I’ve occasionally wondered what a man like Benjamin Franklin would make of the United States today. How would he react it if he were somehow able to visit us?
The old television series Bewitched popped into the 1960s thanks to a bumbling Aunt Clara. He marveled over televisions and automobiles in the few hours he was there, but seemed to adapt readily enough.
Would the reality—if such could become real—match that fiction?
In the middle of the twentieth century, John von Neumann and Stanislav Ulam first described what is called “the technological singularity” or simply “the singularity.” They, along with later authors such as Verne Vinge and Ray Kruzweil argued that once artificially intelligent machines are created, their intelligence will grow exponentially, wildly surpass human capabilities, and usher in massive technological changes. The use of the term “singularity” to describe that future moment (predicted by Kurzweil and others to occur sometime between 2030 and 2045) is derived from physics and astronomy. A black hole is a post-supernova that has collapsed to a microscopic point of infinite mass called a singularity, from which nothing, not even light, can escape. It is a place where the laws of physics break down. It is radical break from the normal universe and incomprehensible to us.
Likewise, the advent of artificial intelligence is considered to be such a radical break from what has gone before that it will be incomprehensible to us.
Alvin Toffler wrote a best seller back in 1970 called “Future Shock.” He paralleled it with the concept of “culture shock”: the experience an individual has visiting a foreign country, where the familiar cues have shifted in unexpected ways. One summer while I was in college, I traveled oversees with a group of students. One of my fellow travelers couldn’t understand why the Swiss refused to take his money. He became angry that they insisted he exchange his dollars for Swiss Franks. Alvin Toffler argued that all of us were like my companion: but instead of visiting a foreign land, we were traveling into the future, a strange place from which we could never return, where everything we had grown accustomed was going to change—and the rate of change would only accelerate.
The singularity is not just in our future, however. We’re living in it now, for someone like Benjamin Franklin. Little of his world or experiences still exists.
He came from a place where people traveled on foot or horseback. Crossing an ocean was a perilous voyage on a wooden ship driven by wind. Nights were dark, with the gloom mollified barely by candles and oil lamps. The world was quiet, lacking the hums, droning televisions, and mechanical noises we hardly notice. Africans were slaves and women were second-class citizens with limited rights. Although he opposed slavery and found it morally reprehensible, he’d be startled that in the modern United States African Americans have the same rights as white men. To discover that the President of the United States was black and that there were several female senators would be mind-boggling.
The obvious technological changes would confuse and puzzle him. He’d be overwhelmed by everything from televisions to radios, electric lights to automobiles. Airplanes, rockets, satellites, people in orbit and robotic rovers on Mars would be the stuff of wild fantasy. Just the concept of robots, let alone that they were rolling about on another planet would shock him. The advances in our understanding of physics, astronomy, biology, medical science: it would all tax his comprehension. Perhaps one of the greatest wonders, from his perspective, would be to hear that not only had we conquered small pox—a dangerous and widespread illness in his day—we had eradicated it and it simply no longer existed.
He would not know how to cook a meal in a modern kitchen; freezers and refrigerators would be puzzling. Indoor toilets, hot and cold running water, central heating and air conditioning: beyond wonderful. The ease of daily bathing, deodorants, toothpaste, comfortable clothing and shoes—all new. Just the sort of clothes women wear on a warm summer day would shock and delight him.
Communication technology, the internet, online shopping, shopping centers, grocery stores: all beyond anything he could have ever imagined or believed possible. The sheer wealth of even the poorest of our citizens would amaze him.
That the United States had not only endured but prospered and retained its freedoms would startle him. The place of the United States in the world would be mind boggling: both its economic power—and the simple fact that all the armies, navies and air forces in all the world combined are smaller than ours and lack the capability of invading, let alone conquering us.
Franklin would be amazed, too, at just how peaceful our world is: crime in our cities is far lower than what he would have been familiar with (the crime rate in Los Angeles declined again last year—for the eleventh year in a row). War is rare. In fact, we live at the most peaceful time in world history, ever. Sixty-one percent of the world’s nations are relatively free, electoral democracies (118 out of 195 nations—up from only 69 in 1989 and maybe two in Franklin’s day). We also live in the most prosperous, best educated, most well-fed time in history, ever.
Benjamin Franklin would see the modern United States as a bountiful paradise. He would perhaps be most shocked that so many just don’t realize it.