Russell Kirkpatrick's Journal
I’m dead, I know I’m dead, and against all odds it appears that some variant of the monotheistic cosmology was right after all. You know, God and all that. This doesn’t make me as happy as I thought it might.
We’re in this vast cave. What’s interesting about the cave is that there’s no vanishing point. No perspective. I can see everything. I have no idea why I am so intrigued by this – I’m dead, after all, newly dead, and that ought to be preoccupying me – but you can’t switch off the inquisitive mind, it seems.
In this vast cave is everyone ever. I mean billions and billions of people. Some in suits, some in robes, some in fur that could even be their own. I can see each and every one of them as though they were standing next to me. No ‘closer’, no ‘further away’. Don’t ask me to explain it. It seems that all the people who have ever lived have been divided into two groups: a very small one, a few hundred million or so, and a large one of tens of billions. I’m standing somewhere in between the two groups, though without a perspective it’s actually very hard to tell.
The cave speaks. We are, apparently, in the mouth of God.
‘You made the gate too narrow,’ says the cave. It’s an odd feeling, let me tell you, being in a vast, speaking mouth.
‘What gate?’ we ask. Now I wouldn’t have dared utter a word. There is a fierce dread on me, and I don’t want to be noticed. Shut up and watch, that’s the key. Draw no attention to yourself. I’m sure everyone else feels the same – you’d have to, if you are in any way human. Nevertheless, we are compelled to ask the question.
‘You lot,’ says the mouth, and we all know he means the smaller of the two groups. ‘You made entry into your religion too difficult. Virtually everyone here tried to get in at one point or another, but you kept them out. You came up with rules based on your culture and insisted they were universal. If someone didn’t look right or behave right or believe right you denied them entry. Six hundred million gatekeepers kept the rest of humanity in the dark.’
‘But’, we cry, ‘you yourself said that the way is narrow, and few there are that will ever find it.’ How dared we? Quoting scripture at God? We didn’t dare, we wanted the voice to go away, but we had to speak.
‘So I did,’ says the voice, ‘but I didn’t mean it as a command, or even an observation of the way things should be. It was a sad foretelling, a summary of the way things would likely turn out. Do you really think I wanted billions of lives to be ultimately meaningless?’
This isn’t the way things are supposed to work, I think to myself. It’s not what the preachers told me.
‘I wanted pilgrims, not gatekeepers,’ said the cave. The floor heaves, and the smaller group is spat out of the cave’s vast mouth. I have no idea where they went, but I heard their screams.
I would like to have stayed to see what happened to the rest of us – as long as I had a cast-iron guarantee the voice was not going to say anything to me – but I woke up. Yeah, I knew it was a dream all the time.
I’m off now to change the sheets.
Just spent Easter weekend at the New Zealand national convention in Wellington. The lovely and talented Donna Maree Hanson from Canberra came over for the con, and I drove her down from Auckland.
The con was generally well organised, though I found it disconcerting not to know which people were on what panels. Elizabeth Moon was an excellent Guest of Honour, and I was fascinated by her thoughts on environmental management. I enjoyed the company of New Zealand fandom, but particularly enjoyed spending time with Ross Temple, Lucy Sussex and Julian Warner. Ross won a Julius Vogel award for his blog, and Lucy won one for a short story. And, as mentioned in the news section, Path of Revenge won a Julius Vogel for Best Novel - Adult.
Back home now, exhausted and ready for bed. More thoughts tomorrow, perhaps.
There's a lot of kerfuffle about the notion of the Singularity in science fiction. I think it's a flawed idea.
In 1993 Vernor Vinge, a science fiction writer and former mathematics and computer science professor, popularised the idea of a technological singularity, in which the rapidly accelerating advancement in technology will inevitably create superhuman intelligence, with unforeseeable results (bar one specific result: ‘the human era will be ended’). His prediction is that this singularity will arrive between 2005 and 2030.
This idea has become the latest cause celebre of science fiction, with hard SF writers such as Vinge himself, Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross making careers from it.
I’m fascinated by this latest manifestation of religious scientism. To me it bears all the hallmarks of an eschatological faith, a belief in future events so similar to the Second Coming the parallels just beg to be pointed out. In fact, if the Second Coming is recast as a moral singularity* the correlation between the two is so profound it makes me wonder if we haven’t uncovered some common causative factor.
*Moral singularity: the accelerating wickedness of humanity brings a moral crisis so profound it remakes the moral, spiritual and physical world – a new heaven and a new earth. This is a restatement of the Book of Revelation.
Vinge argues that the results of the Singularity are likely to be catastrophic and will certainly be unpredictable. In the Book of Revelation it says that people 'from east and west' will sit at the table of the Lamb - code for people from all over the place making it to heaven.
Both Vinge and Revelation talk of two classes of humanity post-singularity:
Vinge: The human and the superhuman
Revelation: The saved and the lost (the raptured and those who are left behind) - the sheep and the goats
Fundamental problem: Scientific Progress Goes ‘Boink’
Runaway scientific progress has already had the legs cut out from under it. The late 1960s saw a watershed in social development, when a number of different marginalised groups succeeded in gaining global attention for their causes (environmentalists, feminists, gay/lesbian, third world). Each group demonstrated how their marginalisation from society occurred because of modernism’s false promise (progress will benefit everyone – trickle down). Not everyone has benefited, and, more damning, of those who have benefited, not everyone benefited equally. This is the self-limiting function that will control accelerating progress: as technology improves the lot of more people, and more people are able to spare the time to think and gain the resources to protest, the brake on further progress will be applied harder as these people seek a slice of the pie.
