Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Clarke's Third Law

Clarke's Third Law is really just a sage observation, and no one knows if it is truly a law, or just seems to work in the domain we're familiar with.  The most common statement of the law is:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
If you've ever seen a good magician perform, then you know it just takes a little technology to achieve the effect of magic: something completely unexpected and even absurd happens right before your eyes.  A good illusion makes you laugh out loud, as your realize how incongruous your perceptions are.  You might well experience a moment of humility when it hits you how well and thoroughly you have been fooled.  If the illusion is especially good, you could well experience deep admiration for the skill and intelligence of the illusionist, and in the worst case, you might ascribe supernatural powers to him or her.

So, it only takes a little advanced technology - the technology to hack the wide-open vulnerabilities of human perception - to create the effects of magic: bewilderment, humility, and even awe.  However, in the case of the magician, we at least know why they are doing it - entertaining us for fun and profit.

Now consider someone with the knowledge and ability to deploy technology far in advance of our own, for whom most of what we consider intractable problems now are fully solved and new problems we're not even aware of yet are also solved.  This would involve mastery of matter, energy and information on scales smaller and larger by orders of magnitude than we currently envision, perhaps even to the point of mastery of spacetime itself.

Such an entity could routinely do things that appear magical to us.  Our available toolbox for forming concepts would be overwhelmed.  We would very likely get completely wrong not only how these things are done, but even what  was being done, and most puzzling of all, why.  No, we should expect something much more humbling and perplexing, and that's without even being aware of most of it.

Does Clarke' law have its limits?  Is it possible we could reach a point where nothing, no matter how advanced would seem like magic to us?  I can imagine that, but am unable to see how we get there.  It would require metacognitive capabilities I don't know how to acquire.  

Or, alternatively, technology has its limits.  Perhaps there literally is no useful way to go past a certain point because of inherent limits in the most fundamental rules of the game (if there is a "most fundamental" level).  And then , the magic would stop.  If you love magic, don't despair, though.  Someone will always find a better illusion.

That's enough from me.  What do you think?

Creative Commons License
Dream of the Open Channel Blog by Paul Carr is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.