Babel and the Upper Limits of Human Reasoning

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Being raised in a fundamentalist sect meant taking the Genesis accounts as being a historical narrative.  I had been taught, and had for many years accepted without question, the idea that the veracity of the Gospel message hinged on the most ‘literal’ interpretation of the first book of the Biblical canon.

This understanding of this book had worked fine to get me through my school years.  I gave my high school biology teacher, Mr. Toohey, an atheist who had once considered the priesthood, a headache debating the textbook claims about mutations, millions of years, and Macro Evolution.  At this age, I thought this style of apologetics, debating science using the words of Scripture, was a key to securing the faithful against doubts and winning unbelievers.

Unfortunately, while this understanding may serve well those who do not venture too far from the Young-Earth Creationism intellectual ghetto, against what amounts to strawman versions of secularist arguments, it doesn’t hold up as nicely against a serious challenge and has left many religiously indoctrinated high and dry in their years in a university-level science program.  There is a reason why many in my former religious tradition are terrified of higher education. 

Even seminary was a synonym for cemetery to one of my childhood Bible-thumping pastors.  It should make one wonder.  If the foundation of faith is so flimsy that it can’t be tested, that it can only be sustained by ignorance, then what’s the point?

Sadly, it was a false choice, this dichotomy between science and religion, education and faith.

Getting the Cart Ahead of the Horse

The Biblical fundamentalists got everything exactly backward.  The truth of Christ does not depend on proving the Scripture, word for word, is completely 100% historically accurate and scientifically verifiable.  It is nice when those things do align, sure.  And yet, no matter how many mundane parts of the Biblical narrative are established this way, the fantastic claims are never proven.

If a politician lists off ten facts and nine of them turn up true according to the fact-checkers, does that make the final most grandiose claim true?

No, no it does not.

One of the most persuasive tricks of liars is to hide their one falsehood amongst a long list of facts and true statements.  And likewise, someone could prove 99.9% of Biblical claims and still not have touched anything of the miracles.  The Bible is true because it says it is true might work for idiots and the indoctrinated, but it is always circular reasoning and there being a town of Bethlehem doesn’t mean Jesus walked on water nor establish His divinity and conquering of death.

No rational person believes that a prophet flew from Jerusalem to Mecca, on a half woman half horse with a tail of a peacock, because they read it in a book.  I’m certainly not going to wear magical underwear because some dude, a few hundred years ago, claims he received golden tablets from the angel Gabriel.  So why would any reasonable person expect someone to believe a book written thousands of years ago?  Sorry, Ken Ham, I don’t care how many replica Arks you build, you’re not winning skeptical minds or hearts with this effort.

Human efforts fail. 

When Sarai reasoned with Abram to produce an heir through her maidservant, how did that go for them?

We know it didn’t go too well and have the commentary of St. Paul:

Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.  These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written: “Be glad, barren woman, you who never bore a child; shout for joy and cry aloud, you who were never in labor; because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.”  Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. But what does Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.”  Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.

(Galatians 4:21‭-‬31 NIV)

Here we see the contrast of human efforts “according to the flesh” and those of a spiritual and Divine origin.  St. Paul emphasizes the “son” which is “born by the power of the Spirit” as an alternative to the “son” human reasoning that produced conflict and heartache.

It is amazing how many times St. Paul, and Jesus before him, encountered those who believed Scripture word for word and rejected Jesus as Lord.  They, in many ways, had a stricter interpretation of the text than many of us do and did not face the strong headwind of modern science and philosophy either.  And yet, even meeting Jesus in the flesh, seeing him with their own eyes, taking Scripture as literally as anyone, they saw Jesus as the imposter and rejected Him.  So, how then can we be saved?

Fortunately, that question is answered many times over and over again, by St. Paul, and has next to nothing to do with the book of Genesis.  The truth of Scripture is established on Christ, and His church, which established the canon of Scripture and does those “greater things” that Jesus promised would come through the power of the Spirit.  Yes, we preach and teach, but only God can bring the increase.  So, the apologetics industry starts us out on the wrong foot and doesn’t produce true faith in Christ. 

