Sunday, September 05, 2004

Futurism II

Continuing with this theme: for 100s of years, slavery was a strong thread in our lives. The way you have a high living standard is you subjugate other classes of human, presumably because this is the ordained order of things (some holy book will provide the justification, if read the "right" way).

The slavery thread projects forward in a vision of robots pandering to our every need, but that means we need machines with a high degree of intelligence (slaves had that -- enough to understand a master's wants, and sometimes to plot an escape), and that feeds the Artificial Intelligence (AI) project. AI has so far proved a disappointment, at least to those who put stock in it in the first place. Robotics continues to make strides, but these days by divorcing itself from AI, which wasn't going anywhere any time soon, if ever.

Fuller joined these threads -- automatism and slavery -- by talking about energy slaves. He recognized that your living standards have something to do with the number of human energy slave equivalents you've got working on your behalf (something to measure in watts, joules per time frame). This was reassuring around the time of the Depression, because the mining of metals, copper in particular, in terms of pure tonnage consumed by industry, was going down, and that was a concern. But Fuller changed the emphasis to ergs per capita, and started expressing energy consumption using this energy slave idea. He suggested we had the physical living standards of kings, judging by pre industrial standards. One motor car already represented more horses in harness than most of nobility could afford to maintain. And he had a point.

However, ergs/time per capita is not the whole equation, when it comes to living standards. As the slave owners well knew, it was the ability to channel energy intelligently that mattered. That's why the emphasis on AI, humanoid robots in science fiction, and all the rest of it. Brute force joules just weren't going to hack it. We needed to be served by smarts, by brains, not just brawn.

At this point in his narrative (when it becomes clear that brute energy is not the whole story), Fuller starts invoking the computer, but not with much obvious imagery. He doesn't project humanoid robots at our beck and call. Quite the contrary: his brand of futurism is not bullish on the ability of the AI program to deliver. His trademark transcendentalism puts the human mind out of reach of mere machinery. In that regard, he sounds more like Roger Penrose: the computer is relegated to the computable, whereas the human mind is able to make leaps through a kind of noncomputable Platonic realm that is simply other-dimensional vis-a-vis automation.

So I think it fair to say that Fuller was banking more on the synthetic or synergetic power of human minds, knit by technology, e.g. by telecommunications or autopoesis, than on any AI breakthrough ala Marvin Minsky. He did not forecast the day when our cyber-creations (our artificial intellects) would transcend our human ones.

With global networking, the project is more one of creating a cell-silicon hybrid, a net connecting us together in new ways, achieving a level of parallelism and real time steering (a sense of governance) that's unprecedented. The collective ouija board has gone to a new level (and continues on to the next). But not because our neurons are being rendered obsolete. Rather, humans are being called to a new level of participation. A life of the mind is as necessary, more necessary, than ever before, to provide government (collective steering capability).

I like to think blogs are one manifestation of our new infrastructure. They're one tool among many.