Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Singularity is Near, My Job Went to India

This article appears in slightly different form in the January/February 2006 issue of IEEE Micro © 2006 IEEE.

The Future Will Be Here Soon

This time I look at two books that deal with adapting to trends. One conjectures about how we will adapt to the accelerating pace of technology when that pace outstrips our biological limitations. The other provides sound advice for dealing with an immediate situation, the globalization of technology-based commerce.   

The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil (Viking, New York NY, 2005, 672pp, ISBN 0-670-03384-7, $29.95)

When Ray Kurzweil wrote his first book, The Age of Intelligent Machines (MIT, 1990), he brought to it a history of more than twenty years of creating successful artificial intelligence (AI) applications. As a high school student in the 1960s, he appeared on the TV program I've Got a Secret and played a piece of music that his homemade computer had composed. At MIT, he used AI techniques to match high school students with potential colleges. After graduating, he developed optical character recognition software, reading machines for the blind, and computer-based musical instruments. All of these developments became commercial successes.

Kurzweil's second book, The Age of Spiritual Machines (Viking, 1999) enters the philosophical debate about consciousness, feelings, and whether machines can exhibit these essential human characteristics. Kurzweil's view is that they might not do so now, but it's only a matter of time. That brings us to the current book.

The singularity that Kurzweil refers to occurs at a time, perhaps a few decades from now, when the exponential growth of technology will seem nearly vertical to those of us who are still limited by our biology. The accelerating rate of change in our society is a commonplace. We have been accommodating it for centuries, but it has gotten harder lately. The only way that most of us can keep up is by depending upon such manifestations of computer technology as cell phones, instant messaging, search engines, and electronic mail. Kurzweil believes that the rate of change will continue to grow and that our dependence on technology will evolve into something much more profound.

By Kurzweil's definition, you are a singularitarian if you understand the singularity and have reflected on its consequences for your life. Charlie Kam captured the essence of this book by adapting a Gilbert & Sullivan song (from Pirates of Penzance, 1879):
I am the very model of a Singularitarian 
I'm combination Transhuman, Immortalist, Extropian, 
Aggressively I’m changing all my body’s biochemistry 
Because my body's heritage is obsolete genetically, 
Replacing all the cells each month it's here just temporarily 
The pattern of my brain and body’s where there's continuity, 
I'll try to improve these patterns with optimal biology, 
(“But how will I do that? I need to be smarter. Ah, yes…”) 
I’ll expand my mental faculties by merging with technology, . . .
You can read the lyrics and listen to the whole song by following a link from www.KurzweilAI.net.

Kurzweil attributes much of his commercial success to his ability to predict and adapt to future technological capabilities. Even if you don't believe Kurzweil's conclusions, this book gives an insight into the kinds of research and reasoning he uses to make such predictions. He extrapolates trends in innovation, fabrication, and even software development to conclude that if we can keep ourselves alive until the singularity, we will live for an indefinitely long time. Doing this, as the Charlie Kam song suggests, requires us to understand life and consciousness differently from the way most people view these manifestations of life today.

When Scottie beams Captain Kirk up, Kirk dematerializes where he is and reappears on the starship Enterprise. Each of his atoms is destroyed and the information from that atom is used to produce a corresponding atom on the starship. The Captain Kirk who is now on the starship has complete recall of the adventure from which he just returned. The singularitarian of the song has similarly been "beamed up" to a new, better hardware platform that can more effectively support the patterns that define his identity. That new hardware platform will enable him to leave Earth and spread human intelligence, which will then be growing at a vastly increased rate, throughout the universe.

Leaving aside any reservations we might have about the desirability or details of this scenario, we also have to consider the possibility that negative forces might push the future in a different direction. In his April 2000 Wired Magazine article, The Future Does Not Need Us (Micro Review, July/August 2000), Bill Joy points out that humanity, so far, has muddled through the problems of technological change. But technology is becoming more powerful, more potentially destructive, and more widely accessible. The chance that humanity will survive its side effects, accidental consequences, or malicious misuse, drops from the near certainty of the past to a lower, more frightening, level.