Our salvation does not depend on our own understanding of a book.  St. Paul, in Romans 9:16, states clearly, that our sonship depends on God’s mercy, not human desire or effort.  Scripture is the cart, not the horse.  We accept that the Bible is true because we believe in Christ, and His Church, not because we can establish it through our human reasoning or effort.  Faith is a work of the Spirit, a gift from God, not a product of our knowledge or works.  Those trying to ‘prove’ the Bible are on a fool’s errand. trying to save themselves, slaves to human reasoning, lost and confused.

What Does That Have to Do with Babel?

Hopefully, the Noah rode on a T-Rex crowd is too triggered with that intro, because now we shift to something they may find more agreeable and that being the even greater monument to human reasoning and effort. 

But, first, the tower of Babel narrative:

Now the whole world had one language and a common speech.  As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.  They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar.  Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”  But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”  So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

(Genesis 11:1-9 NIV)

This story is likely the origin of the phrase, “men plan, God laughs.”  Actual historical event, ancient myth or both, does not matter, the tower of Babel narrative is so much more.  The account speaks to human limits and hubris, a true story told over and over again in history and a lesson repeated in different ways with each passing generation.  The moment humans forget their place, begin to rely on their own cleverness and start to see themselves equal to their own Creator, the clock to destruction begins to tick.

These people, in the Biblical account, had somehow overcome the odds, they evidently were a resource-rich civilization, more powerful than external threats, and ready to cement their name in history.  But just when heaven seemed within their grasp, the very thing that they had sought to avoid, being scattered, brought the entire endeavor grinding to a halt.  Now Babel, the name a play on words that meant “to confuse,” is a synonym for colossal human failure.  Sure, maybe it is an origin story for the diversity of language.  But, undeniably, it is also a cautionary tale.

Other accounts tell us that this confusion of languages, by God, was to save humanity from the total destruction of another flood.  In other words, it was an act of mercy to prevent an even greater calamity to end this project and scatter the people.  But, more than that, it is a lesson about not leaving God out of the equation.  What does that mean?  Well, that means that we can’t see everything and, without humility to reign in our ambitions, we are an existential threat to ourselves.  The proud fall because they cannot imagine the factors that they, in their overblown confidence, have missed.

Our Modern Towers of Human Arrogance

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.”

(Isaiah 29:14 NIV)

History is replete with examples of bold declarations followed by catastrophe.  Neville Chamberlain’s quip of having secured “peace in our time,” through a treaty with Adolf Hitler, comes to mind.  Hillary Clinton was, according to the experts, most definitely going to win over Donald Trump.

But now it is time to tie all these threads together.  The same thing that brought about the Protestant schism, also led to the Enlightenment, spread of Democracy, and, ultimately, the rejection of God. 

This “age of reason” got off to a relatively good start, scientific discovery, development of technology, and representive government has enabled us to be more free and prosperous that many prior generations.  However, as the tower of our knowledge and independent spirit rose, as we have made leaps in medicine, even landed a man on the moon, when American exceptionalism (the ultimate expression of Protestantism) finally conquered all, and our hegemony was nearly unchallenged, suddenly a day of reckoning seems to be upon us and this colossus, this oversized imagine of human endeavor, seems in danger of collapse.

A couple of decades ago it felt as if we were on the cusp of a new epoch.  Racism vanquished, our old enemies irrelevant, the world connected as never before, the internet ready to put all knowledge at our fingertips and the stars seemingly within our reach.  Secularism and science had triumphed over superstition and myth, we imagined no religion, nothing to kill or die for, as Coca-cola taught the world to sing.  Former seminaries, our universities, forgetting God, became temples of human reason.   “We didn’t need church or religion to be good people,” the atheists cried, while standing on the shoulders of theologians whom they dismissed, “in fact, we’ll go further without it!”

