Edge 75 — October 3, 2000

(10,000 words)


THE THIRD CULTURE


HUBERT BURDA: GERMANY'S AGENT OF CHANGE
By John Brockman

Burda has the discipline of Germany but he also has certain qualities that Powerful Germany may not have respected in the past. He is stirring the pot, bringing people together, searching for new ideas, making things happen. When he meets talented people he brings them into his network, combines them into his mix. This is his discipline. This is his power. In addition to new people, he attracts new ideas, brings fruitful chaos to a world of certainty, shakes things up, and makes a mess out of the old order, the old way of thinking. Science (and the technology that follows) does not have to be beautiful or pure. Things do not need to be symmetrical or deducible from first principles. That esthetic, a great motivating force in science since Plato, is over. The sciences of complexity, which are the hallmark of the third culture, can be very messy. Out of chaos comes creativity. Hubert Burda is Germany's agent of change.


Hubert Burda, investor Jeffrey Epstein

HUBERT BURDA is Chairman of the Board of Hubert Burda Media Holding. Under his leadership Burda Publishing, which was consolidated into Hubert Burda Media Holding in 1995, has grown into one of the most powerful and innovative media enterprises in Germany. With 4,400 employees, annual revenue in excess of DM 2.07 billion for 1998, the group's main areas are in publishing, printing and new media. The company is divided into 26 independent profit centers and has close to 30 different publications. Burda's strategy has been to develop international alliances with publishing companies including Hachette (Paris), RCS Rizzoli (Milano) and Dogan (Turkey). His work is best known through the publication of such titles as Focus, Bunte, Elle, Freundin, Das Haus and Freizeit Revue.

In the middle of the nineties, Burda developed his vision of interactive electronic media.Today, Hubert Burda Media is the biggest provider of German language Internet content, which includes the #1 and #2 Web sites in the German language: Focus Online and Haus & Garten, as well as the business-to-business service Health Online Service for medical practitioners. Recent Burda initiatives include a number of innovative, wholly owned Internet startups including TalkingWeb, Interactive Content Production (ICP) and Cyberlab, as well as investments in Heimwerker.de, OnVista, JustBooks and Ciao.

Click here for Hubert Burda's Edge Bio Page

[Simultaneously published in German by Frankfurter Allgemeine ZeitungFrank Schirrmacher, Publisher.]



THE REALITY CLUB


Henry Warwick, Kevin Kelly, Margaret Wertheim, John Baez, Lee Smolin, Stewart Brand, Rodney Brooks on "One Half of A Manifesto" by Jaron Lanier


THE THIRD CULTURE


HUBERT BURDA: GERMANY'S AGENT OF CHANGE
By John Brockman

Cannes, January, 1995. I walk across the beach to meet Hubert Burda for lunch. Burda, publisher of Focus Magazine and the co-founder, with Pearson in the UK and Hachette in France of Europe Online, which is already up and running, is at the MILIA conference to deliver the keynote address, introduced by Lord Weidenfeld, Chairman of Burda's New World Vision. I find him and his ever-present entourage at an outdoor restaurant. He is seated next to a tall, beautiful young woman, Jane Metcalfe, New Media entrepreneur who is cofounder of Wired Magazine — Burda is an investor in HotWired, the magazine's online venture. Around them a group of young men, his aides, all wearing dark suits and sunglasses (a la Men in Black) talk on cell phones. A surreal scene? Yes. But as I am to find out over time, it is pure Burda.

Although we are meeting to talk business, the discussion quickly turns to art, to stories about thepainters Warhol, Rauschenberg, Miro, the conceptual artists Joseph Beuys and James Lee Byars. Burda, I quickly find out, is not your typical media mogul. He is in constant search for great ideas, an agent of change, an applied philosopher. His wide areas of interest include the, arts, media, technology, social issues, international issues, and a personal agenda that leads him to actively support many interesting and enriching endeavors.

The Bavarian Alps. November 1998.
I am in Munich to attend "The Digital Planet" an event featuring presentations by four of the world's leading scientists and third culture intellectuals: evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel C. Dennett, biologist Jarsed Diamond, and psychologist Steven Pinker. Novelist Douglas Adams is the master of ceremonies. The event is being held at the Muffathalle Theatre, a venue where rock concerts are staged. The organizer of the event, Christophe Reisner, is not from the German Ministry of Culture: he's a former drummer in a rock and roll band.

The scene in the lobby at the Vier Jahreszeiten reminds me of the press room during a presidential election in the US. Reporters are everywhere interviewing the stars of the evening as are television crews from all over Germany and Europe. The thousand seat hall is sold out and several hundred people are standing outside in the freezing rain under umbrellas hoping get in. The youthful audience includes many young editors from German book publishers who have flown in from Frankfurt, Berlin, Hamburg.

Sitting up front is a group of people from Burda's enterprises led by Christa Maar, director of the Academy of the Third Millennium, a Burda-sponsored foundation, which over the past several years has organized a number of notable world-class events in Munich, including bi-annual meetings concerning the neurosciences, software interface and design as applied to envisioning knowledge, and the Internet and politics. Maar goes backstage later and extends to the speakers an invitation to dinner in their honor the following evening at Burda's chalet in the nearby Bavarian Alps.

At the sumptuous sit-down dinner, Dr. Burda and his guests have an opportunity talk to and question three of the third culture superstars who were able to attend. It's not every night that you can question Richard Dawkins about his Darwinian view of culture, exemplified in his invention of the "meme," the unit of cultural inheritance, which though essentially idea, is operated on by natural selection; or talk to Daniel C. Dennett about his theories concerning the computational model of the mind; or learn from Steve Pinker how he has merged Chomskyan ideas about an innate language faculty with the Darwinian theory of adaptation and natural selection. All through dinner Burda, the ever-gracious host, is listening, and thinking. Learning and connecting. And at the table, in addition to the assorted Bavarian celebrities, are his database company guy, the head of his Internet group, and Maar, the director of his foundation. He never stops.

