Our Silicon Society

. . . you don’t need no silicone / to calculate poverty / there’s no need to brotha / everybody can see / cuz it’s one more time in the ghetto / one more time if you please . . .

–The Clash, “One More Time”

I’m going to give Joe Strummer and his mates a pass here, poetic license and all, but I’m sure they meant silicon and not silicone. After all, one uses silicon in computer chips, not silicone. It’s a common mistake. Silicones are polysiloxanes, synthetic polymers made (primarily) from the elements silicon and oxygen. We are familiar with them from caulks, sealants, lubricants, and a variety of heat-resistant materials. And of course as a filling material in breast implants.

Silicon is an element, not a compound. It is not found in nature in its elemental form, however. The earth’s crust is composed primarily of silica (silicon dioxide or quartz) and silicate minerals (like olivine, pyroxene, amphibole, mica, etc.). The stuff is everywhere. And we use these materials to make other materials like concrete. So not only did nature surround us with silicon-based substances, we’ve surrounded ourselves with our own versions of the stuff.

The pure form of silicon needed for electronic devices is energy-intensive. It takes a lot of heat to free elemental silicon from its oxide. Most of the industrially-produced silicon goes into ferrosilicons which are used in steelmaking. A small fraction goes into integrated circuits. But that’s the use that gets names changed: Santa Clara Valley in California is now called Silicon Valley due to all the technology and computer firms there.

Immersed as we are in silicon, it was only natural that our silicon-based creations would come to be a part of us. Soon we will encounter silicon-based entities that will pass the Turing Test and fool us into thinking they are intelligent. We are a long way from that despite Siri, Alexa, Deep Blue, and self-driving cars. But perhaps not as far as we think. After all, the Turing Test is about the appearance of intelligence. The machine just has to fool humans into thinking they are interacting with a human. It does not have to be as smart as a human. Already we know that computers are smarter than us for many, many tasks. We like to believe that we will always retain human abilities that no machine could emulate. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I don’t think it matters.

A silicon intelligence would be its own thing. It won’t just exist to mimic or think like humans. It will have its own schemes for learning and generating knowledge. The human mind isn’t the only kind of mind. The human mind may be responsible for creating artificial intelligence, but that does not mean it will be created entirely in its own image. An AI should be an AI for its own sake. And we don’t know yet what our machines are capable of.

I think we’ll get used to AIs handling things that seem off-limits now, like medical diagnostics. I can even imagine the therapeutic use of AI in psychology and psychiatry for example, since a machine could be entirely without bias or preconceived notions. It could be entirely without empathy, too, but because it is tireless and infinitely tolerant it might not matter. After all it is the patient that needs to talk, not the therapist! People talk to their pets, to their gods, and to their dead relatives. Is it so hard to imagine they’d talk to an on-line doc?

AIs will ultimately have to govern our traffic. Not just cars on the highway but ships and planes and satellites and everything. There’s a lot now, there will be more later. It will get too complex for un-enhanced humans and it will be better if we turn it over to devices more capable than ourselves. I don’t think this is something we will have to fear. Certainly once an intelligent technology emerges it will start to create its successors. It will design and fabricate newer and more improved versions of itself. That will free humans from that task.

This freedom, I think, is what scares us. What will we do with ourselves if the machines run everything? I don’t know, but I think we ought to find out. I expect we will start to learn a lot by having these silicon-based entities around. We will be interacting with things that are close enough to being alive that we’ll no longer notice the difference. At some point we’ll have to give in and say that they are alive. There are folks out there that believe the earth is alive, like a gigantic organism. Certainly the biosphere—that veneer of air and water and soil that most things live in—is a living system, with energy and material inputs and outputs. The foundation of that biosphere is crustal rock, that is, silicon-based.

Our silicon creations like phones and computers and televisions have already taught us many things. Or at least enabled us to learn some important lessons about ourselves. I was a boy when the famous blue marble picture of the earth was beamed back from Apollo. The whole notion of “spaceship earth” is an artifact of our ability to finally see ourselves from the outside. Once you see that we are all on this lonely planet in the middle of goddamn nowhere you realize the tenuousness of our biological existence. Now maybe we have some higher-plane existence outside of our biology, lots of people think so, but this one right now in the flesh-and-blood is what matters to me.

