One point struck me, reading Anthony’s fascinating account of his meeting with Bill McKibben. Bill, whose primary expertise is writing, appears to have an almost magical view of what computers can do.
Computers are amazing, remarkable, incredibly useful, but they are not magic. As an IT expert with over 25 years commercial experience, someone who has spent a significant part of almost every day of my life, since my mid teens, working on computer software, I’m going to share some of my insights into this most remarkable device – and I’m going to explain why my experience of computers makes me skeptical, of claims about the accuracy and efficacy of climate modelling.
First and foremost, computer models are deeply influenced by the assumptions of the software developer. Creating software is an artistic experience, it feels like embedding a piece of yourself into a machine. Your thoughts, your ideas, amplified by the power of a machine which is built to serve your needs – its a eerie sensation, feeling your intellectual reach unfold and expand with the help of a machine.
But this act of creation is also a restriction – it is very difficult to create software which produces a completely unexpected result. More than anything, software is a mirror of the creator’s opinions. It might help you to fill in a few details, but unless you deliberately and very skilfully set out to create a machine which can genuinely innovate, computers rarely produce surprises. They do what you tell them to do.
So when I see scientists or politicians claiming that their argument is valid because of the output of a computer model they created, it makes me cringe. To my expert ears, all they are saying is they embedded their opinion in a machine and it produced the answer they wanted it to produce. They might as well say they wrote their opinion into a MS Word document, and printed it – here is the proof see, its printed on a piece of paper…
My second thought, is that it is very easy to be captured by the illusion, that a reflection of yourself means something more than it does.
If people don’t understand the limitations of computers, if they don’t understand that what they are really seeing is a reflection of themselves, they can develop an inflated sense of the value the computer is adding to their efforts. I have seen this happen more than once in a corporate setting. The computer almost never disagrees with the researchers who create the software, or who commission someone else to write the software to the researcher’s specifications. If you always receive positive reinforcement for your views, its like being flattered – its very, very tempting to mistake flattery for genuine support. This is, in part, what I think has happened to climate researchers who rely on computers. The computers almost always tell them they are right – because they told the computers what to say. But its easy to forget, that all that positive reinforcement is just a reflection of their own opinions.
Bill McKibben is receiving assurances from people who are utterly confident that their theories are correct – but if my theory as to what has gone wrong is correct, the people delivering the assurances have been deceived by the ultimate echo chamber. Their computer simulations hardly ever deviate from their preconceived conclusions – because the output of their simulations is simply a reflection of their preconceived opinions.
One day, maybe one day soon, computers will supersede the boundaries we impose. Researchers like Kenneth Stanley, like Alex Wissner-Gross, are investing their significant intellectual efforts into finding ways to defeat the limitations software developers impose on their creations.
They will succeed. Even after 50 years, computer hardware capabilities are growing exponentially, doubling every 18 months, unlocking a geometric rise in computational power, power to conduct ever more ambitious attempts to create genuine artificial intelligence. The technological singularity – a prediction that computers will soon exceed human intelligence, and transform society in ways which are utterly beyond our current ability to comprehend – may only be a few decades away. In the coming years, we shall be dazzled with a series of ever more impressive technological marvels. Problems which seem insurmountable today – extending human longevity, creating robots which can perform ordinary household tasks, curing currently incurable diseases, maybe even creating a reliable climate model, will in the next few decades start to fall like skittles before the increasingly awesome computational power, and software development skills at our disposal.
But that day, that age of marvels, the age in which computers stop just being machines, and become our friends and partners, maybe even become part of us, through neural implants – perfect memory, instant command of any foreign language, immediately recall the name of anyone you talk to – that day has not yet dawned. For now, computers are just machines, they do what we tell them to do – nothing more. This is why I am deeply skeptical, about claims that computer models created by people who already think they know the answer, who have strong preconceptions about the outcome they want to see, can accurately model the climate.