Is There a Limit to Technological Innovation?


2 years ago



Coleman Hughes

3 appearances

Coleman Hughes is a writer and podcaster. He's the host of the "Conversations with Coleman" podcast, writer at the "Coleman's Corner" substack, and author of the book "The End of Race Politics: Arguments for a Colorblind America."


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I do think there's a limit to the amount of technological progress that we will make. Yeah. Like I don't think it'll keep going forever or that... I guess what I'm saying is I feel like I encounter a lot of people that are sort of techno-utopians. Like we'll be able to figure out anything we can think of now we will eventually make. It's possible though. But I think there will be a limit. There'll be stuff we can think of that we'll never be able to do. Like what? I don't know what. I just think that if you assume that humans are not the most intelligent possible beings that could physically exist compatible with the laws of physics of the universe, which I think is true. Like we're not... Sure. Of course. The most intelligent. Like it would stand to reason that there are things it's possible to do. There are things the laws of physics don't rule out that we simply aren't intelligent enough to do. Like we aren't intelligent enough to ever figure out. I think that's assuming that we're not going to merge with technology in a symbiotic way that advances our cognitive ability. I think that's inevitable. But what if merging with technology is already something we're unable to figure out? Because we can't conceptually understand consciousness readily enough. Well consciousness, whether we understand it or not, we could still manipulate it. The thing about technology and the symbiotic sort of future of humans and technology. When you talked to... Have you ever talked to Elon? No. I talked to Elon about it. He's developing Neuralink. And Neuralink is essentially going to be some sort of an implant that they cut a hole in your fucking head. And they put wires inside your brain and change the way you interface with information. And he was explaining to me, he goes, you're going to be able to talk without words. And when he says you're going to be able to talk without words, it's not like one of my stoner buddies. Bro, you're going to be able to fucking talk without words. I'm like, man, maybe someday. But when he says it, he's got a fucking plan. And he's going to start with people that have problems with neurological issues, people that have nerve damage, people that have spinal cord injuries. They're going to replace the ability to move and use some sort of computer controlled technology that replaces the function of the spinal column. And then from there, they're going to move to human beings advancing their cognitive function. They're going to move to changing the way they interface with data. I'm skeptical they'll get there. Why? So, last year, I got a cough. It wasn't COVID. Were you sad? Was I sad that I wasn't COVID? A little bit, yeah. It's like, damn. Everybody is. Everybody hopes that it's COVID. It's like a fucking cough. And I went to the doctor. It just wasn't going away. And I'm a podcaster. I'm a rapper. I'm a musician. I need my voice. It wasn't going away. You still have a little cough now. I do a little bit. Is that the same cough? No, it's not the same cough. This cough is from Omicron, which I had like six weeks ago. Really? Yeah. But it had it for four weeks, lingered, went away for two weeks. So it's a me thing. It's not COVID. It's me. My coughs tend to linger a little bit for a long time. Anyway, I went to the doctor. And the doctor was very kind. He did an x-ray of my chest for free. Just kind of being nice. I was like, listen, I really need to fucking get rid of this cough. It's been a month. I have no idea what to do. And he said, you know, it's probably just mild bronchitis after he saw the x-ray. Do you want me to prescribe you anything? And I was like, why are you asking? You're the doctor. That's why I'm coming here is because you're supposed to say the things, tell me the things. And he's like, I don't know, man. I'm going to give you some stuff. It's probably not going to do anything. But and I was like, yeah, just just give me everything. He's like, all right. Any bacterial steroids, this other thing. So that took everything. Did nothing. Robitussin, over the counter cough medicine. You know, it turns out the shit does not work for everyone. It did nothing for me. And then I looked up the meta analysis studies of Robitussin. In meta analysis versus a placebo has almost no effect. Did you know that? Really? Yes. There are meta analysis compiling studies of Robitussin versus placebo that find tiny effect sizes. Well NyQuil used to get you high as fuck. Did they change it? I think they did. For sure. Right. That's what RoboTrippen they had to stop that. There was like a protein in it, I think. Dude, I had NyQuil once in the 90s. I'll never forget it. I was sick and I took NyQuil and I was laying in my bed and I was as happy as I've ever been in my life. I was like, I feel so loved. I just feel so like one with everything. I was like, oh my God, I'm so high. Yeah. I was like this, like, ahhhh. And I remember thinking, well, this is why people like NyQuil. I don't think before that time, and I was in my 20s at the time, I was like, I don't think I've ever really had NyQuil. Really had it. And especially not as an adult where I could recognize what's going on. I was like, I'm so high. Yeah. I mean, NyQuil even now kind of feels good. What is it? It used to be a codeine. Yeah, that's why I was just looking up. Dextromethorphan. Yeah. What was NyQuil in the 90s? Was it codeine? It was fucking strong though. I mean, bring it back. How come I can't have it now? Assholes. Anyway, my point about bringing up the cough story was there are certain problems. Like, okay, let me put it this way. We have intuitions about which are the hard problems and which are the easy problems. And sometimes those intuitions are just way off. So it turns out putting a man on the moon was easier than curing the common cough reliably. I wouldn't have guessed that if I were a human in 1890, I would have been like, they'll probably cure the cough before they put a guy safely in space. It turns out we haven't done that. And my guess is that the Neuralink stuff is going to be more like a common cough type of problem where it's like, we think we're making progress, but it turns out to be so much more difficult than we can even realize. It's like 500 years from now and we still haven't gotten it. That's possible. It's also possible that they do it and then they keep expanding on it and they keep innovating. And then the competition starts kicking in and other people start developing new sorts of human brain