Recent Books and Competing Visions for the Future

Several months ago, I said I was starting in on Ray Kurzweil’s new book (How to Create a Mind). I had many deadlines and needed something motivational (I still have many deadlines and would like another motivational book, actually). I read it and I enjoyed it. Kurzweil is a leader in the AI field but more of a technology cheerleader outside of that field. For my purposes, that is fine. I just need some Grand Vision sometimes.

The big hypothesis is this: if you wire up a bunch of pattern recognition elements (built on a hidden Markov mechanism, perhaps) to each other in a hierarchal manner and let them work on the world for a while, then you will get a mind. He makes the case pretty carefully. And he makes the case for human-equivalent computers coming online sooner (20 years) rather than later. He is a cornucopian. He imagines that our problem-solving capability scales with our computational resources.

I picked up Abundance by Diamandis and Kotler and I liked it even more. If you’re worried about Social Collapse, this is the book to read. If you like worrying about social collapse, head over to reddit/r/collapse. I am as familiar with the doomsday scenarios as the next guy, but Abundance is a far better worldview.

My favorite doomer scenario is peak oil and resource scarcity. If oil becomes very expensive, there are a lot of people living first-world lifestyles who will not be able to afford it anymore. Lifestyle changes are hard, but not impossible. We would have to conserve our resources if gasoline cost $11 per gallon and electricity cost $0.15 per kilowatt-hour (Unrealistic? the Netherlands already pays $10 per gallon). But here’s the key: at those prices, there is no shortage. Nuclear, solar, and wind can all produce electricity indefinitely and profitably at those prices. At that price of gasoline and electricity, it would be profitable to synthesize gasoline from CO2 and water (although batteries are almost certainly a better approach).

That’s the key that the doomers forget: petroleum (and all resources) are limited only because we have not created alternatives yet. Abundance postulates that we can (and will) find those alternatives before we all start living in bunkers and killing each other over canned beans.

I think that there are two competing visions for the future: the cornucopian utopia and the doomer apocalypse. Only one side is worth working for.