Taming The Knowledge Explosion – Part 2

On the last page we talked about how the development of knowledge feeds back upon itself creating an ever accelerating process of knowledge acquisition which is often called the knowledge explosion.

On this page let’s explore why the accelerating nature of knowledge development matters, and how this process is related to our concerns about nuclear weapons.

A Factory Assembly Line

The knowledge explosion might be compared to a factory assembly line. For centuries this knowledge factory ran pretty slowly so we were able to keep up as each new knowledge product rolled off the end of the assembly line. About 500 years ago the assembly line started speeding up, and in the 20th century this ever accelerating knowledge development process began to dominate human society.

As powerful new technologies arrived on the scene in the 20th century they often raised complex questions which have to be addressed by human judgment.

As example, consider all the unanswered and often controversial questions which still surround the issues of nuclear weapons and nuclear power. 75 years after we learned how to split the atom we still haven’t figured out how to best manage the awesome nuclear powers which science has given us.

More And More Challenging Questions

And while we’ve been scratching our heads and debating all the options with nuclear technology, the knowledge explosion hasn’t slowed down and waited for us to catch up. It has instead continued to accelerate and deliver ever more knowledge and ever more powerful technology at an ever faster pace.

Since 1945 a tsunami of other new technologies like transistors, bar codes, lasers, solar cells, internet, genetic engineering, microwaves, fiber optics, television, space exploration, integrated circuits, computer-aided design, LEDs, e-commerce, AI, personal computers, mobile phones and more have exploded on to the scene.

All these new technologies have an impact upon society and thus require the application of human judgment so that their influence will hopefully be more positive than negative.

We’re increasingly faced with judgment questions our ancestors couldn’t have imagined. Should you let your kids watch violent TV programs? How much time is healthy to spend on the Internet? Do cell phones bring us together, or drive us apart? Should we spend money on going to Mars, or use it to improve schools?

Some of these new technologies, like artificial intelligence and genetic engineering for example, are incredibly powerful and raise profound questions about their impact upon the future of the human race. The larger such questions get the more challenging it is for us to evaluate the opportunities and the risks.

But wait, there’s no time for making thoughtful well considered judgments about AI and genetic engineering right now, because here comes even more new powerful technologies down the knowledge assembly line. More and more of them. Of ever larger scale. Faster, and faster, and faster.

Factory Workers, Falling Behind

We’re factory workers standing at the end of a knowledge assembly line which keeps going faster and faster, and delivering ever larger powers in to our hands. Our job is to make well considered judgments about how these new powers should fit in to our society. But the questions we must address keep getting bigger and bigger, and the time we have to find good answers keeps getting shorter and shorter.

Imagine that you’re on a game show and the questions you have to answer keep getting harder and harder, and they’re coming at you faster and faster. Even if you’re really smart sooner or later you’re not going to be able to keep up, right?

And so it is with an ever accelerating knowledge explosion. So long as the knowledge assembly line keeps running at an ever accelerating pace it’s only a matter of time until one or more of the new powers of ever growing scale slip from our control, crashing the assembly line and bring the knowledge development process to an end.

If this sounds like alarmist futuristic speculation, consider this. We currently have thousands of hydrogen bombs aimed down our own throats, and after 75 years we still have figured out how to pull this gun out of our mouth. As of today, right now, everything we care about can be erased in less than an hour.

Any reader willing to face this enormous fact will see that this article isn’t just speculating about the future, it’s also discussing the reality of where we are today. As you read this, we’re already right on the very edge of being out of control of our future.

The bottom line is that while it is the nature of knowledge to expand at an exponential rate, human wisdom grows incrementally at best. And so the gap between the power available to us and our ability to successfully manage that power is ever widening.

How do we regain control of our destiny? Let’s explore this question on the next page.

Taming The Knowledge Explosion – Part 1

It seems important to keep in mind that the knowledge explosion which created nuclear weapons feeds back upon itself creating an ever accelerating knowledge development process. Let’s remind ourselves of some examples of how that works.

WRITING: An early step in the development of knowledge was the invention of writing. Once we were able to store information in the written word we could then share things that we’d learned with other people, even if they were distant from us in time and space. Thus, more people could have access to our knowledge, which made it more likely that someone would use what we had learned to learn something else.

