It’s not every day that the world’s most eminent sociologist reveals himself as having an intense interest in the Technological Singularity, and urges that “Everyone should read the books of Ray Kurzweil”. That’s what happened this evening.
His biography states that, “According to Google Scholar, he is the most widely cited sociologist in the world today.”
In support of that claim, a 2009 article in the Times Higher Education supplement notes the following:
Giddens trumps Marx…
A list published today by Times Higher Education reveals the most-cited academic authors of books in the humanities…
As one of the world’s pre-eminent sociologists, Anthony Giddens, the Labour peer and former director of the London School of Economics, will be used to academic accolades.
But even he may be pleased to hear that his books are cited more often than those of iconic thinkers such as Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx.
Lord Giddens, now emeritus professor at LSE and a life fellow at King’s College, Cambridge, is the fifth most-referenced author of books in the humanities, according to the list produced by scientific data analysts Thomson Reuters.
The only living scholar ranked higher is Albert Bandura, the Canadian psychologist and pioneer of social learning theory at Stanford University…
Freud enters the list in 11th place. The American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky, who is based at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and whose political books have a broader readership than some of his peers in the list, is 15th…
Lord Giddens is now 75 years old. Earlier this evening, I saw for myself evidence of his remarkable calibre. He gave an hour-long lecture in front of a packed audience at the London School of Economics, without any notes or slides, and without any hesitation, deviation, or verbal infelicity. Throughout, his remarks bristled with compelling ideas. He was equally competent – and equally fluent – when it came to the question-and-answer portion of the event.
The lecture was entitled “Off the edge of history: the world in the 21st century”. From its description on the LSE website, I had already identified it as relevant to many of the themes that I seek to have discussed in the series of London Futurists meetups that I chair:
The risks we face, and the opportunities we have, in the 21st century are in many respects quite different from those experienced in earlier periods of history. How should we analyse and respond to such a world? What is a rational balance of optimism and pessimism? How can we plan for a future that seems to elude our grasp and in some ways is imponderable?
As the lecture proceeded, I was very pleasantly impressed by the sequence of ideas. I append here a lightly edited copy of the verbatim notes I took on my Psion Series 5mx, supplemented by a few additions from the #LSEGiddens tweet stream. Added afterwards: the LSE has made a podcast available of the talk.
My rough notes from the talk follow… (text in italics are my parenthetical comments)
This large lecture room is completely full, twenty minutes before the lecture is due to start. I’m glad I arrived early!
Today’s topic is work in progress – he’s writing a book on the same topic, “Off the edge of history”.
- Note this is a very different thesis from “the end of history”.
His starting point is in the subject of geology – a long way from sociology. He’s been working on climate change for the last seven years. It’s his first time to work so closely with scientists.
Geologists tend to call the present age “the Holocene age” – the last 12,000 years. But a geologist called Paul Crutzen recommended that we should use a different term for the last 200 years or so – we’re now in the Anthropocene age:
- In this period, human activity strongly influences nature and the environment
- This re-orients and restructures the world of geology
- A great deal of what used to be natural, is natural no longer
- Human beings are invading nature, in a way that has no precedent
- Even some apparently natural catastrophes, like tsunamis and volcanoes, might be linked to impacts from humans.
We have continuities from previous history (of course), but so many things are different nowadays. One example is the impacts of new forms of biological threat. Disease organisms have skipped from animals to human beings. New disease organisms are being synthesised.
There are threats facing us, which are in no ways extensions of previous threats.
For example, what is the Internet doing to the world? Is it a gigantic new mind? Are you using the mobile phone, or is the mobile phone using you? There’s no parallel from previous periods. Globally connected electronic communications are fundamentally different from what went before.
When you are dealing with risks you’ve never experienced before, you can’t measure them. You’ll only know for sure when it’s too late. We’re on the edge of history because we are dealing with risks we have never faced before.
Just as we are invading nature, we are invading human nature in a way that’s unprecedented.
Do you know about the Singularity? (A smattering of people in the audience raise their hands.) It’s mind-blowing. You should find out about it:
- It’s based on a mathematical concept
- It’s accelerating processes of growth, rapidly disappearing to a far off point very different from today.
Kurzweil’s book makes it clear that:
- Within our lifetimes, human beings will no longer be human beings
- There are multiple accelerating rates of change in several different disciplines
- The three main disciplines contributing to the singularity are nanotech, AI, and biotech
- All are transforming our understanding of the human body and, more importantly, the human mind
- This is described by the “Law of accelerating returns”
- Progress is not just linear but geometrical.
This book opens our minds to multiple possibilities of what it means to be human, as technology penetrates us.
Nanotech is like humans playing God:
- It’s a level below DNA
- We can use it to rebuild many parts of the human body, and other artefacts in the world.
Kurzweil states that human beings will develop intelligence which is 100x higher than at present:
- Because of merging of human bodies with computers
- Because of the impact of nanotech.
Kurzweil gives this advice: if you are relatively young: live long, in order to live forever:
- Immortality is no longer a religious concept, it’s now a tangible prospect
- It could happen in the next 20-40 years.
This is a fantastic expansion of what it means to be human. Importantly, it’s a spread of opportunities and risk.
These were religious notions before. Now we have the real possibility of apocalypse – we’ve had it since the 1950s, when the first thermonuclear weapons were invented. The possibility of immortality has become real too.
