How to Be Human in a Machine World: On Geoff Colvin's Humans Are Underrated

Humans seem to relish the prospect of their own extinction. Perhaps it’s the imaginative equivalent to standing on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean, knowing the slightest tip forward would end the world as you know it: there’s something thrilling in mortality made tangible. The apocalyptic imagination is a vibrant force in American culture, and has of late filled the pages of financial journalism with images of a machine-run world in which humans are doomed to a new serfdom. These apocalyptic images depend on questionable facts—facts that are not as easily separated from images as one might think, for images combined with story give facts their power. Empirical data take on life when folded seamlessly into a narrative – progress through science! Golden age no more, civilization in decline! – which supplies them with broader cultural significance, a strong sense of drama, and an imaginarium stocked with pictures that capture our desires and fears.

So what has led the normally sober and black-shoed authors of leading financial and policy outlets to dip their toes into the stream of American apocalyptic? The short answer is: Silicon Valley. The longer answer is a horde of facts which eagerly march into any current discussion of technology and economics, although whose side they’re on isn’t always clear. If we take only the leading facts that drive many toward apocalyptic scenarios, the most visible is the growing power of software. Or, as Marc Andreesen put it in his colorful culinary metaphor, the fact that “software is eating the world.” It’s natural to wonder: why is software so hungry?

Software is hungry because computer intermediation is now the most economically prominent fact in the recent history of technology. There is a significant minority of investors and authors who have noted that innovation outside of the computer industry has been stagnant for decades. Peter Thiel expressed this view succinctly: “We were promised flying cars and we got 140 characters.” The truth of Thiel’s complaint is evident everywhere we go, literally, for one has only to observe how dated and decrepit our physical infrastructure is, particularly in transportation, to see material justification for his concern. In spite of this stagnation in the physical world, the exponential growth of computing power (summarized by Moore’s Law) has led to software’s rise from a niche area of the economy to an empire unto itself, conquering industry after industry. Between almost any business and its clients now exists a sophisticated software platform. Whether it’s the self-checkout line at a grocery store, the imminent prospect of autonomous vehicles, or the fact that there are programs that now write articles and do legal research, computers and their programs increasingly insert themselves between a business and its product, transforming businesses in the process (who thought Google would be a competitor in the automobile industry?). Andreesen was right. Software is eating the world, and it is eyeing hungrily industries whose products and processes have traditionally had nothing to do with computers. So, computers are getting smarter and more ubiquitous at an exponential rate. That’s an important fact, and a scary one, when paired with an obvious truth: there is no Moore’s Law for human intelligence. Cue apocalyptic scenarios.

Continue reading...