The Rewards and Pitfalls of Specialization
Posted April 21, 2021
Let us pose some mischievous questions.
Does modern science make us stupid?
Does it turn us into stupid specialists? In the epigram, we know more and more about less and less until we know everything about nothing. Our knowledge is atomized, or even quirked.
We begin to imagine that a so-called “quantum computer” can usurp our brains. We can abandon our Moore’s Law ascent into ever more powerful and minuscule digital machines and turn back into an analog wilderness of qubits and quarks. Entire thinktanks are excogitating a national security crisis deriving from possible Chinese “quantum supremacy.”
In my short book, Gaming AI: Why Computers Can’t Think but Can Transform Jobs, I explain, “Whatever the expectations of its advocates, quantum computing is an analog process. It shifts the burden from the internal ‘quantum’ calculations to the front end where the data is defined… With quantum computing, you still face the problem of creating an analog machine that does not accumulate errors as it processes its data [which was the pitfall both of original analog computers and original analog telephone networks].
“As long as it is analog, the process is virtually instantaneous, but we can’t look in. Expand the process to the [quantum] universe with Richard Feynman and MIT’s Seth Lloyd, and you still face the input/output problem: how you define meaningful outputs and solutions.”
Eclipsing common sense and practical perspective are the goggles of our microscopes, actually our electron picoscopes, resolving matter to the trillionths of a meter and below. As Alan Turing observed, measuring electrons with electrons is a circular process that prohibits certainty and requires an outside “oracle” to interpret it.
Anyone, however well trained in virology, who believes that the way to fight a virus is to lock down the economy, is stupid. These folks may know everything about viruses but they know nothing about the world.
Equally stupid is anyone, however well trained in computer modeling, who believes that some figmentary threat of global warming can be remedied by spreading windmills and solar cells across the scarce surfaces of the planet.
I call them windmill totem poles and druidical sun henges of a new troglodytic religion upheld by a strange new coalition of climate cranks and weather bores. They believe that replacing our current power systems with more expensive, more complex, and less efficient ones is the path to “sustainability.”
Hey, what sustains us, with ever more options and richer lives, is an ever more productive capitalist economy. The paradox of our times, though, is that capitalism depends on the same specialization that stultifies our governments and universities.
We cannot turn against specialization. Specialization lends the spark of genius to our global economy.
Matt Ridley, in his superb book on Innovation, ordains what I may term Ridley’s Law: “Globalization and free trade enables each of us to specialize as producers so that we can diversify as consumers.”
From another point of view, we Ridleyans narrow our focus so that we can expand our reach. We use more and more of our minds in order to use less and less of the scarce surface of the earth. Petroleum so far uses less of the earth’s surface to produce more power than any other energy source. But finally, we will produce our power from the very nuclei of atoms.
Prompting these musings on the rewards and pitfalls of specialization has been my dawning recognition that much of the best writing on the future of technology now comes from novelists rather than from technologists.
More on this tomorrow…
Editor, Gilder's Daily Prophecy