Stross starts Singularity slapfight

Paul Raven @ 23-06-2011

Fetch your popcorn, kids, this one will run for at least week or so in certain circles. Tonight’s challenger in the blue corner, it’s the book-writing bruiser from Edinburgh, Charlie Stross, coming out swinging:

I can’t prove that there isn’t going to be a hard take-off singularity in which a human-equivalent AI rapidly bootstraps itself to de-facto god-hood. Nor can I prove that mind uploading won’t work, or that we are or aren’t living in a simulation. Any of these things would require me to prove the impossibility of a highly complex activity which nobody has really attempted so far.

However, I can make some guesses about their likelihood, and the prospects aren’t good.

And now, dukes held high in the red corner, Mike Anissimov steps into the ring:

I do have to say, this is a novel argument that Stross is forwarding. Haven’t heard that one before. As far as I know, Stross must be one of the only non-religious thinkers who believes human-level AI is impossible. In a literature search I conducted in 2008 looking for academic arguments against human-level AI, I didn’t find much — mainly just Dreyfuss’ What Computers Can’t Do and the people who argued against Kurzweil in Are We Spiritual Machines? “Human level AI is impossible” is one of those ideas that Romantics and non-materialists find appealing emotionally, but backing it up is another matter.

Seriously, I just eat this stuff up – and not least because I’m fascinated by the ways different people approach this sort of debate. Rhetorical fencing lessons, all for free on the internet!

Me, I’m kind of an AI agnostic. I’ve believed for some time now that the AI question one of those debates that can only ever be truly put to rest by a conclusive success; failures only act as intellectual fuel for both sides.

(Though there is a delightfully piquant inversion of stereotypes when one sees a science fiction author being castigated for highlighting what he sees as the implausibility of a classic science fiction trope… and besides, I’d rather have people worrying about how to handle the emergence of a hard-takeoff Singularity than writing contingency plans for a zombie outbreak that will never happen.)


Aliens among us: Charlie Stross on the corporate invasion

Paul Raven @ 13-12-2010

More challenging ideas from Chateau Stross (or should that be Schloss Stross?) – he’s not the first to frame the corporation as a non-human entity with an alarming degree of power and control over human affairs, but – given the current economic and political climate – it’s a conversation worth revisiting.

We are now living in a global state that has been structured for the benefit of non-human entities with non-human goals. They have enormous media reach, which they use to distract attention from threats to their own survival. They also have an enormous ability to support litigation against public participation, except in the very limited circumstances where such action is forbidden. Individual atomized humans are thus either co-opted by these entities (you can live very nicely as a CEO or a politician, as long as you don’t bite the feeding hand) or steamrollered if they try to resist.

In short, we are living in the aftermath of an alien invasion.

The comment thread is fantastic reading too, but very long; set aside an hour or so to really dig into it properly.

Here’s a counterpoint from the NYT‘s Paul Krugman:

These days, we’re living in the world of the imperial, very self-interested individual; the man in the gray flannel suit has been replaced by the man in the very expensive Armani suit. Look at the protagonists in the global financial meltdown, and you won’t see faceless corporations subverting individual will; you’ll see avaricious individuals exploiting corporate forms to enrich themselves, often bringing the corporations down in the process. Lehman, AIG, Anglo-Irish, etc. were not cases of immortal hive-minds at work; they were cases of kleptocrats run wild.

And when it comes to the subversion of the political process — yes, there are faceless corporations in the mix, but the really dastardly players have names and large individual fortunes; Koch brothers, anyone?

I find myself somewhat on the fence here, principally because I’m painfully aware that I know enough about economics to know that I don’t know enough about economics. I’m not sure that the corporation as a concept is inherently bad, but I’m very sure that the current protectionist set-up is a root cause of many of our current problems, at both the global and local scales.

What do you think?


Charlie’s utopia: optimistic sf redux?

Paul Raven @ 06-12-2010

Over half a year after the publication of the Shine anthology, Charlie Stross wonders whether we need more optimistic utopian thinking in science fiction, and indeed in general:

The consensus future we read about in the media and that we’re driving towards is a roiling, turbulent fogbank beset by half-glimpsed demons: climate change, resource depletion, peak oil, mass extinction, collapse of the oceanic food chain, overpopulation, terrorism, foreigners who want to come here and steal our women jobs. It’s not a nice place to be; if the past is another country, the consensus view of the future currently looks like a favela with raw sewage running in the streets. Conservativism — standing on the brake pedal — is a natural reaction to this vision; but it’s a maladaptive one, because it makes it harder to respond effectively to new and unprecedented problems. We can’t stop, we can only go forward; so it is up to us to choose a direction.

[…]

We need — quite urgently, I think — plausible visions of where we might be fifty or a hundred or a thousand years hence: a hot, densely populated, predominantly urban planetary culture that nevertheless manages to feed everybody, house everybody, and give everybody room to pursue their own happiness without destroying our resource base.

Because historically, when a civilization collapsed, it collapsed in isolation: but if our newly global civilization collapses, what then …?

Compare and contrast with this post from Jetse de Vries written during the Shine submissions period, as writers supplied reason after reason for why they couldn’t – or wouldn’t – write an optimistic piece:

In the real world, people face those huge challenges (overpopulation, war, environmental degradation, pollution, greed, climate change and more) and try to overcome them. In the real world, the majority of people are optimistic. So why isn’t SF trying to address these huge problems in a near future SF story (not use them for implementing the next dystopia, but try to fix them, try to do something about them)? Why is SF extremely reluctant to feature an upbeat outlook?

