Ray Kurzweil Revisited/Reanimated

Yesterday, I received the most interesting and cogent response yet to my Tinker Point idea. It came from my friend Rob, who is himself a biologist. For those who don’t follow the comments on my posts, here is his comment in its entirety, because I like it. My thoughts on his remarks follow.

Interesting ideas here but the evolutionary reasoning is a little false. There are already examples in nature of convergent individuals that are very successful. So successful in fact that they have all but given up individuality for group success. The family Physaliidae is the best example of a society that maintains both a division of labor as well as an absolute requirement of cooperation.

But higher eusocial organisms also fit the bill, such as hymenopteran and isopteran societies that grow into vast numbers of of individuals. Even mammals have eusocial organiosms in the naked mole rats of East Africa.

I would not be so quick to imagine an evolutionary disadvantage to being susceptible to mental manipulation. Organisms that “allow” themselves to be domesticated do very well, much better than their wild type counter parts. Domestic chickens have gone global and outshine jungle fowl to a ridiculous extant. All horses are now domesticated. Dogs, corn, wheat, sheep, pigs, all have allowed themselves to be under profound control and in so doing have far outstripped their wild ancestors in evolutionary success.

I think what your argument does cover is that there are some very dark solutions to a future that includes a Kurzweil Singularity. If you mean that we may lose something of our individuality, or our humanity, then you are right to hold that fear. But game theory indicates not that individuality will be maintained, but rather that choices will be made that enhance a payoff. And every payoff is not the same to everyone in the game. So if something, such as a collective creature of electronic, biological, or amalgam, gets an advantage over a bunch of individuals then game theory and evolution both predict the payoff goes to that “something.” And by the way, evolution does’t care if an advantage is short term, it only cares about who wins right now. That’s why we still have global warming, and that’s why Kurzweil is correct.

These are great points. I agree with most of them.  Rob’s science is solid. And yet I still think Ray Kurzweil is wrong, and that my evolutionary perspective holds up. Why? Because the Tinker Point and the idea of collaborative human aggregation are not at odds with each other.

The idea of the Tinker Point is that no intelligent species gets past the point where it’s easier to tinker with themselves than to not. It says nothing about the pattern of cooperation under which that limit is reached.

I think Rob’s take here is that in a cooperative society in which humans lose a little humanity in order to bind together into a hyper-intelligent whole is one in which humanity is suddenly on the same page, and thus the incentive to destructively tinker goes away.  And while this might not look nice to individual human beings, it still constitutes a singularity. But I don’t think this interpretation holds water.

In nature, patterns of cooperation are always vulnerable to defection.  This is true at every scale, from transposons operating within individual cells, up to bankers cheating entire national economies for profit.

Furthermore, the force that keeps defection in check and enables cooperation to persist is that of group selection. Our cells don’t collapse in revolt every day because cells that revolt lead to non-viable organisms. We aren’t instantly riddled with cancer the moment we’re born because creatures whose cells don’t cooperate never get as far as reproducing. At every level at which agents cooperatively aggregate, there has to be something that the aggregates are competing against in order for the cooperation to be maintained. Bind the entire species into a single hive-mind and your incentive has gone away. Massive social collapse at that point is eventually inevitable.

Now, it’s fair to say that the Singularity as Kurzweil defines it doesn’t necessitate a single hive-mind. Here’s a definition from Wikipedia:

The technological singularity, or simply the singularity, is a theoretical point in time when human technology (and, particularly, technological intelligence) will have so rapidly progressed that, ultimately, a greater-than-human intelligence will emerge, which will “radically change human civilization, and perhaps even human nature itself.”

So a benign Singularity might entail the emergence of a set of collective intelligences, all competing with each other. But this outcome is also suspect. How is this convenient outcome supposed to happen? And in this world of competing hive-minds, what role does intelligence actually play?

If intelligence isn’t critical to their competition, we would expect these hive-minds to end up stupid as they optimized to improve fitness, thus conserving the tinker point. If intelligence is critical to their competition, then the mechanisms by which those hive minds operate is still subject to manipulation, and therefore degradation, and therefore overthrow.

In this case the tinker point problem looks just the way it does for individual humans. These hive-minds are still likely to make mistakes and fuck each other up, just like people, until that’s not an option any more.

My favorite speculative future following from this idea comes from the notion that when a new evolutionary niche becomes available, the ‘first to market’ often dominates. I wouldn’t be surprised if, when mental uploading becomes available, that Ray K is first in line to try it out. And once uploaded, of course, he’d rapidly realize that reproducing himself a trillion times and bolting the door behind him would make for a far more stable world than leaving the uplift process open to others. Hyper-intelligence would be unlikely to leave much room for naive idealism.

Hence, if we do end up with future hive-minds at war with each other over the remnants of human civilization, we shouldn’t be surprised if they all have Ray K’s face.


One thought on “Ray Kurzweil Revisited/Reanimated”

  1. I am worried that we may be delving into minutiae here, but there still needs to be clarification. I think maybe we are not talking about the same things here. Ray Kurzweil is obviously a huge proponent of the Singularity and perhaps has a Pollyanna idea of not just what it will be but even what it could be. His ideas are quite bright, always brimming with the incredible advantages of the Singularity. My position is not his. I think he is right that a Singularity will occur but I am not entirely sure it has to be pleasant when it arrives.
    I am intrigued by your concept of Tinker Point but remain unconvinced of its strength to stop anything as powerful as technology. For billions of years Evolution has been operating on genes and we have clearly entered a new age of Evolution, where ideas, a la Susan Blackmore’s memes, have become a new force to be reckoned with. While we are not sure how this force will work, we are sure that memes exist. Memes have been demonstrated to outcompete “lesser” ideas even when lesser ideas are clearly better ones, ie beta and VHS. Something about VHS outcompeted beta, even though beta was the superior medium.
    The point above is to address the idea that no intelligent creature gets past where it is easier to tinker with themselves than not to tinker. We already do this. Isn’t it easier to vaccinate people than to hospitalize them during a pandemic? Here we tinker with our immune systems. When someone is hearing voices, don’t we give them psychotropic drugs to make dealing with them easier? When children are hyper and don’t pay close enough attention in school, don’t we give them Adderall? We already muck around with people’s minds. Why would we stop now?
    I don’t actually think that suddenly all of humanity will be on the same page. I think one of the dark solutions to the Singularity is that there will be haves and have nots. Judgments aside, some folks will be a part of the Singularity and others won’t. Just who is the luckier group is debatable, but the competition between these groups is all but inevitable.
    Cooperative societies in nature are indeed always vulnerable to defection and cheaters. But so are all other systems of interaction. You don’t have to have a collective in order to be vulnerable, any time there is a system with more than one individual in it there is the possibility of cheating. But the fact remains that complex societies are stable in nature, the earliest fossils are communal blue green algae called Stromatolites. These organisms are still extant and have been virtually unchanged for billions of years, in spite of the threat from defections and cheaters. Termite societies are so stable that there are no examples of asocial or solitary termites; all termite species are eusocial meaning they have a reproductive caste and sterile castes. If there ever was a model for a dark Singularity for us it would be in the termites. Defectors and cheaters in other social insects are dealt with immediately and severely. For example, a worker bee that tries to lay an egg is killed or ejected from the hive. Systems that have been infected by cheaters remain stable with up to 33% of the general population actively cheating. If every single human being were potentially a part of a Singularity today, almost 2.5 billion people could stay outside and the Singularity would remain stable.
    You raised the evolutionary bugbear of group selection. Group selection is not really what keeps cheaters in check. Cheaters are kept below certain proportions of a more general society because they are relatively few. As long as it is cheaper to spend less time ferreting out cheaters than the risk and cost of being invaded by cheaters, the cheaters remain. It’s not worth patting down every single returning honeybee because the likelihood of a hostile bee is so small that the effort is not worth the expense. Even if all of humanity could be bound into a single hive mind, and even if there would be inevitable collapse, that does not in any way preclude a short term decision to be made that everyone will be absorbed. Although a single mind would be a lot more efficient about making choices and ignoring moral ramifications than all of us together trying to come up with solutions. Ask anyone that has served on a committee. That’s why we have global warming.
    As long as the hive mind was not set in stone, I would argue that it would be very good at overseeing its own survival.
    Your cited definition does not really include hive mind, just hyper-intelligence. It does not even include augmentation, although I do think it’s implied. So I am not sure how to address your final points. But what I do see is that you postulate that somehow intelligence opens the door to manipulation. Why then does intelligence not open the door to manipulation of human minds? Sorry for the rhetorical question because we know it does. We already exhibit a herd mind, is a hive mind so far off? A collection of hyper-intelligent machines would be no more or less vulnerable to manipulation that you or I. There is no a priori reason they would collapse any more than we do.
    I think you are correct in stating that naïve idealism would be left in the dust for a collective mind. But there is so much more to the Singularity. Any time a new technology is worked out it will inevitably be used. Uploading and uplifting will both be available, and I for one will be right behind Kurzweil in line. I doubt he will enter and slam the door. And I doubt all the denizens of Singularityville will have his face. Don’t forget, Ramona already lives there.

    Actually I think you and I have been dangerously close to discussing apples and oranges while in secret agreement. The Singularity will come. There are many alive today already experiencing it to one extent or another. In its final form will it resemble Kurzweil’s ideal? I don’t know. No one does. It’s a Singularity. But it is coming. And it will change the world. I just hope it will be a good thing.

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