It's That Time Of Year


Two of my favorite annual features:

* Every year, Edge poses an open-ended question to a wide-ranging collection of thinkers. This year's query: "What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?" They got dozens of answers—some thoughtful, some fearful, some silly, some trippy, and some of them all of the above. For a sample, here's Kevin Kelly's rather Chardinian prediction of "a new kind of mind":

[T]he snowballing success of Google this past decade suggests the coming AI will not be bounded inside a definable device….Instead of dozens of geniuses trying to program an AI in a university lab, there are billion people training the dim glimmers of intelligence arising between the quadrillion hyperlinks on the web. Long before the computing capacity of a plug-in computer overtakes the supposed computing capacity of a human brain, the web—encompassing all its connected computing chips—will dwarf the brain. In fact it already has….

When this emerging AI, or ai, arrives it won't even be recognized as intelligence at first. Its very ubiquity will hide it. We'll use its growing smartness for all kinds of humdrum chores, including scientific measurements and modeling, but because the smartness lives on thin bits of code spread across the globe in windowless boring warehouses, and it lacks a unified body, it will be faceless. You can reach this distributed intelligence in a million ways, through any digital screen anywhere on earth, so it will be hard to say where it is. And because this synthetic intelligence is a combination of human intelligence (all past human learning, all current humans online) and the coveted zip of fast alien digital memory, it will be difficult to pinpoint what it is as well. Is it our memory, or a consensual agreement? Are we searching it, or is it searching us?

* The Baltimore City Paper has published its yearly tribute to some of the significant-but-not-quite-famous people who died in the last 12 months. As always, I have my quibbles with their comments; as always, I'm learning much more than I'm kvetching. I'd never heard of the inventor/designer Victor Schreckengost before, for example, but I like what I'm reading:

[H]is most lasting achievements have to do with the intersection of aesthetics and manufacture, and consequently, art and commerce. It's a dichotomy he would struggle with throughout his career, eventually reconciling in an unpublished essay: "My work has been constantly involved in the struggle between fine arts and their development into some functional form of what we call the applied or commercial arts. It took many years for me to realize that they need not conflict, that a basic philosophy, conviction, or understanding may be common to both….There is no separate set of rules for each, or need there be a prostitution of one's artistic integrity. There can and must be a continuity, a basic concept in the artist's mind, which will show up in everything, which he does."