However, my own optimism has unravelled over the past decade or two. 

Star Trek and the Jetsons still remains, firmly, in the realm of science fiction.  The internet is a cesspool, filled with crackpot opinions, censored by billionaires bullies who pretend to be gatekeepers of truth while they spread misinformation, and nothing like a child of the 90s would’ve imagined.  As church attendance slips, depression and drug usage has steadily increased—along with suicides and mass shootings.

Our universities, rather than continue to value free thought and expression, now have strict speech codes and safe spaces.  The minds that once sought to improve the human experience, now only deconstruct tradition and erode the very ground that their institutional ivory towers were constructed upon, too drunk with nihilism to care.  Even Coke brand, that once celebrated human diversity, has joined the graceless cult of woke in attacking “whiteness” and civilization itself—as if they have forgotten what has made their own comfortable ‘privileged’ life possible. 

The government, “for the people,” that at least gestured towards the needs of the citizenry, now only serves global corporations, the powerful elites and special interests. The US flag, once a symbol of hope, the American ideal, and our unity as diverse people, something black athletes proudly wrapped themselves in less than a generation ago, has now been reimagined as a representation of oppression and hate. Our faith in our institutions is failing, the left decrying systemic racism, the right suspecting election fraud, nearly everyone feeling unheard.

We’re a civilization consuming itself and maybe it is because we’ve forgotten this:

You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

(Galatians 5:13‭-‬15 NIV)

We don’t go to church anymore, a trend that started before the pandemic and has only been accelerated, and “love your neighbor” is now used as a guilt trip rather than a reason to change our own toxic attitudes or be involved on behalf of others. John Kennedy’s call to service, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” Those words, spoken today, would likely be derided as some kind of dangerous “ism” in today’s me-first, my tribe, my way or the highway, divisive identity driven, you’re literally a Nazi if you disagree, political environment.

Have we reached new heights only to implode?

What is really going on here?

Pride Cometh Before the Fall

Satan, we’re told, was the very best of the angels. His magnificent greatness eventually led him to believe that he was a rival to God. Jesus warned his disciples, having returned exuberant from working miracles, that he had seen Satan “fall like lightening from heaven” (Luke 10:18) and reminded them of their place before the Almighty.

Hubris is the downfall of many and the idea that we can find all of the answers for ourselves is that. With each success, with every innovation and breakthrough, there is a danger and risk of overconfidence.

In the past few centuries have seen our knowledge and abilities increase like no other time in recorded human history. The West threw off the authority of Rome, with the reasoning that every man was able to comprehend Scripture outside of the tradition of the church. Not long after, the authority of Scripture itself was called into question. Why do we need a book of myths written by those who lack our sophistication and understanding of the world? God was erased from our institutions, prayers only a ceremonial and many imagine themselves to be self-made or little gods. It is the height of ignorance:

You turn things upside down, as if the potter were thought to be like the clay!  Shall what is formed say to the one who formed it, “You did not make me”  Can the pot say to the potter, “You know nothing”?

(Isaiah 29:16 NIV)

But it isn’t only the cultural elites, the atheists, the politicians who only pay lip service or liberal theologians whittling away at morality until there’s nothing left. This spirit of self-reliance, and arrogance, permeates through the whole civilization. We are blinded by information, buried in jargon, tangled in complexity, yet think we’re englightened.

We should be pumping the brakes, as technology advances faster than our ability to comprehend the consequences, I see it even (or especially) in those emerging from sheltered religious cloisters. Sure, the are the reactionaries, afraid of all change or improvement, but then there are those who have a little education and embrace it all nof realizing the potential. Our brightest minds are working on things much more dangerous than nuclear weapons, creating biological agents, developing artificial intelligence, considering climate altering measures, all potentially having the possibility of irreversible side-effects, and truly playing with fire.

