Zingback! Anissimov vs Stross

Paul Raven @ 05-03-2009

Lest anyone think that a spate of recent links from here to Charlie Stross means I’m only listening to one side of the story, here’s Michael Anissimov’s response to Charlie’s “21st Century FAQ” piece. Executive summary: he doesn’t like it, and doesn’t think much of Charlie’s books either:

1) The Singularity is not “the Rapture of the Nerds”. It is a very likely event that happens to every intelligent species that survives up to the point of being capable of enhancing its own intelligence. Its likelihood comes from two facts: that intelligence is inherently something that can be engineered and enhanced, and that the technologies capable of doing so already exist in nascent forms today. Even if qualitatively higher intelligence turns out to be impossible, the ability to copy intelligence as a computer program or share, store, and generate ideas using brain-to-brain computer-mediated interfaces alone would be enough to magnify any capacity based on human thought (technology, science, logistics, art, philosophy, spirituality) by two to three orders of magnitude if not far more.

[snip]

While I’m on this tangent, I might as well point out that Accelerando sucked. I don’t know how people get taken in by this crap. You can’t get an awesome story by shoving boring, stereotypically dark-n’-dysfunctional characters into a confused mash-up of style-over-substance futurist concepts and retro hipster cocktail party backgrounds. […] It’s like 2005, but oddly copied-and-pasted into space. Even the patterns and problems of 1970 were more different from today than today is from Stross’ future.

I think it’s fair to say that Michael is still hung up on a Gernsbackian idealist template for science fiction as a prediction engine; he’s much more qualified than I to talk about transhumanism and so on, but he doesn’t seem to recognise that sf is primarily a tool for examining the present (if indeed you consider it to have any value beyond pure entertainment, which is an equally valid opinion). But his closer is fairly telling:

Maybe Stross is a great guy in person. I don’t know him. But I can say that I wildly disagree with both his futurism and his approach to sci-fi. (Insofar as I care about sci-fi at all, which, honestly, is not a whole lot.)

Not a whole lot, but enough to get riled when an sf writer seemingly treads on your ideological turf? You kids play nice, now. 😉

(For what it’s worth, I read both Anissimov and Stross regularly; they may believe very different things, but the one thing they share is that they’re smart people.)

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9 Responses to “Zingback! Anissimov vs Stross”

  1. Tom James says:

    Stross does have a point about the reverse Pascal’s wager – Anissimov has stated that he believes that the value of all scientific research is determined by, and only by, the relevance of said research to developing superintelligence:

    To me, the relevance of a given technology to humanity’s future is largely determined by whether it contributes to the creation of superintelligence or not, and if so, whether it contributes to the creation of friendly or unfriendly superintelligence. The rest is just decoration.

    Now this strikes me as kinda shortsighted – a potential cure for AIDS or various types of cancer before the advent of the singularity is just decoration?

    Anissimov does have a point about the 99.999% of humanity bit. If the singularity does happen as Anissimov suggests (the “intelligence explosion” school) then it’s safe to assume there will be significant side effects for everyone else.

  2. Madeline says:

    Paul, I’m just happy you used the term “prediction engine.” I’ve used it before in varying company, and received *blinkblink* in return. I knew other people used it. Thank you.

  3. Ian Sales says:

    Anissimov may be an expert on transhumanism, but he needs to work on his “humanism” – finishing off his disagreement with Stross’ post by slagging off one of his novels is cheap and small-minded.

  4. Michael Anissimov says:

    Bah, I’ll try to be nicer in the future. I just feel entitled to a slight rant once in a while. I think there’s a relevant connection between disagreeing with someone’s futurist reasoning and their approach to fiction. The ironic part is that Stross strongly promotes pro-Singularity ideas via his writing. If he thinks that mankind should forget the Singularity in the 21st century, he is working against himself.