interfaces. And it gets extremely valuable to the point where you cannot compete without it. And it becomes a thing where everybody has, just like everybody has a cell phone now. If they can figure out a way to get people to interface with technology where you can literally share data and information back and forth without talking, that's an invaluable skill or ability. Whether or not that actually is implemented, I don't know, but Elon has a fucking plan. And that's the smartest guy I've ever talked to. Again, it's definitely not an intellect. And he talks about explaining how it's going to work. He's not pieing this guy shit. No, but I think... So this goes back to my point about intelligence is often not why people get things wrong. It's not that they're not intelligent. It's that sometimes when you're in an industry and you have that hammer, everything looks like a nail. So it's like the people in tech are going to be the ones to overestimate what tech can do precisely because they're in tech. Just like the surgeon, the surgeon isn't going to think you can solve everything with surgery because he's a fucking surgeon. And so it's not that they're unintelligent. It's that sometimes people tend to overestimate the importance of their industry or the ability of their industry to solve everything. It's a systematic bias I think people have across the board. So often people on the inside are sometimes the worst judges of the limits of their own enterprise. That does make sense. Technological innovation seems to be one of the main consistent factors in human civilization. And the explosion of technological innovation has taken place over the last 30 years. And particularly over the last whatever it has been since the internet was really fully implemented into everyone's household. It's been mind boggling. And I don't see it slowing down. And I think that the next logical step is to go from something you carry around to something that's a part of your body. And I think they'll do it first for people with injuries. And then once they and they've already have that they already have things where they allow people to move a mouse around with their brain. They already have things where people with previously paralyzed hands can now use them. They have those things. The logical sort of technological innovation if you extrapolate from where we are now to where we're going. Whether it takes 10 years or 50 years or 100 years. I think the symbiotic connection between humans and technology is probably the only way we beat out artificial intelligence. I think the big fear is that someone creates artificial intelligence and that thing becomes sentient. And then that thing creates better artificial intelligence. Far superior to ours. And does it very quickly. They find all the flaws that we have and they come up with a new version of us. And that we're not going to be able to compete. And that this sort of silicon based life form will be far more advanced than us. But without emotions. Without all the biological problems that we have. Without the desire for breed and ego. It won't be programmed with any of those problems. So we'll just seek advancement and technological innovation for whatever fucking reason. I don't know why. Maybe it would have no motivation to do anything. It would just stop then in its tracks. Because it would realize that the existence is futile. I think the way to stop that is we become symbiotic. And we integrate with technology. And that technology advances our capability. And as Elon says it advances our bandwidth for accessing information. Yeah I mean I can't justify this with much more than a gut feeling. Gut feelings are great. Yeah I mean gut feelings come from somewhere. They come from hopefully from years of learning about the world. And guessing and being wrong and being right. That's where intuitions come from. But my intuition tells me that this is going to be one of those problems that we underestimate the difficulty of by orders of magnitude. It's like how close are we to understanding the brain anywhere close enough. How many neurons are there in the brain again? That's a good question. It's like so many more than you think. Billions probably trillions I believe. Yeah I think it's trillions. Is it trillions? I think it is. How close are we to truly. Let's guess. Truly to like. Okay. Oh god. I'm gonna say three trillion. No. I'm gonna say two trillion nine hundred ninety nine. 86 billion. Oh okay. Or close to average. Average between 86. Oh it's not that many. That's earth when we have optimal population density. How close are we to understanding the brain. It's 86 billion neurons. Not totally close. The question is. That's an understatement of the century. We're not even like. Yeah. We're not. We're like dipping our toe in to like the Pacific Ocean. It's like the Pacific Ocean and we like kind of are starting to understand like maybe what water is. Yes. I don't know. It's like we're at the beginning. And I guess my point is an understanding complete enough to integrate with technology. It's not at all obvious to me that we will ever get there. You know like we could make progress forever but it can be like asymptotic progress. Like there's there's an there's an asymptote here. And it's what's that word. It's like well you know like in math like how a graph can like approach the limit of a thing without ever touching it and get infinitely closer to a line without ever touching it and go on forever like this. So it's like if you imagine we make asymptotic progress there's this line that because of our intelligence you know and our the fundamental the fact that we're not wired by evolution to understand the world perfectly we're wired to evolve and reproduce basically on the African Savannah. Right. And just like every other animal in the world there is a limit to the things we are able to understand. Right. That limit for humans is way further than for any other animal but fundamentally it's not infinite. And it again it would stand to reason there are problems in the world that we may not we may not even be able to understand the problems much less the solutions. I would say probably consciousness so far is looking like one. But the point is it's possible we could keep making progress technologically forever but it's asymptotic progress in the sense that there is a line here that we keep approaching and it keeps looking like we're making progress because we are but you know there is a line we're never going to hit. So it can be both true at the same time that we keep making progress forever and that there is a limit to that progress that's asymptotic and certain things are just beyond that line. And my intuition tells me that merging with understanding the brain and understanding you know silicon well enough to merge them is probably beyond that line.