Elon Musk—not a Luddite

We believe we are in control but are most definitely not and, with our new power, are one or two mistakes from an unmitigated disaster.

Like the tower of Babel, which likely took years of planning and building layer upon layer, our modern civilization was built. Our confidence has grown and exponentially along with our accomplishments. We’re clever, we found cures for disease, invented means to travel to the ends of the earth and beyond. But the higher we ascend the easier it is to forget what we are and where we came from. We didn’t create ourselves nor do we know as much as we think we know and this should always keep us humble.

Thinking we are God or next thing to God will, inevitability, lead to chaos, confusion and ultimate collapse into disorder. The bigger our collective endeavor gets, the more we live on our own reasoning and strength rather than depend on faith, the less able we are to cooperate, we erode the very foundations of civilization and the destruction will be swift. God, in His mercy, will scatter us before we become too foolish, with our great knowledge, to be saved. Human reasoning is a dead end, we cannot transcend ourselves outside of God’s help. If we reject that help we will fall.

Dangerous Complexity: What To Do About the Complex Problem of Complexity?

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Air-travel has become safer than ever and that due, in large part, to the increase in automated systems in the cockpit. However, with this advanced technology there comes a downside and the downside being that an otherwise perfectly functional aircraft (I.e., mechanically sound) with competent operators, can be lost because of a small electronic glitch somewhere in the system.

This issue was discussed, at length in response to the crash of Air France flight 447, an Airbus A330, in 2009, when an issue with an airspeed indicator and automated systems led to pilot confusion—which, in the end, resulted in a plunge into the ocean and the loss of all 228 people on board. The pilots were ultimately responsible for not responding in the correct way (they were in a stall and needed to push the nose down to recover lift) and yet the reason for their failure is as complex as the automated systems that were there to help them manage the cockpit.

It is this problem with advanced electronics that is summarized as a “systemic problem with complexity” in the quote below:

One of the more common questions asked in cockpits today is “What’s it doing now?” Robert’s “We don’t understand anything!” was an extreme version of the same. Sarter said, “We now have this systemic problem with complexity, and it does not involve just one manufacturer. I could easily list 10 or more incidents from either manufacturer where the problem was related to automation and confusion. Complexity means you have a large number of subcomponents and they interact in sometimes unexpected ways. Pilots don’t know, because they haven’t experienced the fringe conditions that are built into the system. I was once in a room with five engineers who had been involved in building a particular airplane, and I started asking, ‘Well, how does this or that work?’ And they could not agree on the answers. So I was thinking, If these five engineers cannot agree, the poor pilot, if he ever encounters that particular situation . . . well, good luck.” (“Should Airplanes Be Flying Themselves?,” The Human Factor)

More recently this problem of complexity has come back into focus after a couple disasters involving Boeing 737 MAX 8 and 9 aircraft. Initial reports have suggested that at an automated system on the aircraft has malfunctioned—pushing the nose down at low altitudes on take-offs as if responding to a stall—and with catastrophic consequences.

It could very well be something as simple as one sensor going haywire. It could very well be that everything else on the aircraft is functioning properly except this one small part. If that is the case, it certainly not something that should bring down an aircraft and would not have in years past when there was an actual direct mechanical linkage between pilot and control surfaces. But, now, since automated systems can override pilot inputs and take away some of the intuitive ‘feel’ of things in a cockpit, the possibility is very real that the pilots simply did not have enough time to sift through the possibilities of what was going wrong enough to diagnose the issue, switch to a manual mode, and prevent disaster.

