Kurtz-Fernhout Software

Date: Tue, 19 Dec 2000 09:46:39 -0500

From:   Paul Fernhout
Reply-To: unrev-II@egroups.com
Organization: Kurtz-Fernhout Software

To:     unrev-II@egroups.com

Subject:   Is "bootstrapping" part of the problem?

Rod Welch wrote [on November 19, 2000...]:


As usual, I am impressed by the depth of your analysis. In this case, however, your point is not clear.


First let me summarize: there is more to living than "intelligence".

Intelligence doesn't call one to act, "desire" does that. "Intelligence" doesn't define why one should do one thing rather than another, unless one already has "values". One can make a rational choice, but the desire and values that cause that choice to be made and acted on are to a large extent outside of the realm of "intelligence". As an outgrowth of "intelligence", knowledge management will neither lead to choices or cause actions in the absense of "values" or "desire". We are talking about putting ever more powerful "intelligence" in the hands of organizations that have already shown themselves capable of building 50,000 nuclear warheads, letting close to a billion people starve, and dumping PCBs in water bodies and resisting attempts to clean them up. One must question the desires and values of such organization, even if to an extent some of those decisions may have also been due to faulty reasoning or lack of knowledge (i.e. nukes=MAD, starvation=racism, PCBs=ignorance).

To clarify my point (if I have one beyond rambling :-) in the context of your questions:

Rod Welch wrote [on November 19, 2000...]:

Can you sum up by stating the two or three things you advocate should be done, that are not being done, or that should be done differently?

  1. Value Affirmation.

    There should be an affirmation of core human values and humane purposes in a statement of purpose for "bootstrapping" as defined by the Bootstrap Institute. In elaboration, it is not enough to say we will teach everyone how to do what they do better, as this is in effect a small mammal sixty million years ago saying "we will teach dinosaurs to be better dinosaurs" or "we will teach sharks to be better sharks". The point is that to isolate competence from purpose and values invites trouble.

  2. Understanding Exponential Growth.

    To the extent the colloquium still operates and desires to discuss issues that will have great (possibly negative) impact over the next few decades, the colloquium needs to have a focus on dealing with this problem of rapid exponential change itself and what it is leading towards. This is specially true in considering the implications of machine intelligence. It is also true in considering the implications of the increase of destructive -- and constructive -- capacity via nanotechnology and biotechnology.

  3. Accepting the Politics of Meeting Human Needs.

    Addressing human needs (beyond designing an OHS/DKR) was one of Doug's major goals and something that occupied many presenters in the Colloquium. The colloquium needs to accept that there are effectively no technical issues requiring extensive innovation related to supporting contemporary society that are of any significant importance. This is in part due to an abundance of material resources, as well as since our technological infrastructure is effectively obsolete compared to what is in the labs or in limited deployment. (The only exception to that is the need for organizing and distributing what we already know...)

    That is, the presentations in the colloquiums on imminent world problems (energy crisis especially) are effectively already out of date. It is true California is short of electricity, we will run out of oil in 100+ years, 840 million people people are starving now, but these are not directly technology problems since the technology and material abundance exists to solve them all right now, but what is lacking is the political will (or social consensus). One might call these organizational problems, requiring perhaps innovation in a practical (deployment) context (which an OHS/DKR might help with). I think improved technology could help with these issues in the sense of making the costs to solution even smaller (i.e. a $5 box the feeds a village forever) and so lowering the bar for political action, but the deeper issues are ones of fairness, compassion, and so on (which includes the fact people don't get research funding to make that $5 food box even if it was feasible). If resource distribution is grossly unfair, even the $5 to keep a village alive forever will be spent on lipstick instead. So to the extent the Colloquium wants to focus on current issues (world hunger, California electricity crisis) it needs to support tools more related to dealing with politics or social consensus.

Incidentally, my wife and I support the Heifer project, which is the closest we know of to any organization delivering self-replicating (exponential) technology at a low cost to make impoverished people's lives better.



Rod Welch wrote [on November 19, 2000...]:

How does your analysis today impact the big picture of moving from IT to KM?

It is orthogonal to that.

If corporations now doing IT have the major goal of profit as opposed to "meeting unmet social needs" (to quote William C. Norris)


...then corporations whether they do IT or KM are irrelevant to human survival. They are effectively machine intelligences with their own ends (the ethic of profit maximization, or "bucks is beautiful") to which humans are only relevant in well defined "roles" to the extent they are currently required for service or markets. If they could be replaced at less cost by automation, they will be -- nay, by the corporation's rules in a competitive landscape, they must be (except union jobs?). The only hope to resist this is some form of government intervention or worker (individual or union) resistance. These decisions will all be made in bits and pieces, each one seeimgly sensible at the time.

Consider the starting replacement of telephone support people by voice recognition systems.


The corporate social form has had little time to evolve (a few hundred years?) so there is not guarantee that contemporary corporate organization forms will be capable of doing more than exhausting convenient resources (passing on external costs when possible) and then collapsing.

Obviously, to the extent KM could transform an organization like GE into one that makes good on their corporate slogan "if we can dream it we can do it" and deliver on their implied promises in their 1986 Disney Epcot center pavilion (underwater cities, space habitats) then KM will be useful. It is always "Knowledge about what?" For an alternative to a world view producing organizations that refuse to clean up PCBs they dumped in the Hudson, consider The Venus project's world view:


There is one obvious exception to saying KM won't change the direction of organizations, which is to the extent humans as individuals in corporations have access to KM tools and might see the bigger picture and act as individuals. The only other hope is that a general increase in organizational capacity in large corporations or governments will let some small amount leak through for unsanctioned human ends (but the cost in human suffering to that approach is high -- witness as one example the 840 million people now in hunger.) But be very clear, this secondary effect is not the reasons organizations will adopt KM. They will adopt KM for competitive advantage in business as usual (barring a cultural shift for other reasons.)