I talk with one of the dinner guests about the previous evening remarking on how the young German crowd seemed so open to new ideas. "Yes," she replies, "but the problem with German culture today is that our bright young men wake up one morning, and, suddenly, they are old." "Not Hubert," I reply, "he's the youngest guy in Germany."

Residence of The Bavarian Kings. Munich, February, 2000. Munich again, this time for Burda's 60th birthday party held at the flamboyant Residence of The Bavarian Kings. The scene is resplendent in old world style and elegance. I stroll through the King's bedroom along with the cream of German society to the magnificent ballroom. The guests are a "who's who" of the leaders of German media, government, and manufacturing. Seated at Burda's table are Leo Kirch (Germany's most influential media tycoon), Prinz Franz (the legal heir of the throne of the Bavarian kings (if there ever was such thing as a Bavarian kingdom), Edmund Stoiber, Minister President of the State of Bavaria; and Jürgen Schrempp (chairman of DaimlerChrysler). This is powerful Germany. A group responsible for Germany's great postwar success, they are the most structured people in Germany, disciplined, temperamentally conservative. Although Burda is very much part of this establishment group, a charter member of Powerful Germany, he is also a man who works the edges of the future.

He is aware that the business and cultural models of Germany's postwar success are not viable anymore. The world has moved to software and computation and the Germans are hardware people. German industrial giants, the media conglomerates, are like huge oil tankers limited in their responses to changing times by sheer size and momentum. Their cultural exoskeletons inhibit adaptation to the new third culture, the third culture, in which the biggest change is the rate of change.

Burda recognizes that everybody's business today is software, that, in the words of Stanford AI expert Edward A. Feigenbaum, "it's a software-first world." Software is reshaping civilization and that is the big story in intellectual life today. "It's the beginning of everything," says Yale computer scientist David Gelernter. To stay competitive in the new global order, Germany needs to reinvent itself. In addition to the disciplined people who were behind the postwar economic boom, it needs create a base for entrepreneurial movement, to allow for the nonconventional human spirit.

Burda has the discipline of Germany but he also has certain qualities that Powerful Germany may not have respected in the past. He is stirring the pot, bringing people together, searching for new ideas, making things happen. When he meets talented people he brings them into his network, combines them into his mix. This is his discipline. This is his power. In addition to new people, he attracts new ideas, brings fruitful chaos to a world of certainty, shakes things up, and makes a mess out of the old order, the old way of thinking. Science (and the technology that follows) does not have to be beautiful or pure. Things do not need to be symmetrical or deducible from first principles. That esthetic, a great motivating force in science since Plato, is over. The sciences of complexity, which are the hallmark of the third culture, can be very messy. Out of chaos comes creativity. Hubert Burda is Germany's agent of change.

In 1993, Burda, synthesizing his experience as an art historian and a connoisseur of fine arts with his understanding of New Media, recognized that the use of digital imaging technology changed the ratio of costs between photography and print in magazine publishing from 5-1 to 1-1. Armed with "Burda's Algorithm" he moved to quickly establish Focus Magazine, one of the great German economic success stories of the 1990s (5.8 million readers today). By 1995 he had already established Europe Online and Focus Online which were up and running at a time when modem use in Germany was still severely curtailed by government regulation and telecom costs were prohibitive. His early investment in Wired Magazine, the leading arbiter of the digital revolution at that time, gave him a front row seat to the third culture revolution. Today Hubert Burda Media is the biggest provider of German language Internet content, which includes the #1 and #2 Websites in the German language: Focus Digital and Tomorrow. Recent Burda initiatives include a number of technologically innovative wholly-owned Internet startups including TalkingWeb and Cyberlab as well as investments in Now, Ciao, Onvista and numerous other Internet ventures in the US and in Germany.

Jerusalem. May, 2000. I arrive in Jerusalem at Burda's invitation for "Cool People in the Hot Desert", the first conference convened by the Hubert Burda Center for Innovative Communication at Ben Gurion University in the Negev. The Center's mandate is to enable and enhance a European-Israeli as well as an international New Media and High Tech dialogue and exchange. It is interesting to note that after Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley (New York City), greater Israel and Bavaria rank #3 and #4 respectively in the number of startup companies. Burda understands this.

"Cool People in the Hot Desert" creates a context and a bridge ("Israeli-German Start Up Forum") whereby the leaders of German and Israeli Internet startup companies can meet, and begin to work together, present themselves to the conference's international audience, obtain new contacts and exchange ideas. Co-hosting the conference with Burda are Avishay Braverman, President of Ben Gurion University and former Chief Economist of the World Bank and Joseph ("Yossi") Vardi, Founder of Mirabilis/ICQ and international investor. Forty young German Internet executives arrived in Jerusalem to be greeted by their Israeli counterparts and hear the opening address by former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres before departing the next morning for the Negev.

According to Yossi Vardi, "the conference allows the participants to get to know the coming markets where the new fields of applied technologies create the basis for prosperous cooperation and achievements between individuals and countries." "Our vision, which Burda shares," notes Avishay Braverman, "is to create, in this desert, a center for hi-tech, bio-tech, nano-tech and future-tech that will lead the poorer people who live in this region into opportunities for advancement, that will lead the nation of Israel into a more wide-spread development of the vast natural resource of the Negev, which makes up 60% of the land mass, and of course to enable a true Middle-Eastern center for the most advanced in high-tech and communications technologies."

The Negev, May 2000. Dinner is at an ancient outdoor Bedouin encampment. Burda's personal guests at the long tables overflowing with Bedouin food, wine, hookahs, are an international community of mover and shakers of .... ideas.

They include Martin Peretz, American publisher (New Republic), Harvard Professor, and Al Gore's long-time mentor and advisor; Software and Internet entrepreneur Jean-Paul Schmetz, a Belgian educated in America who runs Burda's Internet companies; Gregory Blatt, a Canadian, Director, World Economic Forum at Davos, and now on Burda's staff; Izumi Aizu, the Internet advisor to Japan's "Keidenren", the informal group of the heads of the major information companies; Jordanian venture capitalist Omar Saleh, prime mover of that country's Internet endeavors; Lord Young of Graffham, a member of Margaret Thatcher's cabinet who privatized British Telecom, Cable & Wireless, and British Aerospace; Sandy Climan, former Hollywood agent and partner of CAA, and now a venture capitalist at Entertainment Media Ventures.

