Intelligence is not Artificial

Why the Singularity is not Coming any Time Soon And Other Meditations on the Post-Human Condition and the Future of Intelligence

by piero scaruffi
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(These are excerpts from my book "Intelligence is not Artificial")

Corollary: Digital Media Immortality

If you want to turn yourself into data, instead of flesh and bones, and hope that this will make you immortal, you have a small technical problem to solve.

As you well know from your Christmas shopping, the capacity of computer storage media (for the same price) increases rapidly. That's the good news. The bad news is that its longevity has been decreasing, and significantly decreasing if you start from way back in time. The life expectancy of paper and ink is very long in appropriate conditions. The original storage media for computers, punched paper tapes and punch cards, are still readable 70 years later: unfortunately, the machines that can read them don't exist anymore, unless you have access to a computer museum. By comparison, the life expectancy of magnetic media is very, very short. Most people born before 1980 have never seen a magnetic tape except in old sci-fi movies. It was introduced with the first commercial computer, the Eckert-Mauchly's UNIVAC I, in 1951. Today most magnetic tapes store terabytes of data. They last about 20-30 years. Nobody knows how long the multiplatter disks from the mainframes of the 1960s lasted because they got out of fashion before we could test their lifespan. Floppy discs are magnetic disks, the most common type of which had a capacity of 1.44 megabytes or 2 megabytes. The 8" floppy disks of the 1970s and the 5.25" floppy disks of the 1980s are given a life expectancy of 3-5 years by those who never used them, but those like me who still have them know that at least half of them are still working 30 years later. The external "hard disks" that replaced them (and that today can easily hold a terabyte, i.e. a million times more data) may last longer, but they need to spin in order to be read or written, and spinning-disk hard drives don't last long: they are mechanical devices that are likely to break long before the magnetic layer itself deteriorates, especially if you carry them around (in other words, if you use them).

Music was stored on magnetic tapes, and later on cassettes, that would still work today if mass-market magnetic tape players still existed, although they would probably not sound too good, and on vinyl records, that definitely still play today if you didn't scratch them and used appropriate cartridges on your turntable like i did. My cassettes from the 1970s still play ok. Video was stored on VHS tapes, that still play today (i have about 300 of them), but, again, colors and audio may not look/sound so good after years of playing on a VCR (if you can still find a VCR).

Then came the optical generation. Rewritable optical discs are much less reliable for data storage than read-only optical discs that you buy/rent at music or video stores because they are physically made of different materials (the film layer degrades at a faster rate than the dye used in read-only discs). The jury is still out on optical media, but, as far as storing your data goes, the Optical Storage Technology Association (OSTA) estimates a lifespan of 10-25 years for compact discs (CDs), that typically held 650 megabytes (or the equivalent of 700 floppy disks), and digital video discs (DVDs), that typically held 4.7 gigabytes. However, in practice, optical devices are much more likely to get damaged because very few people store their discs in optimal conditions. Just leaving them on a desk unprotected may greatly shorten their lifespans just like anything else that you look at (optical is optical).

Now we live in the age of solid-state media, devices that don't have moving parts and that can store several gigabytes on a very small device, like USB flash drives ("thumb" drives) and secure-digital cards ("flash cards"). They are generally less (not more) reliable than hard drives, and the manufacturers themselves don't expect them to last longer than about eight years.

And that's not to mention the quality of the recording: digital media are digital, not analog. You may not tell the difference because your ears are not as good as the ears of many (supposedly less intelligent) animals, but the digital music on your smartphone is not as accurate a recording as the vinyl record of your parents or the 78 RPM record of your grandparents. A digital recording loses information. The advantage, in theory, is that the medium is less likely to deteriorate as you use it: magnetic tape degrades every time it passes by the magnetic head of a cassette player or a VCR, and the grooves of LPs do not improve when the cartridge of the turntable rides on them. The advantage of the old media, however, is that they "degraded": they didn't simply stop working. Digital files are either perfect or don't work, period. My old VHS tapes lost some of the color and audio fidelity, but i can still watch the movie. Many of my newer DVDs stop in the middle of the movie, and there is no way to continue. (I am also greatly annoyed by the difficulty of rewinding/forwarding a DVD or pinpointing a frame of the movie, something that can easily be done on a VHS tape: this is possibly the first "regress" in history for random access, a feature introduced by the Romans when they switched from the scroll to the codex).

On the other hand, microfilms are estimated to last 500 years: that is a technology that was introduced by John Benjamin Dancer in 1839, and first used on a large scale in 1927 by the Library of Congress of the USA (that microfilmed millions of pages in that year).

You can tell that the plot remains the same: larger and larger storage, but perhaps less and less reliable.
In August 2016 Seagate introduced the world's largest drive in the world (60 terabytes), not a hard disk but a solid-state drive. I couldn't find anything in 2017 that was larger. In 2016 Netflix is managing close to 40 petabytes of data (one petabyte is one thousand terabytes or one million gigabytes or one billion megabytes). Congratulations, but i doubt that any of those data will be readable a generation from now, let alone for eternity.

Note that all of this is very approximate: search for the longevity of free neutrons, and you'll readily find it (14'42"), but if you search for a scientific answer to the question of storage media longevity, you will not find it. That's how advanced the science of storage media is.

Finally, even if your media could potentially last a long time, when is the last time you saw a new computer model with a floppy drive? Even optical drives (CD, DVD) are disappearing as i type these words, and your favorite flash memory may become obsolete before this book goes out of print. And even if you still find a machine with a drive for your old media, good luck finding the operating system that has a file system capable of reading them. And even if you find both the hard drive and the operating system that can read them, good luck finding a copy of the software application that can read the data on them (e.g., GEM was the popular slide presentation software in the heydays of floppy discs). This is a field in which "accelerating progress" (in physical media, operating systems and viewing applications) has been consistently hurting data longevity, not extending it.

Yes, i know: the "cloud" will solve all these problems. And create bigger ones. In 2019 MySpace lost all the music uploaded during its first 12 years: 50 million songs from 14 million artists. It blamed it not on an apocalyptic natural disaster (not an asteroid, not an earthquake, not even a fire) but on a simple server migration. All those data stored in the MySpace "cloud" didn't even last 12 years. By comparison, The Nag Hammadi library, a collection of early Christian texts, was discovered near the Upper Egyptian town of Nag Hammadi in 1945: written on papyrus and buried in a clay jar, it had survived 1,600 years. In the past, nobody had the ability to destroy all the libraries of the world. But now we can see the day when all the knowledge of the world will be vulnerable to a hacker who creates a virus capable, in a few minutes, of infecting all the files stored in the cloud.

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