Artificial intelligence is enjoying an overdue appreciation these days. All of the major elements have been there for at least ten years if not longer–compute power to collect source information and to process it, and connectivity to share that source and results. The fact that storage ability and cost have only recently caught up are more of a convenience for one particular and obvious application of AI than some critical component as I see it. Approaches we categorize as AI have been far greater in reach and application than the bulk of us beyond those who’ve dedicated their careers to it have appreciated, and for some time. Such is the social side of computing though.
AI isn’t the only field of computing that’s enjoying a resurgence. The advent of affordable, high quality displays sparking new (and old) discoveries in virtual reality is a similar story. While all of the ingredients have been there to do what we’re doing now in VR for over twenty years (in this case in a practically prepackaged form even), some key ingredients doubling as mental aids in discovery of the obvious have appeared to provide enough fuel for the required momentum. The concept of the mainframe has endured a rebranding as all things currently ‘cloud’, and that’s a similar story–advances in handheld devices (similarly driven by display technology) and connectivity seem to have encouraged the existence of “cloud storage” and “cloud computing”. They’ve even inspired a new-found appreciation for virtualization–yet another technology that’s been around for years.
What’s maybe the most interesting result of the popularity of AI is the idea that we’re living in a simulation. While VR, quantum computing, and likely other subfields probably helped play a role here, today’s applications of concepts from AI might be the biggest social influence. Enough people have seemed to envision how much possibility there is in what we call AI that the mental leap from ‘fake people’ to ‘fake world’ is now small enough to be entertained. Of course we could have gotten there much sooner, all of the mental aids have been there for years. Then again maybe the speed of tech is making the speed of social thinking seem slower than it would otherwise.
The almost comical discovery of previously developed approaches in computing is a recurring challenge–at least socially–for the field. We don’t seem to be very good at identifying the current roadblocks to application of certain approaches, because if we did we’d be saying more things like “this is a great approach, and in a few years when required technology X catches up to its needs we’ll be able to tap into much more of its potential”.
That’s not the only recurring challenge, and I don’t think it’s even the most significant. That prize goes to another. While we tend not to truly appreciate the application of approaches when the needed resources aren’t quite there yet, when they are we almost always suffer from ‘end-all, be-all’ thinking, and in my mind that has been the single largest barrier to advancement of the field. Any sizable leap in computing where we can immediately realize the potential is usually met with sentiment like “this is the greatest thing since sliced bread”. We tend to greatly over-apply it to problems across computing.
I remember a lot of discussions with peers at the advent of XML where I’d stress that it’s only a loose common structured means for human expression of data, nothing else has changed…good persistent data structure organization has been around for a long time. The sour-faced responses would make me doubt my take on it, but to drive home the danger of over-applying XML I’d usually bring up the old concept that discovering errors as early as possible in development (for ex. statically in code via compute assistance, not data) implies a cost of XML-ifying things that should make us step back and think. I’d say “look at the extreme, us building an app that reads and executes XML logic…would you want to maintain and extend something like that for all of your processing needs?” And still, I’d get the usual negative responses, and I’d yet again attribute them not as much to my suggested lack of intelligence (a suggestion I’ve always agreed with on the whole by the way) as to the black-and-white thinking disease that seems to plague engineering as a whole. I might have been on to something, because the more I think about the popularity of concepts like living in a simulated world, the more I wonder if this black/white mental disease really is just confined to those of us that gravitate towards engineering.
What’s interesting here though, and it’s why I mentioned all of this dry crap that probably no one cares about, is the similarity in thinking across society as a whole as it relates to the concept that we might be living in a simulation. As someone with some experience in that arena, I’m here to say that the seemingly profound nature of this concept might say more about us than the concept or even its implications. The basics of the idea have been around for a long time in forms ranging from religion to philosophy to certain movies to ‘ancient aliens’. The only thing that’s changed is that tech has advanced enough beyond very real ability to something inducing a mental spark in enough minds. It’s now newly-fueled by the “unlikely outcomes” of the last few months too, and now you can’t get away from this gargantuan “what if”. And for anyone with spirituality, the idea might even garner a “uhh yeah, God, hello?”. What it yields from me is a shrug and a smile. It’s as interesting a question now as it’s always been to me. The possibilities don’t really change anything for me. It says a lot more to me about our lack of desire to see the current self-imposed limits of our notion of “reality”, what we think we know, and what we let happen to us when we finally grow beyond those bounds.
As potential simulations themselves, Copernicus and Galileo might be proud that we’ve dodged a people-centric view here by this much entertaining of the idea that we’re an experiment, but they might have that same sour face I know so well when it comes to us labeling yet another new center of the universe for the next few months…or whatever our attention span has reduced to these days. I think they like us more when we reject black-and-white thinking and other forms of limited thinking. At least I do.