Vulnerable new world
The technological evolution has not only caught up with the biological but, unfortunately, spiralled out of control
Prof. Mihail Konstantinov
19 May, 2017
In 1932 the famous novel Brave New World by English author Aldous Huxley (1894-1963) was published, preceding another dystopian and equally celebrated work by yet another Englishman – 1984 by Eric Blair, better known as George Orwell. The story is set in the 26th century when society is shaped by artificial reproduction, eugenics and hypnopedia. Replace these three terms with assisted reproductive treatment, genetics and social media, and you get quite an accurate description of the world today, in the beginning of the 21st century, not the abstract 26th century.
In Huxley’s world, war and diseases have been eliminated and everyone is happy. Well, freedom is in short supply, but otherwise all inhabitants of planet Earth are living the blissful life of mindless chickens. It is easy to see why back in the day the communists disliked this novel to the point of not even mentioning it. They are not fans of it now either, at least those who have read it.
For the representatives of the so-called golden billion, the affluent in Europe, North America and some parts of Asia, these are the halcyon days. Granted, there are some fears and concerns, bombs explode here and there and planes are taken down, the wrong politicians become US presidents and Europe seems to be disintegrating but Merkel is still standing, Emmanuel Macron is cool and, all in all, everyone is dressed in white, happy as carefree chickens.
However, the so-called brave new world described above has some negatives. Serious damage was done by a virus called WannaCry, devised by the US, unleashed by the secretive North Korea, analysed by a Jewish laboratory in Russia and allegedly blocked by an Asian computer guru whose life is already at risk. Tens of millions of computers in 150 countries were affected, files were encrypted and blocked from view and a ransom of $300 per computer was demanded (in Bitcoins for the hackers’ convenience) for the files to be unblocked. Some paid and moved on, others paid and were taken for a ride. In the camp of those who refused to yield, some found their own way out and others just got rid of their computers.
Of course, now we have flash drives that are supposedly invincible. Well, soon we will have nothing left to read the old storage devices with but it does create new opportunities for digitalisation. As one user said recently, thank God that things did not go further than encrypted files in the English hospitals in the recent NHS hack. They could have easily replaced them and killed thousands of patients with one simple change of the blood type, for example. There is even talk of a potential hack on cloud services, normally touted as super convenient and secure. Naturally, both attributes are questionable but it would not be politically correct to point this out.
This was a horrifying episode for patients across England. And yet it would pale in comparison to the consequences that would ensue if a virus like Stuxnet infects the active security system of a progressive western nuclear reactor of a new generation. Because if the security system is passive, as in the case of the not-so-progressive Russian reactors, the control rods will pull back and the turbine will eventually stop spinning. But if the security system is active and ran by computers, as with the Stuxnet malicious software, the turbine will accelerate until it ruptures the first circle (oh, the metaphor with Dante's Inferno or Solzhenitsyn's novel). Then, several thousand tonnes of highly radioactive water 500 degrees in temperature will explode into the air under the force of 300 atmospheres of pressure and come back down to earth. Think of it, there are about 500 nuclear reactors out there. I mentioned Stuxnet because several years ago it sabotaged the Iranian centrifuges for uranium enrichment made by Siemens. Naturally, the Iranians suspected interference by Israel and vowed to send an improved version of the virus to some of the nuclear reactors across the globe in the event of another attack.
Regrettably, real problems like the above-mentioned are not recognised by the chickens existing in blissful ignorance. For some people the issue of alleged Russian manipulation of their national elections seems to be the biggest problem.
To assuage concerns, computer users around the world were strongly advised to install the latest versions and protections offered by Microsoft. The thought that it was these versions and protections that were in the root of the problem dawned on very few people (and those lacked the platform to speak out).
In short, the global computer network has reached a level of complexity and vulnerability comparable to this of the human brain. Whether this network will spontaneously display some form of consciousness is an altogether different matter. In other words, the technological evolution has caught up with the biological one. Of course, the former is a direct consequence of the latter but it is already out of control. Now we wait to see which will prove more deadly – a virus of the Ebola type or one that would make PC owners around the world want to cry. In addition to a material crash, the collapse of computer and communications systems will lead to a terminal psychological collapse of the new biological species – the people addicted to their keyboards. One hour without Facebook or Twitter is bound to push the chickens to mass suicide.
Do people realise how fragile is the brave new world that we have gradually built? Maybe it is time for another, no less important project – the de-digitalisation of the information accumulated by humanity. Digital databases and the devices to access them are vulnerable. A powerful solar wind (one such was registered in the 19th century), an eruption of a supervolcano, DIY-style radio-electronic warfare, or even a distant passing of a meteor or a comet can block digital devices around the world for any length of time. I am talking about a far-away trajectory because a close one would simply incinerate us and end the information problem. The result of the above-mentioned factors would be a return to the Stone Age for the few survivors. Perhaps it would be prudent of us to give them a greater chance than our ancestors had, miraculously surviving as they did through several glacial periods and the only about a hundred centuries of civilisation. And remember, technology has been here for only 300 years, while computers for the past 70.
We could give them a chance by documenting fundamental human knowledge onto durable stuff like ceramic plates (the Babylonian are some 5,000 years old and can endure temperatures of 3,000 degrees Celsius) or sheets of high-alloy steel. What we should write down and in what language is a separate subject. But it should be basic knowledge – how to sow wheat, what Pythagoras' theorem states (which is actually Babylonian), what shape the Earth is. I have no idea how to finish this piece – perhaps with an appeal for humility or a bit of sense. It might be the same at this point.