Tuesday, December 06, 2005

The Next Industrial Revolution

The story of Human civilization is the story of the efficiency of the organization and coordination of human labor. As technologies advance so does the efficiency with which labor is accomplished. There has been three industrial revolutions so far and we are in the midst of the third.

All of these revolutions have two major components: new sources of energy and new powers of communication. The first revolution began in eighteenth century England with the advent of the steam engine. This invention was proceeded by the invention of the printing press. The new energy source was coal, that energy source was utilized through the steam engine which was applied to all manner of production from locomotives to steam shovels to factories. These economic activities were coordinated through the dissemination of information via the printed word which made it possible to share ideas on a level never seen before that. It was at that time that we first began to see thinkers writing about political economy.

The second revolution stemmed from the new communication advances of the telegraph, telephone, and radio respectively. The new energy source was still coal but applied to the generation of electricity which was applied to the new invention of the electric motor. The other new energy source was petroleum which was utilized mainly in the internal combustion engine. These technologies fueled incredible accelerating advances in the efficiency of the organization and coordination of human labor.

The third revolution, which we are at the beginning of, began with the advent of the Internet and various other communication technologies related to computing such as cell phones, satellite radio, podcasting etc. Because this revolution is just now beginning the new energy source of this revolution is still in the developmental stages but are slowly coming into commercial use. These technologies are hyper efficient photo voltaic cells, wave plants, high efficiency wind turbines etc., combined with new modes of energy distribution and utilization such as Li-ion batteries and fuel cells being applied to high efficiency motors.

One interesting thing about these revolutions is that they are appearing closer and closer to each other in time and the effect of each revolution is greater and greater. This is not surprising to those of us who are aware of the Law of Accelerating Returns. Because of the nature of this trend the next 'revolution' should follow right on the heels of the current revolution.

This prompts me to ask what sort of technology would qualify as having taken us beyond the current revolution?

The next revolution will be a truly qualitative leap in a new direction. When we talk about organizing the efficiency of human labor through communications technologies and the utilization of energy through machines what we are really talking about is effectively concentrating and using the collective human intelligence. Think about this. The vast majority of jobs in the world right now require people to perform some sort of mundane task that does not require much creative thought but which does require human intelligence and linguistic capability. Whether operating a piece of machinery, making phone calls, 'networking', 'marketing'. All of these are tasks which are necessary for efficient production.

So really the 'human labor' part of the equation means that we are finding more effective ways of applying human intelligence. But already we are seeing mundane tasks which used to require a human to perform being replaced my machine intelligence through robotics.

I posit that the next revolution means taking the 'human' out of the labor efficiency equation. This does not necessarily mean the advent of strong AI – though that would be a serious boost. All this requires is machine intelligence with pattern recognition capacities sufficient for taking over mundane operations which are currently enslaving the vast majority of mankind (myself included). By the time machine intelligence is capable of this (probably around 2025 or so) the efficiency of energy production and utilization should be at the point where energy is free. This supposition is based on the amount of unused solar power arriving on planet Earth every day.

Once this movement is underway it will free up many, many human minds and allow them to put their creative energies to work while the machines take care of trivial tasks. At that point the current economic model will have to change radically. At that point the average person will not have to dedicate their lives to the accumulation of scarce resources just to survive and provide for their families but rather will be able to dedicate their talents to any activity they deem worthy of their activities.


Since all information and industrial technologies can really be considered as methods of locally reversing entropy, and all of our energy production methods are simply ways to power this reversal, could this negative entropy effect on the environment be plotted as another of Kurzweil's exponential trends I wonder? Does our ability to combat entropy increase exponentially with our technology?

By Blogger Ian Stuart, at 6/12/05 15:42  

Interesting idea. Kurzweil describes how he thinks the speed at which the human-machine civilization spreads from planet earth, saturating the environment with intelligence along the way, is only hindered by the speed of light. And even this may not be a limit if some theorists are correct. when I think about this I tend to imagine something like a massive super nova, or even better, something more akin to the original Big Bang. The event begins when conditions reach a critical mass, i.e. the singularity, and then rapidly expands at the speed of light (or faster). But instead of disorganizing all matter as it expands (like a super nova) it is ordering matter. Or reversing entropy as you put it. When one thinks about the singularity in these kinds of terms it makes intelligence seem like a primal force of Nature. Also it makes one wonder if our talk about a "singularity" is really so metaphorical. After all the technological singularity is a historical singularity and we know that time is but a dimension of space. If one steps back and looks at the big picture we see that human civilization and its technology are not somehow beyond Nature. We are a part of the system. We emerge from the system. We are a phenomena of nature. So if our intelligence is the trigger for an event that explodes from planet Earth, reversing entropy at the speed of light, then perhaps this event is a kind of natural phenamena that has more in common with a gravitational singularity than anyone has previously imagined.

By Blogger Micah J. Glasser, at 7/12/05 00:27  

The only way that we can truly reverse entropy on a universal scale is by creating something from nothing (and I'm talking about an absolute nothing, not just rearranging the raw materials or energy we manipulate in this universe). I wouldn't go so far as to proclaim we will never be able to do that but my feeling would be that it would require us (the human race) to transcend our beginnings, or in other words to be able to move outside of this existence as we commonly know it before a fundamental creation process would be accessible. It's difficult to communicate exactly what I mean because the words we use to communicate carry with them a connection to our fundamental reality. What I mean to say is that being a product of our reality, our universe, existence itself may be the limiting factor in what we will eventually be able to do. And because of that limitation, we may find it utterly impossible to divorce ourselves from the very reality where we began, meaning that we will never be able to step outside of this existence and gain access to the process which originally created the existence where we find ourselves (whatever that process might have been). To be honest, that's a really depressing thought (I hate limits).

By Blogger David, at 7/12/05 14:23  

Thanks for the comments David. We were just discussing in the last post whether or not Being is limited or infinite. I tend to think that it must, ultimately, be infinite. This has more to do with logic than present cosmology I must admit. In my opinion we really just don't know enough about cosmology to answer these kinds of questions. The fact of the matter is that science remains quite incomplete. We don't even know how the laws of General Relativity and quantum mechanics are related.
Can the four known forces be unified? Are there other fundamental laws that we do not yet know about, such as the proposed cosmological constant? Is c really the universal speed limit? Does the conception of matter as being composed of irreducible indivisible particles make sense in a world that can be described by quantum field theory? Are there more than four dimensions as super-string theory suggests?
These are just some of the questions we are unable to answer. As our science advances these questions probably will be answered, but only to be supplanted by new and more difficult questions. So at this point in time all we can really do is speculate and as long as we are just speculating I think that a proper understanding of modal logic requires an ontology of infinite being. Notice that the cosmologists can never just leave the the origin of the universe as a mystery. They have a new theory about it every week – from 'brane' theory to the postulation of a multiverse etc. All of this speculation has more to do with metaphysics than experimental science.
But none of these cosmologists, to the best of my knowledge, has considered the role of intelligence in the universe as a force in its own right. One need not create something out of nothing, as you posited, to reverse entropy. All one need be able to do is have command over the basic laws of the universe – hack the system so to speak. But like I said this kind of talk is just speculation and I find myself resolutely bent toward optimism.

By Blogger Micah J. Glasser, at 7/12/05 15:43  

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