Author Walter Hehl on The Ominous Acceleration of Knowledge


Is computer technology the modern Copernicus?
No longer able to grasp the technology we have created

by Lilli-Marie Pavka, IBM

Modern humankind is surrounded by systems and developments that are becoming ever more complex and humanly unconceivable, and this is happening at an uncannily accelerated pace. Collectively, humankind has supported and is willing to continue this trend, but as individuals, many people are left feeling clueless concerning how to distinguish sound scientific theories from the incredible amount of pure nonsense that has emerged throughout human history.

In his new book discussed below, retired IBM physicist and engineer Walter Hehl has taken an in-depth look at disconcerting trends in IT, how they have affected humankind, and how they will continue to do so.

Author/former IBMer Walter Hehl
Author Walter Hehl, Greater IBMer

What was your motivation to write this book?

After 34 years in R&D, I wanted to reflect on IT trends and how they have affected and will continue to affect our lives. I wanted to take a somewhat philosophical view of these issues. My book The Ominous Acceleration of Knowledge,[1] examines the incredible acceleration of our body of knowledge. Humankind has developed ultralarge systems that exceed human understanding, and I wanted to analyze what exactly that means. For example, although computers have been created and designed by humans, computers now possess nearly all our intellectual properties—but they execute them a million times better. That’s what fascinates me.

In a nutshell, what is your book about?

It’s about the fact that we have surrounded ourselves with superhuman systems that are far, far more intelligent than we are. We are increasingly dependent on computers to calculate things that greatly exceed our knowledge or understanding. Simply put, the main point of this book is “to understand human understanding”. It examines the concepts of emergence, chance, complexity, exponential growth and ultralarge systems that are bringing about fundamentally new knowledge and achievements.

My book is basically an analysis of two main superhuman systems that we humans have created: science, especially mathematics, and technology, especially IT. Both of these systems are driven by an incorruptible process:  In science, it’s the experimental process, and in technology, it’s whether a technology functions.

Your book proposes a grading model from 3 to –3 to classify the scientific soundness of facts and theories, ranging from a high degree of scientific soundness, to common beliefs that are untrue but harmless, to pure nonsense. What is your intention with this model?

My hope is that this grading model could become a standard tool to classify the scientific soundness of our human belief system.

Grading Model:

Grade Label Features Examples
3 basic science measured to a high degree of accuracy, verified, integrated in conventional system relativity theory,
many physical constants
2 scientifically established measured (perhaps to a lesser degree of accuracy), integrated in conventional system distance of planets and fixed stars,
evolution and genetics,
some botanical drugs,
continental shift (today)
1 transiently scientific new theory or hypothesis within the conventional scientific system, but not yet successfully integrated life on other planets,
extension of longevity,
some botanical drugs,
“Pulsar is a rotating neutron star” (~1970)
0 neutral not contradictory,
no proof to the contrary,
not obviously nonsense
some botanical drugs,
visitors from other planets,
cold fusion (1989),
continental shift (in 1915)
volcanic source of moon craters (~1920)
–1 outside of science no proof,
no hard refutation but outside of established science
therapeutic stones,
laying of cards,
haunted houses,
“My Friend Harvey”
–2 counter-scientific no proof, but in direct contradiction to established science—but a proof would win a Nobel prize! time machines
“true” homeopathy
–3 proved wrong wrongness generally accepted hollow world theory,
Venus a tropical paradise,
prophecies based on observation of animal intestines, esp. the liver (hepatoscopy)

Your name has been mentioned in one breath with Ray Kurzweil and other futurologists. How do you feel about that?

I have had quite a bit of correspondence with Ray Kurzweil and I respect his work. He is an extreme optimist, and his predictions and extrapolations extend up to 50 in the future.  He’s a very courageous individual. I, on the other hand, am not so interested in making predictions. My work focuses more on describing the state of our current situation as well as the background that fostered the drastic changes that led up to this and that continue to take place.

So you won’t venture any future predictions?

No, that would enter the realm of science fiction, and that’s not really my thing. Having said that, however, it’s completely clear that drastic changes are to be expected in the next 10–20 years.  Just think of service robots, for example, or advances in medicine/biology, gene technology, the simulation of brain connectivity—all these issues are on the brink of becoming reality, and that has nothing to do with futurology. Futurologists generally predict changes of a more sociological nature.

How do you think that our relationship with computers will change?

Science has always posed a fundamental challenge to human society. Copernicus was the first to displace humans from the center of the universe, and the computer is currently in the process of delegating humankind to an even more remote edge of the universe. All our human abilities are increasingly migrating into computer technology, and this is a major paradigm change that I refer to as “copernification”.

It’s clear that our relationship with computers has changed and will continue to change human society to a much greater extent than many people believe—and we’re just at the beginning. This process is now accelerating at a pace that we can no longer humanly grasp, and this is what I mean by “the ominous acceleration of knowledge”. Just think—20 years ago, people said a computer would never steer a car. Now prototypes of an automated parking system have been introduced. Or take flying an aircraft: when it becomes difficult, a computer takes over. These are examples of copernification. We are being replaced by the computers we have built simply because they can do (or will do) everything so much better than we can.

So there’s no difference between humans and computers? What about consciousness?

Consciousness is but our real-time program. In reality, in a purely technical context, humans are in fact computers. Our brains are wired with billions of electronic neural connections. The brain is actually nothing but a dirty computer, but it works, and that’s the amazing thing. Many people don’t want to accept that. People want to think that our brains are completely different from computers, but they’re not. It’s just a different architecture.

[1] Die unheimliche Beschleunigung des Wissens: Warum wir nichts verstehen und trotzdem Grosses schaffen, Walter Hehl, Vdf Hochschulverlag, ISBN-13: 978-3728134554.


3 thoughts on “Author Walter Hehl on The Ominous Acceleration of Knowledge

  1. I find it strange how this article gives a model for grading scientific belief and then closes with the creator of this model stating a level 1 idea as if it is indisputable (the brain is only a computer). I guess this shows how ingrained the problem is.

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