As I saw this weekend on "DebatesDebates" with a debate on "Is the Good Corporation Dead?"


...one of the debaters made the point that even if capitalism is good at generating wealth, it is not good at distributing it. That is why I say capitalism without charity is evil. Taken to an extreme when machine intelligence is possible on a human level, capitalism as we now know may leave (most) people behind, while at the same time owning or controlling all the resources, preventing most people from earning a living ("shading them out"). Historically, this has happened many times before -- for example, the enclosure acts driving the English peasantry (initially) into poverty and starvation.


Or, as was the case in Africa or North America, where in both places an indigenous population with ways of life related to the land was displaced to make way for corporate activities (plantations, farms, and ranches).

I hope the situation does not come down to this, and that in the end charity will win out over avarice and a mentally disturbed need for excessive power. But it is by no means certain charity will win out, given the power of technology to amplify both the best and worst in people.

Rod Welch wrote [on November 19, 2000...]:

For example, I am advocating a culture of knowledge, as the big objective to accommodate a new world order of faster information resulting from IT that increasingly overwhelms human span of attention,

Rod, what you are doing is worthwhile, as is what Doug is doing. But the deeper point is simply that dealing with overwhelming complexity due to rapid change is a different issue than meeting basic human needs right now. Both are important, but they are different issues.

The technology and material resources to feed and educate all children (and adults) exists right now. There is enough to go around right now. The reason this does not happen is for political and social reasosn -- not technological. Technology could and will make some of the choices less hard (i.e. when $5 can feed a village forever instead of a few people for a few days) but still the issue is not primarily a technological one.

On the other hand, the "new world order of faster information" issue has more in common with the implications of the rise of machine intelligence and nanotechnology and the arms race. In effect that "new world order" is arising out of a corporate arms race involving infotech.

Rod Welch wrote [on November 19, 2000...]:

I propose a single, breakthrough, solution by enhancing alphabet technology using a continual "intelligence" process that turns information into knowledge, thus the goal to move up a notch on the cognitive scale from IT to KM. You seem to suggest today that bootstrapping, while intending to solve complexity, might, in some respects, be said to compound the problem it seeks to solve.

I am not leveling this criticism directly at "bootstrapping" as the Bootstrap Institute and Doug tries to define it. What I am trying to say is that "bootstrapping" in terms of exponential growth of technology (which enables more technology etc.) is already happening. Bootstrapping is the given. So the issue is, how do we use related exponential growth processes to deal with this? To the extent Doug's techniques are used just to drive the technological innovation process faster, in no specific direction, they are potentially just making things worse. To the extent such techniques are used for specific human ends (example, dealing with world hunger, making medical care more accessible, ensuring children don't grow up in ignorance and poverty, reducing conflicts and arms races) they make things better.

The thing is, in a world where competition (the arms race) has moved from physical weapons to infotech (both corporate and military), simple saying you will speed the arms race is not enough. In my thinking, it is the arms race itself that is the potential enemy of humankind, and the issue is transcending the arms race (whatever grounds it is fought on -- nuclear, biological, infotech).

Rod Welch wrote [on November 19, 2000...]:

I think there is another way to explain bootstrapping that avoids this conflict, but you seem to be arguing against it. Can you clarify?

I don't have a conflict in thinking about an OHS/DKR or working towards one. I accept the possibility that this bootstrap process may end badly for most of humanity. It is a shame, and humanity should try to avoid this looming disaster, and may well, but I have accepted that one can not save everyone.

For over a decade I have wanted to build a library of human knowledge related to sustainable development. I as a small mammal am using the crumbs left over by the dinosaurs to try to do so (not with great success, but a little, like our garden simulator intended to help people learn to grow their own food). I spent a year hanging around Hans Moravec's Mobile Robot Lab at CMU, and I turned my back on self-replicating robotics work -- not because I thought it was sci-fi, but because I saw it was quite feasible, and wanted to do something else that was more likely to ensure human survival (self-replicating habitats, for space, water, and land). I also did not want to speed the process along. Now fifteen years later, this process is effectively unstoppable, so I have fewer qualms about doing a little that might hasten it if the payoff might be some type of refugia for humans.

The way to put it is that "bootstrapping" has linked itself conceptually to an exponential growth process happening right now in our civilization. Almost all explosions entail some level of exponential growth. So, in effect, our civilization is exploding. The meaning of that as regards human survival is unclear, but it is clear people are only slowly coming to take this seriously.

As one example, lots of trends:


Lou Gerstner(IBM's Chairman) was recently quoted as talking about a near term e-commerce future of 10X users, 100X bandwidth, 1000X devices, and 1,000,000X data. Obviously, IBM wants to sell the infrastructure to support that. But I think the bigger picture is lost.

Even for seeing the "trees" of individual quantitative changes, the "forest" that these quantitative changes would have a qualitative change on the business or human landscape is ignored. Or if people see it, it is the "elephant in the living room" no one talks about (well obviously a few like Kurzweil or Moravec or Joy). More of everything yes, but always business as usual.

To be relevant and of goof for humanity, Bootstrapping must address how this quantitative exponential growth will lead to qualitative changes, at what point if any an "S-curve" effect will set in, and how "bootstrapping" as an intellectual concept will do good amidst this setting.

Rod Welch wrote [on November 19, 2000...]:



Thanks for the comments.


-Paul Fernhout
Kurtz-Fernhout Software

Developers of custom software and educational simulations
Creators of the Garden with Insight(TM) garden simulator