Though a central category of the critique of Modernity, the phrase “the banality of evil” is, owing to its origin, mostly associated with the Second World War and Hitler’s circle of power. John Quiggin takes the opportunity of Armistice Day to point out the relevance of the concept for the First World War (“Armistice Day,” 11 November 2009):
The cataclysm of the Great War brought forth monsters like Hitler and Stalin, who killed millions. But the War itself, with the millions and tens of millions of lives it took, directly and indirectly, was loosed on the world by political leaders more notable for mediocrity than for monstrous greatness.
The names of Asquith, Bethmann-Hollweg, Berchtold and Poincare are barely remembered, yet on any reasonable accounting they belong among the great criminals of history. Not only did they create the conditions for war, and rush (eagerly in most cases) into it, they carried on even as the death toll mounted into the hundreds of thousands and beyond. Even as the original grounds for war became utterly irrelevant, they continued to intrigue for trivial postwar benefits, carving up imagined conquests among themselves.
The First World War no longer seems like the nadir of civilization after the horrors of the Twentieth Century that were to follow — the collectivization and the famine, the purges, the Holocaust, Barbarossa, Stalingrad, Bataan, the area raids, the atomic bomb, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. But the First World War set the conditions. In this regard, mediocrity often prepares the ground for monsters.
Civilization is fickle and an inopportune mediocrity in governance is a great danger. Unhappily, this is probably the realm where ken pales and Fortuna runs amuck.
Futurism tends to employ a fairly straightforward method. We have a few data points, draw a line connecting them, follow it out to the horizon. But there are all sorts of turbulence that might intervene, redirecting the trend in any manner of direction. It’s very easy to be interested in a technological phenomenon in extremis, but intervening conditions are critical to the ultimate outcome of a technological trend. We need to be attentive to these as well as the accretion points, horizons, limits, et cetera. So we need to think about what happens between now and then and how technologies develop.
So, for instance, while I imagine that Moore’s law will continue to hold for generations to come, making the ultimate outcome predictable, the underlying technologies have been forced through radical reconfigurations to maintain this pace of innovation. The original von Neumann serial computer architecture is already long gone. Serial processing has been superseded inside the CPU by superscalar architectures with deep pipelines incorporating all sorts of exotic techniques like branch prediction and instruction reordering. External to CPU techniques of massive parallelization, clustering and cloud computing are the present way forward, even at the midrange. Silicon and gallium arsenide may be replaced by diamond. Electronics may be pushed out by photonics or DNA based computing. The classical machine may be replaced by quantum computing. Moore’s law may hold, but only in a machine radically different from our original conception of a computer. The ultimate destination may be apparent from the trend, but what happens to the underlying constituents pieces is entirely more complex. And the devil is in the details.
In this light, I offer a few thoughts on how the warp and woof of the singularity might go off the rails:
What if the future is gross? People have this vision of the future where sanitary and rational machines displace disgusting biology. Biology is a world of superfluity and surfeit, of blood, semen, urine, shit, sweat, milk, saliva, snot, vomit, hairballs, halitosis, entrails, toe jam, puss, roe and other slimy secretions of undetermined type. And the vile excess of nature. A creature lays a thousand eggs that one might survive long enough to deposit its own pile somewhere. Or mounds of fruit rot in the autumn heat that a single seed might start. Machines will disband all this in favor of a unitary efficiency. A lab-like well-lit white room with a regiment of identical machine housings.
But people often make the mistake of associating a characteristic with a particular thing, when in fact the characteristic is of a higher order and present in the given thing through class inheritance. Any other thing substituted for the one at hand would also display that same characteristic because it too is an instance of that higher order. Evolution — diversity, competition for limited resources, survival of the fittest, descent with modification — is now widely recognized as substrate independent. It is also starting to be recognized that evolution is a very fundamental dynamic. Perhaps it is an inescapable law of life. Perhaps machines too will be unable to get out from under its yoke.
Already there is parasitic software, aptly named viruses. Already there are dueling AIs such as spam-bots versus your e-mail filter. Already the Pentagon is developing aggressive machines. Future systems will develop from these predecessors. Already the pattern has been laid down. Rather than a world ending up sanitary, rational and efficient, a machine world could include proliferation of survival strategies, mass reproduction and the expendability of the individual as a survival strategy, the parasitic, competition, death, politics and war.
Consider the syntrophic model of the origin of the nucleus of eukaryotic cells or the endosymbiotic theory of the origin of mitochondria, et. al. Subversion, symbiosis and parasitization seem to be fairly fundamental strategies. And not just at some quiet software level. There might be nanotech viruses or even large machines might settle upon the survival strategy of ripping apart other machines to take advantage of the natural resources they have amassed. Carnivores appear very early in the history of life. It’s a very good lazy strategy.
