Paul McCready said “yes” in 1998. Was he right? Experience his authentic big-picture wisdom in a rare concurrent video-voice-text TED talk along with my essay commentary.
Carbon vs Silicon
I confess, I never heard of Paul McCready until I decided to write this essay. I stumbled on him searching for a visual to complete this Twart on the existential war between Carbon and Silicon for dominance of earth.
What, you didn’t know a war was going on? Sure, Silicon is our friend right now; look at all it does for us carbon life forms. But friends can become enemies before we know it, especially friends that share many of the same characteristics like Carbon and Silicon do; they are mates who have been very close sexy cousins (see excerpt below) for billions of years. (They both apparently sleep around with a lot of other elements.)
[Tutorial Interruption, sorry; skip if you brain doesn't care.] "Carbon and Silicon both have a so-called valence of four--meaning that individual atoms make four bonds with other elements in forming chemical compounds. Each element bonds to oxygen. Each forms long chains, called polymers. In the simplest case, carbon yields a polymer that is a plastic used in synthetic fibers and equipment. Silicon yields polymeric silicones, which we use to waterproof cloth or lubricate metal and plastic parts. But when carbon oxidizes--or unites with oxygen say, during burning--it becomes the gas carbon dioxide; silicon oxidizes to the solid silicon dioxide, called silica [or sand], one basic reason why it cannot support life [as we know it]."
Star Trek was already suspicious of Silicon 31 years before McCready’s personal pronouncement, and that was 51 years ago now in 2018! But you say that was just science fiction, not reality. Really? It’s worth second look since humanity has become steeped in silicon.
Star Trek explored the idea of a silicon life form in a 1967 TV episode The Devil in the Dark about an underground silicon monster named Horta that lived in tunnels. Horta looked like a huge hunk of hamburger that could shuffle along the ground–a laughable image for a monster. (Hmm …to shoot and kill it, or; to cook and eat it? What choice would Kirk and Spock make?)
Based on my compulsive crack research the word Horta probably came originally from the Biblical word “Hor” for mound or mountain, which later also came to mean pregnant. With only primitive special effects technology at the time, Star Trek’s wacky idea was converted into a thoughtful TV script and highly-rated timeless drama in just three days by famed writer and producer, Gene L. Coon, in the early days of TV. But I digress.
McCready’s TED Talk
Dr. Paul McCready was a deep-thinking problem solver, a much-celebrated innovative scientist and engineer, who was the first person to fulfill Leonardo da Vinci’s dream of a human flying under his own power. McCready was a first-rate technologist noted for finding innovative ways to do more with less based on his profound understanding of the awesome innovative power of nature.
He passed away in 2007 at the age of 81. In his 1998 TED Talk he summed up his view of how humanity and its technology fit in with the rest of the natural world. He spoke in an informal conversational tone without notes, along with a few key slides. His theme throughout was the growing power humans were amassing over nature, which was two decades before our current hyper-connected wireless silicon-based FrictionLessSociety (FLS).
As Dr. McCready got to the end of his talk, he paused as if asking his audience for their permission to let him read his conclusions, i.e., “to paint his version of the Big Picture.”
He began: “At last, I put in three sentences and had it say what I wanted.”
Dr. McCready reads: “Over billions of years on a unique sphere, chance has painted a thin covering of life — complex, improbable, wonderful and fragile. Suddenly, we humans — a recently arrived species, no longer subject to the checks and balances inherent in nature — have grown in population, technology and intelligence to a position of terrible power. We now wield the paintbrush. And that’s serious: We’re not very bright. We’re short on wisdom. We’re high on technology. Where’s it going to lead? There is no planet B.”
He continued talking informally now, almost imploring the audience to help answer his question.
“This is not a forecast. This is a warning, and we have to think seriously about it. And that time when this is happening is not 100 years or 500 years. Things are going on this decade, next decade; it’s a very short time that we have to decide what we are going to do. And if we can get some agreement on where we want the world to be — desirable, sustainable when your kids reach your age — I think we actually can reach it.
(Is this why kids today seem so angry with prior generations, for not having dealt with the negative consequences of what we created?)
McCready closed his formal remarks with this sobering thought:
“…Maybe this is a forecast, afterall…I personally think the surviving intelligent life form on earth is not going to be carbon-based; it’s going to be silicon-based.”
And then, with a sheepish grin, he delighted his audience and lifted their spirits “with one final bit of sparkle” by giving a live autonomous flight demonstration over the audiences’ heads of an an “utterly impractical flight vehicle, a little ornithopter wing-flapping rubber-band powered device that weighed one gram.”
It got stuck in the rafters like a mechanical moth fluttering its wings, but going nowhere. Everyone laughed.
Living in a Blur of Bits
Dr. McCready did not use the phrase “Blur of Bits” nor Frictionless Society (FLS) to describe the future as he saw it from twenty years ago, but he might have. This is what it looks like to me.
Based on his talk, he was prescient in his warning, and perhaps even in his forecast as well, because “Silicon” arguably has a “life of its own” in billions of Carbon Lives today. It pervades every aspect of society as data-being-processed:
Who you are, what you value, where you are, what you are doing, how you are doing, what and when you plan to do it, and why.
CEO Ginni Rometty stated in her opening remarks at IBM’s February Think Conference that “only 20% of the world’s data is currently searchable,” implying that the other 80% is available for economic growth by all kinds of businesses large and small. IBM’s plan? Everyone will use Watson’s AI to monetize this data to solve problems for society (and move IBM back to its rightful place at the top of the Silicon Palace).
“Watson took a year to figure out it’s first cancer; now it takes one month. It gets smarter and smarter. Programming a computer is dead; deep AI learning with data is the future.” (Reminds me of the hammer and nail view of reality.)
The existential problematique of the FLS is that data, as information, is a complex chameleon of abstract potential. In physical form it is a liquid lizard that can change shape, color, size, dynamics, and merge seamlessly with other information to produce endless variety. It’s the digital genie in the bottle we have let loose without thinking carefully about what wishes we want to be granted, which are turning out to be endless!
Is this what Carbon wants, or what Silicon wants?