The Ethiopian Children's Choir is performing on the outdoor stage under the dessert night sky. Burda, Vardi, and Braverman, don Bedouin clothing, and begin to lead the guests in dancing under the desert night sky.

"What struck me most." Jean-Paul Schmetz said later, "is the fact that we were discussing building a new economy from scratch (all start-ups are starting from nothing) in a place where someone (Avishay Braverman) is talking about building a huge city/economy in the desert. Somehow, the scope of what we are doing became more tangible if you look at an empty desert and imagine that sometime in the future this will be a huge metropolis."

"The week in the desert was priceless," says Sandy Climan looking back. "We touched on much more than the state of technology and the (sorry) state of the financial markets. It was a time of reflection in a distant land which allowed the soul to couple with the mind in trying to grasp clarity of the future. To the credit of the conference, social ramifications of technology and very human issues were balanced against the world of technology-driven business opportunities. We talked about all the good that technology could bring to building infrastructure and a better life for those striving to succeed in developing nations. And we talked about peace... Dancing with Dr. Burda and the others in the moonlight of a barren Negev desert to the beautiful voices of young Ethiopian immigrants is a nurturing evening never to be forgotten. These are rare moments."

The conference has ended. I am seated next to Burda discussing German literature on the bus as it leaves the Negev to return to Jerusalem. A briefcase has been left behind at the hotel by one of his staff. The bus, and the two trailing cars stop in the middle of the desert highway. Two camels look on with curiosity. Burda is late for an appointment in Jerusalem with Teddy Kolleck, the legendary former mayor. The bus, the two cars make a U-turn to head back to the hotel as no less than six assistants, 4 on the bus and 2 in the cars, talk to each other on cell phones, attempting to locate the missing item.

"Ahh, chaos. This is chaos", sighs Burda in resignation. He will miss his appointment with Kolleck. "No, Hubert", I reply, "You are chaos!"

New York. August 2000. Burda is in town on an August Sunday and I come back early from my farm to the deserted city to meet him for dinner and introduce him to Jason Calacanis, the 28 year old publisher and editor of Silicon Alley Reporter and Digital Coast Reporter. Calacanis, a cutting-edge guy has wheeled and dealed himself into national prominence, having already been profiled by The New Yorker and Wired among other publications. Dinner is at a restaurant just one block from Burda's hotel, yet the arrangements have required an exchange of a dozen emails with his staff, the last three of which have concerned the advisability of having a limousine on hand to transport Burda the one block from the hotel to the restaurant.

Calacanis and I meet Burda at the hotel and we venture forth on the warm summer evening. Burda is alone. No entourage. No Men in Black. It's a first.

"So, Jason" he says to Calacanis as we stroll down Madison Avenue, "you come to Munich in September and I will have Schmetz introduce you to all the Bavarian software companies and we do a Bavarian Alps magazine and then we get Vardi and Braverman to bring together all the Israelis we met in the Negev and we do a Silicon Wadi publication and tie the two together and then connect Israelis and the Germans to your New York and Hollywood people....."

Calacanis, taking it all in, says, "By the way, I'm going to Ireland next week as a guest of the Irish government"

"Wonderful," exclaims Burda, "there is a lot of software business in Ireland. We can bring them in too. And did I mention to you, "he goes one, "that we go to Jordan with the Israelis in February for the next "Cool People" conference. King Abdullah wants to make Amman an Internet and technology center. I must introduce you to Omar Saleh......"

We stop mid-block in front of an art gallery window displaying sculptures from ancient Persia. "The owner," Burda says as he admires the statues, "is a friend of mine. Just look, examine the quality which is very good for the period."

We have arrived at the restaurant for dinner where we continue talking about Persian sculpture, the New York art scene, the Nam June Paik retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum. Before I know it, dinner is over, we say good night, and Burda is off to rejoin his family for a 3-week vacation in Corsica where he will sit by the sea and paint.

Eastover Farm, Connecticut, August 2000 I am sitting outdoors at my farm in rural Connecticut on a cool, breezy summer day. The horses are feeding, the cows are quiet. I am watching the corn grow in the nearby field.

Germany cannot regain its status as a dominant cultural power without embracing a new kind of cultural discourse. It cannot sustain its economic position unless it radically reboots itself into the world the new world of computation, software, the Internet. Germans cannot sit by complacently and allow a situation in which all the serious thinking about the critical questions facing the world today is done for them. If Germany is once again to become once again the center for Europe, Burda is the man who will lead that transformation.

Burda, the connector of ideas, people, and places is attempting to marry German discipline to the entrepreneurial spirit in new kinds of relationships. New York, Tokyo, LA, Toronto Israel, Jordan, United Kingdom, and the rest of Europe. He does so partly for humanitarian reasons and partly for the benefits which will come from connecting disciplined people with the bubbling, enthusiastic, and messy and chaotic startup culture places like the US and Israel.

Burda, the visionary. "Let's create relationships between Germany and Israel and bring other entrepreneurs together into the mix. Let's see to it that there is also an infusion of this new culture in Germany. Let's create new structures in which the intellectual part, business part, the humanitarian part all work together."

Burda is a man of the third culture. He is Germany's agent of change.



THE REALITY CLUB


Henry Warwick, Kevin Kelly, Margaret Wertheim, John Baez, Lee Smolin, Stewart Brand, Rodney Brooks, Lee Smolin on "One Half of A Manifesto" by Jaron Lanier


From: Henry Warwick
Date: September 25, 2000

Responding to all of Mr Lanier's lengthy Manifesto would make for an enormous essay several times longer than his Manifesto. Rather than engage in lengthy interplay of point by point analysis, my contribution to this discussion will first set out what I believe/perceive to be true, then go into my own prognosis of the future, specifically the anti — utopian vision of what Mr Lanier calls Cybernetic Totalism. I call it delusional technocratic arrogance, but I won't quibble about that. In deference to his essay, I'll refer to it as "CT"...

