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?

3 thoughts on “Our Silicon Society

  1. I think people are scared by the lack of control. That’s why air travel is the most feared mode of transport, in spite of being the safest, statistically. It seems that increased automation has increased productivity, but I’m not sure it has increased freedom. It would seem a logical conclusion, if you think x workers used to produce y goods, but now x workers produce y + n goods, so therefore, more freedom. But it also seems that office workers, for example are busier than ever, even though there is a lot of work done without the office workers that it used to take. Blue collar labor has lost jobs to automation, but that hasn’t made the remaining workers have less to do. I guess from a society-wide perspective, one could say that increased production on a per worker basis is measured in increased freedom, but it seems to be freedom to perform other tasks. That’s probably a fallacy of how we define “freedom.” We think it means more time to pursue our own interests, but, again, I’m not sure that is the case.


  2. Also, there are some very interesting things happening right now in our rush to turn over our lives to automation. An Uber self-driving car just killed someone. There is no chance that the car did not sense the person, however, it did not recognize it as a person. That suggests that the software still has a long way to go. Facebook is a multibillion dollar company founded on the premise that complex algorithms would take the place of humans so as to mine data for advertising targets, and provide “news” for consumption based on the interests of its users. But we have lately been made aware of the potential to do harm, and as a result, FB is hiring legions of humans to do things like scan stories to make sure they are not fake news.


  3. If you can flowchart it a computer can do it better. But lots of things in this world can’t be flowcharted!

    The capitalists need everyone consuming, burning energy, and squandering resources. Otherwise the economy can’t grow and people can’t accumulate wealth. Eventually the machines will do the wealth-producing. People will have to figure out their new role once they are “thrown out or work” doing stuff robots can do better. It could be a dystopia, with hordes of peasant unemployed. Or we could toss off the shackles of the Puritan work ethic and create new kinds of “value” by being free of some of the drudgery and corporate slavery so that we can invent new kinds of life-fulfilling and society-enhancing “work.” I suppose the reality will be somewhere in between those extremes.

    I believe a silicon brain is a very different one than a carbon brain, that they are complementary, one improves on the other and vice versa. It’s a primitive time right now, we’ve a long way to go before AI is sophisticated enough, but I can certainly imagine a kind of super-organism. Individual humans are nodes in a hive mind, and our machines enable increased the linkages between the nodes. I expect some day that out of this “critical mass” of minds, silicon and carbon, new properties will emerge, perhaps new entities.


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