The FAA, following after the lead of China and the Europeans, has decided to ground the entire fleet of Boeing 737 MAX 8 and 9 aircraft pending the results of the investigations. This move on the part of regulators will probably be a big inconvenience for air travelers. Nevertheless, after two incidents, and hundreds dead, it is better to take the precaution and get to the bottom of the issue.

https://twitter.com/realDonaldTrump/status/1105471621672960000

President Trump’s off-the-cuff Twitter response, basically stating “the complexity creates danger,” was met with the usual ridicule from those who hate the man and apparently do not understand hyperbole. (It ironic that some, who likely see themselves as sophisticated, have yet to see that through Trump’s putting-it-in-simple-layman’s-terms shtick.) However, technically incorrect is not the same as totally wrong and there is absolutely nothing ridiculous about the general point being made—there are unique (and unforeseeable) problems that come with complex systems.

The “keep it simple, stupid” mantra (aka: KISS principle) is not without merit in an age where our technology is advancing beyond our ability to control it. If a minor glitch in a system can lead to a major disaster, that is dangerous complexity and a real problem that needs to be addressed. Furthermore, if something as simple as flight can be made incomprehensible, even for a trained professional crew, then imagine the risk when a system is too complicated for humans alone to operate—say, for example, a nuclear power plant?

Systems too complex for humans to operate?

On the topic of dangerous complexity, I’m reminded of the meltdown of reactor two at Three Mile Island and the series of small human errors leading up to the big event. A few men, who held the fate of a wide swath of central Pennsylvania in their hands, made a few blunders in diagnosing the issue with serious consequences.

Human operators aren’t even able to comprehend the enormous (and awful) potential of their errors in such circumstances—they cannot fear to the same magnitude or to the proportion of the possible fallout of their actions—let alone have the ability to respond correctly to the cascade of blaring alarms when things did start to go south:

Perrow concluded that the failure at Three Mile Island was a consequence of the system’s immense complexity. Such modern high-risk systems, he realized, were prone to failures however well they were managed. It was inevitable that they would eventually suffer what he termed a ‘normal accident’. Therefore, he suggested, we might do better to contemplate a radical redesign, or if that was not possible, to abandon such technology entirely. (“In retrospect: Normal accidents“. Nature.)

The system accident (also called the “normal” accident by Yale sociologist, Charles Perrow, who wrote a book on the topic) is when a series of minor things go wrong together or combine in an unexpected way and eventually lead to a cataclysmic failure. This “unanticipated interaction of multiple factors” is what happened at Three Mile Island. It is called ‘normal’ because people, put in these immensely complex situations, revert to their normal routines and (like a pilot who has the nose of his aircraft inexplicably pitch down on routine take off) they lose (or just plain lack) the “narrative thread” necessary to properly respond to an emerging crisis situation.

Such was the case at Three Mile Island. It was not gross misconduct on the part of one person nor a terrible flaw in the design of the reactor itself, but rather it was a series of minor issues that led to operator confusion and number of small of mistakes that soon snowballed into something gravely serious. The accident was a result of the complexity of the system, our difficulty predicting how various factors can interact in ways that lead to failure and is something we can expect as systems become more and more complex.

And increased automation does not eliminate this problem. No, quite the opposite, it compounds the problem by adding another layer of management that clouds our ability to understand what is going on before it is too late. In other words, with automation, not only do you have the possibility of mechanical failure and human error, but you also have the potential for the automation itself failing and failing in a way that leaves the human operators too perplexed to sort through the mess of layered systems and unable respond in time. As the list of interactions between various systems grows so does the risk of a complex failure.

[As a footnote, nuclear energy is cleaner, safer and far more reliable than wind and solar farms. And, in the same way, that it is safer to fly than to drive, despite perceptions to the contrary, the dangers of nuclear are simply more obvious to the casual observer than the alternatives. So, again, with the fierce opposition to nuclear power by those who are unwittingly promoting less effective and more dangerous solutions, the human capacity to make good decisions when faced with the ambiguous problems created by the interaction of various complex systems does certainly come into question.]

Has modern life become dangerously complex?

