A web of implications

Let’s stop using labels here for a while. Or at least, let’s stop clinging to labels, and what political associations they might have. Let’s use the terms ‘singularity’, ‘transhuman’, ‘posthuman’, ‘extropian’ with some detachment for the length of this article. Let’s not advocate anything utopian, dystopian – my point here is for now to deal with more tangible matter, pertaining to the next 10 to 75 years … ‘the foreseeable future‘. Also – I will be discussing ‘hypothetical’ technologies. Please let’s not get into an argument what is likely, plausible, farfetched, impossible or ludicrous. That’snot my objective. I’ll argue ‘new technologies WILL emerge’ irregardless of expectation or political convenience: my argument is not how likely a specific technology might be, but what implications of a technology would be if they were introduced.

And in that context, please let’s discuss them ALL, irregardless whether or not the idea of a technology is ‘scandalous’ or ‘unacceptable’.

I am going to propose something. Someone probably has thought of this, but I haven’t seen it yet. What I propose is to create would be a potentially powerful discourse on the near future.

I propose someone (more competent than I am) to create a visual representation of the interaction between humanity (society) and emerging technologies. Let me give you an example.

Let’s assume at some point in the future a garage tinkerer in nanofabrication succeeds in creation a sophisticated means to synthesize chemical compounds. This device sits on a desktop, is affordable (you can order it from amazon) and has numerous advantageous applications. Despite the fact that the governments will seek to regulate it the device is developed by enthusiasts and hobbyists and the technology matures without governments being able to do much about it. The device is then used to (a) synthesize highly neurologically active compounds or ‘drugs’ and in effect becomes an instantaneous source of addictive substances. The societal effects of these devices will correspond to their output per hour, the purity of the substances they produce and the complexity of the molecules they can put out. The mere existence of such a device would make narcotics laws impossible to enforce, since a device like this would be able to engineer new substances in the hundreds, given a big market willing to experiment, constantly outpacing the legal ability to define and outlaw narcotics… [and what if two harmless (and legal) compounds, when combined produce a narcotic effect?] … bear in mind (b) this would also subject the existing pharmaceutical industries to destructive black markets, much in the same way the record industries were subjected to massive competition when people learned how to distill MP3’s from their recording devices.

We see a causal relation between a ‘defined device’ (an affordable desktop device that can generate pure, bulk and complex chemical compounds) and two consequences (anyone can produce euphoric and addictive drugs) and (pharmaceutical IPs will be subjected to severe black market competition). IN effect you have something like A>>B,C. You can in effect create a hotlink in some kind of schematic representation, and show what would be a mostly certain (very likely, plausible) interrelation between a hypothetical emerging technology and what effect it would have. In fact I can add two features in this causal representation –

(1) I can show the degree of probability, or even the discussion on how probably a certain causal chain is, by making a link itself clickable. In other words – the link between the emergence of the above device may be plausible to some and farfetched to others. Why not let people vote (“digg”) on this link in a separate discussion? This would open up a link to the wisdom of the crowd.

(2) Probably more importantly… in the above example there is a dynamic at play which has relevance to many other adoption dynamics.

The state (or conservative society) doesn’t want something, for whatever reason. It tries to outlaw this technology. The technology and the precursor to the technology are policed and society expends effort in outlawing free use of the technology. If there is big enough market (i.e., nearly always) this causes the emergence of a black market. From that moment on clandestine groups will be making the product, producing the new technology, and marketing the results, using modern salesperson and management skills. (link)

Initially a ptroject such as this will be a large number of scattered causal relationships, but in time some people will be able to transpose causal links in longer sequences. Ideally the introduction of a technology (precise fabrication of fullerenes) ‘might’ lead to several other technological fields (a : 3 dimensional architecture superconducting computational processors) or (b : precise anti-cancer treatments) or (c : super high tensile strength cables able to carry space elevators) or (d : desktop diamond printing). I will not argue if any of the above four technologies is likely or ludicrous, I am just suggesting many specialists do in fact invoke a causal interrelation between the emergence of the one and the implied effect on the other. And yes, by all means, please let’s argue over the strength of the causal link.

