Arnold Kling  

John Brockman strikes again

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This year's "Edge" question is What Have You Changed Your Mind About? Why?.

Fifteen years ago, Brockman wrote,


the traditional American intellectuals are, in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time. Their culture, which dismisses science, is often nonempirical.

...In Snow's third culture, the literary intellectuals would be on speaking terms with the scientists. Although I borrow Snow's phrase, it does not describe the third culture he predicted. Literary intellectuals are not communicating with scientists. Scientists are communicating directly with the general public. Traditional intellectual media played a vertical game: journalists wrote up and professors wrote down. Today, third-culture thinkers tend to avoid the middleman and endeavor to express their deepest thoughts in a manner accessible to the intelligent reading public.


Blogging is arguably a "third-culture" activity.

As to Brockman's question, my list would be rather lengthy, considering that 30 years ago I was pretty much a conventional lefty. But let's stick with scientific propositions about economics. And let's ignore macro, where everybody changes their mind all the time.

Probably the biggest change of mind that I have had concerns Ray Kurzweil's predictions for the future. My first reaction was rather dismissive.


In a sense, he is asking us to buy into the following: a nonlinear process that has increased computer intelligence from, say, 0.000001 percent of total earthly intelligence in 1960 to, say, 0.002 percent of total earthly intelligence in 2000, will continue to increase at a predictable rate until it has reached, say, 99 percent of all earthly intelligence in 2099.

...Can human beings absorb the pace of change necessary to continue to increase the demand for machine intelligence? "The Industry Standard" magazine includes in its reviews of new technology gadgets an "expected useful life," meaning the amount of time before the gadget is likely to become obsolete. In many cases, their estimate is less than a year.

Somehow, it feels to me like we're approaching a limit in the process of innovation. Call it adoption drag or cultural friction.


Subsequently, I became less of a skeptic and more of a believer. I continue to think that artificial intelligence faces more challenges than Kurzweil may acknowledge, and I would bet against him. But overall, I think that Kurzweilnomics needs to be taken seriously.

I changed my mind because productivity growth has indeed increased. Also, I think that the fields of computing, genetics, and nanotechnology are proceeding pretty much on schedule from a Kurzweil perspective. I base that on reading MIT Technology Review.

It is amazing to contrast how optimistic one feels after reading Technology Review with how depressed one can get reading, say, the anniversary issue of The Atlantic on "The American Idea," written by the sorts of reactionaries Brockman describes.

Here are some other folks' interesting answers to Brockman's question:

Karl Sabbagh--


I used to believe that there were experts and non-experts and that, on the whole, the judgment of experts is more accurate, more valid, and more correct than my own judgment. But over the years, thinking — and I should add, experience — has changed my mind. What experts have that I don't are knowledge and experience in some specialized area. What, as a class, they don't have any more than I do is the skills of judgment, rational thinking and wisdom. And I've come to believe that some highly ‘qualified' people have less of that than I do.

...An article in Fortune magazine a couple of years ago compared the academic qualifications of people in business and found the qualification that correlated most highly with success was a philosophy degree.


Michael Shermer--

The data from evolutionary psychology has now convinced me that we evolved a dual set of moral sentiments: within groups we tend to be pro-social and cooperative, but between groups we are tribal and xenophobic.

James O'Donnell--

Rome brought the ancient world a secure environment (Pompey cleaning up the pirates in the Mediterranean was a real service), a standard currency, and a huge free trade zone. Its taxes were heavy, but the wealth it taxed so immense that it could support a huge bureaucracy for a long time without damaging local prosperity. Fine: but it was an empire by conquest, ruled as a military dictatorship, fundamentally dependent on a slave economy, and with no clue whatever about the realities of economic development and management. A prosperous emperor was one who managed by conquest or taxation to bring a flood of wealth into the capital city and squander it as ostentatiously as possible. Rome "fell", if that's the right word for it, partly because it ran out of ideas for new peoples to plunder

Mark Pagel--

there may be many genetic differences among human populations — including differences that may even correspond to old categories of 'race' — that are real differences in the sense of making one group better than another at responding to some particular environmental problem. This in no way says one group is in general 'superior' to another, or that one group should be preferred over another. But it warns us that we must be prepared to discuss genetic differences among human populations.

More in a subsequent post.


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COMMENTS (4 to date)
drtaxsacto writes:

I am not sure why any thinking person should be attracted to Kurzweil. Ultimately, the best scientists are in part grounded in some basic moral principles. Kurzweil is so attracted by the unproven potential of AI that he seems to have missed that significant detail. The quote you attribute to Brockman "in a sense, increasingly reactionary, and quite often proudly (and perversely) ignorant of many of the truly significant intellectual accomplishments of our time. Their culture, which dismisses science, is often nonempirical." - describes Kurzweil's arguments in Singularity.

Steve Sailer writes:

Kurzweil strikes me as the Robert Heinlein of today. Heinlein assumed that the speeding up of transportation from the invention of the steamship around 1807 up through WWII would continue. But, it didn't, which is why we don't commute to work in our helicopter cars and vacation on Mars.

Shane writes:

The parallel between Heinlein's predictions, and Kurzweil's, seems ill-made, since the physical processes required for the sort of perpetual progress in transportation are obviously unscalable, whereas the speedups Kurzweil bases his analysis upon are ethereal: information and connectivity are boundless, practically speaking.

The question posed in the original quote, about whether the human animal will be able to assimilate this information-technology leapfrogging, is the most compelling Kurzweil critique. And even this one is not especially compelling.

The nicest thing about all of this, of course, is that one need wait only a few years to see who's right.

Barkley Rosser writes:

What is involved here, and it is associated with this matter of humans being able to absorb the changes, is the qualitative impact of the quantitative changes that occur (I know, being Hegelian, and thus really outre for this blog). So, sure, there may be accelerating improvements in computing speed or nanotechnology. The quetion, as Schumpeter would have emphasized, is the degree of the qualitative changes that result. After all, no amount of adding horse carriages leads to a railroad. A qualitative jump is involved, and the things that really change our lifestyles and existence tend to be associated more with those, which are hard to predict, and do not necessarily arise from an acceleration of quantitative changes along a certain path or direction.

As for things I have changed my mind about? Nuclear power: used to be agin it, now for it.

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