There is no question that technological advancement has greatly benefited this generation in many ways and few would really be willing to give up modern convenience. That said, this change has not come without a cost. I had to think of that reality over the past few weeks while doing a major overhaul of how we manage information at the office and considering how quickly years of work could vanish into thin air. Yes, I suppose that paper files, like the Library of Alexandria burned, are always susceptible to flames or other destructive forces of nature. But, at least fire (unlike the infamous “blue screen of death“) is a somewhat predictable phenomenon.

Does anyone know why the Bluetooth in my car syncs up sometimes and not always?

Or why plugging my Android phone into the charger causes my calls in Facebook Messenger to hiccup (I.e., disconnects and reconnects multiple times) sometimes but not always?

I’m sure there is a reason hidden somewhere in the code, a failed interaction between several components in the system, but it would take an expert to get to the bottom of the issue. That’s quite a bit different from the times when the problem was the rain and the solution was cutting down a few trees to create a shelter. That was also true in the early days of machines as well—a somewhat mechanically inclined person could maintain and repair their own automobiles. However, the complicating factor of modern electronics has put this do-it-yourself option out of reach for all but the most dedicated mechanics.

Life for this generation has also become exponentially more complex than it was for prior generations when travel was as fast as your horse and you were watching your crops grow rather than checking your Facebook feed updates every other minute. It is very easy to be overwhelmed, as individuals, by information overload. The common man is increasingly over his head in dealing with the technological onslaught. We have become increasingly dependent on technology that we cannot understand ourselves and fails spontaneously, without warning, at seemingly the most inopportune times.

Advanced modern technology represents a paradigm shift as much as the invention of the automobile was a revolution for personal transportation. We have gone from analog to digital—a change that has opened a whole new realm of possibilities and also comes with a new set of vulnerabilities as well that go beyond the occasional annoyance of a computer crash. We really have no idea how the complexity of the current system will fare against the next Carrington Event (a solar storm that caused widespread damage and disruptions to the electric grid in 1859—a time of very basic and sturdy technology) nor are we able to foresee the many other potential glitches that could crash the entire system.

It is easy to be lulled into thinking everything will be okay because it has been so far. But that is a false security in a time of complex systems that are extremely sensitive and vulnerable. As when a pilot of a sophisticated airliner fails to comprehend the inputs or like the flustered operators of a nuclear reactor when the alarm bells ring, our civilization may be unable to respond when the complex systems we now rely on fail in an unexpected way that we could not predict. It is not completely unlikely that a relatively small glitch could crash the entire system and lead to a collapse of the current civilization. That is the danger of complexity, having systems that are well beyond our ability to fix should they fail in the right way at the wrong time.

The last human invention will be too complex to control and could be our demise…

Computers far exceed the human capacity to process information. We’ve come a long way from Deep Blue versus Garry Kasparov in the 90s and the gap between man and machine continues to grow wider after our best representatives were surpassed. Yet, while vastly faster in their abilities, computers have long only been able to do what they were programmed to do and thus their intelligence is limited by the abilities of their human programmers.

However, we are on the cusp of development of this technology and the implications far beyond the finite capacity of the human mind to grasp. We could very soon couple the processing speed of a computer with a problem-solving ability similar to that of a human. Except, unlike us, limited by our brain size and relatively slow processing speed, this “machine learning” invention (a video on the progress so far) could continue to expand its own intellectual abilities.

Machine learning is a massive paradigm shift from the programmed computers we currently use. It would lead to super-intelligence beyond our ability to fathom (literally) and, any more than a monkey can control us, could not be stopped. Imagine something that is always a hundred steps beyond any scenario we could imagine and has less in common with us (in terms of raw intelligence) than we do with an ant—would it have any reason not to treat us better than bacteria?

There was a time when I would not have believed that artificial intelligence was possible in my lifetime and a time after that when I would’ve thought it is something we could control. That was naive, artificial intelligence would, at very least, be unpredictable and almost totally unstoppable once the ball got rolling. It could see us as a curiosity, solve cancer simply because it could in a few nanoseconds—or it could kill us off for basically the same reason. Hopefully, in the latter case, it would see our extermination as not being worth the effort and be on to far greater things.

