We might have
By KEVIN MANEY
Wednesday, 25 Apr
TORONTO (AP) - In the 1960s, when I was a little tyke, I couldn't get
to sleep one night. I'd seen something on TV. It made me scared about nuclear
missiles raining down on our ranch house.
My father came in, sat on my
bed, and explained that if the Russians shot missiles at us, we'd shoot up
anti-missile missiles to stop them. I wanted to know what would happen if they
had anti-missile missile missiles. He said that our side had anti-missile
missile missile missiles. It went on like that for a while.
Of course he
was lying through his teeth. But it worked on me.
Every generation is
afraid of the technology it creates, much the way every generation thinks its
teenagers listen to amoral, grating music. It's part of life. Something about
the technology seems beyond comprehension and beyond control. In the 1940s, the
first computers sparked anxiety overwhat the press called "electronic brains."
Today, nanotechnology gets people worried about runaway micromachines that could
replicate themselves until they cover the Earth like a spa mud treatment on a
But every generation figures it out. We didn't do so well
building anti-missile missiles, but we used diplomacy, politics, economics and
communications networks to make sure nukes didn't vaporize my house, not to
mention my Hot Wheels collection, which would've been a major loss. When pushed
into a box by our technology, we have always used ingenuity to get out of
So, what if we can't do that anymore?
Maybe we've finally created
technology - or, more accurately, a global system based on technology - that's
too complex for human beings to understand or control. Maybe we're standing on
the edge of a huge mess that we can't clean up. Maybe there's just not enough of
a supply of ingenuity to meet the demand for it.
This is what I'm hearing
from Thomas Homer-Dixon, the slender, reserved guy with close-cut graying hair
who's sitting across from me in a hotel lobby. He's the director of the Peace and
Conflict Studies Program at the University of Toronto, and author of The
Ingenuity Gap, a book that's sold well in Canada but hasn't had much visibility
in the USA.
The book is a wide-ranging, big-think tour that alights on
ozone holes, a plane crash, human brain evolution, complexity theory and a lot of
stops in between. Basically, he describes an age of runaway complexity. The
Internet, global economies and jet travel make it worse by creating network
effects - technologies and systems all over the world link to create overlapping
webs of complexity. We are finally creating systems that are as complex as
something like weather. Think how bad we are at understanding, predicting or
controlling that slice of nature.
"So, our ingenuity requirements are going
up," Homer-Dixon says. Then he assembles evidence of overload on the people who
might solve our problems, from government officials to scientists. "We are
starting to reach our cognitive thresholds, and the one thing that hasn"t changed
is this," he says, tapping his head with both hands. "We're coming up against
One example Homer-Dixon uses of runaway complexity is the
world financial marketplace. In 1977, he says, $18 billion of currency was traded
every day. Today, it's $1.5 trillion - almost a hundredfold increase in less than
25 years. The markets are all linked by computer networks and run on instant
information. An event in one part of the world will cause reactions upon
reactions everywhere else, and no one can understand or predict those reactions.
It's becoming almost impossible to stop market meltdowns, and no solutions seem
to be in sight.
Now, it's easy to argue with Homer-Dixon. Even he agrees.
"Very sophisticated people say, 'Oh, we'll figure it out.'" And this is true. Ray
Kurzweil, Peter Cochrane and a lot of other technologists say that, sure, we're
creating systems that no human can deal with. But we're also creating machines
that we use as tools to manage complexity.
One example is a fighter jet, a
hugely complex piece of equipment. Its flaps, rudder and ailerons are adjusted
hundreds of times a second by the on-board computer to keep the jet stable. No
human could control it. If the computer breaks, the jet is toast.
book, Homer-Dixon describes genetic programming, in which code is set up to
evolve quickly and essentially write itself, supposedly making software that's
more effective than anything humans could write. Cochrane worked on that when he
headed British Telecom's labs.
But the argument also goes in a circle. We
have to create ever more complex machines to control ever more complex systems,
so when the machines get too complex, do we have to create machines to create the
machines? It starts sounding like my dad on the bed. At some point, we're clearly
in over our heads.
Is there a solution? Yeah, well, probably not. This is
where Homer-Dixon just isn't Silicon Valley enough. He says we ought to think
about "taking our foot off the accelerator." Say what? Try telling that to Bill
Gates, or any student coming out of a U.S. MBA program. It might seem like a good
idea to slow technology development, but that's like telling football players to
hit a little less hard so they don't hurt each other as much.
Homer-Dixon is a sharp guy, though. He knows that's not a solution
that will get very far right now. Yet, he says, "Either do something proactively,
or something will introduce a major breakdown, and that will slow us down." He
adds: "I don't know the answer, but I don't think blithe optimism is the way to
I don't know. Worked for me in the '60s.
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