Saturday, October 22, 2011

Afghanistan & The Drake Equation

I spent last weekend in NYC at the singularity summit, listening to very bright geeks of various kinds talking about recent/near-future changes in technology, in the rate of change of technology, in the funding and organization of technology, and thus how everything may soon (unknown but likely-small number of decades, say) become very very much better/worse. (See listing here.)And a few speakers, notably cosmologist Max Tegmark, talked about the Drake Equation and how the fact that we haven't heard from other civilizations, even though we now know that extrasolar planets are common, means there's a roadblock somewhere: either the evolution of life and intelligence is unusual, or there's something up ahead of us that civilizations tend not to survive, like maybe the Singularity itself. (I think he's oversimplifying; I'd call the roadblock theory highly probable but it's not the only explanation for silence.) Then I came back to Hamilton in time to walk up the hill to listen to journalist Kim Barker talk about Afghanistan and how the "good war" went she filled a notebook, some years back, with interviews and background with seventeen people and as of this year, they're all dead, and the Obama announcement that we are definitely out by a particular date means that counter-insurgency can't work. (Copies of her Taliban Shuffle book were stacked up in the back of the hall, but the last time I bought signed books at a Project Afghanistan lecture the author was killed soon after and well, I dunno, I didn't feel like doing that; so I downloaded the Kindle version and started reading it on my phone, while waiting for the lecture to start. Maybe I should have asked her to sign my phone.)

For me, there really is an existential threat in here. I can only repeat what I wrote almost five years ago:

The situation is bad. Still, I don't think we're in trouble yet. Trouble is when we have half a million or so dead Americans and a tens of millions dead around the world. Big trouble is lots, lots worse than that. You don't think it can happen? You think terrorism is an overhyped nuisance? Well, I sort of agree: it can't happen now, at least I don't think so, and terrorism now is in some ways an overhyped nuisance. I'm talking about a timeframe that probably doesn't start for ten years, and might not start for thirty. But it will start. In the thirty-one years since I started working on my PhuD in computer science, Moore's Law has increased computer bang-for-the-buck by a factor of approximately one million: 20 doublings. People haven't changed. In the next thirty years, technology will go on getting more so, and up to a point (past which I have no predictions) people will go on not changing. That's the problem.

And Gaddafi was killed this week; probably a good thing, just as Hussein's death was probably a good thing, but not exactly a guarantee that tomorrow in Libya will be a better day than yesterday. I'm glad that Obama has continued Bush's Big Bang of disrupting dictators, glad that our investment in drone technology is paying off, really worried about his promise to get out, really really worried that (apart from such promises) we're in Bush's third term in the bad ways as well as the good ways -- in particular, attacking troops and citizens of a foreign country without Congressional authorization and pretending that it's not legally a "war", apparently on the ground that he's not putting troops on the ground. Yeah, right. And it also won't be a war when vastly improved drone tech spreads to many countries including Pakistan, North Korea, Iran, etc., up to the point when some descendant of Sunrise I in the air or perhaps Spray in the water ( Underwater Robot Makes History...Spray has a range of 6,000 kilometers, or about 3,500 miles, which means it could potentially cross the Atlantic Ocean and other ocean basins...) pays us a return visit, with payload upgraded far beyond what Pakistan's nukes can now do.

Near the start of the Singularity Summit, PayPal founder/billionaire Peter Thiel was worrying about the slowdown in innovation in the "developed" countries, about the way that so much of our (very real, really excellent despite current difficulties) global improvement statistics simply reflect copying of our tech into China and India and others. And I was thinking that this is worse than he thinks it is, because it's not just about economics: it's about the fact that the (moderately) liberal democracies have a technological edge which we need them to keep. And maybe they will, maybe they won't. Thiel believes regulation is holding us back, that a lot of what we now depend on is stuff which we wouldn't be legally able to develop now if we hadn't already developed it -- well, I believe that too. Will we keep the edge we need? Maybe.

Still, I have here an actual physical copy of Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined and it does suggest that maybe my statement above that "People haven't changed" is oversimplified. Even with WWI and WWII, and the Nazi and communist slaughter+starvation of scores of millions, people in the 20th century were several times less likely to die violently (that's counting starvation-by-government as violent death, as it should) than the people whose bones tell us about life and death thousands of years back, or the hunter-gatherer societies we've studied more recently. (See Will Wilkinson's commentary, which I pretty much trust.) Of course Neolithic violence was not an existential risk; the 20th century brought us lower means but higher standard deviations, so to speak. We needed Petrov to be there, doing his job; that did not apply to any previous century. If things are getting better, maybe we can survive without future Petrovs, or maybe there will always be one around when we need him (or her).

Or then again, maybe not.

Footnote: I said above that the "roadblock theory" wasn't, I think, the only explanation for interstellar silence in a galaxy of many planets. Clearly one possibility is that species with enough "aggressiveness" to proceed to interstellar activity have enough real aggressiveness to destroy themselves. I'll list four others; I'm sure there are many. First, most attractive in a way, would be a moral dynamics sort of explanation: the species which develop morally (to the point of non-interference with primitives like us) are exactly the ones which don't wipe themselves out. Next would be a physics explanation: expansionist species discover physics which we haven't found yet, physics which lets them create bubble universes that it's easy to expand into so they never bother with the actual galaxy. Next would be a simulation-version of that: expansionist species wind up discovering that they can simulate the universes they want, and upload themselves into the simulations...same thing. And finally, for now, would be the now-familiar notion that we are in a simulation -- there are no other species not because we're bound for destruction but because we're the one being simulated. (And as I was typing this, my daughter came to say she'd finally finished the Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke; we're probably in one of his universes. Should that be a reassuring thought? "Cancel Programme GENESIS"..."Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out."..."The crusade will reach the vicinity of Earth about the year 2050." So it goes.)

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