Sunday, March 22, 2015


"Virtual solutions can seem very virtuous when a metaproblem is resource depletion."

In our previous post we delved into the Socratic dialog known as The Laches, as told by Plato. The Laches ends in aporia, or an unresolved bit of logic.

While we can give Socrates his point — that to predict the future you need to observe and analyze the patterns of the past — we concluded that courage as a virtue has more to do with choices you make or don't make in the present, since you have no chance of changing the past and have only hope or fear to guide you in changing the future. We concluded that both hope and fear have appropriate roles.

There is a logical fallacy that arises in all of this, one we are heir to simply because of how our brains work. In logic, the fallacy is known as  positive recency, because people tend to predict the same outcome as the last similar event. We know the sun rises every day so we assume it will rise again tomorrow. But there are also Black Swan events. If a large enough asteroid were to strike the Earth today, the sun would not rise tomorrow. It would still be there, but none of us would be able to observe it. Night would continue.

This is what happened when the 6-mile-wide Chicxulub asteroid struck Earth 66 million years ago.  The dinosaurs did not see it coming.

It occurs to us that a great many very intelligent people who normally do quite well — one could even say spectacularly well — at predicting trends in culture, business, and science, fail to observe the rare rogue event coming their way that will change everything. Silicon Valley in particular, but equally New York, London, Davos and Dubai are populated with such people. Many are the early adopters — the ones whose Tesla Model S P85D can already drive itself.  Insofar as a few are "trendsetters" or determiners of whom shall occupy high seats in government and commerce, this blind spot augurs ill.

Take, for instance, Peter Diamandis. His book with Steven Kotler, Abundance, rocketed to the top of bestseller lists in 2012 when it drew together many technology trends and predicted we will soon be able to meet and exceed the basic needs of every man, woman and child on the planet. Abundance for all is within our grasp. The authors picked four forces — exponential technologies, the DIY innovator, technophilanthropy and crowdsourcing — as coming together in the next decade to solve our biggest problems of water, food, energy, healthcare, education, and freedom.

Diamandis and Kotler have teamed up again on a new book, Bold, that takes this a step farther, showing how 3D printing, artificial intelligence, robotics, networks and sensors, and synthetic biology will bring into reality the fantastical future dreamed by humans since the dawn of the industrial era.

Starting in the real world with just $15,000, Diamandis leverged new internet power to launch 15 companies, including Singularity University, XPRIZE, Space Adventures Ltd., and Human Longevity, Inc. He has since become known as the prime technophilanthropist. He is worth billions of dollars, much of it thanks to his knack for crowd-sourced audacious enterprises (perk: a Selfie from space with the Earth as backdrop).

According to Diamandis, humans are destined, very shortly, to solve every major challenge that faces us, simply by virtue of Moore's Law and the exponential growth of our capacity to affect the world around us.

Diamandis correctly saw the internet as a Black Swan, and jumped on it. Now he is drunk with its power. So much so, he cannot see the next Swan.

The Black Swan he would have seen coming had he paused to read The Party's Over or Limits to Growth, is peak oil, and with it, peak finance, peak civilization, peak population, and peak technophilanthropy.

Many of the technologies that Diamandis is relying upon to leapfrog over government and business inertia and put billions of people into unprecedented security and prosperity are virtual. That can seem very virtuous when a metaproblem is resource depletion. If we can simply dispense with hardcover magazines, newspapers and books, for instance, we can save forests of paper and acres of ink.

The neglected externalities were internalized in Limits to Growth in 1971, however: energy and pollution. To go all-digital requires electricity. Data centers consume 1 to 2% of the world’s electricity already, most of that powered by coal and fracked gas. Currently, every GB of wireless data passing through a smart phone burns through 19 kWh of electricity. The average iPhone uses 388 kWh per year, slightly more than EPA’s top rated Energy Star refrigerator. There are 6 to 8 billion smart phones, doubling every couple of years. Each desktop console annually uses roughly the energy it takes a 25-mile-per-gallon car to travel more than 4,500 miles. There are 2 billion of those, and they are multiplying a lot faster than automobiles and refrigerators.

