A way around the limits erected by normal physics is to simply go around them using the spooky physics of quantum mechanics.
“Man has limited biological capacity for change. When this capacity is overwhelmed, the capacity is in future shock.” – Alvin Toffler
Though written more than 40 years ago, Alvin Toffler’s work on the psychological and social consequences of too much change, too quickly, remains one of the best attempts to date in understanding the cultural consequences of rapid technological change. Given the importance of three little-noted news stories that came down the wires last week, we may all want to pick up a copy, electronic of course, of Toffler’s first book on the subject.
The first story to give us an inkling of the change that is about to take place comes from the intersection of the worlds of computers and quantum mechanics, an esoteric field of high-technology known as quantum computing. The story, reported in the New Scientist, reveals that for the first time a commercially available quantum computer has outperformed a normal PC in a series of mathematical optimization problems of a type used in many computing applications.
Big deal, you might say, computing speed records have been beaten every day ever since we entered the world of Moore’s Law – the observation that the capabilities of the bits and pieces that make up computers double in capabilities every 18 months or so. What’s different this time?
Moore’s law has so far been based on the ability of chip manufacturers to pack ever more electronic transistors onto a slim wafer of silicon. This method of chip development, which began in 1971 with 2,300 transistors being packed onto a single chip developed by Intel, is possibly reaching its developmental endpoint.
The reason for this potential plateau in current chip design is physics – so many transistors, billions at last count, are being packed in so tightly that heat, power and space are now becoming truly limiting factors in chip design. Squeezing out more capability by packing in more transistors could thus be reaching a point of diminishing returns.
While a variety of material and design innovations may stave off the end of Moore’s law for some time, a way around the limits erected by normal physics is to simply go around them using the spooky physics of quantum mechanics.
Spooky because the laws of quantum mechanics, which have all been experimentally verified thousands of times, allow such things as quantum entanglement and superposition – the laws, again proven by science, that say matter can be physically linked and interact even over vast distances and that physical systems, from an electron to a planet, exist in all possible physical states until observed.
The implications of quantum mechanics, which unnerved even Einstein, leads to such mind-blowing possibilities as a cat being both alive and dead at the same time and the ability to teleport – yes, teleport as in the transporter device from Star Trek – matter from one place to another. Applied to computers, it would allow the construction of computers vastly more powerful than anything conceived of today outside the realm of science fiction.
This is because superposition would allow transistors, which record data as a series of ones and zeros, to be both one and zero at the same time – exploding the processing power of traditional digital computers. Entanglement would, in turn, make space irrelevant as transistors would not have to be in near proximity with one another to interact as a whole.
What might this mean? Imagine, for instance, the computer processing power of the most powerful computer in existence today contained in something the size of today’s iPhone. Combined with increasingly sophisticated software that, like humans, learns from experience, this could mean the development of powerful artificial intelligence systems capable of undertaking the most complex of tasks, tasks which might also involve understanding and reacting to human emotions in real time.
Robots live-in service robots
A film depicting this possible future, Robot & Frank, revolves around the interactions of an elderly man suffering from dementia and the full-time, live-in service robot that aids him. Technology of this type could make obsolete overnight vast swathes of the human workforce – from nurses, to teachers, to taxi drivers – that currently employ huge numbers of people. Imagine a robot that can raise your kid when you’re not there — warring on humanity, as in The Terminator, pales in comparison.
Such computers could also effortlessly simulate the future of the entire biosphere, predict weather months or even years in advance, or precisely model the ebb and flow of the entire global economy – the dream of Soviet central planners. Any complex system with many hundreds, if not thousands, of variables simultaneously impacting one another could be simulated and modeled for anyone who cared to – perhaps even the inner working of the human brain. Quantum computing could quite possibly give rise to artificial consciousness, not just intelligence, indistinguishable from our own.
The consequences of quantum computing are vast, but human nature being what it is, the emergence of powerful A.I.’s capable of mimicking our own intelligence will no doubt lead to resistance amongst those individuals and groups most at risk of being replaced in the emergent A.I. economy.
