SOPA, Security, and the Singularity
Why this will be the most consequential century in the history of life on Earth.
January 30, 2012 - 12:00 am
The American political process has grown surreal. Elections are still held, which is good. But other than that, it seems, as a culture, we’ve created a puritanical, almost imaginary standard for public office. Rare leaders with courage and vision know for it they will be destroyed, and so are dissuaded from stepping in the arena. We’re deciding on who will become the most powerful man in the world. Yet we focus on inane banalities, trite “narratives,” the pettiest of gaffes, and expert analysis of this or that guy’s body language during an umpteenth debate. Then all this gets thrown into an echo chamber, requiring the candidates to participate in the echo.
The media will force a national candidate to take a stand on a local dispute — on which, if elected, he or she would have no constitutional authority anyway — solely so we, in Romanesque thumbs up-thumbs down fashion, may judge the candidate’s ability to dance the rhetorical shuffle without offending a focus-group of a sub-group, or a sub-group of a focus-group — without saying much of anything real.
So amidst this cynicism, the reaction to the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was heartening. In just a few days, the American people were able to compel Congress to shut down SOPA, a terrible piece of legislation. My congressman wrote me saying he was sorry, didn’t know what he was thinking. Of course, on the discouraging side, in order for the people to care or even know what was going on, it took huge Internet companies like Wikipedia, Reddit, and Google to publically protest the would-be law. SOPA and its Senate cousin, the Protect IP Act (PIPA), were at their core Internet censorship bills. Hollywood and the entertainment industry, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) — now run by former Senator Chris Dodd of Fannie Mae-Freddie Mac fame — embarrassed themselves and wasted millions in lobbying for the legislation. In response, we had the largest online protest in history. And it was successful.
There’s some hope in all of this. To the point: it might mark the moment when the Singularity enters American political discourse. How do I figure?
The intent of SOPA/PIPA was to centralize cyber-security under the auspices of the federal government in order to crack down on “piracy” and copyright infringement. In doing so, the American people’s liberty would have been undermined, freedom of information would have been threatened, and existing and adequate copyright laws would have been circumvented and ignored. It would have been a litigator’s dream. Worse, the legitimate issue of cyber-security — more so: the nature of the future itself — would have been entirely overlooked, as it is currently misunderstood.
Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting one of the heads of security for Raytheon — very interesting guy. “When ones and zeroes are involved, offense will find a way to win,” he said. Encryption defenses may work for a time; they may even get better. But that will require decentralization. Impenetrable information security will be sustained in a space off the grid. “When we go from mega-, giga-, and terabytes to peta-, exa-, and zetta-, we’ll be entering a brave new world of the infinitesimally small. And then there’s the quantum world.”
Yes, the quantum world. When one considers the future of this century, there are at least three existential threats. The first is traditional in scope: the possibility of great-power warfare (with China, perhaps). This is least likely, I believe, due to old-established Cold War principles amongst rational actors: deterrence and mutually assured destruction. The second threat: the probability of a terrorist organization smuggling and detonating a nuclear device in an American city (and the incomprehensible aftermath).
And then the third: “GNR.” Genetics (biotechnology), Nanotechnology (quantum science), and Robotics (Artificial Intelligence; A.I). GNR is riding the wave of information technology and its exponential growth. You take 30 steps linearly, you’re at 30. You take 30 steps exponentially, you’re at a billion. This is what’s come to be called the Singularity: the scientifically foreseeable point in the near-to-medium-future in which human beings have created technological intelligences so intelligent — billions of times more intelligent than today’s strongest computers — and so subatomic — as small to an apple as an apple is to Earth — that we will have created nothing less than nano-gods.
These gods will then enter our minds. Probably by way of eye drops.
Do not misunderstand. There is much promise in this—clearly. But there is also great peril. It is a deeply philosophical discussion. A man either comprehends this trajectory, and prepares for it, or puts it out of his mind. The implications are enormous. Will this transcendence expedite our evolution, or will it destroy our individuality, our liberty, our humanness? Could either the users or preventers turn tyrannical? Who will guard the guardians? Will attempts to control and regulate these technologies succeed in accomplishing precisely the dystopia we may fear the technologies themselves will create? Will we merge with these intelligences or will they be distinct entities? Does the future need us at all?
Last month, Charles Krauthammer revived the specter of the Drake Equation and the Fermi Paradox. Life is rare; intelligent life, infinitely rarer. The silence of the universe conveys “the high probability that advanced civilizations destroy themselves… intelligence may be the most cursed faculty in the entire universe — an endowment not just ultimately fatal but, on the scale of cosmic time, nearly instantly so.”
There seems to be a sense amongst humanity that something big is right around the corner, something unequivocal. Collectively, we’ve taken to apocalyptic and supernatural assumptions. Nearly half of Americans think the Rapture will happen by mid-century. Hollywood, ironically, has stoked along these ideas. It won’t be found in the Mayan Calendar, but rather in Sagan’s Cosmic Calendar. It won’t be coming out of the clouds, but rather into our brains. This is it. This is where we are and this is where we’re going.
Information is power. It is, as Ramez Naam says, an infinite resource on a finite planet. As free people, we should encourage the dissemination of information technologies under one condition: our security and liberty are not endangered. In the future, the government may assume undue authority and force information companies into subservience for authoritarian reasons, or these companies, in trying to avoid total subservience, and in trying to destroy their competition without competing, may preemptively give the government what it wants. This is not free-market capitalism, nor is it humanism. This is a form of fascism.
Last year, Twitter helped overthrow several Arab autocracies. Then Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin Talal bought a $300 million stake in the company, and now Twitter’s set to appease these nervous dictators with new censorship policies abroad. Also last year, without much media coverage, our own federal government claimed the right to read our e-mails without a warrant. Yahoo and Google, to their credit, defeated the Department of Justice in court. But… Big Brother’s trying. SOPA and PIPA were just two more examples of this troubling trend.
This will be the most consequential century in the history of life on Earth. Technology is man’s greatest invention. It is a fine servant, but a most dangerous master. We should neither concede its control to a central authority nor prove to become dependent on it, for we will have sullied both human integrity and individual liberty. The next president, to his surprise, will likely have to address the potentialities of transhumanism, both good and bad, and so he will not have time for the little things our cheap culture will seek to put him through.
“We have Makers and Breakers in the world,” Vernor Vinge once said. “The Makers have created so many wonderful things, and it’s easy for the Breakers to use them. The Breakers have all sorts of motives, including just the motive of breaking it — because it’s so beautiful and people are so happy with it.”
It might not seem like it today, but I think we may look back at SOPA and PIPA as the Maker’s first big stand.