THE PRINTING PRESS: With the invention of the printing press we escaped the tedious time consuming labor of having to write everything down manually, and could quickly make many copies of a piece of writing. This again multiplied the number of people who could have access to our knowledge, which again made it even more likely someone would use our knowledge to develop more knowledge.

THE INTERNET: In our time the internet has dramatically improved upon the printing press, making it very convenient for pretty much anyone to instantly share their knowledge with pretty much everyone else on Earth who wants it. This revolutionary new tool radically accelerates the development of knowledge even further. Again, the Internet doesn’t just share knowledge, by spreading knowledge it makes it easier for us to develop new knowledge.

COMPUTING: And of course the classic example is computing. Once we learned how to make computers, we could then use computers to learn many other things much faster than we would have been able to in the past. We can analyze vast piles of data to unlock it’s secrets, and so on.

The written word, the printing press, the Internet, and computers are all examples of accelerants, products of knowledge which feed back in to knowledge development process causing it to further speed up.

And so we see that the knowledge explosion is not really an explosion in the sense of being one big bang and then it’s over. The knowledge explosion is instead a continually accelerating process which feeds back upon itself generating new information at ever faster pace.

So far we’re just reminding ourselves of what most people already know, knowledge develops at an accelerating pace. While this fact is generally common knowledge, it has crucial implications which are being widely ignored at our great peril.

Now that we’ve reminded ourselves of the accelerating nature of knowledge development, let’s being exploring the implications on the next page.

Focusing On The Bottom Line

Most of the information available on nuclear weapons seems to be expert level analysis of weapons systems and nuclear diplomacy.

While experts can be admired for their professional mastery of such technical information, one doesn’t need to be an expert to understand something crucial about the process of examining such details. Once we free our minds of a thousand details a quite simple bottom line comes in to view…

Expert Analysis Of Details Doesn’t Work

Experts have been grinding away on the technical and diplomatic details related to nuclear weapons for 75 years, and modern civilization is still only an hour away from being nuked in to radioactive rubble, just as has been the case every day since the 1950’s. 75 years of expert analysis, and we’re still right where we started.

Expert level analysis of weapons systems, particular geo-political situations, this treaty or that treaty, and other such details is not getting us where we need to go, the elimination of all nuclear weapons, the protection of modern civilization.

The experts will tell us that their work has led to great strides in reducing the numbers of nuclear weapons, which is true. But partial reductions don’t really matter because it would only take 50 nukes to destroy America’s fifty largest cities, which would in turn lead to a collapse of the food distribution system, mass starvation, social and political chaos, and who knows what other horrors.

Just fifty nukes. Game over.

To make matters worse, it’s possible that the experts, those we look to for answers, are the least qualified people to squarely face the failure of a focus on details, because their expert status, careers and thus bank accounts depend upon continuing such a focus.

If you doubt that such a bias for detail exists among the experts, try presenting this article to a group of experts, and see what happens.

What’s The Alternative?

If it’s true that expert analysis of details is getting us nowhere, what else is there?

What if we flipped our paradigm around? What if instead of trying to make incremental changes with this or that weapon, Country A or Country B, this treaty or that treaty, one detail or another, we started with the big picture?

What if we took a break from an expert focus on details and turned our attention to addressing the bottom line, which is…

The BOTTOM LINE: The existential threat to modern civilization arises from a marriage between the ever accelerating knowledge explosion and violent men.

   

Why Does The Bottom Line Matter?

Here’s why focusing on this all important bottom line matters.

Imagine for a moment that we succeeded at getting rid of all nuclear weapons. Civilization is saved, right? No, sorry, wrong, civilization is not saved.

If nukes were gone violent men seeking power would just turn their attention to other tools of mass chaos.

If he can’t have a nuke, he’ll reach for some other tool of horror, and the knowledge explosion will hand it to him.

As just one example, as the knowledge explosion proceeds it’s only a matter of time until some genetic engineer figures out how to create lethal viruses which can be targeted at specific populations.

If we did have a perfect success in ridding this planet of nuclear weapons we’d just be trading one tool of mass destruction for some others. And we’d be in that situation because we failed to focus on the bottom line machinery which is generating all the threats.

An Example Of Success

Here’s an example of a success which arose from a focus on the bottom line.

Saddam Hussein is dead.

Saddam Hussein is dead, thus there is no need in Iraq for on site WMD inspections, diplomacy, negotiation, treaties, sanctions, gradual reductions in WMD requiring verification, expert analysis, and all of that.

