26 February 2007

The supercomputer and the musket

The technological advances which will serve as our stepping stones to the Singularity -- elimination of aging, eradication of disease, virtual reality, enhancement of human intelligence, and ultimately uploading -- promise such a radical transformation of human existence that some culturally-conservative elements argue that they should be suppressed in order to keep life as much as possible the way it always has been. While the idea that death, disease, limited intelligence, etc. can be viewed as treasures to be preserved is one I freely confess I don't understand at all, this viewpoint obviously does have some supporters. It's remotely possible that they might even succeed in their aim of prohibiting certain forms of progress. If they do, does it matter?

I would argue that it does not matter, for the following reason. Technology always wins; the only thing the forces of Luddism can hope to accomplish is to cause certain societies to lose. As the advances described above become feasible, the governments of some countries will suppress them, while others will not. The former group will gradually become irrelevant to the future of human progress.

Imagine that some technique becomes available to increase the IQ of individuals by 50%. The government of Country A bans this technique, while the government of Country B allows its citizens free choice about whether to use it or not. Ten years later, what will be the relative rate of scientific and technological progress in Country B vs. in Country A? Twenty years later, will Country A likely still have any global importance at all relative to Country B?

Within societies which allow their citizens free choice, the same principle applies between social/religious groups which renounce human enhancement and those which embrace it.

The same principle applies to any such development. Those who reject important new technological advances are almost always left behind and marginalized by those who embrace them. One can see many cases of this phenomenon in the history of primitive societies' reactions to the introduction of new technology. For example, when British explorers introduced muskets to the Maori of New Zealand in the early nineteenth century, at first only one tribe adopted them. This tribe thus acquired a huge advantage over its rivals in battle. Over time, some other tribes also adopted muskets, while others continued to reject them. In the end, the tribes which had adopted them survived, while those who did not disappeared. From a big-picture standpoint it would have made no difference whether just a few, or many, or all of the tribes adopted muskets -- the end result would have been the same, with only musket-adopters still in existence.

So even if the neo-Luddites score a few wins, they may slow down the Singularity to some degree, but they cannot stop it. They can only stop the countries which are swayed by their views from reaping the benefits.

This posting was adapted from a comment I wrote here. I felt that the point merited more prominence.

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