Jaron Lanier Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Culture and Technology: Conversation with Jaron Lanier, computer scientist and artist, October 3, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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Futuristic Visions

There's an irony here because in this work you are helping to create devices, machines, whatever, that have very close to human qualities, but as a philosopher, which is another hat that you wear, you've been very critical, and even put out what you called "The One-Half Manifesto" against ideas that suggest that the work in technology could create a future paradise, [or a future] in which robots are human and humans are subsidiary to robots.

In my view, technology and culture co-create each other, and I think any technologist has a responsibility to be culturally literate and to be an active and compassionate cultural player. I have a very strong line of disagreement with many of my colleagues about the cultural context and meaning for a lot of the work we're doing in digital technology. I don't believe that it presents a conflict, because I have a fundamental trust in people at large that they'll see through the nonsense and that this will work out okay in the long term.

I make the technology that I think is worthwhile, and I also try to be a cultural player. A lot of my colleagues are very technology centered and they do have this notion that just making better technology in itself is a reason for life, and that the technology is more important than people, and that ultimately some sort of perfected computer will be more intelligent than people and will inherit reality, and people will have been just a side effect of the creation of this perfection. I find that to be a dismal and abhorrent philosophy. I absolutely don't support it and I think there are a multitude of things wrong with it. I try to present an alternate one in which we work together towards a future of improved connection between people, of enhanced creativity, of enhanced expressiveness, as opposed to just the power of the machine. I try to work towards a human-centered future. But anyway, this is an ongoing debate.

Let's look a little at the assumption of people on the other side. I'm going to give a rough synopsis here, and I'm not a technologist, but their notions are built on, it seems, Darwinian ideas about a future in which Moore's Law applies. You're arguing, as I understand it, that their assumptions relate to the hardware issue, where in very short periods of time we've exponentially increased the power of computers. But what they're ignoring is what you call the software problem. Would you explain that, because I think it's a fascinating insight which would help our audience understand this debate.

Sure. We should first explain Moore's Law. Moore's Law is an existential principle of Silicon Valley, and it's that silicon chips keep on getting roughly twice as good and half the price every year and a half, more or less. This is something that's been going on since the origin of microelectronics, and it is what drives the industry. It means that computers get better and better and more and more types of gadgets are enabled over time.

Now contrary to Moore's Law, we have software which is required to make computers do anything, and the interesting thing about software is if you write larger and larger programs to take advantage of these computers, they tend to have more and more bugs and difficulties. If you believe that the important thing about computers is how much raw power there is, then you see this curve of them getting better and better, and then at some point, maybe a couple decades from now, it kind of zooms into near infinitely vertical ascent, which is what is called the singularity, when computers become so much better, so quickly, that humans can no longer comprehend their splendor. But if you look at the problems related to software, which is sort of the mirror image, around the same time, you have software descending into an absolutely impassable morass in which no bigger program can ever be written.

So, between these two trends is the truth which is characteristic of reality in which you have conflicting trends and chaos, and just as in evolution, you don't have a smooth motion, you have punctuated equilibria. You have a very complex pattern of progress. Of course, technologists would prefer to only see the good news; who wouldn't? So, they tend to believe that they're riding this chariot to heaven on this inevitably improving computer that will become transcendent. I think it's nonsense, I really do, but there are people who believe it. In fact, I would say it's the dominant school of thought in the academic computer science world now, which I think is a shame.

Next page: Philosophical Reflections

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