[…]

Imagining things going bad, technologies grossly misused, the world going down the drain is so goddamn easy that everybody’s doing it. So if almost everybody’s already doing it, then why do we need to keep stating the bleedingly obvious? Maybe some of that creative energy, that imaginative potential might be used for envisioning a solution?

Furthermore, with the amount of cautionary tales going around in SF today, we should be well on our way to paradise, as we’re being told ad nauseam what not to do. Imagining things going wrong is easy; imagining things improving is hard. It’s easier to destroy than create. I’m sick and tired of writers demonstrating five thousand different ways of destroying a house: I long for the rare few that show me how to repair it, or build a better one.

There’s an obvious difference in character here (Charlie is being rather more cautious and diplomatic than Jetse, perhaps), but it looks to me like they’re both driving toward the same destination by slightly different philosophical roots… and Jetse himself calls out Charlie’s piece as a vindication of the Shine project (albeit a somewhat belated one).

So let’s raise a recent ghost after a long year of tough times all round, and ask again: should science fiction be trying harder to think positively about the future?

And if not, why not?


Charlie Stross ponders the future of cars

Paul Raven @ 10-11-2010

If you’re bored of my bootstrap amateur futurism (I suppose one can have too much of a good thing, AMIRITES?), pop over to Charlie Stross’ blog and watch a professional at work as he considers the future of personal transport:

While the basic automobile is a mature technology, autonomous vehicles — specifically, self-driving cars — are not. However, they’re clearly coming along by leaps and bounds. And unlike human drivers, computers don’t generally suffer from lapses of attention, have heart attacks at the wheel, drive home from the pub after a couple of pints too many, or plough into cyclists while texting their girlfriends.

Shortly after (not if, but when) we see autopilots become standard equipment in cars, we can expect to see insurance premiums start to rise sharply for people who insist on driving themselves around on the public highways — especially for third-party insurance.

(Remember, it’s not about you: it’s about the guy in the pick-up behind you who’s had six pints of beer, or the gal in the SUV bearing down on the pedestrian crossing who’s paying more attention to the friend she’s chatting to than the kids crossing the road. You could be that guy or that gal; or you could be scrupulously attentive the whole time. Your insurance company’s computer can’t tell until you have an accident … that’s the problem with Baye’s Theorem.)

Longer term (I suspect a generation after that point) we’ll begin to see pressure to ban humans from driving on the public roads. By this point, the cost of electronics required to upgrade a vehicle to self-driving capability will have fallen so much that it’s ubiquitous, even in the developing world.

The mark of good futurism, for me at least, is when you read or hear it and think “well, yeah, of course; obvious, isn’t it?” The cynical rejoinder to that would be to say that repeating the obvious is easy work… to which I’d respond that either a) I’m an idiot or b) it’s not as easy as the experts make it look. (I’m rooting for option B there, obviously.)

That said, the gaping hole in Charlie’s piece is the absence of public transport as an influential factor; maybe I’m just being too idealist (or naive), but I find it hard to envisage a future a century hence where private ownership of long-distance vehicles is anywhere near as ubiquitous as it is now. Shared pools thereof, perhaps… but I figure that a radical rethink of transport infrastructure – not to mention the necessity of long-distance personal travel – is pretty inevitable, whether caused by rational politics (not looking likely) or the rocks and hard places of post-Peak Oil economics (looking pretty inevitable).

After all, the Greatest Nation in the World™ can’t afford to maintain its roads and highways at the moment; cars will be little use with nothing to drive ’em on. Unless the highways seceded, of course…


The near future is not amenable to fiction writers

Paul Raven @ 26-05-2010

That may seem like an odd thing for the editor of a near-future science fiction magazine to say, but if you won’t take it from me, here’s Charlie Stross explaining how real-world changes have twice scuppered a near-future fictional work-in-progress, the most recent problem being that unexpected election result here in the UK:

What sandbagged me was the fact that for the first time in a British general election, more people voted for minority parties than for any of the major players; a coalition or a (weak) minority government was inevitable. Then the libertarian arm of the Conservative party went and formed an alliance with the Liberal Democrats in an utterly unprecedented realignment, and according to the latest polls a majority of the population look set to vote “yes” to electoral reform in a year or so. (Link missing because I can’t find the URL I read last night …) So it’s back to the trenches on “Rule 34”, because I have to do a complete re-appraisal of the world-building scenario underlying it in order to figure out whether it’s still plausible; and if not, I have a lot of patching to do.

The unexpected hits you between the eyes, as Our Cilla once sang. Or in the words of Mark Twain: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”

I’m tempted to say that the rise of steampunk and other alternate history modes may be a writerly response to the increasing difficulty of guessing ahead over a short temporal distance; if you immediately frame your story as being set in a reality/timeline different to that inhabited by the reader, you’re safe from those sandbags.

And then you’ve got the mode that William Gibson seems to be pioneering with his latest novels, a sort of “alternate yesterday”, a way of looking at the very near past in a way that throws light on the future that will (or rather should, or might) follow on from it. All well and good… but perhaps we’re reaching a point of extreme social and cultural flux where the notion of media products that can maintain their relevance over long stretches of time is an anachronism.

To put it another way: will the classic books/movies/TV of the twenty-teens be celebrated for their ability to capture something timeless about human nature, or for their amber-trapping of a moment in human time that can no longer be revisited in any other way?


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