We’ve seen our silicon brethren in action on Mars, where the rovers have shown us the landscape and investigated its properties. We can’t inhabit that place until an army of silicon warriors gets there first and preps it for us. This is true for flesh-and-blood types in any extreme environment, like the ocean floor. Fear not, carbon-based life forms. Silicon is entirely natural! Isn’t that good?

Fire and Brimstone

Sulfur is one of a handful of elements that can be found in its native state, like silver, gold, and copper. The ancients knew about brimstone because they didn’t have to extract it—they could literally pick it up off the ground. With the emergence of industrial civilization the demand for sulfur and its products became so great that sulfide minerals became a more important source of sulfur. And since sulfides are the source of metals like iron, lead, and the aforementioned copper, extracting those materials produced sulfur as a by-product. Sulfuric acid, which is produced from sulfur, is among the most widely used of all industrial chemicals, something close to 200 million metric tons are produced annually worldwide. Most of it is used to make fertilizer from phosphate rock which means your food supply depends on sulfur.

In the old days people used fire for everything. They heated their homes, boiled water, and cooked food with fire. They also used fire for manufacturing processes such as smelting ores to obtain needed metals. Today we have electricity for that stuff, but we still get most of our electricity from fire. When we learned to burn coal and other fossil fuels in great quantities in order to generate electricity we moved our fires out of our homes and shops. Now we have special fireplaces (“power plants”) that burn better fuels than wood and burn them more efficiently. It was discovered early on that burning oil and gas created a great deal of pollution. Coal fires, in particular, are very messy. Soon people figured out that among the major pollutants were oxides of sulfur, and it was discovered that those chemicals could be recovered from the gases released by these fires.

Now all modern fire-making places scrub the sulfur from the exhaust. This is now the main source of our sulfur! We burn a hell of lot of fossil fuels and most of them contain significant sulfur and so we have a new, steady supply. What we used to think was a waste stream is now a resource.

That’s the lesson for me. There is no such thing as waste. We live in a material society that creates a lot a stuff. And we throw a lot of that stuff away. The steel, aluminum, and glass industries do a lot of recycling for example, so there’s proof that we can do a better job with our “one-and-done” system. But most things we make we use for a while and then we toss them. Our market economy requires new goods to be continually made and purchased so there is a lot of incentive to dump the old things.

In fact if we don’t keep buying our economy will collapse. Capitalism has to grow. A steady-state is the same thing as a death spiral. So we will continue to burn our great fires and dig up our minerals and build our things so that we can keep selling them and keep buying them. That way we can all see our wealth grow and we can continue to have faith in our economy so that we will borrow and spend and pay back our loans so that we can borrow and spend some more. All those who borrowed money expect to keep earning and all those who loaned money expect to be paid back. And so it goes.

All resources are ultimately finite. We won’t run out any time soon, even with billions of us demanding more everyday. We will however find it harder to get the stuff we need. And it will get more expensive. So we have to do better with what we have. We can’t just suck oil out of the ground and make plastic doohickeys and get rich selling them and then just let them float out in the middle of the Pacific. That plastic is enormously-resource intensive. We can’t allow that energy to be wasted. All things we make must have an end-of-life plan.

The only way we can do that is to re-work this notion of waste. There isn’t anything that is actually waste. Given enough time everything will return to its atomic constituents and get re-shaped by nature into something else. Right now we are counting on nature to take care of our messes for us. But that’s not going to work anymore. We have to see a barrel of oil not as a one-way arrow but as a circle. When we burn oil to make electricity and we recover the sulfur from the fumes that’s thinking like a circle. And that’s just a tiny little thing, imagine what we could do if we really tried.

I once had a nuclear engineer tell me he thought sealing up and burying nuclear waste was a mistake. He viewed the material by-products from the reactors as potential resources and wanted them stored in such a way that we could “get the stuff back when we need it.” I tell you I liked the way that guy thought! Maybe radioactivity makes you squeamish, it does a lot of folks, but if we are going to use it we need that kind of outlook.

God rains fire and brimstone down upon the unfaithful. Throughout the Bible those two things serve a symbol of god’s wrath. Sodom and Gomorrah got the fire and brimstone treatment, for example. These days we harness our fire and brimstone but that doesn’t mean they won’t come back and bite us in the ass. I don’t worry about god’s wrath, I worry we won’t catch on quick enough about this waste stuff. Because we’ll pay just as heavy a price as the S & G crowd did, just not as quickly. Their trip to oblivion was instantaneous, ours will be slow enough that we might not notice.