Singularity Part 2: Imagineeration or Where’s my Jetpack?

First, Disney didn’t make up the word imagineering, so I can use it how I want.

About my first post, I want to say that not every singularitarian (what a word!) thinks the same way about the future or lets the singularity cloud their vision. I just want to point out that some people use it to cast doubt on whether predictions about the future can ever be considered realistic or meaningful, and I have seen it shut down futurist discussions.

Imagining the future is sometimes seen as a futile endeavor. A post-singularity world might be so different from our own that our conceiving it is no more possible than a cavemen coming up with the idea of Facebook. But that is not a productive assumption. And even if the future is unimaginable, we can still make useful predictions a good deal into the future regarding where technology and society are headed based on current trends. A singularity event doesn’t even necessarily change where any trend is heading, but may only accelerate it on its way. Superhuman AI still have to work with the laws of physics, after all. So, I think that for the sake of envisioning the future, strong AI should be seen as an expedient on the road toward transformation, not just the constructor of a road block to our imagination.

Meaningful attempts at futurism require critical thinking and healthy skepticism grounded in contemporary knowledge of science and technology. Also required is a grasp on humanity’s driving forces, and which directions they’re taking us. Something can’t just sound cool like flying cars or jetpacks, it has to make sense in physical and social terms. The cliche thing to ask during discussions about the future is why we don’t have those things yet. But we do have them! They’re just expensive and dangerous, which is hardly a surprise. Engineers eighty years ago pointed out how impractical those technologies were. The energy required to move a car through the air is far greater than that used to roll it along the ground. And who you would trust to fly one? As for jetpacks? Come on! Was anyone ever serious about those? If Bobba Fett’s jetpack accidentally killed him, what hope do the rest of us have with one strapped to our backs? (He’s dead, get over it.)

On the other end of the “common sense folly” of making predictions, no one really foresaw what the Internet would become. Or just how the pill would change society and liberate women. No one on record, that I’m aware of, even foresaw personal automobiles or their impact. Futurism is not an exact science. But it is fun, and educated speculation can help us prepare for the future. It may not happen exactly the way we foresee it, but it’s better than nothing. Just because the future is fuzzy doesn’t mean you have to head there blindfolded. And we have never had a clearer view of how things are going to turn out. This is not the time to bury our heads in thinking like, “the future is unknowable”.

So why look dumb in 30 years time if you can just keep your mouth shut? Because predictions are necessary to guide our path and foresee pitfalls. Here’s an example: automation. That’s something we desperately need to be examining and predicting. I’ve been thinking about automation for a while and will try to write about it soon in a more extensive way. But the gist of it is this:

Automation will be taking more and more jobs as robots and other automating technologies improve. Every year robots get better and cheaper, with capabilities now expanding into diverse areas of work: agriculture, docking, manufacturing, warehousing, construction, flying planes, programming, and more. Companies love to replace human workers with machines, and it makes perfect economic sense for them to do so. Automation will be taking menial labor jobs from millions of people all over the world in the decades to come. So what do those millions of unemployed, undereducated people with limited skill sets do? Where will new opportunities for these people come from? How will so many people adjust to fill positions that will likely require education, creativity, and skills that can’t be replicated by increasingly sophisticated automation?

It’s not a hopeless situation, but it’s not being dealt with openly in America. Instead, anxiety over automation generates popular nightmares such as: Skynet of The Terminator series, the Borg of Stark Trek, the Cylon of Battlestar Galactica, that retarded Surrogates movie, the machines from the Matrix, and dozens of dystopic mechanized futures like Brazil. These are not generally constructive criticisms of automation. The message gleamed from most of them is that mechanization will rob us of our humanity or try to destroy us, leaving us with no choice but to nip it in the bud right now. But widespread automation will continue; it is simply too cost effective and powerful to stop. We need to be thinking openly and critically about how automation will play out, not just exercising our fears with childish apocalyptic scenarios.

Next post: what’s there to say about conscious machines.


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