Joy considers three technologies in which our progress is quickly outpacing our ability to control them: genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR). He calls attention to some of the possible consequences of these technologies -- plague, intelligent germ warfare, out-of-control self-replicating robots, and many others. Some of the consequences seem highly unlikely. Others seem likely. Many are potentially catastrophic, perhaps even fatal, to humanity.

Kurzweil and Joy agree on the dangers, but they disagree on how to deal with them. Joy's proposal is to restrict GNR work until we have mechanisms in place to prevent bad consequences. Kurzweil's approach is to accelerate GNR work in order to avert catastrophes and solve humanity's problems.

Kurzweil dedicates a substantial portion of his book to answering objections like Bill Joy's. These objections have come in response to his earlier books and to earlier expressions of the ideas in this one. I found it very interesting to read these objections and Kurzweil's answers.

Whatever you think about the promise and dangers of the advance of technology, you can learn a lot by reading this book.

My Job Went to India: 52 Ways to Save Your Job by Chad Fowler (Pragmatic Bookshelf, Raleigh NC, 2005, 196pp, ISBN 0-9766940, www.PragmaticProgrammer.com, $19.95)

Chad Fowler is a programmer who has lived and worked in both India and America as an employee of large multinational companies. Like Tom Friedman in The World Is Flat (Micro Review, May/June 2005), Fowler says that the way for U S workers to contend with a global marketplace in information technology is to take steps, individually and as a country, to make themselves more competitive. This book focuses on the steps that workers can take individually.

Incidentally, Ed Miracle, the painter who created the original cover art (dropped in later editions because of a copyright dispute) for Tom Friedman's The World Is Flat, has just brought out another delightful lithograph called Intelligent Design. It is subtle and should not offend people on either side of that controversy. You can order it from www.miraclesart.com/.
Fowler does not bash Indian workers. He admires their hard work and determination. Friedman, delighting in a pun and a cultural statement, offers approaches to make you untouchable. Fowler does not have Friedman's global view, but he is far more knowledgable than Friedman about the everyday realities of being a programmer. Like Friedman, he knows that American workers cannot compete solely on price. He offers 52 short but detailed ideas about how to compete globally.

While Fowler's book is informed by his experiences in India and America, much of his advice would have been just as valid twenty years ago. The boom in information technology leading up to 2000 made it easy for American workers to ignore the fundamentals and still do well. This book calls for a return to fundamentals. Fowler wants you to view your career as an exercise in creating and selling a product. To be successful at this you must choose your marketplace, then invest in, build, and market your product.

The first 41 of Fowler's 52 ways to save your job tie directly to these four tasks. The remainder are along the lines of Stephen Covey's seventh habit of highly successful people: sharpen the saw (Micro Review, Sept/Oct 2002). That is, they help you keep your edge.

Fowler recognizes that collaboration is a key competency for anyone who wishes to compete in the global marketplace. He berates the fears that make some American workers reluctant to share their wisdom with their Indian counterparts. Companies that have such internal distrust between their American and Indian teams are less effective, and ultimately less successful, than companies in which the teams work together.

Fowler's 52 essays are down to earth and uncompromising. You can't make things better if you don't assess the current state of affairs honestly. Most essays conclude with a list of ways to act on what you learned. These are small but important tasks. You can accomplish them in a reasonable length of time, and they take you outside the daily routine that can lead to long term decline. 

For example, in one of his essays Fowler points out that even if you are on the bleeding edge of the current wave, you're probably behind on the next one. The action item at the end of that essay calls for you to carve out two hours each week to research new technologies and start to develop skills in them.

Another example is an essay in which Fowler points to the open source movement as a model for solving many of the collaboration problems that arise within multinational teams. The action item at the end of that essay is to get involved in an open source project to help you learn how to collaborate.

Fowler calls The Pragmatic Programmer by Dave Thomas and Andy Hunt (Micro Review, Jan/Feb 2000) a catalyst for his career. The current book follows that excellent model in providing a pragmatic approach to dealing with globalization. You should read it.