Futurism: “1984” revisited

Futurism: “1984” revisited” is the title of a talk I gave at AACI Netanya.  It came about because the Director of AACI Netanya asks me about every 6 months or so to give a talk, and this time I told her that I had exhausted all the subjects I know about.  So she asked me what don’t I know anything about, and I said “the future.”  She immediately responded, “that’s a great topic for a talk.”

As a matter of fact, I was primed because I had read about the “bible” of futurism, “The Singularity is Near” by Ray Kurzweil (see my blog, “The Multiplicity,” May 31, 2016). However, to give this talk I had to actually read the book.  But, this proved impossible, since not only is it 500 pages long, but it is filled with anecdotes, assumptions, quotations (you cannot prove anything  by quotations, even long ones), and pseudo-scientific guesses. But, first let me start with other futurists.

There have been many  who have predicted the future.  Maybe first among them was Leonardo Da Vinci, who drew diagrams of advanced fighting machines, long before they became a reality and predicted man-powered flight.  Among the very influential futurists were H.G. Wells, whose “War of the Worlds” (1898) was the first true science fiction story, and Aldous Huxley who wrote the classic “Brave New World,” in 1932, which predicts a dystopian world. However, I chose to focus on the two post-WWII futurists George Orwell, who wrote the iconic “1984” in 1948 and Ray Kurzweil, who wrote “The Singularity is Near” in 2006.

These two visions of the future could not be more different, and clearly reflect the life experiences of the authors.  George Orwell fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War (1936-8).  He was a member of a Marxist militia named POUM, and what he experienced changed his life view forever, as described in his seminal book “Homage to Catalonia,” (1938).  Most notably it was not the Fascist side that he feared, but rather the supposed allies the Communists.  Under Stalin their first priority was to destroy any competing leftist militias, and so they hunted down and killed all members of POUM and other leftist militias.  Orwell escaped with his life and this led him to write “1984.”  His vision of the future is summarized in this quote “If you want a vision of the future, imagine a boot stomping on a face – forever.”  The overthrow of Fascism, Nazism and Communism make his version of the future fortunately unlikely (although IS is very similar to those ideologies in practise).

Kurzweil grew up in the USA in the 1950’s and his view of the future is one of technological progress and plenty.  In fact, his basic concept is that technological development is increasing exponentially, and as a consequence in the future computers will have artificial intelligence (AI) and there will come a time when humans and machines will merge to form cyborgs, and that time he called the “singularity,” predicted to be in ca. 2045. Kurzweil did not invent this term or concept, but he is the most well-known futurist to project it.  A quote indicates his vision, “By the 2030s, the non-biological portion of  our intelligence will predominate.”

Moore’s Law is the observation that,”over the history of computing hardware, the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit has doubled approximately every two years.”  Moore’s Law is in fact a exponential relationship, but it must plateu and reach a limit when it reaches atomic/molecular dimensions.  Further, accordign to Kurzweil exponential development of overall technology is based on the fact that individual technologies go through periods of rapid increase and then plateauing, each represented by an “S” curve.  Examples of this are music reproduction, from records to LPs to CDs and then iPods, or photography from film to digital, or phones, from land-line to mobile, to cellular to smart-phones.  But, the sum of a series of such “S” curves cannot make an exponential, so the idea that technology is increasing exponentially is in fact an assumption of Kurzweil and others, and has not been proven.

In fact, neither Orwell in “1984” nor Kurzweil in “The Singularity” appear to be able to predict the future, and there is likely to be a multiplicity of connections between humans and robots and advanced AI computers.  Progress has already been made in this direction, for example the use of an exoskeleton with a computer pack that allows crippled humans to walk, and the use of artificial hands and feet that are attached to the nerves of the amputee and work autonomously.

There have been other attempts to predict the future, such as the influential study “The Limits to Growth” by the Club of Rome (1972) that predicted that the human population would outstrip food and energy supplies, thus leading to catastrophe and a breakdown of civilization.  However, this has proven to be a faulty model.  With genetically modified (GM) plants and modern drip irrigation there should be no future shortage of food.  Also, current models for energy supply that include such sources as shale oil, fracking, solar, wind, water and wave energy provide a much more optimistic view of the future.

PS. For those who would like to see the actual Powerpoint presentation go to: http://jackcohenart.com/Lectures.html



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