Mr Lanier sets out (what he believes) are six component beliefs of CT. I think it's actually much simpler than that, and it fundamentally breaks down into a basic core group of related beliefs/predictions:

  1. Someday, soon, we will either replace ourselves or be replaced by robots/computers.
  2. Failing (or in addition to) that, we will divide the human genome into an enhanced variety and the rest ["archaic"] of humanity.
  3. Related to #2, we might also divide the race off as bio — mechanical creatures, what I call the "Borg Fantasy"

Point 1 will never happen — because it can't.

Point 2 will happen, but the results will probably be different than we envision, and the timing on it will likely be much later than sooner.

Point 3 won't happen, as the extreme variety as envisioned by various contemporary fantasies like Star Trek's Borg are just plain stupid, and while future technologies will help us in many ways, especially in terms of communications, incorporating them as body parts seems inherently dimwitted given Moore's Law. Attaching or putting machines into ourselves just doesn't make a whole lot of sense.

The rest of Mr Lanier's discussion is spent blasting their theoretic superstructure. As admirable such an effort may be, I see it as unnecessary, much as it is unnecessary for a democrat to argue Courtly Manners with a monarchist. The point is the sham of the divine right of kings, not whether bowing is bad for your back.

So, directly to a basic point — beneath the CT position is a fundamental and unspoken axiom — the Pythagorean Conjecture that the universe is mathematical, and deeper still, that the universe is fundamentally understandable by humans. Pythagoras took it to a numerological extreme, but the fundamental myth still obtains with many people who work in science — everyone is looking for the Equation/Theory/axiomatic system that will explain Everything Forever. The CT position depends on this assumption. Yet, we have never had, nor do we have now, any conclusive proof that the universe is humanly understandable in the first place, much less representable in some reductivist symbology of mathematics or any other language for that matter. Indeed, with Godel et al, we have a number of theories demonstrating the very limitations of such endeavors in the first place.

The CT position assumes that the world is computable and their thinking machine project logically follows — logical machines for a logical universe.

My thinking is this: The Universe is beyond human comprehension,

[Re: Haldane: "The Universe is not only weirder than you think — it's weirder than you can think" and Brockman: "Nobody knows and you can't find out."]

and is therefore not computable.

However — because of our inquisitive nature and history of inquiry and Inquisition, we have to continue the effort of the Scientific Project — just because there is no possibility of coming to a complete understanding and total knowledge of everything doesn't mean that we can't come to understandings that are useful and provide a reasonable and coherent sense of the universe and its workings, given our limited capacities to understand it. For example — cultural anthropology is a program that can never be finished, because there are cultures that would be changed irrevocably or destroyed just upon their being observed by the Western Cultural Anthropology Industry. Does this mean that anthropologists should pack up their tents and surrender? Of course not. The same goes for all the other disciplines of science. The Scientific Method works extremely well — we should keep that — but we should be more humble in matters regarding our actual abilities, as we use the Scientific Method to expand such abilities.

Once we abandon this obsessive fanaticism of absolute complete knowledge, we can continue on with our process of discovery without the headache of a deadline. Knowing there are actual limits allows us to push our perceived limits in a way that we can pick and choose our battles with the Great Unknown. When we give up on knowing every detail of the Mind of some imaginary Friend, we might acquire some of our Friend's imagination and wisdom.

Now, regarding the "We Will Have A Sentient Machine by 2030 and We Will All Be Replaced By Robots or Evolve Into The BORG" nonsense —

First off, the notion is so blatantly Millennialist and stupendously lacking in imagination, I find it rather sad that otherwise intelligent and reasonable people actually hold such paranoid malarkey as a position worth defending with as much vigor as they do. I dismiss the CT prediction wholesale directly for that general reason. They remind me of an old encyclopedia I found in the trash as a young boy. It was from 1927, and when I found it, it was 40 years old and looked 100. It contained some illustrations of what a city in the year 2000 would look like — giant skyscrapers separated by 20 lane highways, dozens of dirigibles and hundreds of airplanes flying between the buildings. Factories were invisible, and there wasn't a toxic waste dump in sight. I see the CT predictions in much the same way. Yes, air travel expanded a lot since 1927, and while we don't have many dirigibles, the NJ Turnpike and the 5 in LA certainly qualify as giant highways. The same will go for AI in 2030. To the chagrin of the CTs, machines won't think (because they can't) but thanks to the tireless efforts of the CTs, computers will do a lot of useful work for us, even more so than now, and will invent entire new categories of productive labor for humans.

In general, I find the CT position laughable and tragic. In specific, there are other points regarding their philosophic superstructure they have erected to defend their position that should be addressed.

First the Turing Test.

My objection to the Turing Test is this:

  1. The very basis of the Turing test is one that knows that machines don't think — the whole thing is based on deception.
  2. Who is to do the judging?

As far as the judges go — I'm sure as hell not going to trust the geeks who make the first "thinking machine" to tell me it's really thinking. I may be eccentric and a bit deranged, but I'm not that stupid. Yet.

Regarding point 1 — Deception:

There's one thing the CT crowd really doesn't want to accept — that they are deceiving themselves, and the Turing Test is the tool of their deception.

Fact: Machines don't and can't think. Existence precedes essence. Computers pass voltages. Period. They don't remember anything. They don't think about anything. Everything we discuss or sense about them is secondary and something we bring to it. Saying that computers think is like discussing the political persuasions of rock formations.

Once we see the Turing Test for what it really is, the real CT/Turing Test project is now revealed:

Can we make machines operate in such a way that we can — deceive — ourselves into thinking there's actually a sentient human in it? And can we deceive/bludgeon others into agreeing with us?

The Turing Testers know that machines aren't sentient, as they wait for the next rev of some machine to trick them. And once "tricked" — what makes them think they or anyone else wouldn't know it's a trick — everytime?

