Melding with our machines – Canadian Government Executive

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May 7, 2012

Melding with our machines

CGE Vol.13 No.2 February 2007

So you think you’ve got it tough wrestling with your particular Big Issue – native land claims, maybe, or the fiscal forecast, or climate change or infrastructure. Or you’re dogged by something in the grab bag of administrative items: contracting, or overtime, or parking, or…well, sometimes the list seems endless.

But it could be worse. At least you’re working in a world that’s more or less finite, a place where people – public servants – toil on behalf of other people (including, from time to time, other public servants).

Your descendants, bureaucratically speaking, may not have it so good.

By way of background: You may have caught the recent ripple in the newspapers suggesting a future in which people basically merge with their computers. In just 1,000 years or so, in that scenario, technology will have made a redundancy of humanity as we know and sometimes love it. PCs R Us, literally.

Now, that report wasn’t really news. It was merely an incidental expression of the ongoing work of a small but busy collection of Deep Thinkers who are trying to figure out what the future might look like, technology wise.

Much of their conjecturing is predicated on such massive leaps in the field of artificial intelligence – AI to the initiate – that machines are more efficient and effective than people at everything from mixing martinis to exploring the planets (where they will be unencumbered by oxygen tanks).

The guru of this line of thought is Ray Kurzweil, whose rigorously reflective books include The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. His latest is The Singularity is Near, an extended exploration of some of the details of what life might be like in PCs R Us.

The Singularity, according to Kurzweil, is “a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed.” He then takes off on a fascinating 600-page ramble through some of the underbrush of this New World, everything from the nature of work and play, to the brain (redesigned), to the digestive system (reengineered by nanobots), and far, far beyond.

But politics and governance? Not so much is said.

Kurzweil doesn’t totally ignore such issues. In fact, he goes out of his way to acknowledge them, quoting Leon Fuerth, an adviser to former US vice-president Al Gore:

“These guys [futurists like Kurzweil]…act as though the government is not part of their lives. They may wish it weren’t, but it is. As we approach the issues they debated here today [at a 2002 conference on nanotechnology], they had better believe that those issues will be debated by the whole country. The majority of Americans will not simply sit still while some elite strips off their personalities and uploads themselves into their cyberspace paradise. They will have something to say about that. There will be vehement debate about that in this country.”

Right. And that’s just short-term politics. In the longer term, there are daunting questions of, say, the nature of community in an AI world: Will the Singularity be divided into countries? Other jurisdictions? And what might differentiate one jurisdiction from another anyway – grounded outlets as distinct from direct current?

Plus: What will officialdom do in said jurisdictions? For instance, there may not be much call for a Canadian Wheat Board to regulate the grain trade if there is no grain trade, on account of there being no requirement for grain. On the other hand, the production, management and distribution of fuel may be bigger than ever.

You see where this kind of thinking can lead you. If you’re game, check out Kurzweil for more; it’s at least fun, not to mention educational. There’s an easily reached sample of Singularity thinking at www.kurzweilai.net. For still more, you could do worse than www.foresight.org, on nanotechnology, or the dead-tree product Radical Evolution, a more distanced look at all this from Washington journalist Joel Garreau.

Check it out; you’ll be glad you did in a few thousand years.

Robert Parkins is editorial director.

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