So how would this work best? In a perfect world I’d stick to my pathological Second Life obsession, and have it interactible in a virtual world … but that isn’t strictly necessary. This can be created on a website as well. I wouldn’t know where to start, but maybe someone else sees the merits in this idea and would consider developing it.

So what would this website need?

(a) the ability of users to introduce new causal links from a given, to a new technology. That is, the creation of an ‘icon’ from an existing technology, and an ‘arrow’ linking them.

(b) every single feature in the visualization should be clickable : any icon and link must be clickable and if clicked leads to a (popup) page where visitors to the site can comment, argue, bicker, (troll) and vote. Superusers can simplify existing links or add links to increase the granularity of the implication web. In other words – the level of detail of the visualisation should steadily increase as users add new technologies, come up with new implications, and interlink wildly disparate fields of technology with implications. The end result will be a bewilderingly complex web of technologies and implications that has definite authority. A politician or policymaker must feel compelled to consult this model web, and look at the discussions.

In fact I’d love it if futurists looked at this visualisation tool and conclude with sweaty in their palms “damn I didn’t think of that implication”. In fact I think we need a tool like this, subject to scrutiny and commenting by all humans, deeply wikified, transparant and accountable.

(c) every link representing how ‘plausible’ it is, is represented in a thickness (or transparancy) representing this plausibility. So if many people visit the site and think the causal link between fullerenes and space elevators is balderdash (and express their vote), the link becomes thin or less opague. Of course we should also add links if which we know they are certain, even if they are highly politicized. (adding more roads does not reduce traffic congestion, widespread consumption of milk produces taller people, people of jewish and asian descent have on average when compared with caucasians and people of african descent a several point IQ advantage, large amounts of CO2 in the atmosphere will make the atmosphere more turbulent eventually).

Let me give you a few other examples.

The meat industry produces billions of livestock, i.e. pigs and cows by and large, for meat. The mass production of these animals poses incredible problems to society – (for example: widespread use of antibiotics) but also produces lots of other side effects. Now imagine if some animal producers found they could produce clones economically, and imagine if they would be able to ‘harvest the womb of slaughtered cows or pigs’ and implant these wombs (or actually grow them from scratch) in a machine, to mass-produce ‘vat grown’ clown calves or piglets. This would mean we’d have an artificial womb able to produce higher order mammals. Now imagine some state decided ‘to grow some extra ideal females’ in this manner, because of demographic pressures, and they could do so affordably. In effect you’d have a strong incentive for a state to start mass-producing ‘desirable’ citizens. But you’d also have a powerful empowering tool for affluent consumers in rich countries to grow their own genetically upgraded offspring outside their respective uterus. Enter governments outlawing this for reasons of outraged pope, and whammo, enter black markets.

Try and chart this sequence of causal implications on a napkin. You’ll see, the implications hover just a fingertip away and beckon to be added. You’ll need a fairly sophisticated visual tool to depict all these highly complex interrelationships, especially if you’d allow people a wikivoice in the strengths of the interrelationships.

But imagine politicians having a look at this, and seeing with their own eyes, what is deemed ‘plausible’ and what ‘fanciful’. I’d predict if this visualization tool were up and running, before long it would make a large number of people very nervous. And my guess is that is what we need about now, because the next few decades will be pretty damn dangerous for the human species.

I can’t make this thing. I don’t have the skills. But anyone who wants to, please go right ahead. Just attribute it to me and I’l be fine with it. I will be updating this article in the next months, so bear with me for alterations and additions.

important links

  • Nils Gilman: Deviant Globalisation .
  • The Brain Software .
  • Hans Rosling on Africa .
  • Shock Levels .