According to a story in the Daily Telegraph today, science has succeeded in its task of unlocking the secrets of matter, and now it’s simply a question of applying this knowledge to fulfill all our wants and dreams. The article is trailing a new BBC TV series fronted by Michio Kaku, who explains that “we are making the historic transition from the age of scientific discovery to the age of scientific mastery in which we will be able to manipulate and mould nature almost to our wishes.”
A series of quotes from “today’s pioneers” covers some painfully familiar ground: nanobot armies will punch holes in the blood vessels of enemy soliders, leading Nick Bostrom to opine that “In my view, the advanced form of nanotechnology is arguably the greatest existential risk humanity is likely to confront in this century.” Ray Kurzweil tells us that within 10 to 15 years we will be able to “reprogram biology away from cancer, away from heart disease, to really overcome the major diseases that kill us. “ Other headlines speak of “an end to aging”, “perfecting the human body” and taking “control over evolution”. At the end, though, it’s loss of control that we should worry about, having succeeded in creating superhuman artificial intelligence: Paul Saffo tells us “”There’s a good chance that the machines will be smarter than us. There are two scenarios. The optimistic one is that these new superhuman machines are very gentle and they treat us like pets. The pessimistic scenario is they’re not very gentle and they treat us like food.”
This all offers a textbook example of what Dale Carrico, a rhetoric professor at Berkeley, calls a superlative technology discourse. It starts with an emerging technology with interesting and potentially important consequences, like nanotechnology, or artificial intelligence, or the medical advances that are making (slow) progress combatting the diseases of aging. The discussion leaps ahead of the issues that such technologies might give rise to at the present and in the near future, and goes straight on to a discussion of the most radical projections of these technologies. The fact that the plausibility of these radical projections may be highly contested is by-passed by a curious foreshortening. This process has been forcefully identified by Alfred Nordmann, a philosopher of science from TU Darmstadt, in his article “If and then: a critique of speculative nanoethics” (PDF). “If we can’t be sure that something is impossible, this is sufficient reason to take its possibility seriously. Instead of seeking better information and instead of focusing on the programs and presuppositions of ongoing technical developments, we are asked to consider the ethical and societal consequences of something that remains incredible.”
What’s wrong with this way of talking about technological futures is that it presents a future which is already determined; people can talk about the consequences of artificial general intelligence with superhuman capabilities, or a universal nano-assembler, but the future existence of these technologies is taken as inevitable. Naturally, this renders irrelevant any thought that the future trajectory of technologies should be the subject of any democratic discussion or influence, and it distorts and corrupts discussions of the consequences of technologies in the here and now. It’s also unhealthy that these “superlative” technology outcomes are championed by self-identified groups – such as transhumanists and singularitarians – with a strong, pre-existing attachment to a particular desired outcome – an attachment which defines these groups’ very identity. It’s difficult to see how the judgements of members of these groups can fail to be influenced by the biases of group-think and wishful thinking.
The difficulty that this situation leaves us in is made clear in another article by Alfred Nordmann – “Ignorance at the heart of science? Incredible narratives on Brain-Machine interfaces”. “We are asked to believe incredible things, we are offered intellectually engaging and aesthetically appealing stories of technical progress, the boundaries between science and science fiction are blurred, and even as we look to the scientists themselves, we see cautious and daring claims, reluctant and self- declared experts, and the scientific community itself at a loss to assert standards of credibility.” This seems to summarise nicely what we should expect from Michio Kaku’s forthcoming series, “Visions of the future”. That the program should take this form is perhaps inevitable; the more extreme the vision, the easier it is to sell to a TV commissioning editor. And, as Nordmann says: “The views of nay-sayers are not particularly interesting and members of a silent majority don’t have an incentive to invest time and energy just to “set the record straight.” The experts in the limelight of public presentations or media coverage tend to be enthusiasts of some kind or another and there are few tools to distinguish between credible and incredible claims especially when these are mixed up in haphazard ways.”
Have we, as Kaku claims, “unlocked the secrets of matter”? On the contrary, there are vast areas of science – areas directly relevant to the technologies under discussion – in which we have barely begun to understand the issues, let alone solve the problems. Claims like this exemplify the triumphalist, but facile, reductionism that is the major currency of so much science popularisation. And Kaku’s claim that soon “we will have the power of gods” may be intoxicating, but it doesn’t prepare us for the hard work we’ll need to do to solve the problems we face right now.