by Marc Maurer
From the Editor: I remember talking with Immediate Past President Maurer about favorite authors, and not surprisingly the name Isaac Asimov came up. Dr. Maurer said that the thing he liked most about Asimov was that whatever Asimov said Dr. Maurer found interesting. This speaks to a real talent in writing, and I find myself thinking that I feel much the same way when I read something that our former president writes. In this spirit I pass along to you this article, which I received shortly after the national convention:
Reflecting upon the banquet address, Innovation, Blindness, and the Emerging Pattern of Thought, delivered by President Mark Riccobono at the 2017 Convention of the National Federation of the Blind, I reach certain conclusions. Some of these are that we must become linguists, that we must learn to be confident and content with rapid societal and technological change, and that in the imaginable future automobiles will become obsolete except for sporting events and hobbyist activities. Our President pointed out that technology is changing at a more rapid rate than it has in the past. He reiterated a thought from Raymond Kurzweil which tells us that the quantity of intelligence will be expanded within the next few decades a billion-fold. From the context I conclude that he did not mean that a billion human beings would be born who could think. Instead, he meant that a single intelligence would be a billion times as powerful as the intellect of a very bright human being. This is a startling concept. When we do this, what will remain important within our lives?
The scientific method and the interpretation of law have at least one thing in common. Both of these approaches value predictability. When one thing happens, another must follow. When the predictability ceases—or when the speed of changes occurs so rapidly that it appears to cease, we enter the realm of chaos. What does this have to do with intellect? The capacity for human thought has been changing for at least the past ten thousand years. However, the rate of development of new ideas has been reasonably slow, and assimilation of new concepts has been practical, though some of them have caused serious upheaval. One of the more noteworthy new thoughts that has challenged humanity is the idea that equality between human beings is a necessity both in law and in society. We have been fighting about this for centuries, and the battle continues to rage today. However, what will happen to the argument when the ability to think has been expanded a billion times? Certain things seem to me to be inevitable, but the great unknown is more intriguing still.
Whenever we as human beings have invented something new, we have had to invent the language to explain it. A recent example is the computer. Until we had made them, we did not know how to talk about them. Put it another way, until we had invented the language to talk about them, it was hard for us to invent them. A new concept of thought or a revolutionary piece of hardware demands from us that we think of new ways to speak about the idea or the system. I am told that a human being may communicate moderately fluently with others in a language after learning about five thousand words. The last time I checked, the English language was said to contain four hundred eighty-four thousand words. However, English cannot express all thought. Sometimes alternative methods of communication are required to express a concept for which English does not have a readily available set of words. I am also told that a student who enters medical school will learn about 50 percent more in language alone by the time of graduation. The additional words are required to express the thoughts of the medical profession. If we expand our intelligence, we will inevitably think of new ideas, new products, new systems of approach for managing the matters we encounter. All of these will require the facility to add to our vocabularies.
President Riccobono suggested in the banquet speech that in the future we will not only be restoring our senses but enhancing them. Can a receptor be built that will hear as well as the human ear and transmit the information to the brain as effectively as the nerve system human beings now have? Today, the answer is no. However, the systems we currently possess are much better than those of fifty years ago. If intellect expands by a billion, the likelihood is that we will find a way for sense recognition and transmission to expand a great deal also. We will be able to hear what human beings can, but we will hear other things as well. How does a dog hear what you transmit? I do not know, but I think we will find out. Can a dog hear your bones creak? Can the dog hear the sound of your blood running through your veins? Is it possible for some intelligence to hear the creation of a thought in your brain? How does the sound of one thought vary from another? Intelligence expanded a billion-fold will want to know.
If we create sensory receptors in human beings with these kinds of capacities, why cannot we create them outside of human beings? Today we hear sounds that are within a short range of where we are. However, if we change the distance factor, the range will be expanded. The receptor can be on the Eiffel Tower in Paris at the same time that the human being receiving the input is in Baltimore. The only requirement is a connection. Expanded intelligence will learn how this is done.
Transportation is a vital part of everyday life. We travel to meet people, to enjoy new places, to participate in events, to get (or give) items of importance to us. When our sensory impressions can come from any part of the world, much of the reason for travel will be gone. The getting (or giving) of valuable items will remain for a time an important part of the transportation system, but this will also be addressed eventually in digital terms. With an enormous expansion of intellect, the transmission of things by digital means will become practical. We will still travel, but we will do it in a digital way. The automobile which now consumes so much time and energy will cease to matter except as an interesting historical artifact.
What possibly intrigues me more than any of these ideas is wondering what will happen to the law and to the structure of society. This is more challenging for me than imagining what will occur with physical space. We have built societies on the ability to fight, on hereditary titles, on possession of wealth, and on the ability to think. When we radically change one of these factors, what will happen to the others?
As I have thought about the automobile, I feel certain that for a brief time intense arguments will take place about the value of putting autonomous vehicles on the road. Dropping the current requirement that each vehicle must be controlled by a human being will be regarded as dangerous to the point of foolishness. A few years after this debate another will occur demanding that only autonomous vehicles be permitted on the road. This phase of the argument will assert that hand-driven cars are so much more dangerous than the autonomous ones that they can no longer be allowed to be driven except in private spaces such as racetracks. Today we do not trust the machines, but we will come to rely upon them. A small group will insist that too great a reliance on a machine will be dangerous to the future of humanity. However the convenience that we get from automobiles that drive themselves will be great enough that these people will be ignored.
These things will occur before the alteration of the pattern of society that diminishes the need for the automobile. When we can transmit thoughts, sense-impressions, and products digitally, we will no longer need to move enormous machines and masses of material from one place to another in the old way.These are thoughts that came out of the 2017 banquet speech for me. The vision-centered approach to life is sufficiently limiting that it cannot be tolerated by a truly intelligent society. We must move from this to an intelligence-centered approach with the added elements of personality and fairness. I would have used the word justice, but I have no idea what the long-term effect of massive acceleration in intelligence will be on the legal system. Such thoughts will demand invention of terms to encompass concepts we don’t yet know. Perhaps we will use the grand old term the humanity-centered approach. But this thought leads to yet others which I will forgo for the moment. When all of our senses have been enhanced, are we still human? When we have the capacity to touch something a thousand or a million miles away, are we human? As I say, this speculation must be left for later. I am hoping and planning to be a part of the intellect community that helps us make the choices that are implied in the changes that are fast approaching.