Wednesday, September 18, 2013


I think part of my fascination with the Singularity is that it allows for magic to happen (per Arthur C. Clarke), but not just any kind of magic. Not the ambiguous, haphazard, hand-waving magic of "Alakazaam" and "Heeny wienie jelly beany" spasticity, but a rule-based iterative or recursive process that is consistent and replicable, and not without hazard.

I can remember being perhaps completely jaded in my speculative fiction preferences by the age of thirteen where I decided that magic was for babies, gave up on fantasy, but then discovered A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Leguin, and The Dying Earth series by Jack Vance. There were rules behind the mummery of their magic, and I decided it was still cool to read about stuff like that. It also helped that they have a gift for weaving images, evoking moods, and crafting dialog that still haunt my consciousness and inform my works.

When Vernor Vinge wrote his essay on the Singularity, I'm not sure if he meant to put a limit upon speculative fiction as to what could or could not be narrated in a future world where all bets are off, but I suspect he left an opening for fantasy to reenter hard science fiction. But I've always maintained it is simply when machines come to life, exhibit the complex behaviors of life, and therefore, rather than being unknown territory, it is a matter of studying biology - and observing all the ingeniously clever things that life forms do - to write a narrative of the Singularity.

There are some problems I have with Vinge's version of how it all happens. It is assumed that some form of self-replicating von Neumann machines will be part of it, some kind of nanotechnology. And there is the standard speculation that a hyperintelligent computer is created, that in turns builds a smarter computer, and so on. I don't think you need either a computer or intelligent design. I think the Rapture For Nerds can come about completely by accident, and practically any consortium of well connected life forms. Cosma Shalizi has speculated that we beach apes inadvertently went through a Singularity during the Long 19th Century. That would explain some things.

The one nebulous theme I have been ruminating upon is that we already have a four-billion-year old self-replicating von Neumann machines in spectacularly fecund spades here on Earth, and if your looking for general intelligence robots, powered in turn by miraculously self-renewing energy sources, you look no further than us. It certainly provides a badly need biological grounding to an otherwise bleak and relatively uninformative study known as economics. The one thing that has been noted by roboticists is that a really good robot, with superior energy efficiencies and storage, and very little breakdowns or control problems is us humans. (And in fact, if go back and read Karel Capek's R.U.R., there's really no difference between his artificial people and the genuine article of the time).

Which brings me to 1913. Consider this. People say life is too short.

Bullshit. Life is too damn long. (Well, except for me, where, if I'm gonna get all the shit done I need to, I figure another 150 years will do -provided I can retain my current physical and mental capacities).

But seriously, we do a terrible job of judging time frames. It's taken me fucking forever to reach the age of fifty-six, and 1913 was practically yesterday. I carry vicarious memories of that year through my grandparents, who alive back then.

So, consider. I am transported back in time to 1913 at my present age. Is it like going to medieval times? No, it's pretty much modern (if you grant me a similar station in life). You got telephones, automobiles, modern hygiene, germ theory, globalization, aerial bombing, quantum mechanics,  socialized medicine, international corporations, and asshole bosses.

Had I been born in 1857, I'd have a vicarious memory of the Civil War and even the Revolution through my parents and grandparents (my actual ancestors, by the way, in the real worldline of 1857, were living in abject poverty and squalor in Northern European shit-holes), may have fought in the Wars of Indian Extermination of the 1870s, certainly would have lived through the Spanish American War, the awful depressions of the 1870s and '90s, and the every-four-years financial panics, and read up on things like the Boxer Rebellion, the Russo-Japanese war, and many other things, as surely as I remember the fall of the Soviet Union, the advent of the personal computer and the Internet, and Tiananmen Square, among many other things.

So, I asked two questions yesterday. They were, in a way, trick questions.

Q)  In 1913, what nation was the most powerful on Earth?
A) Great Britain, at least so you would notice. London is the largest city on Earth, centered in the largest empire in history, capable of projecting force practically anywhere except for Antarctica (but not implementing it's will, which, dearies, is a military delusion that we Americans now suffer from), global financier bar none, and cultural hegemon. But, getting back to my exploration, not in any way in control of its real source of power for all it's self-replicating robots - food. The food superpowers of the the early 20th century are the US of A, Canada, and Russia, in that order. The United States is sending 25-50% of its trade to Great Britain in the form of wheat, corn, barley, and rice. Great Britain, in turn, sees the United State's excursion into Latin America and the Pacific as merely a convenient adjunct extension of its empire (and not entirely inaccurate), and so technically we can include the US in the British sphere of influence, and so technically, Britain is food self-sufficient. But if we view food as the true power, then it's got to be Russia. Fortunately, or unfortunately, 1913 is a bad year for food producers, as food production outstrips consumption, and a new chemical process, the Haber-Bosch synthesis of ammonia, promises 'unlimited' expansions of the food supply. Which gets us to:

Q) In 1913, what nation was the most technological and scientifically advanced?
A) Germany, no question, None whatsoever. I was actually surprised that almost everyone said the United States, which consisted of barely literate, jug-eared, pumpkin-headed yokels, one third of which, evaluated for the draft of the Great War, were judged 'feeble-minded'. At the beginning of the last century, chemistry is everything. It is the quantum informatics, the computer industry, of its time, and Germany is the place to be for chemistry. You name it, no one else is doing it, except in Germany.

And one German in particular, Fritz Haber, comes up with poison gas and artificial fertilizer. In retrospect, given the dead zones in so many marine environments, given the soil degradation and loss of diversity and habitat, given the pollution in so many aquifers, as a result of his fertilizer, perhaps Fritz should have stuck to poison gas.

Today, it might surprise you China and India are rapidly becoming the largest food producers, with the US number one in corn, Russia number one in barley and rye, and chalk all that up to Fritz. But so then, I have to ask, given hindsight:

Q) In 2113, what nation will be the most powerful on Earth?
Q) In 2113, what nation will be the most scientifically and technologically advanced?


  1. South Africa. This due to the largely untapped natural resources of the African continent and because it won't be subject to any nuclear bombardment when WW-III heats up.

    1. See, I was going to say Great Britain, seeing as the Commonwealth comes back together, so they get the resources of S.A. and the still relatively untapped mineral riches of Australia. Plus, after WWIII, the US begs to be taken back, which they do, but only on condition the US is renamed the Province of Whoopsie-Daisy, which it is.

    2. ...and...AND, my consciousness will be spookily distributed in ultracold quantum spin crystals throughout the Kuiper belt, where I can FINALLY get some work done!