Slouching Towards the Silicon Foundry..

Bill Thompson in blue laser light

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

WB Yeats, The Second Coming

It’s sixty years since CP Snow gave the Rede Lecture at Cambridge University (May 7 1959) and talked of the Two Cultures, and ten years since I gave a fiftieth anniversary commemorative lecture at the Computer Lab in which I discussed my own model of the new 10(base 2) cultures that define modern world.

I argued then that today’s fundamental division is not between science and humanities but betwen those who understand computational thinking and those who don’t.

CP Snow
The Rede Lecture
My response

As I said at the time, this not about learning to code, but about knowing what it is that coders do, just as scientific thinking doesn’t mean you can solve a differential equation but that you know what one is, why calculus matters, and what a null hypothesis is.

Since I spoke the world has continued to move down the path of increased dependence on networked computers and we have become immersed in a computational matrix that defines the modern world.

Few aspects of life are untouched by the symbolic manipulation of information represented in binary, and the choices we make and the constraints imposed on us are increasingly infliuenced or determined by the outcomes of computation, from the way a car responds to an accelerator to the passport gates at an airport to the amount of insulin released by a pump to the news presented to us on the screens in front of us or the buying choices offered in response to our request to order something to cook.

This poses a number of challenges, both cognitive and emotional.

Just as nothing in the evolution of life on earth can have prepared a human being to drive a car at 80mph/130kph along a motorway [see xkcd] so nothing can have prepared us for working in a time of networked augmented intelligence, when we are so immersed in computation that the boundaries between what our brains are processing and what our silicon augments are processing blur to the point where drawing a line is impossible and there is no point in talking about ‘virtual’ or ‘augmented’ or ‘extended’ reality as there is just the reality of the ‘extended human”.

The technologies that have previously become embedded in our construction of the world in the past, like reading spectacles or simple amplifying hearing aids, were not malleable and their function was defined at the time of manufacture. Even the scientific equipment we used to explore the very far or the very small or the very dangerous was a product of physical not logical engineering until relatively recently.

Today data is acquired, and processed, and presented but the processing is both malleable and mysterious, based on assumptions and models that even when made explicit are quickly forgotten. The backplane of the Atlas detector at CERN is designed to discard 99% of the data collected within a second so that the remaining 1% – a volume of bits previously unprecedented in scientific experimentation – can be stored for later processing. What mysteries of the universe lay undiscovered in the immediately forgotten trove, thrown away because it was not deemed ‘interesting’ enough under the current standard model? What challenges to our current ways of thinking are never even seen because we have decided *in advance* that they should not be considered?

Our relationship to the the world as described by science is now almost entirely mediated by technologies that determine what should and should not be presented to their human operators, and in the process the code that runs those systems shapes the way hypotheses are tested, evidence is analysed, and worldviews are challenged.

We need to ask whether this relationship is symbiotic or parasitic.

Today the code running on the machines was developed, written and tested by other human beings, and the worldview embedded in that code comes at least from human bias and prejudgement. But we’re getting to the point where the systems will incorporate ML models trained on data and configured in ways that are beyond human understanding.

If a neural network can tell male from female by looking at the pattern of blood vessels in the iris when no opthamologist can do the same, and on the basis of criteria that human operators have no access to, then what of the science grounded in the work of those same machines analysing particle collisions, pulsar emissions, or political decisions?

See for comments, and for the paper.

Something more than mere computation has been loosed upon the world, but this time we know what rough beast is slouching towards the silicon foundry to be born: it is the soul of the new machine; the source of the lines of non-light arranged in the mind that will one day constitute cyberspace; the emergent force that through the fibreoptic fuse drives the algorithm; the dawn that will break behind the CCD sensors as agency emerges from our craft and silicon art.

I do not think we are remotely prepared for the thing that will happen instead of general artificial intelligence, for a world in which we are so immersed in computation that we will not be able to distinguish between human and machine agency – and may not care.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?



Dylan Thomas: