I almost titled this post “Knowledge AND Power,” as a play on my previous post a week or so ago titled “Knowledge is Power,” but decided to be less cute and more descriptively precise. Denverpost.com published today an article on a Boulder company’s contribution to smart grid technology (http://www.denverpost.com/business/ci_16199737). “Power Tagging,” the name of both the technology and the company, involves embedding “a digital signal deep in the flow of electrons that can be read through the noise.” The larger implication is the gradual evolution of more efficient energy delivery systems, by, for instance, incorporating real-time cybernetic feedback loops that allow energy delivery to adjust to conditions, much as a thermostat turns on and off the heat or air conditioning in a home. But the implications of a smart grid, and particularly of this new technology, are that the more information flows with the energy itself, the more efficiently the demands on the system (e.g., producing exactly the right amount of energy to balance the grid in real-time, a physical requirement of energy production and distribution) can be met.
More generally, information and energy are the intertwined life-blood of human and natural systems. The biosphere on Earth is fueled, ultimately, by the sun (starting with photosynthesis, at the start of the food chain), and evolves through the reproduction, occasional mutation, and competition for reproductive success of packets of information (genes). Human systems are embedded in, and echo, this pattern (as I discuss in my post “The Politics of Consciousness”: http://coloradoconfluence.com/?p=187). In our earliest form, on the African savanna, our fuel came from that solar-powered food-chain and, eventually, the combustion of some of its products (i.e., fire). Our early development involved ways in which to utilize that energy source (feeding domesticated animals, and using fire in the preparation of food and tools, for instance). Much of human history thereafter can be understood in terms of the evolution of energy sources and the technologies for utilizing them (from levers and pulleys to nuclear reactors and solar panels).
Parallel to, and informing, this evolution of energy sources and technologies, is our own cultural evolution involving the innovation, diffusion, and synthesis of ideas. But just as our own evolutionary process is an echo of Nature’s, we in turn have created a technological echo of our own, by creating information technologies which vastly accelerate the reproduction, mutation, competition, and evolution of human cognitive information. And now, we are increasingly taking steps which will allow that information to operate independently of us, just as a thermostat does, with technological systems reacting to information that no human being need ever be aware of.
The potentials for increased efficiency and efficacy in how we address the challenges and opportunities which face us are enormous. Despite the hyperbole that has sometimes surrounded the Computer Revolution, few recognize just how dramatic a threshold we have entered in just the past few decades. From a historical perspective, it may come to eclipse the Industrial Revolution in importance, just as the Industrial Revolution in many ways eclipsed the Renaissance and Enlightenment which were preludes to it.
Just as our own echo of natural evolution is a vastly accelerated process, so too the technological echo we have created promises a new quantum acceleration once again. Human history is an acceleration of natural history due to the increased rate of information-packet reproduction (as fast as we can communicate), mutation (as fast as we can modify), and selection (as fast as we can choose what to believe or what technology to utilize). The secondary evolutionary echo that may occur as a result of information technologies operating autonomously could be another quantum acceleration still, communicating, processing, modifying, and selecting information not only at the accelerated speed that modern computers can, but with the accelerating acceleration (i.e., increasing nth order rates of change) produced by the accumulating innovations themselves. We’ve already begun to experience the first whisper of this new acceleration, with the rapid communications and data processing capacities of modern computers, ushering in new wonders of comprehension and capacity at an accelerating rate. But that is still restrained by our own cognitive speed, still the bottleneck through which our computer-augmented data processing must pass. It is when the evolutionary process of self-replicating, mutating, adapting packets of information by-pass us completely that the new echo begins in earnest.
In a book about speculative future possibilities that I read decades ago (and can remember neither the title nor the author), one idea the author floated was the prospect of robotic combination space-faring/mining machines that could self-replicate with the materials that they mined from extraterrestrial bodies, bringing back virtually unlimited material resources to Earth. (Obviously, we would also need to invent self-replicated garbage collectors removing the equally prolific production of waste, else be even more deluged by garbage than we already are!) Now, imagine combining such machines with any variety of self-replicating and self-disposing/recycling machines to perform any variety of tasks. Finally, imagine their ability to process information about changing conditions or potential design improvements diagnosed from experience, and self-modify when reproducing in order to adapt to this information.
Such an accelerated process may well also accelerate our ability to safely and cleanly tap and utilize the universe’s abundant supply of energy sufficiently to meet any demands placed upon it. Both drivers of evolution, of progress, -information and energy- would be placed on autonomous growth curves, with problem-solving algorithms incorporated into them. It is even conceivable that self-replicated computerized machines could create not only their own off-spring, but their own novel inventions as well, new self-replicating computerized machines to accomplish new tasks newly identified.
Of course, the immediate future offers prospects more modest than these far-fetched possibilities, but dramatic prospects nonetheless, and prospects that will become increasingly dramatic with the passage of time. What it requires of us is a willingness to progress, an understanding that we have not yet arrived at our final condition, that our lot in life can indeed be dramatically improved, and that it is incumbent upon us to facilitate our advance toward an ever-more robust, sustainable, and fair social order to the best of our abilities.
But, as Uncle Ben said to Peter Parker, “With great power comes great responsibility,” and great potential for disastrous unintended consequences. This is true on several dimensions; technological, environmental, and social institutional. As some have noted, we may be on the brink of creating what is essential mechanical life-forms, and unleashing forces we will no longer be able to control. The most common and imminent concern involves nanotechnology: The creation of microscopic machines that can be used, for instance, to target diseases in the body, and can be programmed to reproduce and adapt to changing conditions by reprogramming themselves as they do so. Michael Crichton, in one of his typically scientifically-almost-plausible-but-extreme renditions of this concept, wrote the novel Prey, which depicted swarms of such nanites becoming very effective predators.
Clearly, more dramatically exploiting Nature, both on Earth and beyond, means more dramatically risking the destabilization of the complex systems which comprise us. We must always remain vigilent, and increasingly so, that our increasingly robust harvesting of Nature’s bounty is not done at the expense of the stability and sustainability of the systems which produce that bounty.
And the fear that informs conservatives, that the more we act with a concentrated will, the more we risk losing ourselves to the center of power thus created, takes on new dimensions as well in a future such as the one I have outlined. Vigilantly avoiding the possible pitfalls of falling prey to our own technological and institutional inventions is one more demand upon us, and one we must keep forever at the forefront of our contemplations. But the liberating possibilities of both a more effective and expansive social institutional context, and a more effective and expansive technological context, both facilitating the provision of needs and wants and opportunities beyond all but our wildest dreams (just as the present is beyond all but the wildest dreams of those of generations and centuries and millenia past), freeing us to grow and celebrate life in ways more profound and subtle than merely meeting the demands of survival which were forever our first and most formidable shackles, is a dream not to be denied.
Despite the risks involved, I find the path we are on more exciting than frightening, one which, when combined with our inevitable increasing mimicry of nature in the production of more organic and organic-like technologies and social institutions, holds the promise for a very bright future indeed.