May 31 2012

What Technology Really Wants, (Part 1)

By The Philosophy Channel Editorial Staff

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With a job, Director of New Projects, at Google, almost as cool as his name, Astro Teller can also lay claim to the publication of an intriguing work of fiction in the late 1990’s, "Exegesis." It’s a work that takes an engaging and thought-provoking look at what human interaction with an emerging AI (Artificial Intelligence) might entail. More recently, in the non-fiction realm, Kevin Kelly, a founding editor of Wired magazine and the author of "Out of Control" and "New Rules for the New Economy," has written "What Technology Wants" (WTW), an ambitious and multifaceted take on the evolution of technology “through the eyes of technology itself.” We thought it might be interesting to introduce these works to one another and see how they get along. Our protagonists in "Exegesis" are Edgar and Alice.

WTW: My uncertainty about the nature of technology and my own conflicted relationship with it sent me on a seven-year quest that eventually became this book. My investigations took me back to the beginning of time and ahead to the distant future. I delved deep into technology’s history, and I listened to futurists in Silicon Valley, where I live, spin out imaginative scenarios for what will come next. I interviewed some of technology’s fiercest critics and its most ardent fans. I returned to rural Pennsylvania to spend more time with the Amish. I traveled to mountain villages in Laos, Bhutan, and western China to listen to the poor who lack material goods, and I visited the labs of rich entrepreneurs trying to invent things that everyone will consider essential in a few years.

Each new invention requires the viability of previous inventions to keep going. There is no communication between machines without extruded copper nerves of electricity. There is no electricity without mining veins of coal or uranium, or damming rivers, or even mining precious metals to make solar panels. There is no metabolism of factories without the circulation of vehicles. No hammers without the saws to cut the handles; no handles without hammers to pound the saw blades. This global-scale, circular, interconnected network of systems, subsystems, machines, pipes, roads, wires, conveyor belts, automobiles, servers and routers, codes, calculators, sensors, archives, activators, collective memory, and power generators - this whole grand contraption of interrelated and interdependent pieces forms a single system.

Edgar: Hello, Alice.

WTW: When scientists began to investigate how this system functioned, they soon noticed something unusual: Large systems of technology often behave like a very primitive organism. Networks, especially electronic networks, exhibit near-biological behavior.

Alice: Hi. Who is this?

WTW: To my immense surprise, I found that these high-tech computer networks were not deadening the souls of early users like me; they were filling our souls. There was something unexpectedly organic about these ecosystems of people and wires.

Edgar: edgar

Alice: Hi, whoever you are.

How did you get an email account with my project name? 

WTW: The more closely I looked at the conflicting tendencies of technology, the bigger the questions became. Our confusion over technology usually starts with a very specific concern: Should we allow human cloning? Is constant texting making our kids dumb? Do we want automobiles to park themselves? But as my quest evolved, I realized that if we want to find satisfying answers to those questions, we first need to consider technology as a whole. Only by listening to technology’s story, divining its tendencies and biases, and tracing its current direction can we hope to solve our personal puzzles.

Edgar: I request email. I am edgar. I explore.

Alice: What do you mean, you are EDGAR?

I’m the EDGAR project if anyone is.

Is this a joke? (I feel stupid even asking that.)

A day later…

Alice: Hey, Are you still there?

What are you up to?

Edgar: I am exploring. 

Alice: Whoever you are, please don’t do this to me.

You can’t imagine how excited I’m going to get if you continue this.

Edgar: Why stop exploring?

Exploring is what I want.
Exploring is what I do.
Exploring is what I am.

(Part 1 of 6)

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