  5. Khannea says:

    It is glaringly obvious that Mike holds the best cards here – we will be seeing a pile of technologies that will have at the very least very destabilizing and at the worst a ‘singularitarian’ potential. And asingularity would be largely horrific in my book, with at least a few billion humans dying. Singularities are by no means fun or safe.

    And having determined those two as eminently plausible THEN come the unknown unknowns making everything even worse. Imagine if we get close to a singularity and some chinese comes up with cold fusion in a fridge-sized reactor, or a venezuelan invents a antigravity device that can be fitted in a car. I am willing to bet a pound sack of good dutch licorice that we will see at least two completely unexpected technological fields emerging before ‘the’ singularity. And far weirder than the above two examples.

    And I am willing to bet another bag there will be a period of singularization rather than a Flash event – the singularity starts, heats up, and from then on its just rapid change going on and on and no destablization anywhere in sight.

    Stross is clearly becoming a bit on the old side. Typically the aging people can only think in terms of “more of the same”. Myelinization of the brain makes the geriatrics closed off and inflexible to altered states, alternatives, change and revolution. And if he is still flexible (which halting state does seem to suggest) I guess he is just concerned for his pay check – if fans think this whole singularity is likely, his books will have a far shorter conceptual shelf life. I for one conclude Stross is throwing a denialist tantrum here.

    He simply can’t cope and if he can it hurts his interests. There is no money in near-singularity or post-singularity fiction. The senile geezers can’t handle the pyrotechnic qualities of the theme, and the fanboys are generally too dumb to get the significance.

  6. Charlie Stross says:

    Michael Anissimov: The ironic part is that Stross strongly promotes pro-Singularity ideas via his writing. If he thinks that mankind should forget the Singularity in the 21st century, he is working against himself.

    Er, no. Firstly, I’m saying: we cannot count on a singularity coming along in time to save us. (Or, indeed, on it being the right kind of singularity to save us, as opposed to our mobile phones or lifelogs or whatever interests it.) When embarking on an engineering project you can’t blithely count on some new enabling technology or material (that isn’t even on the drawing board) showing up in time to make the rest of your machinery work. You especially can’t rely on the arrival of a technology you can’t even define (and we don’t, as yet, appreciate the shape or structure of a mature intelligence amplification technology, much less a true AI — although I’ll concede that some of our tools today would look almost supernaturally powerful from a 1950s perspective).

    Secondly — and you’re probably going to hate me for this — I am agnostic about the benefits for humanity of a singularity event. That is to say: it could be very good — or it could be our nemesis. I am not a singularitarian ideologue. I’m an SF writer who thought this was a Really Neat Idea and it needed exploring.

    I’d like to live long enough to live forever, be able to reconfigure my own consciousness, reset my body to whatever age or condition I want (or do away with a body altogether), and all the rest of it — but I’m not basing my life on the assumption that on January 27th, 2031 (or pick any other date) I’m going to be able to do all this.

  7. Michael Anissimov says:

    Charlie, it’s possible to advocate a Singularity without basing your life on the assumption of its success. In fact, many Singularitarians see it as entirely plausible that a successful Singularity will never occur. We just see it as an important cause. If we lack the engineering pieces necessary to make it happen, that only makes us consider it worthy of more investigation and development, not less.

    The fact that you got the impression that people were counting on a Singularity to save them shows the misunderstanding circulating around the concept and how people really treat it — the appealing “Oh, look at those silly nerds, aping the awful fundies without even knowing it!” idea. This idea, while largely made up, is so seductive that it may be the first thing that many people think of when they hear the word “Singularitarian”.

    Google “Rapture of the Nerds” and read the Black Belt Bayesian link for a better idea of my qualm here.

    I know you’re an SF writer exploring an idea. I’m a pro-Singularity thinker (not ideologue — that would imply that I’m fanatically devoted to an idea without questioning its many assumptions) who is tired of Singularity advocates being portrayed as nerds waiting for the rapture. SF writers can have tremendous influence over how people see the future. So it would only be natural that I would object to your idea that the Singularity should be ignored.

