Tuesday, July 18, 2006


Today's New York Times has a pair of articles on how newer models of human brain functions are finally successfully emulating aspects of human intelligence on a computer. This is a story that makes people very nervous. As mentioned in the article, it was a big story two years ago when the DARPA sponsored 132 mile race in the desert ended in a series of technical failures at the 7th mile, but it was barely noted eighteen months later when the technical problems were solved and Stanford University's robotic vehicle successfully navigated the entire course. One can clearly see that this will be the next major political issue: Once we've solved the problem of outsourced labor or securing our borders, we will have to confront a post-human economy, and the question will be whether capital accumulation from previous periods in our civilization should dictate social status in the new world.

Computers compete against humans in the financial markets, and are winning every day. The returns of institutions like Jim Simon's Renaissance Technologies or DE Shaw's eponymous firm are essentially human error that is harvested by computers. These firms detect market participants operating on multi-day horizons, and then insert themselves into the order flow, going with the market participant at the beginning of their period, and going against them at the end. The net result is that the market participant (often a pension fund or a mutual fund) will achieve a slightly worse average execution price and Jim Simons or D. E. Shaw keeps the difference. The opportunity exists because, despite all the studies, people think that they can "beat the market", at least find a proxy who will "beat the market" for them -- when the biggest opportunity lies not in beating the market, but in beating the people who think they can beat the market. In other words, the wealth that Simons and Shaw have accumulated comes from arbitraging the difference between human and mechanical nature.

Market participants transferring value to technologically savvy financial institutions is only the beginning, but they serve as an object lesson on the ability of computers to out-think humans in very human environments. In coming years, artificial intelligence will be integrated into the managerial structures of companies. This will, of course, push another class of labor into obsolescence. Remember the folk-tale? If you proceed slowly and carefully, you can roll up the entire carpet (country). The most disturbing thing about the global push towards authoritarianism is that it is happening when we will need our democratic structures in order to preserve what is valuable about human life.

On the one hand, a computerized world could lead to a renaissance of humanity, where a thousand community theater projects blossom and everyone creates and appreciates unique and beautiful works of art, but the same inexorable scientific processes that are improving computers are also providing the scientific legitimation for a world-view where human beings are understood as just so much biomass. As the mysteries of human intelligence and human biology are being solved, the very lack of mysteriousness will almost inevitably lead to a devaluation of human spirit.

People who professionally profit from this shift in knowledge and culture are quick to deride religiosity as a pathetic and reactionary response to the overwhelming evidence for a reality-based system of belief. In fact, the anti-scientific religiosity is reactionary in the same way that the body's immune system is reactionary to toxins that are introduced to it. So when fundamentalists are fighting evolutionists, they are not fighting evolution at all, but rather they are fighting the robots. And a subconscious fear of the potential threats to human existence posed by technological progress helps explain the popular appeal of a president who is openly contemptuous of science.


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