The common causative factor: ‘in our time’
It seems to me that an important part of the human psyche sees itself at the centre of things. We are at the centre of the universe that really matters – or, conversely, in our most depressive moments we realise we’re at the edge of something vast and unknowable, and this disturbs us. Doctrines such as the Second Coming, the apocalypse and the Singularity act to shift us closer to the heart of things. They are self-promotional. We feel important.
Futurists suffer from two main problems. First, they always underestimate the time required for any innovation to effect social change. The internet (the single biggest innovation of our generation) has been available for twenty years (and the idea much longer than that) but global change has been slow. The optimistically-named World Wide Web is partial, elitist and serves specific social and national interests. Most of the world’s population remain profoundly unaffected by it.
Second, they always miss the next big change. This is because they extrapolate existing change. This is why, for example, past futurists expected computers to get bigger, not smaller. If a big computer like ENIAC can do all this, they reasoned, how much more will an even bigger computer do? Wrong. Miniaturisation is the current trend (nanotechnology) but what comes next may be entirely different. It may not have anything to do with size at all.
What makes humans different?
It isn’t intelligence. We’re not a lot more intelligent than many other species. It certainly isn’t our genome, 99% of which we share with the rest of sentient beings. In my view it is our level of self-awareness, our blessing and our curse. We know things about ourselves that other sentient beings do not know. One example is our foreknowledge of our inevitable death, and the life-long psychological adjustments this requires. So traumatic is this knowledge that humans often confess to envying ‘dumb’ animals, and many argue whole religions have been constructed to mollify the fear of this foreknowledge.
So how exactly does superhuman intelligence bring about a singularity, unless it is married with self-awareness? This is what Vinge means when he speculates that in the future ‘there may be developed computers that are “awake” and superhumanly intelligent’. It’s the ‘awakeness’, the self-awareness, that sf writers have long perceived as a threat. But how does the mere exponential increase in processing power achieve self-awareness? As Vinge points out, there is an enormous debate around ‘whether we can create human equivalence in a machine’.
The Singularity is Inherently Political
As you’d expect of any possible event that will sort humanity into haves and have-nots. The current group of haves want to ensure that they remain in that group, particularly given that the haves might have the keys to virtual immortality. Read this:
In short, until the government of the USA resembles the non-hypocritical, non-self-contradictory style of government that is advocated in the 1996 Libertarian Party Platform, I would expect a violent denunciation of, or a complete withdrawal from all human affairs by any superior intelligence. (Sourced from http://www.kurzweilai.net/meme/frame.html?main=/meme/memelist.html?m%3D1, retrieved on March 12, 2008).
The only chance we have of the Singularity happening reasonably peacefully is to have a reasonably civilized, yet extremely powerful nation with a spine and a hard pair providing governance for it: The United States of America.
Both comments were retrieved from Ray Kurzwiel’s discussion forum.
Vinge himself is explicitly libertarian in his science fiction10 (The Ungoverned, marooned in realtime). So these prognosticators, just like the bishops and pastors advocating the Second Coming, stand to gain politically and financially from their ideas.
Everything changes: Everything Stays the Same
Vinge’s definition of the Singularity is: a point where our old models must be discarded and a new reality rules.
Oh? So how do we move from a changed technological reality to changed morality, for example? Just how much – or little - of human reality will change is surely a moot point. Vinge’s talent for overstatement is boundless.
Defeated techno-scientism plunges from the Bridge of Khazad-Dum – but in the act of falling cracks the whip of Singularity in an attempt to take society down with it.
The admissions are extraordinary. We can’t control it. It’s inevitable. It’s the competitive nature of humans – in other words, the inevitable result of capitalism. This is what critics of scientism have been objecting to for years. Scientists must accept responsibility for the implications of their research:
• all research is political
• all research favours one group – the hegemonic elite – over all others (even though it may favour all groups, one is favoured more)
• the technological fix is not necessarily the best fix (making flood disasters worse by building higher walls).
Goodness, this was a ramble. Still, blogs aren't supposed to be perfect.
So the New Zealand government announces a $700 million investment in the sciences. Yay! Except it is all to be spent on food and agricultural science.
What astonishing naivety. What incredible lack of insight. What utter nonsense. They think this new science will benefit us all. It won't. It'll do the opposite. Here's the problem. The primary sector (Agriculture and food production) is the most labour-intensive sector of them all. The returns from this sector are far lower per participant than any other. This is the main reason why, despite New Zealanders working far harder (and working longer hours) on average than European and American workers, we are falling further and further behind in our standard of living. We simply don't get sufficient return on our investment.
So there are only two possible results:
1) The money gets wasted and we are $700 million poorer, because scientists won't be able to find efficiencies that suddenly turn the primary sector into a much more profitable business. We continue to rely on farming as the 'backbone of the country' and drift slowly into oblivion. Frankly, this is the better of the two outcomes.
2) The scientists get lucky and find a way of eliminating the most significant cost in the sector: labour. The inevitable result is that fewer people share in the increased profits, and the farming sector becomes even more of an elite than currently. Farmers then become even more successful in dictating the political direction of the country. We become even more vulnerable to international trends and prices (which we cannot influence, being so small on the international stage). A single unexpected fluctuation in international prices wipes out the 'flavour of the month' industry, whether it's dairying or hops or kiwifruit (oh, that's right, it's already happened to hops and kiwifruit). Farming collapses and we disappear into oblivion in a puff of chaff.