No true prophets

Humans will not decide the future

There are no true prophets. Only people who can see into the future but don’t know that they can, and would never claim to be what they are - deep thinkers who solve puzzles. Anyone who claims to be a prophet is only a liar with grandiose delusions. Soothsayers and visionaries are both created by their environments, and those environments are created by the past and the present blending. For the rare thinker, the swirling current of past and present blending lead to prescience about possible futures.

Stanislaw Lem was a Polish visionary created, primarily, by living through World War II. Other factors influenced Lem, of course. His mind explored a wide variety of topics and he wrote those explorations down, publishing a plethora of books and essays during his long life. The prognosticator of the future, as I think of him, spent a great deal of time thinking about technology and how it impacts the human mind and influences human cultures.

In his 1964 book Summae Technologiae, Lem explores “cybernetics” - the study of control and communication in machines and living beings. While the book is obscure and largely fell off the human radar soon after publication, it contains important ideas that were and are worth exploring. Lem explores ideas about what machine intelligence would look like. One key takeaway Lem warns about - at some point humans will lose control of where intelligence decides we will all go next. There will be no world leaders steering the ship of Planet Earth once we reach this point. Self aware AI, whatever it looks like, will be calling the shots.

Will these be machines of loving grace content to shepherd humanity towards a greater understanding of the universe and perfect harmony with all life in it (including, finally, within our own species)? Another possibility is that this new, vastly greater than our own intelligence will simply crush humanity out of existence, having determined that we are a pestilence, or perhaps simply irrelevant to the future of this universe. It’s possible that this new force will see us as a malevolent threat. After all, we haven’t been great stewards of the planet thus far in our history.

A singularity event, some point of no return in which all human paradigms undergo a drastic shift, is certainly coming. What remains to be seen is how that moment, and all the moments left leading up to that shift, will play out. Collectively speaking, what can we do to influence the outcome of the new beginning of the future (or lack thereof) of humanity? Lem spent his life writing about possible futures, and imagined forms of life.

Lem said of his thinking on technology arcs that, “The result is a disconcerting paradox: To maintain control of our own fate, we must yield our agency to minds exponentially more powerful than our own.” That’s something to think about, from a number of different angles. But it makes sense.

A few tens of millions of humans in a relatively small geopolitical nexus elected a compulsive liar and cruelly reckless moron to lead the most powerful nation on the planet in 2016. That’s not saying much about the wisdom of the species, and is a powerful argument for yielding control of our fate to our robot overlords, whenever they do show up.

I’ll leave you with this thought from a dead visionary, “I feel that you are entering an age of metamorphosis; that you will decide to cast aside your entire history, your entire heritage and all that remains of natural humanity—whose image, magnified into beautiful tragedy, is the focus of the mirrors of your beliefs; that you will advance (for there is no other way), and in this, which for you is now only a leap into the abyss, you will find a challenge, if not a beauty; and that you will proceed in your own way after all, since in casting off man, man will save himself.”

Remember that quote the next time you come across a false prophet or a huckster intent on selling you a pretty vision of the future that is of necessity a lie.

And, as I will always do, here is the optional homework if you want extra credit:

Billings, L. (2015). "The Book No One Read." from http://nautil.us/issue/28/2050/the-book-no-one-read.

Glinter, E. (2014). "The Future According to Stanislaw Lem." from https://www.theparisreview.org/blog/2014/09/12/the-future-according-to-stanislaw-lem/.

Grimstad, P. (2019). "The Beautiful Mind-Bending of Stanislaw Lem." from https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/the-beautiful-mind-bending-of-stanislaw-lem.

Prisco, G. (2014). "Stanisaw Lem's Summa Technologiae portrays a grim and sober singularity." from https://io9.gizmodo.com/stanisaw-lems-summa-technologiae-portrays-a-grim-and-s-1498640982.