Bryan Appleyard speaks truth to techno-futurist craziness over at The New Statesman:
Futurologists are almost always wrong. Indeed, Clive James invented a word – “Hermie” – to denote an inaccurate prediction by a futurologist. This was an ironic tribute to the cold war strategist and, in later life, pop futurologist Herman Kahn. It was slightly unfair, because Kahn made so many fairly obvious predictions – mobile phones and the like – that it was inevitable quite a few would be right.
Even poppier was Alvin Toffler, with his 1970 book Future Shock, which suggested that the pace of technological change would cause psychological breakdown and social paralysis, not an obvious feature of the Facebook generation. Most inaccurate of all was Paul R Ehrlich who, in The Population Bomb, predicted that hundreds of millions would die of starvation in the 1970s. Hunger, in fact, has since declined quite rapidly.
Perhaps the most significant inaccuracy concerned artificial intelligence (AI). In 1956 the polymath Herbert Simon predicted that “machines will be capable, within 20 years, of doing any work a man can do” and in 1967 the cognitive scientist Marvin Minsky announced that “within a generation . . . the problem of creating ‘artificial intelligence’ will substantially be solved”. Yet, in spite of all the hype and the dizzying increases in the power and speed of computers, we are nowhere near creating a thinking machine.
Such a machine is the basis of Kurzweil’s singularity, but futurologists seldom let the facts get in the way of a good prophecy. Or, if they must, they simply move on. The nightmarishly intractable problem of space travel has more or less killed that futurological category and the unexpected complexities of genetics have put that on the back burner for the moment, leaving neuroscientists to take on the prediction game. But futurology as a whole is in rude health despite all the setbacks.
Why? Because there’s money in it; money and faith. I don’t just mean the few millions to be made from book sales; nor do I mean the simple geek belief in gadgetry. And I certainly don’t mean the pallid, undefined, pop-song promises of politicians trying to turn our eyes from the present – Bill Clinton’s “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow” and Tony Blair’s “Things can only get better”. No, I mean the billions involved in corporate destinies and the yearning for salvation from our human condition.
Appleyard goes on to discuss the hope that futurists place in neuroscience:
We are, it is said, on the verge of mapping, modelling and even replicating the human brain and, once we have done that, the mechanistic foundations of the mind will be exposed. Then we will be able to enhance, empower or (more likely) control the human world in its entirety. This way, I need hardly point out, madness lies.
There is, of course, a lot of good, practical work done in neuroscience in the area of memory loss, attention disorders, brain development, and so forth. But in other areas it is often infused with a fair bit of futurist mumbo-jumbo.
Walter Sinnott-Armstrong is no futurist, but his remarks on the possibility of using transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS)–which can disrupt the neurons in the area of the brain associated with moral reasoning–to change how psychopaths think is the sort of technological breakthrough that futurists hope will transform human existence:
“It’s possible that if we understand the neural circuits that underlie psychopaths and their behavior, we can use medications and magnetic stimulation to change their behavior,” he said.
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Existing studies tend to only look at how the brain responds to one kind of moral question: Circumstances in which a hypothetical person in some way causes harm, Sinnott-Armstrong said.
But there are many other areas to explore, such as disloyalty to friends, “impure” sexual acts, and procedural injustice. How does the brain respond to a good outcome achieved by questionable means, such as a good leader coming to power in an unjust process? These topics are all ripe for future study.
Believe that homosexuality is a sin? Zap. Unkind and unjust to friends and family? Buzz.
It won’t happen, of course, because moral reasoning cannot be reduced to the brain, even if it is not entirely separate from it either. (More on that, perhaps, in a later post.) But I think that Appleyard is right that the problem with the futurist vision is not that it might come true but that it is a waste of time and money.