For months now, I’ve been trading letters with Doug Robertson, author of two impactful books in the philosophy of science: The New Renaissance: Computers and the Next Level of Civilization (1998) and Phase Change: The Computer Revolution in Science and Mathematics (2003).
For Doug, too, the present is a second Renaissance. If we want to appreciate the full significance of the time we’re now living in, we need that historical context. I owe Doug a deep debt for helping me grasp that context, as it pertains to science and innovation.
It is fashionable among economists to argue that innovation is slowing down. (I published an article challenging economists who hold this view a few months ago.) The slow-down argument is only true if one measures innovation as an economist does, using GDP growth statistics. But science itself is flourishing.
As Doug eloquently puts it,
If the print revolution of the Renaissance was the lighting of a single candle in a pitch-black field at midnight, then today’s digital revolution is the sunrise.
Doug’s analogy is not mere poetry; it’s an accurate description of the difference in scale between the impact of print and the impact of digital upon civilization’s information resources.
All big breakthroughs in, say, astronomy over the last few decades were impossible in the pre-digital age. But now we’ve determined the age of the universe. We’ve discovered thousands of planets around other stars. We’ve discovered gravity waves. All pre-digital astronomical findings, from the Mayan calendars to Copernicus’ sun-centric universe, were obvious in comparison. Says Doug: “It is no exaggeration to say that astronomy begins with the invention of the computer.”
The same can be said in almost every branch of science and math. The sun is just now peeking over the eastern horizon. In a very real sense, we are witness to the dawn of civilization.
No wonder we’re unsure about the future.
One of the hottest stories here in China last week received far less coverage outside the country: the Human-vs-Machine Go Showdown, between the world’s top Go player, Ke Jie, and Google’s AlphaGO AI machine.
I’ve met Gary Kasparov a few times, and I’ve heard first-hand his story of facing off across the chess board against IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997. (Short version: it was stressful). This was a rematch of sorts, with different champions on both sides and a new game-board between them: Go, or weiqi as it’s known here. Weiqi (literally, “encirclement chess”) is a simple-looking game in which opponents take turns laying their stones (white or black) on a board comprising 19 horizontal and 19 vertical lines. Whoever encircles more territory, wins. It’s simple to play, but hard to win.
In chess, each game begins with all the pieces in the same position, and each turn offers a handful of legal moves. As the game progresses, pieces are removed and the game’s future simplifies. But in Go, the game begins with an empty board, and each turn presents hundreds of choices. As the game progresses, pieces are added and the endgame becomes increasingly complex.
Deep Blue was able to defeat Kasparov through brute processing strength: by looking at the board and crunching through all possible scenarios, two- or three-dozen moves into the future. But this approach fails with Go. Instead, Google’s AlphaGo applies recent advances in machine learning and neural networks to look at the board less like a computer does, and more like a human would, to evolve its goals and strategies as the game progresses.
In the midst of the three-day Go tournament, I gave an interview to a major Chinese science magazine. Here’s a (lightly edited) excerpt. Hope you find it provocative…
Who is going to win: the human or the machine?
History has shown us that whenever we teach a computer a human skill, it very quickly becomes better at that skill than any human.
The first computers that could do math were slower than a skilled human. It took a long time to program the computer to add, subtract, multiply or divide. The human engineer with his slide rule could do the math much faster. But within a few years, the computer could complete thousands of calculations in the time it took a human to complete one. Today, it can perform billions.
The very first computers had limited memory. And memory was very expensive. Today’s computers can remember everything that all humanity writes, sees and does.
The very first chess computers could play only basic, pre-programmed sequences. By the mid-1990s, IBM’s Deep Blue was able to beat the world champion),
Whenever we teach a computer a human skill, it quickly becomes more skillful at that skill than any human ever was, or ever will be. That is because the computer has almost unlimited time, patience, stamina, and memory. In the time it takes us to play one game, it can play, and learn from, billions. While we are sleeping, it is practicing.
Whether or not AlphaGo wins next week is not the point. The moment we taught it to play Go, we guaranteed its eventual victory. What will we teach the machines to do next?
Should we fear the growing power of AI, or welcome it?
Steve Jobs used to say, “The computer is a bicycle for the brain.” What did he mean by this? If you take all the animals in the animal kingdom and rank them by how efficiently they travel (calories burned per kilometer), then humans rank quite low. All the birds rank first, followed by four-legged animals, and so forth. But a human on a bicycle ranks far ahead of even the most efficient bird.
Just as a bicycle makes human travel more efficient, computers make the mental work that humans do more efficient. They help us to remember, to compute, to do repetitive tasks. AI promises the same benefit, except that it can help us be more efficient at higher-order mental tasks: reasoning, judging, creating, and so on.
