially in the arts and sciences to provide a hint of what disruptions will next ripple through the cultural gravity that holds people together with their communal institutions.
So far no one who is twice as intelligent as the average person has used those abilities to cause a major discontinuity. While he or she is very smart and clever, they remain recognizably human with most of the same failings, flaws, and emotional limitations as the rest of us. The big ‘what if’ question is what happens if intelligence isn’t double the average, but ten times, a hundred times, a hundred thousand or million times the average. We can’t predict the meaning, use and intentions of such intelligence should it come about.
Intuitively, we can assume an intelligence a hundred thousands greater than human intelligence would likely cause a major discontinuity between the past, present and future. The potential of AI or artificial intelligence is seeking to find this pathway. World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov was defeated at chess by an IBM computer called Big Blue. While Big Blue couldn’t ‘think’ in metaphors, write poetry, or cook a pizza, it could calculate the implications of possible moves on the chess board (there are only so many fixed moves) and come up with a probability of outcome. Big Blue’s speed of calculation far exceeded that of Kasparov. It was a humiliation for our species when a machine could beat one of our most experienced and intelligent members. We can minimize the psychological blow from Big Blue by taking the position that the computer software was indeed ‘intelligent’ but only in a highly narrow way and resorted to ‘brute force’ (which works well in a limited context turned up at high speed rates of processing in the computer) rather than ‘reason’ to justify each move on its way to victory over Kasparov.
This may be a glimpse of the beginning of machine intelligence that cannot be beaten by the intelligence of any living human being. There are debates inside the AI community as to how and when an intelligence of a qualitative and quantitative magnitude will emerge, and there is no consensus. We don’t know enough about how to define ‘intelligence’ to have a good handle on the underlying issues needed to be understood before theory and engineering can advance. It might be ten years, or it might be one or two hundred years before such AI appears. Significant developments in our understanding of quantum physics, neuroscience, biology and chemistry must first be made before we have a workable definition of ‘intelligence.’
Once we reach that stage, the question will be: how will we know that an intelligence a million times faster than any human being comes into being? If it is a gradual process, a system progressively getting smarter, we can prepare ourselves. But there is the possibility that an AI system could through self-learning, and rewriting the rules of AI itself (recursive systems), could spring into existence in a week. In the latter case, there would be no warning and may be no evidence either. And an intelligence of that kind might be able to conceal itself or even if the raw information of its presence reached us, we would fail to comprehend its scope and scale. Its very nature may exist behind a veil that can’t be pierced much like a honey bee flying over an expressway between fields of flowers doesn’t comprehend the traffic below.
Recursive Artificial Intelligence, once it emerges, will be disruptive across the board and will likely cause a level of discontinuity that calls into question a host of existential questions about the place and role of our species. For example, human cognition, perception and behavior is largely shaped by culture, which defines how we perceive space, time, beauty, respect, fear, and how we learn to read the intentions of others, and create meaning of self. Culture and cognition, like space and time, are a knitted together. It is difficult to imagine what equivalent role, if any, our idea of ‘culture’ will play in a super-intelligent agent. Or the role of emotions which make us laugh, dance, cry and sing.
This AI is not using brute force; it is using something very much like the associative learning of a human being. From jobs, the finance, governance, warfare, secrecy, and consumption is flipped in a week. That’s maximal disruption; and it’s systemic discontinuity which is another way of saying evolution bring warp speed changes without any of the gradual changes that normally accompany change. All parts of the system, the interrelationships and interdependencies become unstable and no longer function. Such an event will change the stories we tell about ourselves. It will change how we perceive ourselves and others. It will change our views about coercion, incentives, morality and arguments.
Our relationships (historically i.e., pre-Internet) have been defined by three-dimensional space. Your immediate neighbors (if you live in a condo) are those who live people above you, below, and to your left and right. We have lived most of our existence inside this spatially limited box. When I arrived in Thailand twenty-five years ago, the Thais from upcountry came from villages and towns where they had never seen a farang. Many of them had never seen a Thai-Chinese from Bangkok either. Isolation and ignorance of other people and cultures has been the by-product of our limited physically defined spatial reality.
Like the cap on intelligence, the cap on how we experience space, despite other technological developments, has maintained our continuity with the perceptions of those who lived before us. Strangers lived in another physical space. They had to make a physical effort to move their bio-mass to our village. At most, people had a social relationship with a hundred or so people. The Dunbar Number (i.e., you can have a social relationship with up to 150 people; you individually know these people but after you exceed that number, you need bureaucracy to communicate or the relationship structure breaks down) arises from this spatial limitation.
In a low-dimensional space I can find anyone so long as I have two fixed points of reference: their latitude and longitude. Give me those numbers and I’ll deliver the person in that space.
We are mostly spatially illiterate. Douglas Adams in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy wrote that space is very big.
A recent article in the Economist (which quotes Adams) gives an example of how big it really is.
“During the cold war America spent several years and much treasure (peaking in 1966 at 4.4% of government spending) to send two dozen astronauts to the Moon and back. But on astronomical scales, a trip to the Moon is nothing. If Earth—which is 12,742km, or 7,918 miles, across—were shrunk to the size of a sand grain and placed on the desk of The Economist’s science correspondent, the Moon would be a smaller sand grain about 3cm away. The sun would be a larger ball nearly 12 metres down the hall. And Alpha Centauri B would be around 3,200km distant, somewhere near Volgograd, in Russia.”
