Sunday, July 11, 2010

Singularity 101

The Singularity(And Yes, they've gone and made a movie to explain propagandize The Singularity.)
Here's a quote from the Singularity Is Near webpage:

"The Onset of the 21st Century will be an era in which the very nature of what it means to be human will be both enriched and challenged as our species breaks the shackles of its genetic legacy and achieves inconceivable heights of intelligence, material progress, and longevity. While the social and philosophical ramifications of these changes will be profound, and the threats they pose considerable, celebrated futurist Ray Kurzweil presents a view of the coming age that is both a dramatic culmination of centuries of technological ingenuity and a genuinely inspiring vision of our ultimate destiny."
Ooh.  Scary-wonderful stuff.  Just like the Victorians who were sure that they'd basically solved all the really big questions, or the retro-future vibe of Donald Fagen's song I.G.Y.

Whatever the Singularity actually turns out like, almost everyone who talks about it is pretty certain that it's not going to be anything like what we can imagine from where we are now, otherwise it just wouldn't be The Singularity.  At least that's a major conceit of the whole thing, despite all the attempts to explain it, define it and imagine it by people like Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil, to name just two of the popularizers/pontificators of the Singularity concept.  I smell a mythology-in-the-making here.

Essentially, The Singularity is a point in time when technology and intelligence both take off on their own, possibly leaving us behind just like in a song by Ozzy, or totally redecorating things so that we can no longer recognize the world or each other, possibly not even ourselves--and we may well be able to be plural as well as immortal and all sorts of other stuff, whether we want to be or not.  At least that's part of the debate surrounding this moment of drastic transformation.  You can explore the probabilities/time table for the process at The Uncertain Future, a website dedicated to helping suss-out when it'll happen, if it's as probable as people seem to think.  You get to plug in your own numbers and see what happens for yourself.  I'm not sure how accurate it is in the final analysis, but it is interesting nonetheless.
"I think it's fair to call this event a singularity ("the Singularity" for the purposes of this paper). It is a point where our models must be discarded and a new reality rules. As we move closer and closer to this point, it will loom vaster and vaster over human affairs till the notion becomes a commonplace. Yet when it finally happens it may still be a great surprise and a greater unknown."
— The Coming Technological Singularity by Vernor Vinge, 1993
A single moment of drastic transformation that changes everything forever afterwards.  In Tarot terms this could be summed-up as XIII: Death/Rebirth meets XVI:The Tower.  Brutal.  But appropriate.

I like using an old-fashioned means of expressing something as futurific as the Singularity.  It helps tone-down the pseudo-Lovecraftian fixation on 'We Can't Describe It/Unnameable Horror of the Thing' which really only demonstrates the lack of vision, paucity of imagination, and limited vocabulary of those who keep harping on the same note like it explains everything.  It doesn't.  It has already gotten old.  Stale even.

I grant you that, yes, it's damned difficult to accurately describe the front-end of an elephant you've only now met for the first time when you're staring at its ass.  Any and every attempt to describe, depict or delineate the Singularity prior to its onset is/was/will be every bit as difficult, inaccurate, futile and full of poorly digested fiber that smells bad as any attempt to describe the elephant's front-end while staring at its wrinkly behind.  Unless you've seen one before.  But then, of course, it's not The Singularity.  Like I said; it's a tough concept to deal with and many people retreat into mythology to do so.  It's a time-honored and very human response to things we don't understand.  If we have any hope at all of coming to terms with this impending event, it's going to come from the development of a synthetic mythology calculated to prepare our steamy little monkey brains for the culture-disrupting technological shocks headed our way.  Oh boy.

Synthetic Mythology?  Yeah.  We used to call it science fiction, back before science fiction became about as forward-thinking as your average romance novel.  Back before paranormal became the ..uh.. norm ...as it were.  

The Singularity creates an imaginary Berlin Wall behind which we cannot effectively model the future, or so the thinking goes.  But I disagree.  Humans have modeled beings that are smarter than we are and we've populated all sorts of myths and stories with them.  We call them angels, gods, superheroes and geniuses.  Case in point: Tom Swift.  A classic.  Edward Stratemeyer created the character of a precocious boy genius and established the collective pseudonym 'Victor Appleton' which has been used by every author working on one or the other series of books featuring the Boy Genius since 1910.  Steve Wozniak has mentioned Tom Swift as one of his inspirations.  So did Isaac Asimov.  Some of the inventions dreamed-up in the various (around 100) books in the 5 different series have actually been manufactured/become actual inventions.  It's old school and it's of its time.  But it wrestles with the very same, very human concerns over the perceived rapid pace of technology and the changes that those rapid advances can bring upon society, whether we're ready or not.  Another example is E. E. Doc Smith's Lensmen series.  Every couple of chapters the level of technology undergoes a drastic and profound transformation and it's simply amazing how Doc always manages to keep topping himself again and again.  They don't specifically or directly address the Singularity issue itself, mostly because they were written prior to the 1950's when John Von Neumann was discussing what would turn out to become the Singularity after Vinge capitalized the term and made it stick.  But they do deal with modelling things outside of the known and taking them farther out there so that we can start to get a handle on just how big a change we might be facing.  More importantly, they model how people react to the impending changes in a controlled, fictional setting.  We can't model the changes themselves, but we can start looking at our models of how we handle change, cope with rampant progress and start dreaming-up whatever it is we might actually want brefore the Genie is standing before us with arms crossed ready to deliver our heart's desire.