In this way, AI will bring great good to humanity. It will help us make better decisions, and start making many decisions for us. One example that’s easy for everyone to understand is driving a car. Human drivers can be impaired, or distracted, or emotional, we can lose focus because the task of driving a car, while complex, can also become monotonous. The AI has better eyesight and reflexes than we possess, and it is always calm, alert and focused on driving the car, while constantly watching out for other cars and accidents. Already, AI has proven to be a much safer driver than humans. In a similar way, AI can help us do a better job flying aircraft, buying and selling investments, or policing public spaces.
These are some of the early, obvious uses. As AI becomes more common and affordable, it may take over many decisions in our daily lives, such as what food to buy this week, or which people to visit and what we should say to them. It may also take over many white-collar jobs (e.g., most corporate research, which is mainly a bunch of decisions about what information is important and what information isn’t).
A bicycle reduces the time and energy we spend traveling, and leaves us more time and energy to do things at our destination. AI will reduce the time and energy we spend making many routine judgments and decisions, and will leave us more time and energy to do meaningful, creative work. That can be a very good thing.
But AI will also create some tough problems. The obvious one is: a lot of people are going to lose their jobs. That will create a lot of stress and anxiety. It will make some rich people even richer, and it will cause some middle-class people to fall into poverty—unless we first figure out how to share these costs and benefits more fairly across society.
The deeper danger is that, if AI takes control over more and more of the decisions in our lives, will we become less free? Already, Google’s search engine decides for me which search results it thinks I, Chris Kutarna, will want to see, and shows me those. But what about the search results that it doesn’t show me? How can I disagree with a decision that gets made without my knowledge? Now, fast forward to the future and imagine a sales AI that knows my personality and can perfectly manipulate me to buy a vacation to, say, Brazil. And I go to Brazil and I do have a great time. I thought that I had made this decision myself; but actually I was manipulated by a travel agency, which profited from my “decision”. Or imagine a political AI that perfectly manipulates people to vote a certain way, or to protest a certain action.
The power to help us make decisions and the power to manipulate us into making certain decisions is the same power. The only difference is who controls the AI. And that’s the danger.
The world always makes sense. But it doesn’t always make sense to us. Shock—a seemingly relentless theme nowadays—is personal proof that whatever lens we’ve been looking through to see the world no longer shows things as they really are. We need to shatter that lens—and with it, the simple dichotomies that dominate, and warp, our sight: globalization versus nationalism; open doors versus xenophobia; populism versus public virtue; information abundance versus fake news; the lifted up versus the left behind.
We need to grind for ourselves a very different way of seeing the world. The sooner we do that, the less time we’ll waste frozen in disbelief, and the more time we’ll spend helping ourselves, our families, our organizations and communities to thrive through the upheavals to come.
My latest book is my lens for making sense of the moment we’re in. The title, Age of Discovery, plays on our misconceptions of both the past and the present. It evokes an optimistic vision of humanity blown by scientific, economic and social winds—zigging and zagging, surely, but always progressing toward a better, New World. In hindsight, is that not how, until recently, so many of us viewed our present moment? We thought we were passengers on a ship at sea, with little control over the weather, yet lulled into complacency by our general heading.
Now, recent reversals have made us wise to our true predicament. In an Age of Discovery, there are no passengers. There is no inevitable path of rational progress. There are only pilots, struggling to steer the ship: between the good and bad consequences of global entanglement; between forces of inclusion and exclusion; between flourishing genius and flourishing risks.
We’re caught in the grip of awesome, paradoxical forces—and we’re no longer sure which direction we’re headed.
But we’ve been here before. And the wisdom of history can be our compass, if we choose to look at it.
Trump’s anti-globalist vision of putting ‘America first’ to ‘Make America great again’ is explicitly outdated. Such a lens is a clear error in political leadership, since even if the Trump administration successfully recreates an era of protectionism, it cannot recreate past conditions under which those policies might once have made sense.
Take demographics. Since the Cold War began, humanity’s population has doubled. Our urban population has quadrupled. Over 90% of humanity now lives within one hour of a major city. This massive, dense urbanity has done far more to open our economies to trade and investment (and amplify financial, security and pandemic risks) than global trade and investment treaties. Trade treaties are only a thin veneer of convenience that governments have laminated over top of this irreversible, tectonic shift in human geography. Cancelling them does not undo that shift. Cancelling them may, however, erode countries’ capacity to shape the consequences and mitigate the risks for their citizens. That’s my fear. (Please point me to evidence that I might be wrong, and that re-raising walls might actually raise aggregate well-being.)
Chinese President Xi’s vision of ‘economic globalization’ is likewise an attempt to re-apply outdated solutions to present-day problems, in defiance of changed circumstances. Fifteen years ago, China joined the WTO. The resulting export boom helped the Party soothe many necessary-but-painful structural adjustments—and lift a billion Chinese people out of poverty. But now it’s clear that, in many industries, China has overshot its growth potential. (I blame official corruption.) Now it is stripping overcapacity from the very same sectors that it has been subsidizing for years: automotive, energy, steel, even graphene.