  8. Charlie Stross says:

    I appreciate your concerns (and I’m familiar with the Black Belt Bayesian blogger’s points), but I think you overestimate my significance as a mover and shaper of public opinion. Written fiction is, alas, a niche market these days, not much more significant than poetry: a single episode of “Buffy” or “Lost” has about as big an audience as the best-selling novel of any given year, never mind your average midlist SF novel (which it outstrips by about two orders of magnitude).

    (Finally. It is generally a huge faux pas for an author to take issue with a review … but as a point of note, I’d like to mention that “Accelerando” is a fix-up of a series of short stories, written between early 1999 and late 2003, drawing on discussions that were going between about 1991 and 1995 on the EXTROPY-L mailing list — an early predecessor to the Extropy Institute’s current discussion group — which both Ken MacLeod and I were on. So I’m going to take your diagnosis of it as cocktail party chat circa 2005 as a net predictive win 🙂

  9. Brian Wang says:

    The 21st Century FAQ is a set of predictions. All discussions about the future are
    predictions about the future. They can be specific or general.
    Sometimes the stories/scenarios are completely implausible and the person
    who put it out there knows that it will not happen, but the purpose was
    to comment about some aspect of what is happening now or as a fable to illustrate
    something.

    I have predictions for the future and I track developments in science, technology and
    society as it relates to the future.

    Specific developments indicate that the mysteries of the brain are being rapidly
    unraveled. Specific projects that have been funded or have been developed indicate
    that we will have closer and more constant communication with more powerful computers.

    There will be invasive and non-invasive options.

    A relatively mundane approach – walking around with many petaflop wearable computer,
    with eyeglass monitor overlay or projectors, with many gigabit per second wireless
    communication speed. IPhone apps already exist for someone to take pictures of
    a rubiks cube and get solution in 27 steps or less and a tool for sniper assistance
    (measuring and adjusting for wind etc…). Wolfram Alpha (calculated answer engine),
    wikipedia, google etc…

    Brain scans can read what letters you are looking at and provide information about your
    physical location.

    Red Camera is revolutionizing camera and video resolution.

    DNA nanotechnology, synthetic ribosomes, synthetic life, synthetic biology
    is clearly making huge strides.

    George Church notes two key requirements for implementation of mass production
    of synthetic DNA for dollars per kilogram:

    1. Engineering of [more efficient] nucleotide synthesis: We are collaborating with Philippe Marliere on optimizing metabolic pathways to the synthesis of the four dNTPs in vivo.
    2. DNA secretion: This is a natural process in some bacteria, could be enhanced to prevent (potentially toxic) levels of DNA in vivo.

    Lockheed HULC exoskeleton and Japan’s Hal-5 are commercializing.

    Self Assembly and directed assembly could take over from lithography for the next stage of computer miniturization to reach 1-2 nanometer features.

    Dwave systems is experimenting now with 128 qubit quantum computers and will have
    thousands of qubits by the end of the year.

    Exaflop and Zettaflop computers are being designed.

    Room temperature single atom quantum dots have been made.

    MIT Gershenfeld and his colleagues are making significant progress and have
    ambitious plans for conformal computing and avagadro scale computing.

    Intel has the Claytronic project.

    My site goes over environmental and energy developments and solutions.

    Space colonization does not require new technology. Although there are
    new technologies that will help.
    The technology for real space colonization has existed for decades but
    the choices have been made not to pursue them yet. Nuclear pulse propulsion.

    I have come up with a new configuration/variation on the old Project Orion plans.
    A single underground pulse to launch an unmanned projectile.

    The Stross 21st century FAQ is wrong. This is not a matter of emotion or wanting it
    I can say based on the facts and the clear trends. Also, the some of the implied
    choices are as wrong as China burning their Ocean going fleet several centuries ago.