Does the Future Need Us Now?


CNN ran an article a couple of days ago titled "Is AI a threat to humanity?" These articles are usually a roundup of other recent articles suggesting we ought to consider the risks of complex autonomous -- or even self-aware -- systems before we go ahead and build them. The articles cited in this piece are interesting in that many of them were by eminent scientists such as Stephen Hawking and Nobel physicist Frank Wilczek (who say "Although we are facing potentially the best or worst thing ever to happen to humanity, little serious research is devoted to these issues") or by academic organizations such as The Cambridge Center for Existential Risk, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, and the Future of Life Institute.

Another interesting element of this article is that although it mentions highly publicized material such as
Elon Musk's tweets about the danger of artificial intelligence and Ray Kurzweil's hopes of machine-human symbiosis and the Singularity, it also describes some much more prosaic, shorter-term risks. Even semi-autonomous machines could (and already have) put millions of humans out of work, as their increasing capabilities allow them to move from "blue-collar" to "white-collar" work. In Plutocrats, Chrystia Freeland told the story of computerized e-discovery: how a law firm given a week to sift through 570,000 documents used Clearwell software instead of the dozens of associates and law clerks they would have put on the job a decade ago. Although machines taking human jobs is nothing new, we used to be able to tell ourselves that these were just the low-end jobs. Grunt-work that people would be better off not doing. The displaced workers could retrain themselves and enter the information economy. But as Jerry Davis and others have argued, "knowledge-work" can now be outsourced to cheaper markets. Ultimately, software could replace people in call centers, banking, insurance, and a lot of the bureaucracy that we call government.

Similarly, as Hawking and his coauthors point out, a machine doesn't have to be super-intelligent like The Matrix or Skynet to kill you. Our military already has machinery that can be
programed to identify and eliminate human targets. The UN and Human Rights Watch are pushing for treaties to ban the use of such weapons, but what do you think the chances of the US signing on are, if we have a decisive lead in this technology?

What I find most interesting, though, is how unpopular these types of warnings are among the technorati. Folks in the Silicon Valley are happy enough to coexist with the
Singularity University and dream about merging their minds with super-intelligent machines (they generally pass over the question of how few people this technology would be made available to if it ever became real, and what would happen to the rest of us), but Elon Musk took some heat for tweeting his concern. This has been going on for a long time. Fourteen years ago, in April 2000, another über-geek, Bill Joy (Chief Scientist of Sun Microsystems, inventor of Java) wrote a cover article for Wired Magazine called "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us." It's still worth reading.

The Long Tail of the 19th Century

Vaclav Smil
Creating the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations of 1867-1914 and Their Lasting Impact

Vaclav Smil likes technology, but he’s reasonable. In this volume, Smil argues that in spite of the focus usually being on culture and politics, the modern world was largely created by technical advances achieved between the end of the American Civil War and the beginning of World War I, in a period he calls the “Age of Synergy.” He observes that although we think we’re living in an age of rapid technological transformation (or even “
disruptive innovation”), many products and “techniques whose everyday use keeps defining and shaping the modern civilization ha[ve] not undergone any fundamental change during the course of the 20th century.” (5) Taking aim at prophets of discontinuity like Ray Kurzweil, Smil says that currently fashionable “perceptions of accelerating innovation are ahistorical, myopic perspectives proffered by zealots of electronic faith.” The idea of accelerating evolution, Smil says, is teleological. In its place, he offers a combination of “phyletic gradualism and punctuated equilibrium.” (6) Well, so much for the singularity.

reiterates his belief that the “most far-reaching of all modern technical innovations...[was] the synthesis of ammonia from its elements.” (7) The Haber-Bosch process made nitrogen fertilizers available on an unprecedented scale (relative to previous sources, Peruvian guano and Chilean nitrate), allowing the world’s human population to expand to its current level. Without it, Smil says, “the world could not support more than about 3.5 billion people.” (23) As usual, Smil leaves the other shoe hanging in midair: what happens when the fossil fuel resources that make this cheap nitrogen so abundant begin to dry up?

Interestingly, Smil prefers the words “technical innovation” or “technique” to “technology.” Toward the end of the book he congratulates George Orwell for the same thing (quoting a passage from a 1942 BBC broadcast, 259), and calls attention to the fact that he has not used the fuzzier term “technology” a single time in the text. This might be frustrating for researchers searching keywords in the future, but it’s an interesting distinction.

The key characteristics of the “Unprecedented Saltation” of 1867-1914, Smil says, were:

  • that the impact of these technical advances was almost instantaneous,
  • the extraordinary concatenation of a large number of scientific and technical advances,
  • the rate with which all kinds of innovations were promptly improved after their introduction,
  • the imagination and boldness of new proposals, and
  • the epoch-making nature of these technical advances. (8-12)

While discussing periodization, Smil mentions that he is “deliberately ignoring” dating technical changes by economic cycles like the Kondratiev wave. He’s also avoiding, although he doesn’t say so, discussion of cultural, economic and social changes that impacted things like producer financing and consumer behavior. Tracing the feedback loops between technical innovation and these other areas is not the mission of this book. But Smil does acknowledge the world beyond science. “Edison’s key insight,” he says, was not technical, but “that any commercially viable lighting system must minimize electricity consumption and hence must use high-resistance filaments with lights connected in parallel across a constant-voltage system” (41). Edison was not designing a light bulb for the laboratory, he was designing a complete electrical generation and delivery system. The bulb was just the visible end-point of a much more complex (and profitable) project.