The good news is that smart devices are not just becoming smarter; they are becoming more efficient — less wasteful of energy in both manufacture (embodied cost) and use. The bad news is the Khazzoom–Brookes postulate to Jevons' Paradox – the more efficient energy use becomes, the more energy we consume.

Bryan Walsh, writing for Time in 2013 said:
In 1995, you might have had a desktop computer and perhaps a game system. In 2000, maybe you had a laptop and a basic cell phone. By 2009, you had a laptop and a wireless-connected smartphone. Today you may well have a laptop, a smartphone, a tablet and a streaming device for your digital TV. The even more connected might be wearing a Fitbit tracker, writing notes with a wi-fi-enabled Livescribe pen and tracking their runs with a GPS watch.

But users of the wireless cloud are likely to grow from 42.8 million people in 2008 to nearly 1 billion in 2014 — and that’s just the beginning, as smartphones spread from the developed to the developing world. We already have a gigantic digital cloud, and it’s only going to get bigger.

Primavera De Filippi is a technophile of the Diamondis generation. As we all shapeshift, at dazzling speed by evolutionary norms, into cyberverse amphibians, what will become of our orphaned social structures and our cherished notions of laws, national identity and earning an honest living by the sweat of one's brow? At a conference on Internet and Society last April, De Filippi described the architecture of the Ethereum:
What is Ethereum? Can this technology actually support the establishment of a utopian, free, and decentralized society? Or could it instead promote a more dystopian vision of society – or even a Skynet?

Well, if Bitcoin is a decentralized cryptocurrency, Ethereum is the platform upon which a decentralized cryptocurrency can be built. Some have defined it as “cryptocurrency 2.0”, but actually, it is much more than that.

Just like Bitcoin, Ethereum implements a decentralized database, a system of digital tokens, and an encryption scheme. But it also implements a Turing-complete scripting language, which makes it possible for anyone to deploy an application directly on the blockchain. So, instead of adding new features to the Bitcoin protocol, Ethereum took a step back and actually removed all features from the blockchain, in order to make it easier for users to build their own applications by implementing only the features they need as an extra layer on top of the blockchain.

Therefore, just as Bitcoin marked the establishment of a decentralized cryptocurrency that subsists independently of any government or financial institution, Ethereum could potentially lead to the deployment of decentralized applications that operate autonomously on the blockchain.

In fact, Ethereum not only makes it very easy to deploy alternative cryptocurrencies, but also to set up decentralized communications systems (like BitMessage), alternative social media (like Twister), or online storage (like Dropbox) in a completely decentralized way, therefore not controlled by any third party. Given that there is no centralized third party to interact with, the interactions between applications and users are regulated by the code of these applications.


This leads to the most interesting aspect of Ethereum, which is the concept of Decentralized Autonomous Organizations. Basically, these are a more sophisticated kind of smart contract, with a constitution that stipulates the rules of governance for the organization, and with a system of equity allowing users to invest in the organization by purchasing shares.


First of all, they are autonomous in the sense that once they’ve been created on the blockchain, they no longer need their creators, nor are they under any obligation to respond to, or be responsible of any requests made by them.

Secondly, they are self-sufficient in that they charge users for the services they provide in order to pay others for the resources they need (such as bandwidth and processing power).

Finally, they are decentralized, since they do not subsist on a specific server, but instead are encoded into the blockchain (which is distributed to the entire network), and their code is executed in a decentralized manner by every node of the network.

These characteristics make them extremely difficult to regulate because there is no single entity which has control over them. In addition, given the self-enforcing properties of their code, they might actually challenge some of the most basic principles of our legal system.


