Re: Economist essay contest on 2050

From: Adrian Tymes (
Date: Sun Jul 30 2000 - 15:53:39 MDT

Eirikur Hallgrimsson wrote:
> On Tue, 11 Jul 2000, Adrian Tymes wrote:
> Question for those who decide not to write an essay: is anyone willing
> > to pre-read essays for those of us who do submit one?
> Count me in, or even post 'em. It's not off topic and I'm sure
> comments would be plentiful (and we can hope, mostly constructive).

Alright. Here's draft 1 of my entry. It's probably a piece of crap -
but then, it *is* draft 1; only the final draft has to work. (If I get
enough comments to do significant changes, I'll probably post draft 2
next weekend. Of course, the final draft has to go in before 8/14...)

"Specialist" is such a dirty word.  I prefer "focused", because that is
what I am guilty of: focusing on one subject.

Although this may seem unfashionable at the midpoint of the 21st century, I assure you that it is a practice that was quite popular up until recently. Indeed, until the end of the 20th century, it was possible for people even in the most technologically advanced nations to learn only a few basic facts about how the world worked, stop learning at around age 18, and live full and productive lives. Only the elite - scientists, engineers, chief politicians and businessmen, and a few others - needed much more information to do their jobs.

Even then, some people advocated lifelong learning as a path to a fuller life, but this movement never really caught on until recently. Speculation abounds as to the reasons, but I doubt that any of the theories will ever be proven to most peoples' satisfaction. What has been proven is that, once the masses were forced to choose between constantly improving their minds and living in relative poverty, and made aware that both paths were available, most chose to keep learning.

Many factors contributed to this choice coming about. First was the rate of increase of knowledge available to humanity. One could be forgiven for assuming that the Information Revolution, fueled by an ever-increasing amount of computational power starting in the latter half of the 20th century, was the only cause. Equally important, but not sufficient on its own, was the rising human population, which meant there were more people to create or discover new ideas. Computer networks merely allowed these ideas to be communicated easily enough that most people became aware of the amount of knowledge that was out there, where they had formerly assumed there were no answers to most of their questions.

Early attempts to learn all this information lead to a phenomenon known as "information overload". It was like a perpetually starving band of nomads suddenly arriving at an all-you-can-eat, infinitely stocked buffet. With that metaphor, it should come as no suprise that most overfed and became proverbially sick: unable to focus their thoughts, despairing at their ability to handle new information at all, and so forth. A few, either nearing this sickness or seeing many of their comrades fall to it, looked for ways to better handle this glut. Various methods of managing this information were tried, most essentially just predigesting the meal at the expense of having direct access to some details (or, to further the analogy, at the cost of some nutrients). But these were all limited by the modes of communication to the end destination: the human consciousness.

Which lead to the second factor: cybernetics. This term used to only refer to certain types of control systems, but sometime around the 1980s (depending on how one measures this), it acquired a pop culture definition of direct neural interface between biological (especially human) nervous systems and any man-made machine (especially computers and computer-controlled devices). This definition has now forced its way into mainstream academic use as well, despite the efforts of various parties to give the field a more accurate name.

Experiments in cybernetics date back to ancient times, depending on how loosely one uses the term, but the field only really got going in the 1990s with the commercial introduction of chips designed to stimulate a neuron depending on signals from some electronic device, or vice versa. These devices were originally intended to restore sensory and control connections to people who had lost one or more limbs and replaced them with prosthetics, to allow them to use these limbs as they might otherwise have used their natural ones.

The application of this to help people understand and make use of information might seem obvious to us, but then, it is everywhere in our society. At the time, various historical disasters resulting from attempts to improve humanity (for instance, the eugenics movement that peaked in the 1930s and 1940s) caused almost an embarrassed silence whenever the subject of further attempts at improvement was brought up. Further, the aforementioned information overload, combined with widespread jealousy against those who were handling information well enough to reap huge profits (financial, emotional, spiritual, and otherwise), caused a popular backlash against any new technologies. However, this backlash was indiscriminate and uncompromising enough to cause a backlash of its own.

Perhaps the best example is the so-called "ecoterrorists" who raided a US government laboratory that was deliberately poisoning trees in order to test possible cures for anthrax-b, in a race against time to save the 14001st Armored Battalion, who had been exposed to it in the process of preventing the Golden Jihad movement from "purifying" India of their enemies. The 141st was visiting on the night of the raid, preparing to go into quarantine if the anthrax-b could not be cured before it became contagious. When the raiders identified themselves, brandished guns, and asked everyone in the lab to leave so as not to be hurt when they burned the lab down, the 14001st killed them in a brief firefight. A show trial absolved the 14001st of murder charges on the grounds that they were protecting their only hope for life, therefore to defend the laboratory was to defend their own lives. The ramifications of this legal precedent, and similar ones in the EU, Japan, Russia, Australia, Chile, South Africa, and other countries, are still being debated by legal scholars.

