Exponential Technology and the Nature-Tech Balance

9-13-18 – DSG

Moore’s Law contends that technological computing power doubles about every 18 months.  The theory was first established by Gordon Moore in 1965 when he observed that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit doubles about every year.  Although it was later revised to 18 months Moore’s Law has been remarkably consistent.

Consider the Cray-2 supercomputer released in 1985 (nicknamed “bubbles” for its innovative liquid cooling system).  The Cray-2 required a large room to house it and cost many millions of dollars.  By comparison the iPhone 5 (already an antiquated device) has 2.7 times the processing power of the Cray-2, fits in your palm, weighs a few ounces and, when new, cost just a few hundred dollars.

So, where does this take us?  Many so-called “futurists” like Ray Kurzweil, contend that this exponential trend will continue into perpetuity until we reach what they call “The Singularity.” The Singularity will happen, they say, when technological cognitive ability surpasses the human brain.  If this occurs, what may happen next is runaway technological advancement self-perpetuated by artificial intelligence that quickly moves beyond human comprehension and then continues to accelerate at exponential rates.

That prospect, of course, raises all kinds of questions.  The scariness factor of it depends on how you look at it.  On the one hand, it could be the catalyst that allows the human race to finally achieve its glorious destiny: No more wars; quick solutions to global climate change; everlasting life in perpetual bliss; opportunities for fulfillment that cannot even be imagined today.  On the other hand, it could also mean the total extinction of our species as we essentially become absorbed or consumed by the new super-intelligent machines that we have no ability to control or even understand.

While this may still be in the science fiction realm today, many technology gurus are taking it quite seriously.  In 2017 Elon Musk, CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, warned of an existential threat to human existence posed by artificial intelligence.

There are also many skeptics, including highly credible tech gurus such as Paul Allen of Microsoft fame.  However, even the skeptics don’t necessarily suggest that The Singularity won’t happen, they just believe it will take a much longer period of time to get there.  Kurzweil predicts the singularity will occur in 2045 (in most of our lifetimes!) while others suggest that it will take hundreds of years.  So, it’s just a matter of time!

How does this relate to nature?  I believe the reason people today find such a connection to nature is because our daily lives are becoming more and more disconnected from nature, and this has everything to do with technology.  When people get out into the wilderness they often use terms like “reconnecting” with the wild or “unplugging” from the world.

This is no coincidence.  In the days of Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, environmental visionaries like them were eccentrics.  Those guys were way ahead of their time.  They had some sort of enhanced connection to the natural world that was uncommon then.  Most people in those days did not have a concept for “wilderness” as having its own intrinsic value.  The wilderness was a forbidding and unwelcoming place that was to be exploited and controlled by man.  The ideal was a cultivated landscape shaped by the plow and industry.

These days, while there are still those who have little appreciation for, or interest in, the wilderness, most people seem to appreciate natural places for what they are—natural.  Why has this changed?  I believe it’s partly because industry and technology have worked to detach humans from nature, and by doing so, humans are becoming increasingly nostalgic for natural experiences and immersion into nature.

I work in a technology field and I’m passionate about it.  Technology has provided humanity with great solutions to massive problems.  It has directly contributed to reductions in global hunger and infectious diseases, increases in life span, improvements in quality of life and much more.  But, I’m also keenly aware that technology increasingly separates us from nature and that creates a psychological and sociological conflict.  This conflict will only become more pronounced as technology marches on.

My personal philosophy for dealing with this is what I call nature-tech balance.  I have a professional “foot” and a nature “foot.” I keep one foot (my professional one) in the technology world.  Things are changing incredibly fast, and linking my career to leading technological trends helps ensure that, as these things continue to change our lives in ways we can’t always predict, I will be less likely to be left behind and bewildered by technological innovation.  My other foot (my nature one) is firmly planted in the natural world.  I make sure to “unplug” and step into the wilderness where my smartphone is no longer connected to the web, I can’t read my email, and I can’t talk to Alexa.

I know when I’m in the wilderness that I’m ultimately human and my survival depends on human behavior and traits.  How do I get to my destination one step at a time?  How do I keep warm and dry?  How do I avoid falling off a cliff?  How do I avoid getting mauled by a bear?  And, while I’m doing all this I stop to take in the view.  That beautiful red rock cliff face has been warmed by a hundred million sunrises and will be lit by a hundred million more. That Bristlecone Pine over there is real, and it was a sapling in the days of the Roman Empire.  Contemplation of nature, detached from technology, will keep us grounded and humble.  It will remind us of our origins and will restore our mental equilibrium.

When technological advancement surpasses our ability to comprehend what is happening, those who keep one foot in technology and one foot in nature will be the most likely to be able to cope if things go sour, and thrive if things go well.  Now, it’s time for me to plan my next adventure into the woods.

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