Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Singularity Will Fix It (or Don't Worry, Be Techie)

I had kind of a silly thought today, which may bear some truth, or may just be a laugh for nerds. If you're not familiar with the work of Ray Kurzweil, he is an inventor, technology enthusiast and futurist. What's a futurist? It's exactly what it sounds like. Kurzweil is well known for discussing the technological/sociological idea of singularity, the point when technological development accelerates at a near vertical curve and it's therefore advances faster than its impacts can be understood. The idea of artificial inteligence surpassing our own is central to this concept, but singularity can be applied on a smaller scale can be applied to one area of technology too. For example, the fact that information will soon be unlimited and instant in its storage and exchange could be thought of as a mini-singularity.

This morning I was thinking about environment and technological advance and my own prediction that all-electric vehicles will be completely the norm by 2050 (more on that later). Thinking about that year reminded me of the year 2030. That year is a memory error, but I kept it in because documenting my own thought process is something I do here. The real year is 2045, I was thinking of this article about Kurzweil's prediction of the singularity, and particular, human/digital technology integration at this year. It is a really cool article, but talking any more about it will digress too far from my point.

Here is the silly thought I actually had. If information processing and humanity's bonding with it really increase on a kurzweilian scale...one of two things is possible in our approach/response to climate change.

1. We suddenly gain the (nearly artificial intelligence) ability to compile and understand ALL of the data so quickly that we are able to discern truth. My computer is already able to do something like this on a small scale. It can take ALL the data of voltages running in and out of my battery, and represent it as a REAL LIFE amount of time that my computer can stay running. With immense information technology acceleration and possible integration with human brains, it's possible that we could process enough data to make a real life representation of truth in climate science. If our interconnectedness allows this kind of result to be shared (and not just given from an authority), it's possible that a social consensus will exist. Is that too wordy and unfunny of a way to say all that? Probably. If Kurzweil thinks that the singularity will happen mid century, then before then we will know, and possibly know together if climate change is dangerous.

2. Technology will exist to modify the climate before we even know if we need to. Most of Kurzweil's predictions come from an understanding of Moore's Law, the speed at which processor architecture can be miniaturized and therefore the advancement of digital processing power. It's the kind of mathematical analysis that produces the idea that eventually that kind of thing will accelerate faster than our understanding. This kind of thing can clearly be observed in consumer technology. Today's iPhone is orders of magnitude more powerful, orders of magnitude smaller, and orders of magnitude cheaper than mid to late 20th century supercomputers. Infrastructure and large scale industrial technology, however, doesn't really increase this fast...even if it could theoretically. Sometimes it doesn't have to. India is leapfrogging fossil fuels in favor of solar. The same thing happened in Africa as it became clear that giving someone in the middle of the Serengeti Plain a cell phone  (I have seen this) was far cheaper and far more effective than running a landline there.  Regardless of the conservative bashing that renewables tend to take...it's possible their beloved market might make them tenable anyway. So on the technology side, we might engineer something like carbon sequestration, or just develop clean energy way faster than we think we can.


As I write these thoughts out...they don't strike me as funny as they did when they first came to me. This was on a bus very early in the morning, and the thought wasn't this wordy for sure. It was more like "Electric cars at 2050? Well if we're going to be androids in 2030 we will probably either know with certainty or have solved climate change." And then I decided to write it up, which turned into more of a wordy speculation than anything, but that's ok.

It will be interesting to see where Big Data and Moore's Law take us as we contend with the ways our development and our planet intersect. Maybe more on that later.

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