Smil also calls attention to the fact that “between 1880 and 1896 more than $2 million was spent in prosecuting more than 100 lawsuits” for patent infringement (43). Technology was no place for the faint-hearted, and the best technician didn’t always win. Not until 1943, a few months after Nicola Tesla’s death, did the US Supreme Court finally acknowledge the priority of his patents over Marconi’s, Smil says. And ironically, the court’s decision wasn’t to support Tesla, but was “merely a way for the court to avoid a decision regarding Marconi Co.’s suit against the U.S. government for using its patents” (251). Smil compare’s Marconi’s ability to “package, and slightly improve, what is readily available,” and benefit from “alliances with powerful users” with Microsoft’s success marketing Windows. He identifies Bill Gates with Marconi, whose status as “not a great technical innovator” was exemplified by his insistence that his radio would only be used to transmit Morse code.

Smil gives Edison credit for being able to play the game, but he clearly has a soft spot for Tesla and even George Westinghouse, who he reminds us had 361 patents to his credit (but how many of these were really Tesla's?). The stories of these people and their technical innovations would be even better if they were expanded to include personal and business elements, which will probably lead me to read biographies of many of them when I have some free time. In his conclusion, Smil reiterates his argument for the unique influence of technical change during this period by pointing out that “only two of today’s 10 largest multinationals...were not set up before 1914” (301). In addition to this short list, a quick look at the Fortune 500 would probably show that most of the world’s business is based on techniques whose origins can be traced to Smil’s Age of Synergy. Although that’s clearly a trailing indicator, it does seem fair to conclude that claims about the exceptional nature of the digital age are overblown. Smil shows that technical changes -- and common sense suggests that the associated economic and social changes of the late 19th century still account for most of the world in which we live.

Enriching the Earth, but for how long?

Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, and the Transformation of World Food Production
Vaclav Smil, 2001

In a book that has recently been discovered and promoted by Bill Gates, Vaclav Smil identifies the nitrogen-fixing technology of the Haber-Bosch process as the single most important invention of the modern age. Without the abundant nitrogen fertilizer provided by the process invented by Fritz Haber and brought to commercial scale by Carl Bosch, Smil says, the world population would not have been able to grow from roughly 1.6 billion in 1900 to the current 6 billion plus. Smil does mention that this human population explosion has not been without consequences for the rest of nature, and he notes that the Haber Bosch process is extremely energy-intensive. The reader gets the impression that if energy shortages drive up the value of natural gas, the cost of fertilizer -- and food -- can be expected to rise with it. But Smil doesn't really explore the question hanging in the air: did global population rise in the last century beyond a level that can be sustained? I imagine this is a question that doesn't seem serious if you believe that energy production and consumption will continue to increase -- perhaps changing forms as society transitions from fossil fuels to something new, but never really decreasing. Maybe it's best left to science fiction writers to wonder what happens to basic stuff like fertilizer and irrigation, if energy becomes scarce or very expensive.

The history of fertilizer is a rich (pun intended) story that has only recently begun to be told. Those with access to academic journals can read more about the earlier, guano-based fertilizer boom in my friend Ted Melillo’s award-winning article, “The First Green Revolution: Debt Peonage and the Making of the Nitrogen Fertilizer Trade, 1840–1930.” It’s unfortunate this type of material is locked behind academic paywalls, but you can also read about guano in Charles C. Mann's
1493 (which quotes Ted's article). Melillo tells the story of the early 19th century, when the concentrated nitrogen of seabird droppings made islands off the western coast of South America hot commodities. Long before the Haber Bosch process, there was a global trade in nitrogen. After the guano period described by Melillo and before the Haber Bosch era, the Chilean deserts provided nitrate to the world agricultural and munitions markets. Chile had a virtual monopoly on Nitrate at the end of the 19th century, after winning a war of conquest against its northern neighbors, Bolivian and Peru. So yeah, there’s a lot of history surrounding how we fertilize our fields.

There’s little doubt Smil is correct in his claim that at least 40% of the people now living owe their continued existence to the cheap fertilizer produced by the Haber Bosch process. There’s also no doubt that questions about issues like quantity vs. quality of life, humanity’s impact on the ecosystem, and the distribution of the fruits of progress, which Smil avoids addressing, are valid ones. Maybe another question we ought to ask has to do with the role of Environmental History. Should it be about simply recording the things humans discovered they were able to do, and the positive consequences? Or should it call attention to unintended consequences like the ones Smil avoids, and suggest people think about these questions. Since we continue to develop technologies that allow population to rise, it’s a question about the future as well as the past. The way books like Enriching the Earth mix the history of science and technology with economic, social, and cultural history creates an interesting opportunity to really use environmental history (broadly conceived) to understand the present and speculate about the future.


In the postscript Smil mentions that in addition to his work on nitrogen fertilizer, Fritz Haber also oversaw the German Chemical Warfare Service. Ten days after Haber supervised the first German gas attack at Ypres (4/22/1915), when he returned home, Haber's wife Clara shot herself through the heart with his army revolver. A brilliant scientist herself, Clara left behind not only Haber but their thirteen year old son, Hermann. “By the war’s end,” Smil says, the casualties of gas warfare amounted to about 1.3 million” (227). So there’s definitely a way to tell this story, as a sort-of Faustian tale of the double-edged nature of technological progress. Smil chooses not to focus on that interpretation, but to his credit he provides readers with all the details necessary to draw their own conclusions.