However, the immediate political effect was to spark growing anti-anti-technology resentment, lending political support to all kinds of research explicitly designed to improve humanity. This lead directly to the EU commissioning the third enabling factor: the Human Brain Translation Project. In the fashion of the earlier Human Genome Project, this was designed to create a generic map of the human brain and what patterns of neural impulses mapped to what thoughts, in a manner that would allow implanted devices to send and read ideas, memories, and sensations to and from the human mind. As with the Human Genome Project, a decent amount of this project's work had already been done. It was known, for instance, that only a generic map could be created, for each brain differed in some details from every other brain. However, cybernetic device makers' widespread use of "training scripts", which adapted each individual device to its user over time, meant that only a generic map (which these scripts could use as a starting point) was needed.

Even before the project announced official completion, products were already hitting the market that allowed people to download knowledge, storing information that was not currently in use and prompting the mind with ideas relevant to whatever was currently being contemplated. Practically all versions of this device were made modular, so that only the initial device needed any surgery; upgrades could be delivered either via signals transmitted by induced current or, once someone figured out how to make plugs that could breach the skin without risk of infection, direct cable link. However, all of these versions had the same module installed by default, which gave users the basics of logic and how to learn new information. It is widely suspected that the vendors all copied the same module, but there are no records of who might have written it, and no one has taken credit.

This was hailed at the time as the start of a new golden era of science. Critics pointed out numerous problems with this idea, most notably the fact that utopia had not yet arrived. However, it should be pointed out that, as has been the case every decade since at least the 1990s, we now live in an era of unprecedented wealth and enlightenment, and all signs are that the next decade will be even better. People are living longer, healthier, and more productive lives; some figures indicate that the average expected life of a human is growing about one year every year, leading many to ponder whether we are now practically immortal or soon will be. Advances in nanomanufacturing now allow most population centers to generate their own food, water, and power, regardless of any efforts to block shipment by corrupt governments or hostile neighbors, which has lead to the effective termination of many of those governments and hostilities. Further contributing to our relative peace is the ability to quickly download someone else's entire chain of reasoning, if that someone else makes it available for download: most people find it far easier to highlight points of disagreement by exchanging these chains rather than beat a point into someone else's head with a club, since there is almost no miscommunication when exchanging thought itself. Although money and certain rare physical resources still play a part in our lives, most people work more for fame and credit than for money, since the cost of living almost everywhere has dropped to where the old minimum wage laws (which have not been updated since 2023, even to account for inflation) now guarantee the necessities of life to anyone willing to work but 10 hours a week, and unprecedented levels of investment, made possible by the money most people earn by working more than that, ensure that there are enough jobs for everyone. If this is not a golden era, what is?

It is true that we do not live in a utopia. For instance, not everyone has the ability to download thought. Some people have physically damaged brains, which the generic map does not fit, but there are ways to rig the map to fit these individuals. Some people choose not to have the modules installed, and while a few of these have developed alternate ways of coping (which, once understood, tend to be incorporated into the devices and distributed as part of each year's module upgrades), most find themselves unable to function in today's society. They are, as a rule, unemployable, ignorant, and occasionally dangerous (see the "ecoterrorists" above; their actions and results would be the same if they found themselves in today's world). One of the great philosophical debates currently is whether to force the modules on these people: the benefits to them and us are obvious, but most of them have not actively done any wrong that would warrant coercion, and we all benefit when one of them, not having the same set of ideas most of us share, comes up with an improvement on our processes. The only module there is no debate on is the one that teaches how to learn; while this can easily be learned even without downloading, those who do not, or refuse to, learn it are universally worse off. Some countries are considering legislation to comp installation of a module if these skills are not known by the local age of adulthood, though public sentiment against these laws makes it unlikely they will be passed at this time.

Which leads me back to my original point. With the ability to flow freely from topic to topic, most people choose to be jacks of all trades, taking whatever career they feel like, pursuing it for a number of years, and switching when they grow bored. While this is certainly a useful way of life, and ensures that we never run too low of any one talent for long (whenever we do, someone always comes up with a module for that talent if one does not yet exist), I feel that I might possibly be able to contribute more by devoting my life (or at least the next several centuries, if the immortalists are correct) to but one pursuit. I will, of course, contribute any modules for ideas and skills I develop on the way, so that others may skip up to my level without repeating my mistakes, but I myself will not change from my course.

You may find this amusing. With all the changes that we have seen recently, and the ever-increasing rate of changes, how will I know that whatever profession I choose will not soon become obsolete? I acknowledge this risk, and if it does, then I will switch, just like anyone else. But I wish to take one field, one area of expertise, and see if I can refine it until it can be logically proven that no higher level of mastery is possible. Throughout human history, there have been those who were the best at their time, and possibly the best yet, past or present. I want to be the best in something for all time, or at least the first who was the best: anyone else who needs to be good in that area can copy me. Maybe, if I succeed, I can change to another, or maybe my success will open up some completely new field. I honestly doubt that, even given several times the universe's age, I will be able to master all that can be mastered, nor would all of us combined if we tried; all signs are that there are an infinite number of skills out there that we can learn.

The field I choose first is...

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