Sunday, 17 February 2008

Technology Worship in Boston

In a BBC interview inventor and visionary Ray Kurzweil, attending a get-together of futurologists at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, claims that “Machines will achieve human-level artificial intelligence by 2029.” and “tiny robots implanted in people's brains to make them more intelligent”. That's really great news. At last my feeble mortal brain won't have to try to work on its own.

So technology will save us. Technology will make us happier? Wiser? More fulfilled? Help us truly understand why we're messing up this world? I think not. As we become ever more helplessly dependent on technology produced by the likes of Mr Kurzweil. Dependant on technology for awareness of what's happening on the other side of the universe while we can't even understand what's happening around us. Technology to help overcome the barriers caused by... technology.

Ray Kurzweil developed omni-font character recognition software (that could recognize printed characters in any font). The problem at the time was what to do with it. It is a feature of modern technology, that it is self-perpetuating. Rather than being developed to satisfy real human needs, technology develops by its own momentum (often to inflate the stock price of companies that develop it). It survives and grows independently of those it is supposed to serve, and drives its own development. Technologists than come up with (increasingly far fetched) justifications for their innovations. As Kurzweil himself says: “Like a lot of clever computer software, it was a solution in search of a problem.” Having stumbled almost by fluke on applying existing optical character-recognition technology to help the blind to read printed text, like many technologists he seems to extrapolate this to reach the assumption that all people are handicapped by the lack of “advanced” technology. There is a trend towards using people with disabilities to justify introduction of technological dependence by stealth. People with disabilities are thus “given” an illusory “independence” by technology. Independent of what? Of their fellow human beings. Independent of other humans, but dependant for ever on technology. OCR meant that blind users could seem to read (in fact they were innately no more able to read text than they had been before), overcoming sensory disability but becoming dependent on technology. In practice, the voice technologies that seemed so liberating have caused a crisis in literacy and learning among the blind. For the general population, the growth of mass-media technologies like television, radio and mobile communications has produced a generation in which even those who can see text are increasingly unable to read it adequately. While the blind have overcome one disability, the general population has acquired another.

According to Kurzweil, “...we use our technology to expand our physical and mental horizons” I would suggest that the horizons we need to expand are inside our minds and technology increasingly has the effect of stunting our perception of them.

He goes on “We'll have intelligent nanobots go into our brains... to make us smarter.” Isn't that just what we need. As real human wisdom becomes increasingly scarce due to in large part to the now ubiquitous “new technology”, we'll have yet more technology to help us along.

By saying that machines will achieve human-level intelligence, is to say that humans are only as intelligent as advanced machines. Well some of us have varying degrees of wisdom, and “think” otherwise. Being human is not about number-crunching, data-gathering, or about remembering quantifiable facts. Being human is about love, feeling, insight, intuition, faculties that are increasingly under threat as technology stunts our ability to to relate to ourselves, each other and the world around us and our ability to perceive that we're not just underdeveloped robots.

The same story is reported unquestioningly in the Guardian newspaper and they include some real nuggets like “They identified sunshine as a 'tantalizing source of environmentally friendly power'.. But capturing that power, converting it into something useful ... poses a challenge”. Where have you been for the past few million years? And again “clean water, which is in short supply”. Clean water would not be in short supply if abuse of technology didn't pollute it and mess up the climate.

The BBC article lists fourteen “challenges facing humanity” identified by the group of experts presenting their report at the meeting:

  • Make solar energy affordable
  • Provide energy from fusion
  • Develop carbon sequestration
  • Manage the nitrogen cycle
  • Provide access to clean water
  • Reverse engineer the brain
  • Prevent nuclear terror
  • Secure cyberspace
  • Enhance virtual reality
  • Improve urban infrastructure
  • Advance health informatics
  • Engineer better medicines
  • Advance personalised learning
  • Explore natural frontiers

Most of these are about overcoming the problems caused by technology itself. So what do we need to overcome the shortcomings of technology? Of course, you guessed it, more technology. A technological “fix”. They chant “Please let us try just once more. We're sure to get it right this time.” And so we do. Then what do we need to overcome the problems caused by the fix? More of the same. No! What they propose is not solutions, but simply more of the same problems. Technology is in the hands of technologists (and universities and governments) in the pay of corporations. More is not better and their thinking is blinkered by the very technology they try to sell.

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