The Ingenuity


We might have outsmarted ourselves

USA Today
Wednesday, 25 Apr 2001

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 naked backside.

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 it.

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 those limits."

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.

In his 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. Right.

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 go."

I don't know. Worked for me in the '60s.

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