"Gee — last week, the HAL 9000 passed the Turing test. Well wuddya know — that last algorithm really did the trick. Let's check it out now. UhOh. Today it's not passing the Turing test…so I guess it isn't sentient anymore…"

That we so deceive ourselves does not mean the condition of sentience is or ever was actually present — it simply means that the required conditions to our test have been met at a particular historical juncture — on a given day, the machine has "fooled" us into thinking it can think. It's been programmed in such a way that we are led to believe it has a mind. This doesn't mean it actually has one. With the Turing Test, the machine must simply be able to do what we expect of a human within a certain range of activity. But is it Sentient? Hell No. It doesn't take Albert Einstein to see how nekkid that Emperor is.

Another objection I have to the Turing Program is — why bother? Humans are such a contemptible lot of petty, ignorant, messy, obscene and violent whiners, why would we ever want to make a computer act like one? I find the idea of simulating human behavior so ludicrous, it's appalling that it has occupied so much airtime for the past several decades. It's a sad testament to our ignorance and vanity.

However, this doesn't mean that machines that attempt to simulate awareness can't do useful work. On the contrary, I am firmly convinced that they can and should do the work that humans are simply not designed for — space exploration, deep sea work, and a thousand other extremely dangerous but mission critical activities.

Lanier is right on the money with his circle of empathy. The computer might whine, complain, threaten violence, whatever. Just unplug the thing. It's not a person, it's not sentient, and people who think it is need some guidance on personal boundary conditions.

So, the Robot/Computer Mind isn't going to happen, because it can't. We will have machines that can do some amazing things, but sentience ain't one of ‘em.

Now, for the other points — the biological and the biomechanical.

Assuming homo sapiens doesn't go extinct without issue, homo futurus is inevitable. It's not a question of if; it's a matter of when and how. If civilization goes completely belly up, and we're all reduced to wandering bands of nomads in a world filled with toxic waste dumps and highly oxidized metal particles, homo futurus will be a hardy and tough human built for life on the run hunting the giant rattus futurus for food and avoiding the roving psychotic packs of rotweilerus futurus. It'll be a tough life, but not without its rewards. We will evolve to adapt to such circumstances.

If we get some collective sense in our skulls, and reduce our numbers to a sustainable value (200 — 400 million?) with our science we can eventually biologically enhance ourselves into a homo futurus — a creature of our own design. Socially speaking, the introduction of such technology would be simple enough — if someone said,

"Mr and Mrs Warwick — the next girl you have will live to be about 140 and die with the body of a 50 year old, have 20/10 eyesight including some sensitivity in the infrared and UV spectra, have hearing between 5 Hz and 60kHz and she'd look like a buff cross between Marilyn Monroe and Katherine Hepburn who never sunburns, and be able to dance better than Ginger Rogers and have an IQ in the high 4 digits all for only $260,000 please sign at the bottom in ink please."

We'd be there signing paper with my Pelikan in a New York Second. We'd also be in hock for the rest of our comparatively short lives, but we'd do it in a heartbeat, and I think many other people would too.

So, the biological working of the species will, I believe, be inevitable as we learn more and more about the human genome. However, I don't think this level of understanding will be any time soon. If we're diligent and work hard — maybe we'll have it in a few hundred years. I imagine there will be a bunch of people opposed to it on "ethical" grounds, and I can't imagine what the test trials would be like, but eventually it will happen if DNA technology keeps a pace even vaguely resembling Moore's Law.

I'm not too concerned about having two species around, either — as these treatments become more commonplace, they'll go down in price, and if different companies compete, we could have the most enhancement for the lowest price, and most every genetic line/family will eventually be able to have their progeny continue into the next phase of human evolution. In fact the later adopters might even have some advantages compared to the early adopters. Like IQ in the high FIVE figure range…cool…

As I said — barring extinction of sapiens, homo futurus is inevitable. It's not a matter of if; it's just a question of when and how, and it could be a Very Good Thing — not a future to fear. There's also a non — zero chance homo futurus will be wearing deerskin and chasing bunnies for dinner, but that's not something under our immediate control.

As far as the biomechanical future goes, I think that is a dubious future, as I the "Borg model" is absurd, paranoid, and juvenile. It's an irrational fantasy based more in Cold War politics than honest and reasonable technological conjecture. There's been a lot of discussion about nanotechnology and technological implants since Drexler et al back in the 1980s, but so far it's been mostly just that — a lot of discussion with only a few scattered developments, including a fellow with my last name in the UK. I don't think the research is bad — I just don't have any faith in its applications.

On the other hand, I do believe biomechanical devices could be of some use, especially if they are wearable — with technologies in the near future, email and voice communications could be as simple as wearing two small transducers that stick to the bony points behind your ears. Implants? They're so messy and atavistic.

And Finally —

There will be no Cybernetic Cataclysm in 2030, just like there was no Armageddon in 1999. Short of a wayward asteroid coming to visit and ruin an afternoon for a few million years, things generally don't work that way around here. We are far too good and earnest to deserve some techno Hell, and we're way too selfish and myopic to understand Heaven. The machines, as cheery and responsive as we might make them, aren't and won't be sentient. So, we're stuck here, alone but for our chimp cousins, on this little green planet. It's a nice place. We need to take care of it a lot better than we have been. We need to clean it up and invent a fun, clean, future. Send the machines into space — they can tell us of other planets. Maybe a few of us will go check out the nicer ones. Maybe even bring a few of our chimp cousins.

Don't worry about the Borg or the Forbin Project taking over. That only happens in lame Hollywood movies written for 15 — year — old boys. Frankly, I'm a lot more concerned about the very human Supreme Court repealing the Bill of Rights on the altar of the Permanent Wartime Economy, and how we're going to come up with the energy needed to run our machines, heat our homes, and cook our food, when the oil runs out.


From: Kevin Kelly
Date: September 26, 2000

Jaron doesn't have to worry about the cybernetic metaphor, because he says his main concern is that it has become sole metaphor of our time, or at least the sole metaphor of our tribe. If that were really true, I'd worry too. But it isn't.

