Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Technological versus Subjective Acceleration

This post is motivated by an ongoing argument with Phil Goetz, a local friend who believes that all this talk about "accelerating change" and approaching the Singularity is bullshit -- in part because he doesn't see things advancing all that amazingly exponentially rapidly around him.

There is plenty of room for debate about the statistics of accelerating change: clearly some things are advancing way faster than others. Computer chips and brain scanners are advancing more rapidly than forks or refrigerators. In this regard, I think, the key question is whether Singularity-enabling technologies are advancing exponentially (and I think enough of them are to make a critical difference). But that's not the point I want to get at here.

The point I want to make here is: I think it is important to distinguish technological accel eration from subjective acceleration.

This breaks down into a couple sub-points.

First: Already by this point in history, I suggest, advancement in technology has far outpaced the ability of the human brain to figure out new ways to make meaningful use of that technology.

Second: The human brain and body themselves pose limitations regarding how thoroughly we can make use of new technologies, in terms of transforming our subjective experience.

Because of these two points, a very high rate of technological acceleration may not lead to a comparably high rate of subjective acceleration. Which is, I think, the situation we are seeing at present.

Regarding the first point: Note that long ago in history, when new technology was created, it lasted quite a while before being obsoleted, so that each new technology was exploited pretty damn thoroughly before its successor came along.

These days, though, we've just BARELY begun figuring out how to creatively exploit X, when something way better than X comes along.

The example of music may serve to illustrate both of these points.

The invention of the electronic synthesizer/sampler keyboard was a hell of a breakthrough. However, the music we humans actually make has not changed nearly as much as the underlying technology has. By and large we use all this advanced technology to make stuff that sounds harmonically, rhythmically and melodically not that profoundly different from pre-synthesizer music. Certainly, the degree of musical change has not kept up with the degree of technological change: Madonna is not as different from James Brown as a synthesizer keyboard is from an electric guitar.

Why is that?

Well, humans take a while to adapt. People are still learning how to make optimal use of synthesizer/sampling keyboards for making intersting music ... but while people are still relatively early on that learning curve, technology has advanced yet further and computer music software gives us amazing new possibilities ... that we've barely begun to exploit...

Furthermore, our musical tastes are limited by our physiology. I could make fabulously complex music using a sequencer, with 1000's of intersecting melody lines carefully calculated, but no human would be able to understand it (I tried ;-). Maybe superhuman minds will be able to use modern music tech to create music far subtler and more interesting than any human music, for their own consumption.

And, even when acoustic and cognitive physiology isn't relevant, the rate of growth and change in a person's music appreciation is limited by their personality psychology.

To take another example, let's look at bioinformatics. No doubt that technology for measuring biological systems has advanced exponentially. As has technology for analyzing biological data using AI (my part of that story).

But, AI-based methods are very slow to pervade the biology community due to cultural and educational issues ... most biologist can barely deal with stats, let alone AI tech....

And, the most advanced measurement machinery is often not used in the most interesting possible ways. For instance, microarray devices allow biologists to take a whole-genome approach to studying biological systems, but, most biologists use them in a very limited manner, guided by an "archaic" single-gene-focused mentality. So much of the power of the technology is wasted. This situation is improving -- but it's improving at a slower pace than the technology itself.

Human adoption of the affordances of technology has become the main bottleneck, not the technology itself.

So there is a dislocation between the rate of technological acceleration and the rate of subjective acceleration. Both are fast but the former is faster.

Regarding word processing and Internet technology: our capability to record and disseminate knowledge has increased TREMENDOUSLY ... and, our capability to create knowledge worth recording and disseminating has increased a lot too, but not as much...

I think this will continue to be the case until the legacy human cognitive architecture itself is replaced with something cleverer such as an AI or a neuromodified human brain.

At that point, we'll have more flexible and adaptive minds, making better use of all the technologies we've invented plus the new ones they will invent, and embarking on a greater, deeper and richer variety of subjective experiences as well.

Viva la Singularity!