Tuesday, April 5, 2016

The Greatest Race in History: Climate Change vs. Artificial Intelligence

In 2014, two technology historians authored a short essay called The Collapse of Western Civilization.  Naomi Oreskes of the University of California and Erik Conway of the California Institute of Technology assumed the role of a future historian from the Second People's Republic of China, writing in 2393 to mark the tercentenary of the end of Western Civilization (1540-2093).  

The essay is a reflection on what befell Earth and its people, searching throughout for an answer as to why the “children of the Enlightenment” failed to act on overwhelming information about climate change and the damage it would bring.  The only conclusion this future historian could reach was that Western Civilization had fallen into the grips of a second Dark Age “in which denial and self-deception, rooted in an ideological fixation on ‘free’ markets, disabled the world’s powerful nations in the face of tragedy.”

In other words, future historians would one day decide that we knew what was happening but were powerless to stop it.  Climate change would be seen as the great, slow-motion train wreck of our time.

According to this "future" history, the tipping point for the collapse of Western Civilization came in 2041 when a heatwave destroyed food crops around the world and incited rioting in virtually every major city.  With a mean global warming of 3.9 degrees Celsius, water and food rationing became universal.  Governments toppled.

Richer and better protected than most countries, the U.S. still saw great swaths of its farmland become desert.  The government announced plans with Canada to create a United States of North America to allow a northward population migration.

The second half of the twenty-first century included a devastating shutdown of the Indian monsoon, collapse of the West Antarctica Ice Sheet, some 70 percent extinction of species, and a Second Black Death.  Human life was decimated.

What Is Wrong With Us?
In one sense--nothing, really.  We simply continue doing all the things as a species that created the Industrial and Digital Revolutions, the very activities that made us rich, free, and happy in the first place.

In This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, science reporter Naomi Klein makes the power argument that "our economic system and planetary system are at war.  Deregulated capitalism has been the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of the climate crisis."  

And, while the climate mitigation process, which is based on restraint and collective action, has been largely a series of missed opportunities and defeats, the commercial globalization process built on entrepreneurship, profit incentive, and fossil fuel consumption has seen nothing but victory after victory.

We are wired to just keep going this way; the free market hasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell of properly addressing climate change in the face of mass avoidance and denial by the very people best equipped to fix the problem.  To wit: In 2007, 71 percent of Americans believed the continued burning of fossil fuels would alter the climate, a number that fell to 51 percent in 2009 and 44 percent in 2011.  As Klein writes, “the battle is already underway, but right now capitalism is winning hands down.”

In fact, she argues, trying to get the ultra-rich to do the right thing is a monumental waste of time.

The nature of human nature

The Great Race: Artificial Intelligence to the Rescue?
Have we any hope?

Ironically, the best way to face down one existential risk, powered by capitalism, might be to counter it with another existential risk--also powered by capitalism.  It’s a tough bet, but at least it plays to our strengths.

In his 2015 TedTalk, Nick Bostrom described a survey of artificial intelligence (A.I.) experts, asking them when we would have a 50% probability of achieving human-level machine intelligence.  The median answer was 2040.

That comes just one year before the scorching, pivotal summer of 2041 described in Collapse.

Making a machine as smart as a human doesn’t do us much good, of course.  But, Bostrom is convincing when he argues that the “intelligence explosion” would proceed rapidly and inevitably after we reached this first important milestone.  “The train doesn’t stop at Humanville Station,” he says.  And once we can create intelligence that’s just a little bit smarter than man, that’s “the last invention that humanity will ever need to make.  The machines will then be better at inventing than we are, and they’ll be doing so on digital timescales.  What this means is basically a telescoping of the future.”

The Greatest Race in History
So, we’re coming down to the wire.  

The world slips into an irretrievable Dark Age around 2041, a downward slope that will destroy more than half of Earth's species and visit untold misery on humankind.  Or, super-intelligence arrives and devises some CO2-absorbing moss (the solution in Collapse), or space mirrors to deflect the sun, or cool new exoskeletons, or genetic manipulation of humans to make us thrive on sand in 50C heat—and we’re saved.

