If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Technium: The Fifth and Sixth Discontinuity | Kevin Kelly

Philosopher Bruce Mazlish claims that the eyes of science have overthrown humanity's view of itself in a series of revelations. At each unveiling, we descend one notch. In the first removal, Copernicus dethroned our common-sense assumption that our world stood at the center of the universe. Astronomy eventually revealed, with a shock, that we were a minor tribe huddled on a small speck circling a nondescript star at the outer edge of an immense average galaxy floating among a trillion others in one small corner of the universe. The noble distinction between us and the rest of the universe was eliminated to reveal a continuous continuity of existence. Our perceived exceptionalism was demoted to the ordinary. Within the universe, we were not set apart, but dwelt in a continuum.

The second break from the exalted was launched by Darwin, who revealed that the exceptional discontinuity we perceived between ourselves and other animals or plants was equally illusionary. We are one continuous life, one evolution. Our position as humans is only one twig on a million-twigged tree, each terminal equally evolved. Within life we were not set apart, but dwelt in a continuum.

According to Mazlish the third discontinuity was located in our heads. Freud began the on-going process of overcoming the specialism we attribute to the idea of "I." Psychology and neurology discovered that the "I" is a handy fantasy constructed to facilitate daily life, but that there is no central decider at home; rather there are many "i"s operating in our mind, and those parts are not distinguishable from our physical body, or even at times from other minds. Our own consciousness has been dethroned from central emperor to a field of cognitive tricks. Within sentience, we are not set apart, but dwell in a continuum.

We are now in the middle of dispatching the fourth discontinuity. The venerable distinction between machines and living creatures is receding so fast that it is becoming increasingly clear to everyone that a grand continuity connects the world of the made and the world of born. Nature and machine are two faces of the same extropic force. I've previously written a long argument in support of this continuity, and I assume its validity here on this blog. The question today is not so much whether the technium shares its roots with biological evolution, but whether it will displace its parent, or cohabit with it. Either way within the technium we, the living, are not set apart but dwell in a continuum.

But as the arc of evolution continues beyond these four continuums, what future smoothings can we expect? I propose that the next exceptionalism to be broken by science, the fifth discontinuity so to speak, is the special status we give to the physical. We feel the universe to be a place full of physical material that pushes back and presses against us. Things have weight, size, and duration. That's what the universe is in everyday experience -- the real stuff that can be really measured, felt, and sensed. Our world of matter and energy follow a set of laws to such an exacting degree that we can manipulate it to make rockets and computers. Matter's consistent refusal to be bullied outside its own laws adds to the sense of it being "real." Real means physical.

Information, on the other hand, lacks physicality. Unlike energy, which we can at least measure with physical instruments, a digital bit is disembodied. It weighs nothing. It takes up no space. It flows as mysteriously as a gremlin. We don't have good measures for information. (If I make an exact copy of your song, am I increasing the amount of information in the world, or decreasing it because I am adding nothing new?) We are not yet sure if the total amount of information in the universe is conserved, nor if it is finite. Yet, we have come to see that life, even our own life, is a pattern of intangible information, rather than material form. Evolution – that great engine of creation -- is a pattern of information. And mind, especially the mind, is a type of information flow. So we know that the most powerful forces in the universe (that we are aware of) are constructed of the most intangible things we can detect: bits.

There stands the discontinuity: atoms vs bits. But lately, physicists have begun to suspect that atoms are composed of information in some way we don't understand. As legendary physicist John Wheeler puts it, "its are bits." The deeper we inspect the interior of sub atomic particles and their quirky behavior, the more they can be explained as information flows. Many physicists expect that when we get to the bottom of how matter works that we'll find primarily a structure of information and the absence of anything "material." Atoms will be understood as elaborate, dynamic arrangements of intangible signals. In an article published by the American Journal of Physics, entitled "What is quantum mechanics trying to tell us" solid-state-physicist David Mermin writes "matter acts, but there are no actors behind the actions; the verbs are verbing all by themselves without a need to introduce nouns. Actions act upon other actions. [There's] no duality between the existence of a thing and its properties: properties are all there is. Indeed: there are no things."

As this discontinuity between the realm of the physical and the realm of the immaterial is erased, scientists have began to re-envision the laws of physics as complex algorithms of code. Energy also, is being restated in terms of information. The pulsating stars and iron planets will gradually be seen by science as wisps of intangible nothings. Organisms and technologies, including mega structures such as skyscrapers, starships, and floating cites, will be defined as structures of computation, equivalent to software. Eventually the boundary between the tangible and intangible will be completely permeable, and the special status we assign to our physicality will be seen (again) as only one station on a long continuum. Within the realm of the real, we, the physical, are not set apart, but dwell in a continuum.

On the immense journey in front of us there will undoubtedly be many more smoothings ahead beyond the five we can already see. I don't know if it will be the sixth, seventh or nth discontinuity, but another boundary that is already being challenged is the unique place we give to the past, to causation, and to objectivity. Physical phenomenon are caused via a long chain of actions originating in the past, and we, the observers, remove ourselves from the chain of causes in order to study the phenomenon. For instance, scientists do controlled experiments and double-blind experiments so that they remain objective, removing their own observational biases from the causes they are studying. Science, which has brought us so far, clearly holds the "outside" unbiased observer to be an essential position. In fact by many definitions, science is the invention of the objective.