Perhaps the Distributed Autonomous Organization itself should be held liable for its own actions. But then we encounter an ever bigger problem in terms of law enforcement. It is virtually impossible to recover damages or to obtain an injunction unless these measures have been specifically encoded into the contract/constitution of the organization.

So, we find ourselves in a state of legal limbo, as we cannot rely on traditional legal means to regulate the code of this technology. The question is: do we actually need to?

The supporters of Ethereum would argue that we don’t. In fact, if Bitcoin was designed as a decentralized alternative to counteract the corruption and inefficiency of the financial system, then Ethereum constitutes a decentralized alternative to the legal system as a whole! This refers to the somewhat anarchic idea of decentralized law, where everyone is free to implement their own rules within their own contracts, creating an interconnected system of rules interacting with each other in a reliably predictable way and not dependent on trust between parties.

Of course, the flipside is that Ethereum could potentially be taken over by big corporations, financial institutions, or even by the State, in an attempt to recreate the same economic system and political order that we have today – except that this time, it would be much more difficult to escape from that system.  This could lead to the establishment of a totalitarian society that is (almost exclusively) regulated by self-enforcing contracts, which establish the rules that everyone must abide by, without any constitutional constraints.

Sigh. And yes, this is precisely what we see when the Drone King, liege of Lockheed, gives robots an order to cause harm to nonspecific humans at a wedding party or funeral in Pakistan. It violates Asimov's First Law. It sets a dangerous precedent. As robot AI becomes more powerful, this bit of bad code has been grandfathered in. Do robots have legal rights, the way corporations do? De Filippi says, yes — if not already than soon; and not just human rights, but superhuman rights, such as the code to kill with impunity.

In commercial atomic reactors in the Tennessee Valley, generating electric power to feed our appetite for consumer electronics, robots are today fabricating components of nuclear weapons. They were expressly commanded to do that by the Drone King, in violation of Eisenhower's entire Atoms for Peace program, to say nothing of a half-century's accumulated international accords on nonproliferation. Robots with the knowledge of how to make such weapons are dangerous, are they not? In another software generation, or two, they could become Decentralized Autonomous Organizations. What then?

While the technoutopians do not see the swans of peak energy gliding in from the bulrushes, the people who put trust in and give power to machines of evil design also do not foresee what kind of coded evolutions are being unleashed.

We can only hope that Swan #2 (peak everything) takes out Swan #1 (Moore's Law) — browning out those distributed data centers, before it is too late. Call it retrofuturism, or neoLuddism, we are there. Good advice: don't put all your BitCoins in that basket.

1 comment:

Mary Ellen said...

Deja vu Back to 1968, or again back to 1962, or even further back to 1946. But i cant go back much more. And those that can are few and probably not on the EYE. So once our elders and we are gone it will restart recorded history should all our knowledge and observations go up in a "cloud". Will rocks be the only books open when sentient being inquires why this garden planet self destructed?




The Great Change is published whenever the spirit moves me. Writings on this site are purely the opinion of Albert Bates and are subject to a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike 3.0 "unported" copyright. People are free to share (i.e, to copy, distribute and transmit this work) and to build upon and adapt this work – under the following conditions of attribution, n on-commercial use, and share alike: Attribution (BY): You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). Non-Commercial (NC): You may not use this work for commercial purposes. Share Alike (SA): If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one. Nothing in this license is intended to reduce, limit, or restrict any rights arising from fair use or other limitations on the exclusive rights of the copyright owner under copyright law or other applicable laws. Therefore, the content of
this publication may be quoted or cited as per fair use rights. Any of the conditions of this license can be waived if you get permission from the copyright holder (i.e., the Author). Where the work or any of its elements is in the public domain under applicable law, that status is in no way affected by the license. For the complete Creative Commons legal code affecting this publication, see here. Writings on this site do not constitute legal or financial advice, and do not reflect the views of any other firm, employer, or organization. Information on this site is not classified and is not otherwise subject to confidentiality or non-disclosure.