In The Quickest Revolution, Jacopo Pantaleoni examines modern technological progress and the history of computing. Bringing to bear his background as a visualisation software designer and a philosophical lens, Pantaleoni illuminates the threats that technological advancements like AI, the Metaverse, and Deepfakes pose to society, writes Hermano Luz Rodrigues.
The Quickest Revolution: An Insider’s Guide to Sweeping Technological Change, and Its Largest Threats. Jacopo Pantaleoni. Mimesis International. 2023.
“This changes everything” is perhaps the most hackneyed phrase found in YouTube videos when the topic happens to be new technologies. Such videos typically feature enthusiastic presenters describing the marvellous potentials of a soon-to-come technology, and a comment section that shares the same optimism. These videos proliferate daily, receiving hundreds of thousands of views. Regardless of whether we take them at face value or with extreme scepticism, their abundance illustrates the craze for technological progress, and more importantly, that a critical view of this attention is wanting.
Pantaleoni uses theories such as Moore’s Law, which explains an exponential growth phenomenon, and inputs from his career and personal experiences, to frame the history of, and the philosophical ideas driving, technological change.
In The Quickest Revolution, Jacopo Pantaleoni aims to fill this gap by supplying the reader with a critical, yet personal, analysis of modern technological progress and its impact on society. Coming from a background in computer science and visualisation software development, Pantaleoni uses theories such as Moore’s Law, which explains an exponential growth phenomenon, and inputs from his career and personal experiences, to frame the history of, and the philosophical ideas driving, technological change.
The first few chapters of the book are devoted to a survey of the defining moments of pre-modern scientific advancements in the Western world. The chapters include breakthroughs from historical figures such as Copernicus, Galileo and Bacon. The author then fast-forwards to the 20th century to briefly introduce the achievements of the godfathers of computer science like Alan Turing. The descriptions of these events foreshadow the book’s main focus on contemporary technological development and its concerns. In the latter, Pantaleoni approaches many tech-related keywords trending today from a philosophical perspective: AI, Metaverse, Deepfakes, and Simulation, among others.
what distinguishes Pantaleoni’s approach is the fact that he analyses these themes with a gaze that stems from the fields of realistic visualisation and simulation.
While such at-issue discourses on contemporary technology may be plentiful among enthusiasts (eg, podcasts like Lex Fridman), what distinguishes Pantaleoni’s approach is the fact that he analyses these themes with a gaze that stems from the fields of realistic visualisation and simulation. This distinction is not to be taken lightly. Throughout the book, there are surprising overlaps between these specific fields and society’s perception and interest in technology. For example, the author notes how films such as The Matrix, which used technology to simulate and depict “another reality that did look real”, offer proof of “how deeply computer graphics has been affecting our culture” (185). In fact, he argues that not only did sci-fi and CGI-laden media foment interest in stories about simulated worlds, but the technological achievements of such productions heavily contributed to society’s adoration and pursuit of advancements in realistic visualisations and simulations.
Pantaleoni acknowledges that society’s pursuit of a realistic-simulated future is replete with potential benefits, such as reduction of operation costs, accessibility through remote work, and engagement by telepresence. But, he notes that it may bring forth undesirable consequences
Pantaleoni acknowledges that society’s pursuit of a realistic-simulated future is replete with potential benefits, such as reduction of operation costs, accessibility through remote work, and engagement by telepresence. But, he notes that it may bring forth undesirable consequences to the physical world. For him, such aspirations implicitly denote a belief that “advances in photorealistic rendering, networking, and artificial intelligence will provide us the tools to build a better version of reality” (244). He cautions that this reality exodus neglects existing problems, and poses the question: “If we are failing to set things straight in the real world, what chances do we have to fair better, or ‘do it right’ in a hypothetical Metaverse?”(244).
The book makes the case that there are signs that the hitherto inexorable drive for progress in these technologies is leading to devastating effects. As practical examples, the author cites the impacts these technologies have had on political elections, the economy, and collective identity, among others. The book also underscores how physical and virtual/simulated have become increasingly intertwined through technology. Sherry Turkle observed this phenomenon many years prior in her presentation Artificial Intelligence at 50: “When Animal Kingdom opened in Orlando, populated by ‘real’, that is, biological animals, its first visitors complained that these animals were not as ‘realistic’ as the animatronics creatures in Disneyworld”. That is, while the animatronics featured “typical” characteristics, the real animals were perceived as static in comparison.
In a similar fashion, Pantaleoni recognises the capacity of contemporary technologies to shift perceptions and recoil in society as proxies. He writes that the overwhelming majority of Deepfakes, for example, either create pornographic or troubling scenes using celebrities. Furthermore, he notes that Artificial Intelligence (AI) chatbots are capable of impersonating a human being and that AI is automating both physical and mental human labour.
Whatever risks these new technologies seem to embody, however, are often brushed off by enthusiasts. This rather careless stance might be due to what Pantaleoni describes as a “blind” faith in technological progress, a belief akin to a “new and widely spread religion” (242). At its core, this techie religion is based on the imperative that technological growth is not to be questioned or impeded, for it makes “promises of a better reality” (243).
While previous technologies were essentially engineered by humans, society is transitioning towards new technologies that are increasingly autonomous and uncontrollable
Two arguments regarding the implications of this “religion” may be extracted from the book. The first argument is that for the zealots, it doesn’t matter how things progress (the means), as long as they continue to do so (produce results). While previous technologies were essentially engineered by humans, society is transitioning towards new technologies that are increasingly autonomous and uncontrollable, because these new technologies produce results that are “far much better than any handcrafted algorithm a human could make”(126).
Similar to the deceiving Mechanical Turk of the 18th century, many of today’s black-box technologies are very convincing in providing an illusion of their capabilities, while little is known about their under-the-hood properties or actual affordances.
The second argument is that what is perceived as progress may actually be a sort of artifice. Similar to the deceiving Mechanical Turk of the 18th century, many of today’s black-box technologies are very convincing in providing an illusion of their capabilities, while little is known about their under-the-hood properties or actual affordances. This concealment of properties and their seductive realism lure techno enthusiasts because of their desire to believe in them. Pantaleoni reminds us, however, that image-generative AI models, for instance, “know nothing about physics laws and accurate simulations” (141). Instead, it achieves extreme realism by feeding millions of training examples (141).
Throughout the book, Pantaleoni engages the reader in the challenges of technological development, through a distinct and compelling gaze – that of his specialisation in realistic visualisation software. Moreover, he does so in the tone of a passionate advocate of technology and a worried critic. There are a variety of contemporary “revolution” topics and discussions, such as the ethics behind the implementation of new technologies or its impact on the economy, and depending on each reader’s preferences and interests, some will resonate more than others. However, readers are likely to find the historical accounts narrated in the first few chapters disjointed from the book’s focus. These accounts are broad and familiar, with much of its content being assumed knowledge for most readers. Nevertheless, Pantaleoni offers notable contributions to the field with his shrewd observations anchored by his vast experience. In a field saturated with either theorists or quacks, it is especially commendable to read a book from the perspective of a practitioner.
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