Craftsmen in 1800s Europe, after all, were known to sabotage the industrial machines they worked on with, while both revolutionary liberalism and Marxism arose in reaction to the changing nature of the economic relations in 19th-century Europe. Violence, therefore, is clearly a possibility.
Future of printable weaponry
Which makes the second technological news item of note that much more poignant – the advent of the printable gun. The printable gun is itself the side effect of 3D printing, a technology that leverages computer printers of the type you may have in your home office with digitized blueprints, high-speed processing, and modern materials such as plastics. In short, 3D printers, which currently run around $1,000 apiece, allows for the at-home creation of nearly any object, from a wrench or wrist watch to tiny, flying robots.
Such technology, aside from revolutionizing design and manufacturing, has obvious security implications. Printable guns made of plastic, for instance, are not detectable using traditional methods and would require much more intrusive security measures than we are used to today in order to prevent armed assassins from entering secure facilities without their weapons being detected. If you think security lines at airports are nightmares now, just wait till printable plastic guns become commonplace.
While this is bad enough, the destabilizing potential of 3D printing as it gets cheaper and more sophisticated is seriously troubling. Imagine, for instance, enough small arms and ammunition to outfit an entire battalion being printed by a rebel group or terrorist organization the day before they begin using them to carry out attacks.
Or, if not small arms, how about more powerful and sophisticated weapons like artillery, tanks or even aircraft being 3D printed and fielded in secret and on short notice. Then, there is the ultimate horror – an army of self-directed, self-replicating combat drones. No need to mobilize the troops and ship them overseas here, simply send in a 3D-printing machine, have it print up and spit out a robot army, and then sit back and watch the fireworks.
Fireworks may be the least of our worries, however, if the third technological trend that made waves last week rolls on uncontested – the increasing problem of global warming. Scientists last week announced that mankind crossed an environmental Rubicon of sorts – concentrations of atmospheric CO2 has reached 400 parts per million, a concentration not seen on planet Earth for millions of years – and well before mankind and most our immediate evolutionary ancestors made their global debut.
The 400 PPM measure is more than a mere historical curiosity, however, as scientists believe keeping atmospheric concentrations of CO2 below that level is key to avoiding a potentially devastating increase in global temperatures.
In pre-industrial times, the best scientific estimate of carbon levels in the atmosphere stood at 280 PPM, meaning it has taken humanity 213 years of fossil-fuel burning industrial activity to increase CO2 concentration by 42 percent. This has resulted in, so far, an approximate 1.8-degree Fahrenheit increase in global temperature. As carbon stays in the atmosphere for centuries, the carbon-induced warming we are seeing today is, in fact, the product of over a century’s-worth of burning of fossil fuels.
Since burning of fossil fuels has not just grown, but exploded with the industrialization of the developing world and a corresponding increase in global population, we look to not just surpass the 400 PPM mark, but charge well beyond it as well – potentially introducing mankind to atmospheric conditions not seen since the time of the dinosaurs, let alone our hominid ancestors.
Such an increase in temperatures could make large swaths of the planet that is now heavily populated uninhabitable due to a combination of desertification, super storms and sea-level rise. Mass extinctions of vulnerable, yet vital, animal and plant populations could become a reality, while the intricate web of the biosphere that currently keeps the human economy productively humming, mostly unnoticed, would be severely disrupted.
For those keeping track, the future is thus likely to see three things simultaneously; increasingly powerful and sophisticated machine intelligence, cheap, easy-to-make weapons that can be manufactured secretly and in situ and a planetary biosphere that is under increasing stress from humanity’s collective economic activities.
How will our global society react to such far-reaching changes? Unfortunately, it is hard to say with any accuracy as predictions made on events so far out usually more often reflect personally-held philosophies about human nature than real knowledge about the future. People will probably react as they always have – with fear and trepidation, but also with hope and an eye toward opportunity.
What we do know, however, is that the future is about to become more radically different from what we have known far sooner than any of us now realize. Let’s hope we can keep up, for it’s the devil that takes the hindmost and it’s the individuals most adaptable to change – not necessarily the strongest, quickest, most intelligent and certainly not the most dogmatic – that survive.