It remains to be seen whether artificial intelligence will solve all of our problems or see us as a problem and remove us from the equation. This is why very intelligent men, who love science and technological advancement, like Elon Musk, are fearful. Like the atomic age, it is a Pandora’s box that, once opened, cannot be closed again. But unlike a fission bomb that is dependent on human operators, this is a technology that could shape a destiny for itself—an invention that could quite possibly make us obsolete, hardly even worth a footnote in history, as it expanded across our planet and into the universe.

Whatever the case, we will soon have an answer…

Neural nets, the key component to artificial super-intelligence, are already here…

In fact, it is in your smartphone, it enables facial recognition and language translation. It also helps you pick a movie on Amazon by predicting what might interest you based on your prior choices.

Artificial intelligence technology could be our future. It could be that last invention that can finally manage all of these dangerous complex systems that modern convenience is so dependent upon and allow us to return to our simple pleasures. Or it could be a dangerous complexity in and of itself, something impossible to control, indifferent to our suffering and basically (from a human perspective) the greatest evil we ever face in the moments before it ensures our extinction.

Artificial super-intelligence will be complexity beyond our control, a dangerous complexity, and comes with risks that are humanly unimaginable. It could either solve all of our problems in dealing with disease and the complexity of our current technology—or it could make our woes exponentially greater and erase our civilization from the universe in the same way we apply an antibiotic to a pathogen. It is not ridiculous or absurd to think a little about the consequences before flipping the “on” switch of our last invention.

Should we think about simplifying our lives?

It is important, while we still reign supreme as the most inventive, intelligent and complex creatures on this planet, that we consider where our current trajectory will lead. Technological advancement has offered us unique advantages over previous generations but has also exposed us to unique stresses and incredible risks as well. Through technology, we have gained the ability to go to the moon and also to destroy all life on this planet with the push of a button.

Our technologies have always come as two-edged swords, with a good side and bad side. Discovering how to use fire, for example, provided us with warmth on a winter night and eventually internal combustion engines, but has often escaped our containment, destroyed our properties, cost countless lives, and creates air pollution. Rocks, likewise, became useful tools in our hands, they increased our productivity in dramatic fashion, but then also became a means to bash in the skulls of other humans as a weapon. For every positive development, there seems to be corresponding negative consequences and automation has proved to be no different.

The dramatic changes of the past century will likely seem small by comparison to what is coming next and there really is no way to be adequately prepared. Normal people can barely keep up with the increased complexity of our time as it is, we are already being manipulated by our own devices—scammers use our technology against us (soon spoof callers, using neuron networks, will be able to perfectly mimic your voice or that of a loved one for any nefarious purpose they can imagine) and it is likely big corporations will continue to do the same. Most of us will only fall further behind as our human weakness is easily used against us by the use of computer algorithms and artificial intelligence.

It would be nice to have the option to reconsider our decisions of the past few decades. Alas, this flight has already departed, we have no choice but to continue forward, hope for the best, and prepare for the worse. We really do need to consider, with the benefits, the potential cost of our increased dependence on complex systems and automation. And there is good reason to think (as individuals and also a civilization) about the value of simplifying our lives. It is not regressive or wrong to hold back a little on complexity and go with what is simple, tried and true.

Will the Luddites have the last laugh?

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Technological advancement has always come at the expense of jobs.  

Today one farmer (with machinery and modern practices) is able to do the work that would have taken a hundred people to do a century ago. 

Did this mean ninety-nine people are now out of work?

No.

For every person who lost a job in farming there was opportunity gained to do something else.  Because of technology one farmer can feed 155 people and these 155 are now free to produce other things.

The progress of the past century would never have been possible without the layers upon layers of technological innovations that cost jobs and created opportunities for people to employ themselves elsewhere.

At each step of the way there were Luddites (those who resist labor saving technologies and innovation that might cost them their current job) and thankfully they could not hold back the march of progress or we might all still be subsidence farmers barely able to feed ourselves.