’Economic globalization’ is Xi’s way of wishing for a fresh kick of free trade and investment to ease the adjustment process again. It worked 15 years ago. But this time the ‘developed world’ sees China with more skepticism. Then, gaining access to China’s vast internal market was the all-important carrot. Now, that allure has faded. The Party has proven unwilling to open many ’strategic’ industries to foreign investment; Chinese regulators are increasingly hostile to foreign businesses; and subsidized industries (think steel) have dumped production onto export markets at prices far below cost—good for propping up bloated industries at home, but a job-killer abroad.
Neither Trump nor Xi has the right vision for now. Each in his own way aims to solve urgent problems at home by simplifying away the problems of the rest of the world. When the next big shock comes (and it is coming), they will both discover their common error: mitigating the risks of the present Age is a cooperative game…
My New Year’s reflection, ‘2017: Why It’s (Still) the Best Time to be Alive’, was chosen as the cover story for the January issue of Vogue Australia. Was great to work with Vogue’s Editor, Edwina McCann, to realize this essay. I hope Nicole enjoys it!
This is not an ordinary day. This is one of those rare days when events jar us enough that we unfix the lens through which we understand the moment we are in—and have a chance to reset it.
The chief lesson from last night should be that the range of our expectations really is too narrow. Reality keeps falling outside it. And so our priority must be to seize this single day of flux to obtain a wider perspective—to stretch our expectations somehow so that reality starts to fall somewhere within.
Otherwise, we are a ship adrift at sea, during a hurricane, without a compass. And that is a very dangerous place to be. We need that compass. We need that wider sense of direction so that we can navigate our own lives and also our responsibilities toward others.
I’ve talked a lot over the past several months about Trump becoming president. About how he is a “bonfire of vanity”, and about how he is a “second Savonarola”— a demagogue prophet in the mould of a certain Dominican friar who, back in the 1490s, waltzed into Florence (the most liberal, best educated nexus of Renaissance Europe). Armed with new media and ecstatic charisma, he whipped up the populace against the Medici establishment and installed himself as king.
I never meant it as a literal prediction, just as I never meant to “predict” Brexit. I meant to shake myself and others into imagining that we live in a similar moment. On tour, I began to talk about this as “my hallucination”. (I have just returned to London after a three-week East Coast book tour.)
My book began as a clever idea. Now I cling to it for the hope and determination that I desperately need for myself. My relationship to my own writing has changed profoundly. My hallucination and my reality are blurred, and I can’t tell them apart anymore.
And since I’m stuck in it now, I might as well embrace it. It seems my hallucination actually is a good guide for the time we live it. So what does it show me?
The overwhelming imperative being shouted at us from the history books right now is to stoke virtue. We must not turn away from this strange and terrible new world. That was the narrative that guided so much Renaissance art. It was on a day like today, in a moment like today, that Michelangelo began carving his statue of David. He carved it into marble, this moment of recognizing a giant foe and bidding oneself to join the contest. My American friends on the Democratic side: you can choose to withdraw from a society that no longer feels like home. You can emigrate to Canada and I will welcome you with open arms and glad smiles. But within my hallucination, that is the opposite of what we all must do. Our Goliath is clear, is standing right in front of us. In our personal and professional lives, we recognize intolerance, greed and division—values and attitudes that we know to be unworthy. If we individually join contest with them, if we individually resurrect the virtues of proportion, civility, humanity, dignity…then collectively those virtues can triumph, and endure.
And through those virtues, so can we.
We must not let the shocking immediacy of populist victories, of sharpening inequalities, of extremism, of terrorism blind us to the equal and opposite truth: that by tangling together the world’s peoples, economies and ideas together, global health, wealth and education have flourished more in thirty years than in the past millennium.How to translate wealth into well-being, how to distribute the aggregate gains so that every individual is lifted, how to forge ties of belonging amidst social upheaval—that is where we are failing each other. That is what we must solve. If we can solve those questions of translation, distribution and belonging, then yes, being tangled together will be better than being walled off from one another. But it’s not obvious yet.
As a boy growing up, my favourite books were fantasy novels. They were stories about knights and wizards and priests with magic powers to heal. They weren’t highbrow books—but I loved them because within those stories, life’s thorniest question, “What should I do?”, was so clear. There was always an overriding threat—a contest that had to be won, otherwise all was lost.
Again, I’m still just hallucinating here, but within my hallucination that is how we need to frame this present moment for ourselves: as a contest—a historic contest—between (and I’m quoting myself now :-P) “the good and bad consequences of our entanglement; between forces of inclusion and exclusion; between flourishing genius and flourishing risk.” This contest isn’t over; it’s just begun.
How history records it—that depends on all of us.
Goliath is waiting.
With hope and courage—and above all, together—let’s go face him.
Take-away: Our expectations ARE too narrow. Reality IS falling well outside of them—repeatedly.
We desperately need a fresh perspective to widen our lens on the present, start making better sense of the time we live in, and understand what this Age requires of us.
Reviews for Age of Discovery continue to roll in. This one from Nexus Magazine.
Age of Discovery is a much needed dose of perspective in our increasingly short-term focused world.Dominic Barton