All these details were solved at once because one of the key elements of the threat generating machine, a violent man, was removed from the equation.

Here’s that bottom line equation again.

knowledge explosion + violent men = civilization collapse

In Iraq, instead of starting with the details and having experts work their way towards a solution (like we’re doing in Iran), we started with the bottom line, thus making the details irrelevant.

The Iraq WMD threat is solved. The bottom line approach worked.

The Iran WMD threat remains unsolved. (Obama’s treaty with Iran just kicked the threat can down the road a few years until after he was out of office.) Expert analysis of details is not working.

A Change Of Focus

What I’m suggesting is that we shift some focus from the expert analysis of details, which are just symptoms of the disease, to a better understanding of the underlying mechanism which is generating all the threats.

knowledge explosion + violent men = civilization collapse

Until we address this bottom line both we and the experts will be condemned to an eternal cycle of confronting threat after threat after threat as they roll off of the knowledge explosion assembly line, at a faster and faster pace, in to the waiting arms of violent men.

If we refuse to focus on the bottom line, it will only be a matter of time until we can’t keep up and lose control of the threat generating machine.

Our Relationship With Knowledge

This article will argue that the “more is better” relationship with knowledge which is the foundation of science and our modern civilization is simplistic, outdated and increasingly dangerous. Let’s start with a quick analogy which can provide a glimpse of where we’re headed.

Our Evolving Relationship With Food

For most of our history humans have lived near the edge of starvation much of the time. In this scarcity context a “more is better” relationship with food was entirely reasonable.

We live in a new food era now. In our time food is plentiful and readily available in much of the world, and where that’s true more people die of obesity related diseases than die of starvation.

The point here is that a “more is better” relationship with food which was entirely rational for a very long time in an era of food scarcity became outdated and dangerous when transported to a different era characterized by a food explosion. We lucky moderns are required to replace the simplistic “more is better” food paradigm from the earlier era with a more intelligent and sophisticated relationship which can involve complicated cost/benefit calculations.

Our Evolving Relationship With Knowledge

This is where we are in our relationship with knowledge as well. The simplistic “more is better” relationship with knowledge which served us so well for so long now must adapt to meet the challenge of the new environment which it’s success has created.

The modern knowledge explosion obviously brings many benefits, way more than can be listed here, more than our ancestors could have even dreamed of. And although mistakes, missteps and even epic calamities do occur, so far we’ve always managed to clean up the mess, fix the error, learn the lessons, and continue with progress. So what’s the problem??

To understand the threat posed by operating from an outdated relationship with knowledge we need to examine the issue of scale. It is the vast scale of the powers emerging from the knowledge explosion that makes the longstanding progress => mistakes => more progress process that we are used to obsolete.

Erasing The Room For Error

Luckily for the purposes of this article at least, nuclear weapons provide a very easily understood example of how powers of vast scale change the threat landscape by erasing the room for error.

As you know, the nuclear stockpiles of the great powers will have to be managed successfully every single day forever, for as long as those weapons exist. The key thing to note here is that as far as the future of humanity goes, successfully managing such vast power most of the time is no longer sufficient. Doing a pretty good job no longer works. Making a mistake and then fixing it is no longer an option.

In the nuclear era the room for error we’ve always counted on in the past is erased, and one bad day is all it takes to end the possibility for further progress. This is what defines the revolutionary new situation we now find ourselves in, a situation which demands perfection from us.

And Now The Bad News

If nuclear weapons were eliminated entirely the underlying “more is better” knowledge development process which created the nuclear threat would continue to create more vast powers with the potential for crashing civilization.

Each emerging power of vast scale will have to be successfully managed every single day forever because a single mistake with a single such power a single time may be sufficient to crash the system and prevent the opportunity for renewal.

More, Larger, Faster

A key fact of the knowledge explosion is that it feeds back upon itself creating an ever accelerating unfolding of new knowledge, and thus new powers. So not only will emerging powers be larger than what we could produce in the past, and not only will there be more such vast powers than currently, but they will arrive on the scene at an ever faster pace.

Ever more, ever larger powers, delivered at an ever faster pace. Each of these accelerating factors; scale, number, and speed; needs to be graphed against the glacial pace of human maturity development.

Are We Perfect?

There is nothing about thousands of years of human history which suggests that we are capable of the consistently perfect management which powers of vast scale require.