Now I fully realize that neither of those examples are necessarily the best examples, but they are a good place to start from.  Humans have no idea what awaits any of us after death, but we have developed innumerable mythologies, religions and ideas all about what comes next.  Death remains a Floydian Wall behind which we can only sometimes snatch glimpses and glances.  Just like Vinge's Singularity.

When we do make whatever transition awaits us up ahead, however the Singularity challenges us or empowers us, we will come at it with the full range and depth of our accumulated experience, mythology and folklore with which to describe it, define it, and explore it.  Even with our brains suddenly ramped-up a thousandfold, we'll still need to make things make sense with what we know, with whom we are, and where we've been.  And we'll need to sort things out in respect to our ancestors as much as ourselves and our descendents and dependents.  We may well completely re-evaluate the past in totally new terms and revised/improved language, but we will ahve to deal with the past, and that will open the door to interpretaton and extrapolation, to couching fresh new things in comfortable old terms.  People are people, and people work off of analogies and mythologies.  We will refer to the nightmares of of childhood, the wonders of our dreamscapes, and the rich heritage of the literatures that we've inherited as part and parcel of the human expeience. 

In many respects you could say that we tend to see things in slightly distorted mirrors, based upon our societal expectations, cultural assumptions and personal attitudes.

Sometimes a distorted mirror is more useful, as in the case of Orwell's 1984 which has managed to come true, more or less, in a way and a manner that the author would undoubtedly be extremely uncomfortable with -- the object lesson becoming instead a primer on practical technique.

Instead of focusing on the horror stories of what the runaway escalation of technological change is going to do, the terminator-style tales of retribution and fear-based fantasies of machine-directed apocalypses, we probably should start considering what we really want from the future that is ahead of us.  My bet is that Doc Smith would have no trouble writing post-Singularity stories.  He'd start by looking at what sort of society would make sense based on where we've been, where we are currently, and how we've responded to radical changes so far.  Twelve-year-olds don't have a tenth the trouble adapting to new technology as a lot of people over fifty seem to have.  Technology is already locked in a form of perpetual revolution, if you don't mind looking at Moore's Law in sensationalistic terms, very similar to what the Surrealists called for in their manifestos and magazines.  All revolutions are periods of adjustment and transformation, often violent, but that's not really necessarily, nor altogether desirable.  Gutenberg's printing press was one of those revolutionary developments that upset all previous power-holders and disrupted society from the ground-up, eventually.  Transistors likewise changed things immensely, but the secondary effect of allowing people in repressive regimes to hear the propaganda of the West cannot be overlooked in terms of its revolutionary impact.  As newer and more radical forms of nanotechnology ramp-up and spread out from the laboratories into the marketplace, as genetic modifications already have, people will adjust.  One way or another.  And the transformations will escalate as people find ways to apply or adapt these new tools in ways previously unforeseen.

Not being able to see directly ahead has never stopped the train of progress, innovation and eminent destiny.  At times it might feel like the Titanic, and at others it can seem like looking out over the desert at the glare of an unholy mushroom cloud, but in the end whatever happens, however the new technologies change things, people will look to their mythologies, their memories and their cultures to make sense of it all.  What the scientist learns and the engineer puts into motion, the artist interprets and the poet describes.  The outmoded and deprecated technologies will fall away, like bakelite and vacuum tubes.  Discredited notions and faulty assumptions will likewise get discarded and replaced with new versions.  Fears will pass to be replaced with the humdrum banalities of modern existence that most will never think twice about.  Just like how no one suffocates from driving their car over thirty miles-an-hour.

We'll adjust.  Whether it's an apocalypse or a singularity, hordes of zombies or telemarketers, people will do what people have always done--they'll protest, riot, fight or just accept the inevitable since all that other stuff is too much work.  Whatever comes, people will adjust.

"Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended."
— "The Coming Technological Singularity" by Vernor Vinge, 1993
When technology outgrows us, and intelligence becomes an editable commodity distributed like tap water, we're still going to need to come to terms with who we are as persons and as members of whatever society (Polite or otherwise) we happen to belong to.  Some things remain timeless and integral to the human experience.  Those beings who do not engage in this reflective self-examination are inhuman and not us, hence anything we might say in their regard is suspect and subject to loads of projection and misinterpretation.  We can't figure-out dolphins or primates all that well, so entirely new forms of posthuman beings who grow their own internal iPods on demand are going to be even tougher to figure out -- or are they?

We do not share a common mythos with the chimps nor the cetaceans.  But our comic books, soap operas and dirty magazines will be part and parcel of the cultural legacy we bequeath to those who come after us/amongst us, however it happens.  Those Post-Humans are going to inherit a wealth of human-derived stories, tall-tales, legends (urban and otherwise), myths and fictional accounts of how many, many of our best (and worst) thinkers wrestled with the notion of humanity and what it means to be human, sentient, or even existent.  Philosophy will fail because it is built upon assumptions that will no longer apply: capitalism is nonsense when each person is directly and immediately, personally in complete possession and control of all the capital they could ever need--with the means to reproduce more if they so desire.  Kant, Clauswitz and all those bearded dead old white guys won't amount to a hill of beans in the crazy mixed-up world to come.  Visionaries like Jack Kirby will bury them Khruschev-style.  We will have made a transition out of the harshly delineated mathematically restrictive mythos of what we once thought technology was, to the imagination-empowered exploration of whatever technology might develop into with and/or without us.

In many respects, once we have intelligences superior to anything we currently can acknowledge available on the Earth and operating within society at large, what has passed as Surrealism previously will become the new norm, rather than the exception.  Day-to-day life will take on some of the aspects of a super hero cartoon or comic book as technology serves out a wish-fulfillment function, just as it already has for many of us when you consider how our daily routines and what we take for granted would look like to people only a hundred, two hundred or a thousand years ago.  We cannot define the Singularity, perhaps, but we can certainly consider just what people will do once they start seeing the changes such an event (or series of events) brings about.  We can (and damn well ought to) model what those of us who are going to live through this event might do.  Modeling potential and prospective outcomes.  Hmmm.  I wonder what that sounds like...
"The Singularity happened. Get over it. It was a one-time event and whatever you thought it was going to be, however you hoped it would manifest or feared it might express itself was wrong. Completely off the mark. Anything that you could imagine or describe was by default no longer any part of the then impending Singularity. It was beyond anything anyone could have visualized, predicted or described. It happened. Now we're past all that. It's history. Our history. All of our history. All of us. All."
Zubra Daliskos
Chimpan Scholar and Archivist Emeritus (Retired)
There will be a period of adjustment.  A nine-second war, perhaps.  In any case, an adjustment will certainly be necessary.  In Riskail, the Singularity is far less of a factor than the Plurality, something that we'll be delving into later in the coming week.


  1. Excellent post.

    The 'Singularity' hype is to be regarded with suspicion, as I'm not sure the 'human era' was ever really defined by intelligence. A better discussion might be what really defines the 'human era'? Is it our ability to perceive/imagine/visualize? Our ability to deceive? To remember?

    I'm still not convinced that experts in technology quite understand what the term 'automation' means.

    Thanks again for posting this. Good stuff!

  2. This is an exquisite post.

    Can't say I'm terribly concerned about the Singularity as much as I'm concerned about the dominant belief that the Human Age is defined by intelligence.

    To reference an old SciFi movie (Saturn 3) one wonders about a machine's ability to comprehend sacrifice without long term gain.

    Also, an artist I met had an interesting thought: he said that if a computer can be built that can beat you at chess, then playing chess can no longer be a criteria. He felt that a truly dangerous AI would be something that could design the game of chess...

  3. I absolutely love that quote: "...If a computer can be built that can beat you at chess, then playing chess can no longer be a criteria...a truly dangerous AI would be something that could design the game of chess..."


    This is exactly what I'm talking about--the artilects, AI, Emulants, etc., etc. are not interested in monkey-crap. They are far more game-oriented, scenario-addicted, and driven to prove their creativity as a criterion of sentience/autonomy over any gross power displays. They completely lack the fight/flight reactions, they have no reservoir of evolved responses for asserting dominance, etc. They ahve to develop their own means of demonstrating unique value, personal creativity, and an ability to 'beat' the monkeys at their own games--and that means creating new games, not just mastering pre-existing rules.

    AIrtists...that will be truly weird...


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...