Wednesday, February 16, 2011

More on Growth

Let's return to the idea of growth, which includes a variety of concepts.  Andy Kessler says an "economy" is a "system that increases the standard of living of its participants."  He offers examples of technologies that have increased our standard of living, such as Dell PCs, Apple products, animated films like "Toy Story" and "Schrek," Oracle databases, Microsoft spreadsheets, Intel processors, Google search engines, Facebook, eBay, Amazon.  Going farther back, he points to the steam turbine, vacuum cleaner, electric dishwasher, X-ray tube, flash-freezing process, refrigerator and air-conditioner, and microwave oven.  All of these developments disrupted the status quo and many helped us live longer and better.

"Us."  You and me.  Whether they have helped mankind live longer and better has yet to be determined.

Maybe you've heard of "singularity," the cover story in Time last week -- "the moment when technological change becomes so rapid and profound, it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history."  Raymond Kurzweil and others picture the moment when computers become more intelligent than humans, and humanity will be transformed.  Kurzweil, whose name is on the electronic keyboard that in some ways freed this pianist from reliance on sometimes klunker pianos, predicts this moment to occur by 2045.

If true, computers will be able to do everything we do, but better, including composing music, writing books, painting pictures, inventing things, and carrying on dinner conversations (while they eat who knows what, or not).  What could this do to humans?  Our roles on Earth or wherever we live would drastically change, science fiction become real.  There we are, 35 years from now, with artificial intelligence a fact of life, and death, illness, and old age "cured" by superior intelligence.  What do we do?

Some say this will never happen, that the human body is not a purely bio-chemical system that can be manipulated into perpetual existence -- or that can be simulated and reverse-engineered into a computer. 

"Whatever," says Virginia, "we're still in charge of our fate."

I think she's right, and we're responsible for defining what an "increased standard of living" is.  I'm not ready to give up the conveniences technology has brought us, but I'm also unwilling to declare that they have improved our standard of living, speaking in solidarity terms (that is, in terms of humankind, past, present and future).  Among other things, they may have brought us to the edge of the precipice, what some religionists welcome as the "second coming."  Where will growth take us next?  The persons with the right answers might save humanity, they might become the next billionaires, or they might walk us over the cliff.

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