We’ve been able to survive repeated episodes of murderous insanity and other such mistakes in the past only because the powers available to us were limited. As example, we threw conventional explosives at each other with wild abandon in WWII, and were saved from total destruction only because conventional explosives simply aren’t powerful enough to crash civilization.

The Unexamined False Assumption

A simplistic “more is better” relationship with knowledge is built upon the false assumption that human beings will always be able to successfully manage any amount of power which emerges from the knowledge explosion. Simple common sense reveals this assumption to be a wishful thinking fantasy.

We sensibly limit the powers available to kids out of the realistic understanding that their ability to manage power is limited. But then we assume that when children turn 18 they somehow magically acquire the ability to successfully manage any amount of power that the knowledge explosion may deliver.

The irrationality of this assumption is proven beyond doubt by the thousands of hair trigger hydrogen bombs we adults have aimed down our own throats, a stark reality we rarely find interesting enough to comment upon.

Mature? Ready for even more power?

Should We Become Luddites?

Should we turn our backs on knowledge? We don’t have that option. We make our livings on this Earth by knowledge. Knowledge is to humans what wings are to a bird, and fins are to a fish.

To illustrate the path we are now required to walk in our relationship with knowledge, let’s return to the example of food. The solution to obesity is obviously not to stop eating. The solution to obesity is instead to develop a more sophisticated relationship with food, eating what our bodies need, while saying no to excessive consumption.

In the same way, a simplistic “more is better” relationship with knowledge which has served us so well for so long must now make way for a more sophisticated relationship involving complicated cost/benefit calculations. And just as is the case with food, this will sometimes involve saying no to some new knowledge.

Yes, you’re right, it’s true, saying no to any knowledge is typically considered heresy in the age of science. Such reactions are surely understandable, but they are also wishful thinking prisoners of the past.

Nuclear weapons prove that the simplistic “more is better” relationship with knowledge the modern world is built upon is outdated 19th century philosophy which requires updating to meet the existential threats presented by a revolutionary new era.

Should We Bother With More Science?

As explored in the article Is Nuclear War A Sure Thing?, it seems reasonable to propose that 1) there is currently no credible plan for getting rid of nuclear weapons any time soon and 2) thousands of years of persistent all out, no holds barred, fight to the death human conflicts suggest that so long as we possess such weapons sooner or later we will use them, again.

Hopefully such speculation will prove incorrect, but given the weight of the evidence we have to at least consider that it may be true. If that’s the case, what are the implications?

One of the questions that may arise concerns a foundation of our civilization, science. If we have no credible plan for getting rid of nuclear weapons, as seems to currently be the case, what is the point of continuing scientific research? Won’t everything that is learned by such research likely be swept away in a coming nuclear holocaust?

Science is a process which continually builds upon itself, using what is learned today to learn more tomorrow. If we have no credible plan for safeguarding the future, what is science building towards?

Additional science would make sense if it could successfully address existential threats, such as that presented by nuclear weapons.

As example, during the Reagan era it was proposed that we could learn how to shoot down nuclear missiles.

But forty years later our progress on that project is so modest as to be largely meaningless. Even North Korea could probably get one or more missiles on to U.S. targets.

If we could track every atom of enriched uranium and plutonium on the planet that would surely be helpful, but according to Wired.com the U.S. Can’t Track Tons of Weapons-Grade Uranium and Plutonium.

If the majority of scientific effort was aimed at conquering existential threats such as nuclear weapons, climate change, incoming asteroids, and global pandemics etc, that would go a long way towards ensuring modern civilization survives to enjoy the benefits of new science. But, as best I can tell, such efforts make up the tiniest fraction of current research.

The point of this article is not to wave a sign declaring The End Is Near. It is instead to invite readers in to a constructive process of thinking through the implications of having no credible plan for getting rid of nuclear weapons. Looking in to the abyss with clear eyes is surely not a pleasant exercise, but such a process is likely necessary if we are to avoid being swept over the precipice.

Are we really going to give up all the incredible gifts science has handed us over the last 500 years? Are we really going to deny our descendants the miracles that would arise from science over coming centuries? Are we really going to do that? Really??

If we don’t come up with a credible plan for getting rid of nuclear weapons, the answer to these questions is most likely yes.

Giving up nuclear weapons is the price tag for the future of science and all the miracles it can offer us. We pay the price, or we don’t get the miracles. There is no reasonable logic which credibly suggests that we can have the cake and eat it too.