What the cybernetic metaphor is an extreme perspective, an inverted perspective that will eventually play out its usefulness. It is similar (and related) to Richard Dawkins' famous view of the selfish gene. Dawkins says that you can understand a lot which is new, and a re-understand a lot of the old orthodoxy, by looking at the world from the view of genes. In fact you can begin to look at everything that way, and for a while wherever you look, the world looks different. This view can unleash new understandings. What is important to remember is that while Dawkins looks at the world that way, this is not the only way he looks at it. In his daily life he adopts a quite ordinary view of the world. I have looked at the world in Dawkins selfish-gene way, and then the next minute I have looked at the world in Jaron's way. Most of the time (but not all!) I see more new things via Dawkins way. I might also look at the world via Freud's way, or Marx's way, but I usually don't see much interesting to me that way.

The new cybernetic metaphor, on the other hand, is very powerful. We can look at almost anything now, from physics, to emotions, to nature, to experience itself, and find new things when we imagine it as computation. We can imagine people as robots and learn all kinds of things. I can do that one minute and then the next minute I can play with my little 4-year old boy, and see him only through the eyes of a naked primate. Eventually we (as a culture) will finish examining everything via the cybernetic metaphor, and then we'll get bored. But the important thing is that right now almost anything we examine will yield up new insights by imaging it as computer code. And -- this is important -- while one re-examines the world in this way, it is vital that you take the metaphor seriously. It should be the only metaphor you see while you are looking through it. The next minute we can adopt another view.

I think we have not come close to exhausting this metaphor, and as my earlier essay on it (called the Computer Metaphor) suggests, I think it will overturn our current ideas of physics and culture first, before we abandon it. It is dangerous, but not because it is our only tool.


From: Margaret Wertheim
Date: September 27, 2000

I'd like to applaud Jaron's demi-manifesto. I heartily agree that what he called "cybernetic totalism" needs to be exposed. This indeed was one of the major themes of my own recent book The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace. I liked Jaron's analysis of what is wrong with cybernetic totalism very much, what was missing I think was an historical dimension as to why this way of thinking has evolved. Jaron rightly notes that this kind of thinking goes back to the dawn on the computer project with the work of Weiner and Shannon etc, but in fact this whole style of what I would label "techno-eschatology" has a much deeper history, going back to at least the middle Ages. Throughout Western history — since at least the twelfth century — there has been a very deeply ingrained tendency to link technology (in whatever is its recent mode) to an eschatological vision. Anyone interested in this subject should certainly read historian David Nobel's book The Religion of Technology, which traces the linking of technology to religious visions for the last millennium. In my own book I focus particularly on what might be briefly summarized as the religiosity inherent in our concepts of space, revealing the long historical roots of the belief in a transcendent "heavenly space" and the contemporary idea that cyberspace can be a new/ultimate realm of transcendence. Jaron is right that modern information theory has underlied the emergence of the belief that everything can be dissolved into information, but in parallel with this has also been a belief that beyond the mundane physical realm there exists an idealized "Platonic" realm of pure forms, pure data, pure knowledge. This is also a critical dimension of cybernetic totalism, one which also has a long history in our culture.

What we need to understand, I suggest, is that the current iteration of techno-eschatology is nothing new in Western culture, that the techno/scientific culture of the West has indeed been pervaded by this spirit from the beginning. Which is not to say, of course, that all scientists and technologists think this way, only that there has always been a large contingent of our community who do. Like Jaron I believe we need to challenge this ideology — and it is an ideology — an especially pernicious one, I would argue. Like Jaron, I believe this ideology is crippling the advancement of science and technology (for this spirit inheres in much of the scientific community as well). It is also, as Jaron suggests, a force for exacerbating, not diminishing social equity. I am delighted to see this challenge being presented on the Edge, for on occasion I think that our community too has been too-heavily pervaded with a techno-eschatological spirit.


From: John Baez
Date: September 27, 2000

I found Jaron Lanier's half-manifesto very interesting. I doubt my friends in the academic humanities know people who are actively worrying about (or looking forward to) nanotech or a Vingean "singularity". They would probably dismiss such ideas as nuts. But as a scientist, I know quite a few such people: Extropeans, folks associated with the Foresight Institute, cypherpunks, fans of cryonics, and so on. So it makes sense to think seriously about what they are saying. I'm glad Jaron is doing this.

I don't have much to add except a couple of random remarks:

1) "The coming cybernetic cataclysm" takes various forms in the literature. Bill Joy's idea that autonomous machines will take over the world is actually a rather optimistic version. It assumes that machines, possibly with the help of "evil humans", will get good enough to beat us at our own game. My cybernetic totalist friends don't seem to worry about this scenario much. In fact, they may even relish the prospect! (Perhaps they are among those "evil humans" Joy talks about.)

What they worry about more is a "gray goo scenario" where due to some screwup, self-replicating unintelligent nanotech gets loose which eats the entire biosphere. Myself, I'm not sure if this a paranoid fantasy or a realistic possibility, since I don't know whether the biosphere is operating near maximal efficiency or whether a small, simple new entity could manage to eat everything in its path without being eaten itself. But in general, I'm more afraid of stupid mistakes than an attack of superintelligent beings. The gray goo scenario is just one of many possible mistakes we might make. The really dangerous ones are the ones we won't think of until they're already happened.

2) I liked Jaron's remark about physicists being the "alpha-academics" for most of the last century. It's curious being a mathematical physicist now that this era is over. I went into this field as a kid because I thought it was the coolest thing around. Gradually I realized that it's not — at least, not as measured by the standards of money and power! At first this was a bit of a letdown, but now it seems liberating in some respects. I don't have to worry that my research on quantum gravity will be used to create a super-bomb or destroy the universe — at least not in the near future — because we have no way of accessing the energy scales needed to wreak havoc in that way. Besides, we can blow ourselves up quite nicely already. Now it's the computer science, biotech and nanotech people who have to shoulder the responsibility of doing science that seriously affects human lives, while I enjoy playing around with my equations.

Yes, I'm being a bit sarcastic here, but it is very interesting how these things change.


