Can Theosophists make a difference?
Dec 20, 2002 05:01 PM
Below is an article that poses some interesting questions about the future.
Is there anything that theosophists can do from a practical standpoint that
can assure that the future comes out a little different than is speculated
Business Times - 19 Dec 2002
Archived Views and Opinions Columnist
THE END OF HISTORY - TECH VERSION??
Some tech prophets see humans made irrelevant by machines. But there's a
By Kenneth James
SEATED across the table, they posed their questions earnestly: Do you think
machines will become more intelligent than people in the next 100 years?
Won't that present a danger to humankind? What can be done to keep that from
Disturbing questions, these. And the two final-year business school
undergrads were clearly anticipating disturbing answers. The interview was
one of several they were conducting for a project, and the research topic
pretty much spelt out where they were coming from: 'Chaos from technology:
Where is the future taking us?'. Even more telling were the authorities they
cited: Moravec, Kurzweil, Joy, among others.
Bill Joy, co-founder and chief scientist of Sun Microsystems, is a giant in
his profession. His legacy includes fundamental contributions to the Unix,
Java and Jini software architectures. And his attitude to science is
unambiguously positive. In his words, 'I have always . . . had a strong
belief in the value of the scientific search for truth and in the ability of
great engineering to bring material progress.'
Yet he felt compelled to question this same 'great engineering' in a
disturbing article in the April 2000 issue of Wired magazine provocatively
titled 'Why the future doesn't need us'. The first sentences of that article
goes straight to the heart of his concern: 'From the moment I became involved
in the creation of new technologies, their ethical dimensions have concerned
me, but it was only in the autumn of 1998 that I became anxiously aware of
how great are the dangers facing us in the 21st century.'
What happened in that autumn of 1998 to make this eminent computer scientist
so 'anxiously aware'? He met Ray Kurzweil.
Raymond Kurzweil is a celebrated inventor and artificial intelligence (AI)
expert whose 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, envisions a 21st
century dominated by super-intelligent machines. The book plots the
exponential evolution of technology, and concludes stunningly that the
creation of a computer with intelligence exceeding the full range of human
intelligence is just decades away. Around 2030, when our two young undergrads
are in the prime of their careers, in fact. In autumn 1998, Bill Joy received
from Ray Kurzweil a partial pre-print of that book, and says he was
immediately chilled by Kurzweil's vision of a 'utopia' in which humans would
merge robotic technology into themselves to become nearly immortal.
Hans Moravec, founder of the world's largest robotics research programme at
Carnegie Mellon University, paints an even more chilling scenario. In his
1998 book Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind, Prof Moravec sees
intelligent machines making the world 'a nice place to live in' but also
taking over essential roles from people. 'Rather quickly they could displace
us from existence,' he says. Is he alarmed? Hardly. On the contrary, 'I
consider these future machines our progeny, . . . It behooves us to give them
every advantage, and to bow out when we can no longer continue.' His
'solution': arrange with the machines for a comfortable retirement 'before we
Such are the annihilistic visions being embraced by some of science's finest
minds. No wonder today's young people are concerned.
But are we really careening towards a future where our destiny is determined
by super-intelligent machines? Is it foolish to expect that humans will
continue to be in control even when machines are demonstrably more
intelligent in every way? Yes, and yes - if humanity is really evolving the
way scientists see it, through physical evolution that inevitably uses up the
environment's finite resources. Hence the need to build ever-smarter machines.
But is that humanity's only possible path? More scientists are seeing a more
'holistic' evolution. It may already be happening, as a new generation
questions the mess they're inheriting. It's a generation keenly aware of the
rape of the earth, the growing wealth divide, the cynical manipulations of
politicians and high priests. More subtly, many of them are assuming
leadership through a more natural power, moral rather than moralistic,
spiritual rather than religious. They are the Mahatma Gandhis, Mother
Theresas, Nelson Mandelas, Dalai Lamas and Aung San Suu Kyis of tomorrow.
Bill Joy himself suggests that 'maybe we should rethink our utopian choices.'
In other words a better future, through an evolution of consciousness, is in
our hands. The question is whether we deserve it.
The writer is BT's Technology Editor
Copyright © 2002 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.
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