Sunday, March 08, 2015

A pile of bunk

In his recent NYT column, Ross Douthat refers to this conversation on between Daniel Kahneman and Yuval Noah Harari.  Kahneman is a Nobel Laureatte, and Harari is a historian who has won attention for successfully pushing his greatly oversimplified view of reality. 

The best you can say about this conversation is that Harari is talking about many decades from now; and there's little original there - the masters of science fiction have long covered all these scenarios.

Let's take a few:
Nobody has a clue how the world will look like in, say, 40, 50 years.
There is nothing new or profound about that.  Consider the changes over the lifetime of a person who lived 1900-1980.  
But in the 21st century, there is a good chance that most humans will lose, they are losing, their military and economic value. This is true for the military, it's done, it's over. 
This might be true in the future; but if it was true today, the USwould have ended the civil war in Syria, and failing that, it would certainly wipe out in zero time the excrescence that is ISIS/Daish. But military operations still require putting people in harm's way;  remote air power is insufficient to defeat ISIS; it needs "boots on the ground".

And the handful of people trickling in from Europe and America to join ISIS would not cause such consternation and alarm, if humans were so not-valuable for military purposes.
People never die because the Angel of Death comes, they die because their heart stops pumping, or because an artery is clogged, or because cancerous cells are spreading in the liver or somewhere. These are all technical problems, and in essence, they should have some technical solution. And this way of thinking is now becoming very dominant in scientific circles, and also among the ultra-rich who have come to understand that, wait a minute, something is happening here. For the first time in history, if I'm rich enough, maybe I don't have to die.
The attitude may be there (Steve Jobs might be an exception?) but this way of thinking is delusional.  Not that there is an Angel of Death,  but  in thinking that "having some technical solution" means being able to achieve such a solution.    The problem of reconciling quantum mechanics and the General Theory of Relativity is a technical problem, and in essence, it should have a technical solution.  Good luck with that!   And how far have we gotten with curing cancer?  Or understanding the cause of autism?   All these are "technical problems".    Finding efficient computation for  NP-complete problems is a "technical problem" with a "technical solution".

If any ultra-rich person thinks that the world is like the Star Trek universe, where the Captain asks how long will it take to solve this never-before encountered complex engineering or scientific problem, and the crew says "5 hours", and the Captain says, "make it 4, make it so", and it all happens, please send that ultra-rich person my way, so I may join the ranks of the ultra-rich in short order.