We don’t know how to chart these possibilities. None of us know how to fill in that gap.
What science fiction writers were writing 20 years ago, is now in the newspapers everyday. Reading from the Guardian from a couple of days ago:
Paralysed people could get movement back through thought control
Brain implant could allow people to ‘feel’ the presence of infrared light and one day be used to move artificial limbs
Scientists have moved closer to allowing paralysed people to control artificial limbs with their thoughts following a breakthrough in technology…
…part of a series of sessions on advances in brain-machine interfaces, at which other scientists presented a bionic hand that could connect directly to the nerves in a person’s arm and provide sensory feedback of what they were holding.
Until now, neurological prosthetics have largely been demonstrated as a way to restore a loss of function. Last year, a 58-year-old woman who had become paralysed after a stroke demonstrated that she could use a robotic arm to bring a cup of coffee to her mouth and take a sip, just by thinking about it…
In the future… it might be possible to use prosthetic devices to restore vision – for example, if a person’s visual cortex had been damaged – by training a different part of the brain to process the information.
Or you could even augment normal brain function in non-invasive ways to deliver the information.
We could learn to detect other sorts of signals that we normally don’t see or experience; the perceptual range could increase.
These things are real; these things are happening. There is a kind of geometric advance.
The literature of social scientists has a big division here, between doomsday thinkers and optimists, with respected thinkers in both camps.
- It examines forms of risk that could destroy our society
- Climate change is a huge existential risk – most people aren’t aware of it
- Nanotech is another existential risk – grey goo scenario
- We also have lots of weaponry: drones circulating above the world even as we speak
- Most previous civilisations have ended in disaster – they subverted themselves
- For the first time, we have a civilisation on a global scale
- It could well be our final century.
- Over the course of human civilisation there is progress – including progress in culture, and medical advances.
This is a big division. How do we sort this out? His view: it’s not possible to decide. We need to recognise that we live in a “high opportunity, high risk society”:
- The level of opportunity and level of risk are both much higher than before
- But risk and opportunity always intertwine
- “In every risk there’s an opportunity…” and vice versa
- We must be aware of the twists and tangles of risk and opportunity – their interpenetration.
Studying this area has led him to change some of his views from before:
- He now sees the goal of sustainability as a harder thing than before
- Living within our limits makes sense, but we no longer know what our limits are
- We have to respect limits, but also recognise that limits can be changed.
For example, could we regard a world population of 9 billion people as an opportunity, rather than just a risk?
- It would lead us to put lots more focus on food innovation, blue sky tech for agriculture, social reform, etc – all good things.
A few points to help us sort things out:
- One must never avoid risk – we live in a world subject to extreme system risk; we mustn’t live in denial of risk in our personal life (like denying the risks of smoking or riding motor cycles) or at an civilisational level
- We have to think about the future in a very different way, because the future has become opaque to us; the enlightenment thought was that we would march in and make sense of history (Marx had similar thoughts), but it turns out that the future is actually opaque – for our personal lives too as well as society (he wonders whether the EU will still exist by the time he finishes his book on the future of the EU!)
- We’ll have to learn to backcast rather than forecast – to borrow an idea from the study of climate change. We have to think ahead, and then think back.
This project is the grand task of social sciences in the 21st century.
One more example: the possibility of re-shoring of jobs in the US and EU:
- 3D printing is an unbelievable technological invention
- 3D printers can already print shoes
- A printer in an MIT lab can print whole systems – eg in due course a plane which will fly directly out of the computer
- This will likely produce a revolution in manufacturing – many, many implications.
Final rhetorical question: As we confront this world, should we be pessimists or optimists? This is the same question he used to consider, at the end of the talks he used to give on climate change.
His answer: we should bracket out that opposition; it’s much more important to be rational than either pessimist or optimist:
- Compare the case of someone with very serious cancer – they need more than wishful thinking. Need rational underpinning of optimism and/or pessimism.
Resounding applause from the audience. Then commence questions and answers.
Q: Are today’s governance structures, at local and national levels, fit to deal with these issues?
A: No. For example, the he European Union has proved not to be the vanguard of global governance that we hoped it would be. Climate change is another clear example: twenty years of UN meetings with no useful outcome whatsoever.
Q: Are our human cognitive powers capable to deal with these problems? Is there a role for technology to assist our cognitive powers?
A: Our human powers are facing a pretty difficult challenge. It’s human nature to put off what we don’t have to do today. Like 16 years taking up smoking who can’t really see themselves being 40. Maybe a supermind might be more effective.
Q: Although he has given examples where current governance models are failing, are there any bright spots of hope for governance? (The questioner in this case was me.)
A: There are some hopeful signs for economic governance. Surely bankers will not get away with what they’ve done. Movement to address tax havens (“onslaught”) - bring the money back as well as bringing the jobs back. Will require global co-operation. Nuclear proliferation (Iran, Israel) is as dangerous as climate change. The international community has done quite well with non-proliferation, but it only takes one nuclear war for things to go terribly wrong.
Q: What practical advice would he give to the Prime Minister (or to Ed Miliband)?
A: He supports Ed Miliband trying to restructure capitalism; there are similar moves happening in the US too. However, with global issues like these, any individual prime minister is limited in his influence. For better or for worse, Ray Kurzweil has more influence than any politician!
(Which is a remarkable thing to say, for someone who used to work so closely with Prime Minister Tony Blair…)