Further, science holds that causation must originate in the past. An event in the present is the last result of a chain of actions begun in the past. That seems logical and intuitive – as did the circling of the sun. But the weirdness of newly discovered quantum effects is rapidly breaking down the discontinuity between object and subject, past and future. With new instruments scientists can shoot quantum wave/particles through two tiny slits to measure the pattern of their arrival on a screen. Wheeler investigated exactly this experiment. True to its dual nature sometimes the wave/particle passes through the slits as a wave and sometimes it passes through them as a particle. But the particular form the wave/particle assumes as it passes through the two slits is decided upon measuring or observing the results. This is called the delayed-choice experiment because it means that the wave/particle chooses which form to pass through the slits after it has already passed through. Theoretically, if the slits were far enough away from the screen, the choice of whether the wave/particle was a wave or a particle could be delayed by billions of years after it had already happened. And this inversion of the ordinary arrow of causality is being driven by the observer.

Paul Davies suggests "the novel feature Wheeler introduced via his delayed-choice experiment was the possibility of observers today, and in the future, shaping the nature of physical reality in the past, including the far past when no observers existed." Minds today could, in theory, shape the very foundational laws of physics in a delayed-choice action, since Wheeler claimed, "so far as we can see today, the laws of physics cannot have existed from everlasting to everlasting. They must have come into being at the big bang." Since the laws of physics and information reside inside the cosmos, that gives mind a possible subjective role in shaping the cosmos via delayed choice. But since our minds and life are products of that cosmos, there is a necessary recursive loop. Davies writes: "Conventional science assumes a linear logical sequence: cosmos -> life -> mind. Wheeler suggested closing this chain into a loop: cosmos -> life -> mind -> cosmos." The universe was self-synthesizing. You can start anywhere along such a recursive loop. Wheeler observed: "Physics gives rise to observer-participancy; observer-participancy gives rise to information; information gives rise to physics." Wheeler called this subjective self-creation, "the participatory universe."

When I asked the Piet Hut, a theoretical astrophysicist at the Institute for Advance Study at Princeton, what innovations in the practice of science he expected to see in the future, he surprised me by suggesting "the return of the subjective." In order to get a more complete picture of reality, he said, we need to focus on the subjective. "We have painted ourselves in a corner, scientifically, by describing the whole world in objective terms, and finding less and less room for ourselves to stand on. We are now reaching the limits of a purely objective treatment. In various areas of science, from quantum mechanics to neuroscience and robotics, the pole of subjective experience can no longer be neglected." A more recognizable thinker echoes the thought: "The histories of the Universe depend on what is being measured," Stephen Hawking said recently, "contrary to the usual idea that the Universe has an objective, observer-independent history."

The notion that minds in the future might evolve to the point that they could subjectively influence the laws of their own physicality is of course, only the most extreme speculation. But the delay-choice experiment is not. It happens now every time our minds observe something. I delve into the details of this frontier chiefly to illustrate how technology continues to level distinctions we once thought crucial, and how technology continues to forge a kind of unity in knowledge.

Breaking the discontinuity between the objective and subjective won't be the last great unification either. As the technium advances, and mind expands, additional distinctions are primed to be blurred and unified. Looking ahead we can imagine that the keen distinction and superior status we assign to consciousness, versus the inert or non-unconsciousness (even if intelligent) of the rest of the material world could be unified into a continuum via technology. Likewise the discontinuity between reality and unreality (the imaginary) could likewise disappear with sufficient advanced technology.

It was not until we invented telescopes and mathematics that we could peer way past the Earth and see that it was not at the center of a revolving universe. It was not until we invented digital computation and could replicate life processes on intangible computer software that we realized that intelligence and life are not tangible. It was not until we devised sophisticated atom smashers that we began to perceive the true otherworldliness of our material world. Lasers, electron guns, charged coupler sensors, electronic chips – all these technologies made quantum mechanics visible. And once the quantum realm was visible, the paradoxes of the subjective mattered. Thus, through the medium of advanced tools, we saw a continuum where discontinuities had been seen before. In this way, as we expand the technium, upping our knowledge, we continually remove discontinuities in our perceptions.

The universe, as the sages in every religion teach us, is really one vast continuum. But to utilize knowledge of this universal continuum we need to expand our technology, which is really a way of expanding our collective mind. Technology's long term evolution moves science – that is the interconnected, accumulated body of knowledge of all human minds – towards unity, or consilience. Consilience is a term coined in the 1840 by philosopher William Whewell and resurrected recently by E.O. Wilson to indicate the unity of knowledge. Consilience would entail, among other things, a common set of axioms that can be used to adequately explain (and predict) the phenomenon we experience in the ecology of a tundra, the interior fusion of stars, the behavior of teenage social networks, the physics of quantum computing, and the mutation of viruses. Today science is far from consilience.

In addition to uniting the principles of different scientific fields, consilience will also need to bind unrelated bodies of knowledge together, some of it ancient knowledge. Advances in communication technology and the scientific method are doing that.

Continue reading - The Technium: The Fifth and Sixth Discontinuity | Kevin Kelly

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