Those who lost employment due to technological advancement found other profitable work.  Not only did we gain the added production of the machines that replaced human labor, we also gained through freeing people (who once did the work the machines took) to do other profitable things.  

The result has been exponential economic growth and an era of prosperity unprecedented in recorded human history.  Automation may temporarily cost jobs, but the long-term result is greater productivity and with that greater wealth overall.  We have tremendous opportunity over our ancestors because of technological advancements.

Despite this, like the meme above, modern Luddites still resist technology trying to protect jobs.  They do not understand how jobs lost to machines leads to new opportunities and greater productivity that benefits them.  

They would rather do like New Jersey did to protect jobs by making self-serving gas stations illegal.  It is quite literally a counterproductive economic policy because it keeps people tied down to jobs that can easily eliminated without much loss.

Innovations like vending machines, ATM’s and Redbox dispensers have added convenience.  No longer do we need to bank during banking hours or wait until Blockbuster opens to rent and return a movie.  

Sure, in each case there was a potential job opportunity lost, but with each lost opportunity is an opportunity gained to do something else and a chance to add more value to the economy than would otherwise be possible.

The result is quite obviously good in overall terms…

This is not to say there hasn’t been pain for some along the way.  Technological advancements (like globalization and trade) benefits the whole economy, but it also can cause suffering for those who are unemployable because they are unable to adapt and take advantage of the created opportunity.

Not every factory worker who had their job replaced with a machine (or outsourced) is intelligent or skilled enough to take advantage of the opportunity to do something else.  Sure, they do benefit from the lower prices, but also might not earn the wages they once did and can come out on the losing end. 

However, most people, and certainly the economy as a whole, benefit from the greater production, the lower cost for goods and the opportunities created.  Few would actually wish to return to a time before the Industrial Revolution and our age of technological advancement.

For every job eliminated there has always been new opportunities created for more skilled labor and professional work.  That is how things have gone until this point and one might assume this is how it would continue ad infinitum.

But do all good things come to an end?

Up until now machines have been useful for eliminating back breaking and repetitive physical tasks.  As a result more people have been freed to do mental or creative work rather than manual labor.

Technology has now advanced to where we might soon reach a tipping point where all human work can be replaced.

According to the analysis of some (please watch this: Humans Need Not Apply) we are nearing a point when even the most skilled professionals and best of creative minds will be outclassed by technology…

What then?

What happens when there is zero opportunity to do something that can’t be done cheaper, more efficiently and better in every way by machines?

What happens when all human labor is worth next to nothing and only capital like land, mineral resources or machines have value?

Our future seems a paradoxical combination of utopia and hell…

On one hand, in this future we will have the capability to produce more than ever with great ease, innovation and efficiency will reach levels humanly unachievable.  This will mean more wealth than ever before and theoretically we could all eventually go on a permanent vacation.

On the other hand, most people (unless they already own land and machines with productive value) will have little to offer in economic terms and no way to advance.  The price of goods would drop, but wages would drop faster and followed to conclusion we would all be unemployed, unemployable and most of us would have nothing at all.

But it would likely never get to that point.  The real tipping point would be when a critical mass of people become unemployed, know they are unable to compete with those (who by good fortune or superior intelligence) who already are established. 

There would be a revolt against the establishment.  Capital of production (machines and land) would almost need to become the property of all people.  Goods and services created would need to be distributed evenly amongst the people.

At this point, once the revolution is over, assuming the machines don’t rise up against us, all we would have left to do is contemplate our existence in a world where all other work is done.  We would spend our time exploring, being entertained by our machines, building relationships and reproducing—there would nothing else left for us to do.

That will not happen overnight.  But, with self-driving vehicles right around the corner, my current occupation (transportation) will be the first in line to go the way of the horse.  So, at very least, I need to think of what my next move will be…

Your thoughts?