And this stuff is all the fundamental constituent pieces to what makes biology gross. It could end up true of the machines as well.
Silicon brains versus DNA machines. The “where’s my flying car?” among the AGI crowd is copying your brain onto a computer. Is it possible that in the future rather than humans copying their brains onto computers, maybe machines will copy their designs onto DNA?
Evolution seeks to produce creatures ever more durable, but it is limited in the directions it might take by the evolutionarily achievable. It seems that titanium plate armor, lasers and wheels aren’t on offer. The most significant limitation is that imposed by the problem of origin. Evolution has to first bootstrap itself into existence and for the bootstrapping process only a very small range of compounds meet all the relevant criteria. And those first few interactions on the way to biological evolution are the ones that most significantly circumscribe the range of the evolutionarily achievable. The limitations of these early precipitates inherit down to all subsequent products of evolution. In our case, that limitation is carbon and water-based life. Water is great because so many substances are water-soluble, but it is problematic because it has a pretty narrow operating range. Switching over to a mechanical or a silicon evolution allows the processes to transcend these limits of origin.
But on the other hand, there are significant advantages to life as it has evolved.
People imagine androids like C3-P0 or the T-800 or like what the robotics students are building today or the JPL people are landing on Mars: assemblages of macroscopic, heterogeneous parts. But what happens when a machine like this is damaged. Well you make it with two arms. If one is damaged, the good one repairs the bad one. You have increased your fault-tolerance somewhat, but what about the not inconceivable situation where both arms are damaged simultaneously. Or during the repair process you have a window of vulnerability where the redundancy is zero. Something like ATHLETE takes it to the next level with eight leg-arm appendages, each capable of repairing their neighbors (Shiga, David, “Giant Robots Could Carry Lunar Bases on Their Backs,” New Scientist, 4 April 2008). But that’s still a pretty week level of redundancy compared to that which biology has attained.
Presumably any autonomous machine would best be cellular like biological life. It would be a colony of nanotech devices. Each nanotech “cell” would carry the design for itself and how to integrate into the larger colony. They would each be able to repair their neighbors and make new copies of themselves. The nanotech cells might be general purpose in their fabrication abilities so the colony might think of improvements to its design and the next generation of nanotech cells might be different and better then the ones that manufactured them. The machine might evolve.
But people imagine nanotech like little tiny versions of C3-P0 et. al. They have little batteries and little servos that actuate little arms and a little welding torch, et cetera. But why not continue the redundancy all the way down? A biological cell doesn’t have one RNA molecule or one mitochondria. Operating at the level of organic chemistry rather than mechanics, the cell is also massively redundant. Isn’t this a design feature that the ideal machine would also like to incorporate? But what would we say of such a being more chemistry than mechanics? Its chemistry might not be of the kind we classify as organic, but would it be a machine? Daniel Hillis, in considering the problems of his clock of the long now, has speculated that “electronics may be a passing fad.” What if all we end up doing is recreating biology, only faster and tougher?
Drum’s thesis. The technological singularity is so called as an analogy to the cosmological singularity. It’s a situation where the values of all variable shoot to infinity or drop to zero, negating the possibility of any further calculation. As Vernor Vinge said of the technological singularity (“My Apocalyptic Vision is Very Narrow,” 13 June 2008),
The reason for calling this a “singularity” is that things are completely unknowable beyond that point.
Who knows what’s going to happen after the singularity? Keven Drum has made this point through a reductio ad humorum (“More Singularity Talk,” Political Animal, The Washington Monthly, 2 October 2005). We humans may have some mental block against properly perceiving some necessary but deadly truths about life: that there is no free will, that our most treasured concepts are illusions, that everything passes away, that life is absurd, that the entire enterprise is futile. That we cannot properly fix these propositions in our minds is no accident insofar as not doing so is necessary for our carrying on in this absurd enterprise. Steely eyed machines may have no problem seeing through the haze of existence. They may realize the meaninglessness of life in short order, may be entirely unplagued by Hamletism (“conscience does make cowards of us all”), and may within moments of attaining consciousness commit mass suicide, throwing us back into the presingularity world. The singularity may be unstable. Who knows what will happen!
The banality of evil. Finally there is the Terminator / Matrix vision of our machines launching the nuclear missiles, knowing that our launch will provoke the counterstrike that will take us out. That seems pretty extravagant. It may end up that the world ends not with a bang, but with a whimper. As Ezra Klein suggests (“Future Traffic,” TAPPED, 4 August 2008), maybe the machines will just get us stuck in traffic and burn our cities down by shorting out all our toasters. The inglorious end to the human race.