From: Lee Smolin
Date: September 27, 2000

Jaron is raising some very important points that deserve closer examination and discussion. Among them is his challenge to the idea that the optimization of present day computers could produce anything with the capabilities of living, intelligent animals, cats let alone people. I think Jaron is right to point out that the arguments for this thesis rest on incorrect assumptions. I believe that Jaron's argument can be strengthened and I would like to explain how. The following is just a sketch, but I hope it suffices to stimulate the debate.

The problems to be addressed are 1) what kinds of problems can computers solve and whether they differ in kind from the kinds of problems humans solve. 2) What kind of problem is it to design a computer and whether it differs in kind from the problem of designing a human, or a creature with equal capabilities.

To approach these questions it helps to begin with the idea that some design problems involve searching a space of possible design parameters. We know that in these cases there are simple optimization algorithms that will find the local extrema in whatever basin of attraction one happens to be in. However, optimization is a small part of design because it can be used reliably to solve only a small subset of possible design problems. To talk about this we may distinguish five classes of design problems.

CLASS 1: Local optimization problems problems which can be solved with standard hill-climbing techniques.

CLASS 2: Locate a pretty good, but not necessarily global extremum in a configuration space with many local extrema and many basins of attraction.

CLASS 3: Locate the global extremum in a configuration space with many local extrema and many basins of attraction.

CLASS 4: Find local extrema in a landscape which changes unpredictably on the same time scale it takes to find local optima.

CLASS 5: find local extrema in cases in which the computation time required to construct the configuration space and/or calculate the fitness function is either infinite or much longer than the time available. These are the class of problems which have to be invented or discovered before they can be solved, as there is no algorithm that can lead to their formulation or complete specification.

Let us first discuss the first question. At least so far, computers are very good at solving CLASS 1 problems, and there are decent algorithms for simple CLASS 2 problems. But we do not have good methods for finding global extrema and hence solving CLASS 3 problems. To my knowledge computers can do decently at some simple CLASS 4 problems, but can easily fail when they become more complex. By definition computers have problems solving CLASS 5 problems, as the computation time to set up the extremization problem is prohibitive. However humans can often solve CLASS 3 problems and are also quite good at CLASS 4 problems. This should be no surprise, this is part of our biological specialization. This is what is required to flourish in a new environment, domesticate a new species, become farmers, populate almost all the ecological zones on the planet and so forth.

But humans can do even better than that, we can both invent and solve CLASS 5 problems. This is what poetry, art, music and science, are about. We invent the forms and traditions and then we master them. We can thrive in a domain in which we create optimal versions of things that did not even exist a short time before. We are not extremizing in a landscape, we are building the landscape on the same time scale that we master it.

One correspondent suggested that anyone who thinks people are different from machines are naive romantics. This is not true, we are different because we have vastly different capabilities. It is irrelevant to talk of the universality of Turing machines, for Turing machines are entities that run programs that must be written by an external entity. So far at least the only entities we know of who can function as those external programers are humans. Humans are intelligent creatures that do not need to be programmed by any external agency. Turing machines are designed, we are the result of natural selection. We need then to examine the second question, whether designing or programming a computer is in the same CLASS of problems as the problems natural selection solved in the course of evolution.

Of course inventing the idea of a digital computer was a CLASS 5 problem. But once we had the idea, the optimization of digital computers is mainly a CLASS 1 problems. This is what Moore's law is about, it tells us how quickly local optimization can work when ample resources are available. One of the points Jaron is making is that the design of software required to do justice to the exponentially increasing capabilities of our machines are not CLASS 1 problems. Moore's law tells us that the fitness landscape for software is changing on a time scale comparable to the time required to write and debug software. Thus writing software involves problems of at least CLASS 4. This is of course just a different way of making one of Jaron's arguments.

For there to be a danger of robots taking over, or even being able to do a decent job entertaining us, replacing songwriters and singers,artists, scientists and comedians, one of two things have to happen. Either we will be able to design a machine that could replace us, which means a machine that can solve problems of CLASS 5, or we will be able to design a machine that could in turn design a machine that could solve CLASS 5 problems.

But while we can solve problems up to CLASS 5, so far we have only been able to design machines that can solve CLASS 2 problems reliably. And so far machines are not able to design other machines to solve even CLASS 1 problems. When one puts it this way it is clear that it is not just a matter of Moore's law, designing one of us is a very different kind of problem then optimizing a programmable digital computer.

What kind of problem is it to design an entity that can solve CLASS 5 problems? We know we were created by natural selection, acting on not only us but the whole collection of living species. This is at least a CLASS 4 problem, but it is very likely at least a CLASS 5 problem. The interactions among many species as they evolve under the rules of natural selection is a CLASS 4 problem, as is shown by models of Bak and Sneppen, Kauffman, Sola and others. But there are good arguments, summarized in Stuart Kauffman's forthcoming book, that natural selection and cultural evolution are really CLASS 5 problems. He argues that they are problems in which the construction of the fitness landscape itself is so computationally intensive that it is not correct to separate the specification of the fitness landscape from its optimization. Instead, both take place together. This means really that the metaphor of optimization has broken down completely. Whatever evolution is doing cannot, he argues, be conceptualized as extremization on a pre-existing fitness landscape.

Thus, the problem of designing an entity that can solve CLASS 5 problems is at least a CLASS 4 problem, and very likely is a CLASS 5 problem. But is it only this hard, or harder still? Human's can solve some CLASS 4 and 5 problems, but it is not at all obvious that the problems of these kinds that we can solve are comparable to the problems that natural selection has solved in designing us. At the very least, it is likely that the time required to solve the problem of designing us may take a great deal longer than the tine it takes to solve the CLASS 4 and 5 problems we have so far dealt with. It took natural selection 4 billion years to design us. Let us assume that we could do it much faster. How much faster? Let us assume that we could use genetic engineering to engineer an artificial speciation in an animal. Speciation is a process that takes on the order of 100,000 years. Given very optimistic assumptions it is possible to imagine that some years from now this is something we will be able to accomplish in on the order of 100 years. It could certainly not be less than that as we cannot do it faster than the time it takes for several generations to grow to maturity. (Because the interaction of an animal and its environment is a CLASS 5 problem, we are not likely to be able to simulate it reliably enough to replace the phase where we grow the animal and observe what happens.) This would mean that we had the tools to speed up natural selection by a factor of 1,000. Even with this fantastic increase of speed it would still take us a million years to invent something like ourselves, starting from scratch. (Note that this is true even if we skip the pre cambrian stages of evolution, which begins with creatures whose cell biology and biochemistry is far advanced of what we have so far designed. Note also that many biologists working in parallel won't help as natural selection also works in parallel.)