Our current technology would take us about 75,000 years to go 4.4 light years to Alpha Centauri B and that is in a universe that is 13.8 billion light years. Adams was right about the universe being big. We don’t occupy cosmological space except before dinner when we want a thought experiment to take us away from being hungry. We occupy a social relationship space. The people we are going to have dinner with have infinitely more pull on our choice, desires, and actions than Alpha Centauri B. However, should we ever overcome the energy requirements to travel through cosmological space, the discontinuity would be immense. We don’t need to leave the planet to find a significant change has occurred in our sense of space.
Lee Smolin’s Time Reborn discusses our ‘low-dimensional’ world before modern technology expanded the dimensions beyond anything anyone who time traveled from 1900 to our world of 2013. Who could have conceived that a villager in rural Thailand, Burma, India or China with a cell-phone had the possibility of more than two billion possible connections? Smolin notes that with the Internet we have created a higher-dimensional space and many people are migrating to and living their lives inside this new digital space. Physical space, where we heard, told and shared our stories has been restructured into digital space.
In the early 1990s I wrote a novel titled The Big Weird in which I explored how a Bangkok sex worker used an avatar online to expand the dimensions in which she could find customers from the physical bar. The space in which people meet is no longer the same as our grandparents’ generation.
Smolin writes, “In a high-dimensional world with unlimited potential for connection, you’re faced with many more choices than in the physical three dimensions.” The next progression in thinking is, space is an ‘illusion’ masking a deeper reality of networks. Our sense of space is our way of understanding our connections to one another. Connections can be open or closed. That suggests a world where people occupy different spatial frames.
Importing latitude and longitude from the low-dimensional world is no longer useful. One would have thought someone inside the US intelligence community would have made the point that tracking inside networks no longer fully corresponds with low-dimensional space tracking. When someone leave low-dimensional space and ‘disappear’ into a network, who are they sharing that space with, what information and resources are involved? What is the scope of privacy and secrecy inside networks in this new high-dimensional space? We are beginning to ask the questions and find some consensus that the broader community ought to be engaged in deciding how government and private enterprise patrol higher dimensional space.
Governments are having difficulty coming to grasp with the implications of a higher dimensional place to store and publish stories. When members of the British intelligence services arrived at the offices of the Guardian and demanded to produce a computer that could be destroyed even though they knew the ‘space’ where Snowden’s documents were stored made the act an empty gesture except as a kind of old-fashioned brute intimidation that carried a whiff of medieval times rather dealing with the issue of multiple copies strewn through digital space. It seems even governments can’t understand, adjust or control the spatial disruptions that in large part they are responsible for funding. They appear like the Keystone cops running around as if latitude and longitude still rule the spatial dimension that they have themselves have helped to destroy, leaving an interesting contradiction for us to contemplate. The expansion into higher dimensional space calls into question who and where is the journalist? Journalism is a good example of a casualty of disruption waiting in ER with no doctor able to determine the extent of the injury.
That separation of space sensibility creates discontinuity. Those who live in a pre-Internet world occupy a different ‘space’ than those who are connected digitally to billions of others. The old term for the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ was formulated to look at living standards and wealth disparity. The political, social and economic influences of the old distinction have been the stuff of literature throughout the ages. It has existed long enough to shape our thinking about social relationships, culture, history, and ideals such as social justice and fairness. When a high-dimensional space becomes accessible to the vast majority of people, what will happen to social, political and economic disparity?
We need a new literature that will examine this process of evolution into huge networks and what that means for individual opportunity, identity, and relationships—and what meaning is attributed to your position in physical space. Culture depends on low-dimensional space, a concept that is shared among all cultures. When that concept gradually comes to be seen as an illusion, the result will be to weaken the Cultural Gravity that has traditionally been the natural force holding together communities and people in them in the low-dimensional world. When space dissolves and networks become the login to reality, we can expect major discontinuity.
Think of the ‘space’ where you watch, listen to, or read news, or buy books or anything else. Then ask yourself how that space is different than the one you navigated ten years ago. Count all of those ‘new’ network connections you didn’t have back then. You have broken out of the low-dimension space in which you were born.
In many countries, one can find authorities passing laws to censor the new multi-dimensional space and to criminalize citizens in their interactions inside that space. That is gravity of the cultural type seeking to increase its force, seeking to reclaim the physical space inside digital space. It is the last gasp by authorities who fully understand that allowing people to roam inside the vast world of networks they run the risk of the old spatially bound narratives coming under attack and falling apart.
It is a real worry. People are anxious but so are institutions because we can’t look to the past as a guide how to react to this new idea about space. The result is repression to make people fearful about their interactions in digital space; they patrol the networks but the resources to monitor the higher dimensional space will never be sufficient.
There is no guarantee of safe passage into the future. But I suspect that books will evolve to examine our potential to live inside higher dimensional space with super-intelligent beings. That will take time. And by the time we have adjusted our visions, expectations, dreams and desires to accompany life inside a higher spatial dimension, we may discover it shared with an AI intelligence that, to our human sensibilities, performs cognition that appears like magic. How friendly will we find AI? How will a super-intelligent agent shape our experience of higher dimensional space? The bargain civilization has made is based on the idea that security will protect us against the worst aspects of ourselves—Homo homini lupus [man is wolf to man]. There may be a new, more dangerous wolf to worry about and our idea of civilization may not cage that new animal. Who will bell that wolf?