Invisible Progress I

I wonder how mathematicians would feel if a theologian started criticizing their proofs. Since he doesn’t know much more about mathematics than the average religious person – but to whom he is the more trustworthy authority – they might get pretty mad. Even more so considering that he is able to talk in a way that sounds reasonable to most people. I’d still listen to the mathematicians because they are much more likely to know what they are doing.

Now what if a professor of philosophy and history started ranting about a complex, controversial theory spanning multiple branches of science which only in some of its implications for the future touches philosophy? You’d get this.

I know, this is turning into a ad-hominem attack. Just because this person has no certified knowledge of the subject doesn’t mean he isn’t right. Just like you can’t rule out your garbage-man making a good argument concerning hidden variables in quantum physics (especially if he’s like the one from Dilbert), a professor of philosophy could have a good reason to think the singularity is bullshit. But: he got into IEEE Spectrum whereas I doubt that the average forum idiot who argues that 0.999… != 1 would have a chance. Why? Because that is an easy subject, and even if you fail to understand the proofs or why a particular counter-proof is invalid you can be sure that mathematicians are the authority on this subject. With the singularity – not so easy. It concerns a wide spectrum of developments, makes assumptions about what drives these developments, shows a counter-intuitive view of the present and the future and probes into “forbidden” areas like human consciousness. That’s why it’s already very controversial, and why representatives of individual fields feel like they need to comment on it. There is no authority on the subject since there tend to be very few multi-disciplinary scientists in today’s specialized world. So we’ll just listen to anybody with a degree in anything.

Okay, so much for the irrational ranting. Let’s see what the main arguments of the article are:

  1. The technological singularity is too weird / too good to be true and I don’t like the way it is presented. Let’s keep in mind that it is obviously nonsense, shifting the focus to the people supporting it.
  2. Technological progress has not increased. It is even slower than ever, because I have not seen ground-breaking inventions like the car, the plane, electricity, the computer or manned spaceflight in the last few decades. This is how we should measure progress: number of inventions that seem amazing to the average person, have easily understandable applications and do not look too much alike.
  3. Singularitarians extrapolate Moore’s law indefinitely, even though there are physical limits.
  4. Single aspects like communicating directly from brain to brain at rates faster than current speed of thought are infeasible with today’s technology and knowledge.
  5. No (concerning exponential progress in the medical field).
  6. Advances in medical analysis will only bring us more information about diseases we can’t cure.
  7. Positive technological progress is positive and therefore improbable.
  8. No scientist can properly investigate the claims someone made in another field, therefore people are pushing cross-disciplinary phenomena where they can easily add their bad research without anyone being any wiser. This network of misplaced trust is inherently flawed and doomed to fail.

It is sad to see that even “certified intellectuals” resort to mindlessly throwing around concepts just to support their view. The idea of a technological singularity is much older than that article, so there has been some significant amount of discussions already. Most of the presented arguments have been countered a long time ago, so it would have been much more interesting to read responses to the counter-arguments. And the rest is rambling and ranting, presented as arguments.

So apparently all I have to do is mindlessly repeat the answers to those arguments, which is not particularly challenging.

  1. During the past 200 years the present always turned out to be the unbelievable future to people from the past. How a particular prediction makes you feel is not a rational argument and will have absolutely no credibility with supporters or the (rational) undecided.
  2. The reasoning behind why technological progress is accelerating is complex and difficult to prove or refute. I am not going to do that in once sentence and you shouldn’t be using a little anecdote about how you get the impression that today’s inventions are boring and insignificant. However, there are books on the subject (with traceable evidence) and those must be dealt with before dismissing the entire notion.
  3. Nobody is saying that silicon structures will shrink indefinitely. Singularitarians argue that every time one technology reaches its limits, a new one takes over. Like the time vacuum tubes were replaced by transistors. The current paradigm still has a few generations to go and there is a whole bunch of new ones being developed.
  4. Back when computers were used primarily for simple calculations and highly specific tasks nobody would have seen the usefulness of a personal computer capable of then unimaginable numbers of calculations per second. But the price/performance sank drastically and along came the applications. Never make an argument from embedding a future technology in the present world – it just does not make any sense. Especially when dealing with information and communication technologies.
  5. Not really much of an argument.
  6. Diagnostic capabilities will always stay ahead of curative capabilities. You can’t cure what you don’t know. I can see the appeal of not knowing you have an incurable disease until you die, but what exactly is the argument here? That we should stop diagnosing diseases? That we have stopped finding cures for diseases? Whatever the argument is, it begs further evidence (and explanation).
  7. This is more of a recurring theme in the article than an actual argument. I simply don’t know what to do with pure pessimism. “There, there”?
  8. This is interesting, but a very bold claim. Especially because there hasn’t been a real polymath for a long, long time and the argument says that scientists from different fields can only effectively work together (without “just” trusting each other) if they are experts in all fields involved – or at least know enough to spot errors. Since most scientists are experts and many cross-disciplinary projects exist and work even though peer-reviewing is limited to peers (that is – people from your own field of study) – doesn’t that mean that trust-system is good enough? I don’t think scientists blindly trust other scientists. They trust the peer-reviewing system, not individuals. Anyway, very bold claim to make without presenting any evidence whatsoever.

I’d like to dub argument #2 “The Invisible Progress Effect” and study it a little more before making another post about this topic.

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