This is on the order of the lifetime of a species. A problem like this, whose minimum time for solution is on the order of the lifetime of a whole species of creatures that can solve CLASS 5 problems deserves a separate class. So we may call this a CLASS 6 problem.

Is it possible that there is a way to do it much faster, by taking a route that natural selection could not have? One cannot say this is impossible, but all this means is that so little is known about the problem that it is in a class of problems we have no idea how to solve.

To summarize: the claim that optimization of present computer designs could produce something that is "as powerful" as humans requires that there is only one kind of intelligent entity, and they all live in a in a fixed landscape with a single local extremum. But we are not only not in the same basin of attraction as present day computers, it is not even obvious that the problem of constructing us has anything in common with problems we have so far solved. This is not to deny that someday humans may learn how to solve the problem of designing creatures that can themselves solve CLASS 5 problems. The point is only that there is no rational basis for predicting when or even whether this may happen, as the solution to this problem is not closely related to the kind of optimization problems that human designers have so far learned to solve.


From: Stewart Brand
Date: September 28 , 2000

What a juicy piece of work by Jaron!

For me, one ancillary proof of much of his thesis is the phenomenon of Libertarian politics, which I've considered to be algorithmic political pseudoscience and now, thanks to Jaron, consider to be an offshoot of Cybernetic Totalism. Libertarian thinking is a common (though certainly not universal) affliction of working computeroids and their followers. Struck dumb by the cybernetic marvel of the marketplace, with its self-balancing and even fractal Invisible Hand, Libertarians seem unwilling to consider the equally marvelous cybernetic structure of the US Constitution or to consider that the sheer messiness of democracy in action is part of the system's long-term health.

Libertarians get caught up in simplistic analyses such as that since police departments require crime in order to exist, therefore they are incented to make sure that crime is never "solved," creating it themselves if necessary. Or, more subtly, that since competition forces competitors to become more alike, therefore police will become like criminals so much that they are, in fact, criminals after a while. Both ideas are helpful, but there is no place in such analyses for trans-logical concepts like "honor" or "service," and they are what drive a huge part of effective police work.


From: Rodney Brooks
Date: October 1, 2000

Lee Smolin wrote:

"One correspondent suggested that anyone who thinks people are different from machines are naive romantics. This is not true, we are different because we have vastly different capabilities. It is irrelevant to talk of the universality of Turing machines, for Turing machines are entities that run programs that must be written by an external entity."

This is exactly the sort of naive romanticism to which I was refering. I was not comparing humans to a PC running Windows 2000. I am saying that people are machines in the sense that there is, as far as we have any scientific knowledge at this time, nothing in them outside the laws of physics of the universe which govern all matter. People are made of matter and that matter obeys the physical laws of the universe. Unless one hypothesizes an eternal soul, an elixir of life, an ineffable essence, or some other extra-physicalness to humans (and also to other animals, all the way down to bacteria?), then humans are machines. It has absolutely nothing to do with Turing machines, or programming computers.

Get over your fear of being a machine. We are not the center of the universe, and God does not exist. That is what this disagreement boils down to.

 


From: Lee Smolin
Date: October 2, 2000

Reply to Rodney Brooks's reply to my message:

In reply to Rodney Brooks: I believe strongly that our entire existence is as part of the natural world. I am not afraid of this; my book, The Life of the Cosmos, is a kind of homage to that idea. My guess is that we agree broadly on metaphysics, but my comment had nothing to do with God, cosmology, consciousness or any kind of romanticism. I was trying to make a point about science, one that is well within the boundaries of our shared metaphysics.

In my comment I raised two issues. First, whether everything that is part of the physical universe can be described in terms of a Turing machine, second, whether the way that living animals process information is enough like how digital computers work that it is rational to hope to construct a reasoning animal based on models of digital computers. As these seem to be very open issues given the present evidence, it seems far from clear that the metaphor of a machine will in the end be very helpful to us as in understanding in physical terms what animals are. In addition there is a problem with using the word machine in this context, which is that it carries with it the implication that something was made by human beings. This is not just semantics because ignoring the deep differences-as physical systems-between living animals and human made machines has led to some predictions for the future of machines that may not be consistent with our developing understanding of what life is.

To expand on this last point, I do believe that we will someday understand what we are in terms of physics. But before we do that we must first understand what a living thing is in terms of the laws of physics. We have made a lot of progress towards this in the last years and I believe more will be made shortly. Everything we have learned suggests that there are important differences, expressible in completely physical terms-more particularly in terms of statistical physics, between systems that are made and systems systems that arise by a spontaneous process of self-organization. Both may process information, but they may do so in different ways, so that they are generally able to solve different classes of problems.

A related point is made by Stuart Kauffman in recent papers and a forthcoming book: there is a fundamental difference between a physical system that can be termed an "autonomous agent" and one that cannot be. Part of Kauffman's definition of an autonomous agent is that it is a self-reproducing system, able to carry out at least one thermodynamic work cycle. Computers are not autonomous agents to the extent that they are constructed and programmed. But computers are Turing machines-which is why that idea is useful for this discussion.

Living animals are autonomous agents. They are not, so far as has been shown, Turning machines. There is no obvious relationship between the definition of a Turing machine and the definition of an autonomous agent; it is certainly very unlikely that they are equivalent. Thus, while it is of course possible that we may some day be able ourselves to make living things, there does not seem to be any good reason to expect that such articial animals will have a strong resemblance structurally or functionally to computers. (The fact that one can model certain aspects of life in computer software does not change this.)

Computers are wonderful tools and fantastic toys. But if machine is to mean anything at all besides "something found in the universe" (remember that we have the same metaphysics) then computers are machines, and animals are not.

 


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