Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Singularity Will Not Be Televised

I googled "Singularity", and received 1,180,000 results in .11 seconds. 

The first result entry was from wikipedia. The second result was from Ray Kurzweil's site. Actually, I should google "technological singularity" to weed out the off-topic subjects, which I do now...

Ah, that's better. I received 106,000 results in .34 seconds. Again, wikipedia is number one. The second site is a philosophical treatment on how to survive a Vingean singularity... by Vernor Vinge. The third result is a google books sample of Ray Kurzweil's "The Singularity is Near". 

Actually, there is something futuristically ironic about what I just done did, as more than likely, Google will be the superhuman intelligence that ushers in the Singularity. (I very much doubt that wikipedia will be the instrument of change - not with the near reactionary fervor of its editors). 

Okay, just what the heck is the Singularity? Well, science fiction authors have given it treatment in one form or another long before it was ever called the Singularity. Usually, the narrative goes something like: 
  1. group of scientists cobble together very large computer brain, and turn it on
  2. said computer brain becomes self-aware, or behaves as if it is (see Turing test)
  3. a) computer brain is many times smarter than the smartest human alive, or b) figures out a physical architecture and software package that is many times smarter than the smartest human alive, and implements it
  4. through the magic of storytelling, the computer brain can make changes to the world through a material instrumentality, because a) by just being so goddamn smart, it attains godlike, or Godlike powers, or b) the group of scientists was dumb enough to connect it to nuclear arsenals or automated facilities, or just does its bidding, or c) the brain figures out how to secretly mail order all the parts it needs to make a giant robot, or some type of gadget that allows it to attain godlike, or Godlike powers, or some such plot driver, and then
  5. the computer brain determines that: a) humanity is a threat to it, or a threat to the planet, or b) humanity is just too damn stupid to be in charge of things, or c) humanity is just too damn stupid, period and therefore:
  6. moving from worst- to best-case scenario... a) humanity is wiped out, or b) computer brain heads out for Parts Unknown, humanity gets left behind literally and figuratively, or c) big brain alters humanity to be less stupid, or at least, much, much nicer.
In short, it is almost a theological scenario where, positing that a superintelligence (God) exists, then It is either malevolent, or indifferent, or beneficent.   

"Yeah, okay. Well, so what?" you say "Isn't this all just some geek adolescent fantasy?"Well, Ray  Kurzweill doesn't think so. People called transhumanists don't. Many philosophers like Nick Bostrom don't. You repeat "Like I said, isn't this all just some geek adolescent fantasy?" Well,... yeah, probably.

But if it isn't, then all bets are off. At least that is what Vernor Vinge says. Vinge is a science fiction author who coined the term "Singularity", or at least made it popular among geeks. Vinge's conundrum is a story-telling one. How can you write about an era of super technology and super intelligence, when things have advanced so far and fast that many things will be beyond human imagination? Isn't that like expecting gerbils to write about nuclear fission? Well, yes, but then it becomes a challenge to writers, and many have accepted it.

Me? I think you can write about the Singularity, simply because we've seen it all before in the history of life on earth. It's all Biology. Want to write about nanotech? Nanotech's been done to death, baby. It is a four billion year old (at least) technology, which occurs every damn day using cellular machinery. Want to know post-Singularity strategies of life and living? Look at all the creepy things bacteria and viruses do. Look at the consortia and cooperatives that unicellular life engages in - not to mention multicellular life.

Is there a place for humans in a post-Singularity world? Is there room for story-telling? I think so. Again look to a history of Life on Earth. There are plenty of creatures that manage to get along without wiping each other out. This particular malevolent fantasy we engage may make for good drama, but it is not very realistic. 

I don't think the future is going to be the immortal heaven that Kurzweil hopes for. In fact, I think that fantasy rather infantile. But I do think there is room for us in it. Certainly room enough for lots of good storytelling.

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