It doesn’t feel like there’s any real way to stop either process.  Climate change is here--and the most articulate, persuasive leaders in the business community continue to avoid and deny.   And artificial intelligence?  Fortunately, that's driven by the same market force—hype and profit.  If we can't change our fundamental nature, let's see if we can't at least exploit it.

Last week I attended a conference at Google’s offices in Cambridge called “Robo Madness-The A.I. Explosion.”  There were robots of all kinds running around the lobby being trailed by teams in matching colored t-shirts.  And on the panels I heard things like, “The idea of having robots pervasively integrated into the fabric of everyday life goes back to my childhood dream.”  And, “We’re finally at a point where we can make physical and digital products—and a combination of those two things—that understand how humans act and that fit inside our brains the way they naturally want to function.”  It's fair to say that all of the starry-eyed predictions I heard that day were made by people on the profit side of the investment curve.

So, here we are at the starting line of what I envision to be a 25-year race.  Either way, there’s one generation left of the world as we know it.  On the climate side, I believe we’re already locked and loaded well over the 2 degrees Celsius warming that some believed might be our manageable limit, and instead somewhere between a future warming of 4C or perhaps even 6C.  (I'm not being a pessimist; just work the numbers.)  In other words, I think climate collapse—if you strip hope from data—is a given.

It’s clearly and undeniably in our best interests to do everything we can to slow climate change.  Our goal should be, figuratively speaking, to push the summer of 2041 to 2051 or even later.  Many good people are working very hard at this.  But, the point isn't really to fix climate change--that horse is largely out of the barn--but to buy enough time to allow A.I. to get the lead on human intelligence. 

That’s the bet, the cosmic Catch-22: We use capitalism to create something smarter than us to stop capitalism from destroying the world.  

Keeping Score
If you’d like to keep a scorecard, here’s the current state of affairs:
·         IBM’s Watson can now diagnose certain illnesses better than doctors.
·         A robot at Brown University recently learned how to perform a task from another robot at Cornell.  
·         Google AI researchers reported that they had created a system that could play and master old Atari games without directions.  Meanwhile, Google DeepMind is working on "solving intelligence" so it can "solve everything else."
·         Chinese scientists used (soon-to-be) widely-accessible gene editing tools to produce a beagle with double the muscle mass, good for hunting and police work.  Another Chinese institute has begun selling miniature pigs as novelty pets.  And that’s just the stuff we’re being told about.  Once upon a time, garage-entrepreneurs could become rich; now they can become gods.
·         The storage capacity of the Internet is approaching 1024 bytes, growing at 30% to 40% annually, compared to the information in living things, or DNA, which has reached the equivalent of about 1037 bytes—but over 3.7 billion years.  Digital information is closing in, and fast.
Measure that against:
·         Recent research pegs the collapse of the Western Antarctic Ice Sheet and its three-meter sea rise much, much earlier than the history told by Oreskes and Conway.  This is very bad news.
·         The middle latitudes of the Northern Hemisphere now see average temperatures increasing at a rate that is equivalent to moving south about 30 feet each day.  (That's like my front lawn jogging to Rhode Island.)  In fact, summer is ten days earlier in Europe than it was in 1960, and will be another ten days earlier by the end of the century.
·         Drought, flood, fire, hunger--there’s much more troubling news here in my 2015 year-end post.
Caught in the middle of these two mighty forces are we humans, wondering which way to bet.  In a recent essay, Madeline Ostrander illustrated this question when she asked how people decide to have a baby when climate change is remaking life on Earth.  “Any child born now could, by midlife, see massive storms inundate coastal cities and the Great Plains turn to dust. Could I have one, knowing I might not be able to keep her safe?” she asks.

Me, I'm an optimist.  I vote for the baby.  But that also means working heroically on climate mitigation.

And there's an important caveat: Our best solution to insure mankind's future is complicated by the fact that if we can devise A.I. that is smarter than humans--and we don’t build in the right protections--we are every bit as cooked as the planet.

It's Max Headroom vs. Mad Max.  The greatest race in history.

Which makes it a very odd time to be alive, no?