Saturday, May 08, 2004

The emergent result may well be that some will exhibit behavior indicating intelligence at a level beyond that of individual humans, capable of "thinking" thoughts no single human could conceive of. Even with industrial-level technology, that's already happened. Science, in particular, is such a thing, as is modern engineering. Engineering at a primitive level has been with us since the creation of the first stone tools. But science as we now know it is very recent, only going back about 500 years (though one can identify predecessors extending back millennia before that).

I've already commented on this USS Clueless post, but I'm going to do so again. Partly this is because one of the major focuses of this weblog is about how we can help catalyze the self organization of such a mind, and there aren't that many posts in the blogosphere on this subject. This particular one interests me especially because it is from an engineering rather than a new age perspective. The point here is not that I'm convinced all new age ideas are wrong, but that none of them provide concrete approaches we can pursue insofar as I know. Engineering after all is about designing and builiding, which is close to what I am interested in. Unlike Steven, I tend to think it makes more sense to think of the whole memeosphere as a single mind, (also here). I'd like to think more about how that mind works. In many ways it's still embryonic, but as Steven has pointed out, it has already begun to successfully explore and manipulate the physical world. In my opinion it is still not functioning effectively in most ways - all the more reason to examine the ways in which it is, and think about what might be going wrong.

The emergent result may well be that some will exhibit behavior indicating intelligence at a level beyond that of individual humans, capable of "thinking" thoughts no single human could conceive of.. In some sense it should, or what's so special about it? On the other hand, the brain has trillions of neurons, and the world only has billions of humans. It seems very unlikely an individual neuron can have a concept of a brain or even a neuron, but a human can think about a global hive mind. Perhaps we can come close to understanding those thoughts by thinking about the trends, practice, and history of science - and perhaps attempting to do so will even contribute a tiny bit towrds crystallizing and clarifying the thoughts of the nascent global brain.

What Steven Johnson refers to as emergent intelligence seems to operate by huge number of low level systems obeying a set of mechanical laws. This may not be quite the case with the Global Brain, so perhaps quasi-emergent intelligence is a better name for it. Scientists are largely concerned about their own prestige, security, and income. To the extent they are driven by the love of knowledge, it is probably more often a specific type of knowledge than science in the abstract. Yet scientists also have opinions about science in general, how it should be done and where it is going. Since fame and prestige (even after their death) is one of the major payoffs for being a truly great discoverer, it is harder to 'game the system'. An economic system may be designed to reward those who contribute to the economic well being of the community, but once the rules are set in stone it is inevitable some people will find ways to profit which don't produce a net benefit for the group which made the laws but follow the laws as they are encoded. But if you care what people will think in one hundred years about how you got your data and how you gave credit to prior work, it is by definition impossible to exploit loopholes. The people who write histories of science and the people who read them are all part of the system.

Also needed is a consensus that progress is possible and necessary. This may seem too obvious to state, but many religions consider it sacriligious to suppose that gifted individuals can improve on received dogma short of a singular revelation, and many consider it unpatriotic to suggest there is something fundamentally wrong with the way their government works. It is hard enough for someone with an idea that contradicts the established orthodoxy to get a hearing, even though many of the members of that established orthodoxy established their reputation by proving that an older accepted idea was in fact wrong. Yet the idea that evidence and argument can and should be enough to prove that what the entire establishment believes is wrong is very deeply built into science. Irony of ironies, students of the history of science have with careful research asked questions about the received story of Galileo - yet even as a founding myth, it is a very good one for science.

How can our ideas about religion and government be reshaped so we will be on a steady course towards wonders now unimaginable? To ask the question is to deny that we have reached Fukuyama's end of history. For myself, I think it is worth thinking about even in retrospect - are there workable changes in both these institutions which could have kept us from the problems we confront now?

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