Nerd rapture, redux: Annalee Newitz on why the Singularity ain’t gonna save us

Paul Raven @ 15-10-2010

Well, this should infuriate the usual suspects (and provoke more measured and considered responses from a few others). io9 ed-in-chief Annalee Newitz steps up to the plate to lay the smackdown on the Singularity as glorious transcendent happily-ever-after eschaton:

Though it’s easy to parody the poor guy who talked about potato chips after the Singularity, his faith is emblematic of Singulatarian beliefs. Many scientifically-minded people believe the Singularity is a time in the future when human civilization will be completely transformed by technologies, specifically A.I. and machines that can control matter at an atomic level (for a full definition of what I mean by the Singularity, read my backgrounder on it). The problem with this idea is that it’s a completely unrealistic view of how technology changes everyday life.

Case in point: Penicillin. Discovered because of advances in biology, and refined through advances in biotechnology, this drug cured many diseases that had been killing people for centuries. It was in every sense of the term a Singularity-level technology. And yet in the long term, it wound up leaving us just as vulnerable to disease. Bacteria mutated, creating nastier infections than we’ve ever seen before. Now we’re turning to pro-biotics rather than anti-biotics; we’re investigating gene therapies to surmount the troubles we’ve created by massively deploying penicillin and its derivatives.

That is how Singularity-level technologies work in real life. They solve dire problems, sure. They save lives. But they also create problems we’d never imagined – problems that might have been inconceivable before that Singularity tech was invented.

What I’m saying is that the potato chip won’t taste better after the Singularity because the future isn’t the present on steroids. The future is a mutated bacteria that you never saw coming.

Newitz’s point here, as I understand it, isn’t that technological leaps won’t occur; it’s that those leaps will come with the same sorts of baggage and side-effects that every other technological leap in history has carried with it. The more serious transhumanist commentators will doubtless make the point that they’ve been trying to curb this blue-sky tendency (and kudos to them for doing so), but they’re struggling against a very old human habit – namely the projection of utopian longing onto a future that’s assumed to be transformed by some more-than-human agency.

The more traditional agency of choice has been the local version of the godhead, but technology has usurped its place in the post-theistic classes of the developed world by glomming on to the same psychological yearnings… which is why the Ken MacLeod-coined “Rapture of the Nerds” dig is well-earned in many cases. The more blindly optimistic someone is about “the Singularity” solving all human problems in a blinding flash of transcendence, the less critical thought they tend to have given to what they’re talking about*; faith isn’t necessarily blind, but it has a definite tendency toward myopia, and theists hold no monopoly on that.

Newitz closes out with the following:

All I’m saying is that if you’re looking for a narrative that explains the future, consider this: Does the narrative promise you things that sound like religion? A world where today’s problems are fixed, but no new problems have arisen? A world where human history is irrelevant? If yes, then you’re in the fog of Singularity thinking.

But if that narrative deals with consequences, complications, and many possible outcomes, then you’re getting closer to something like a potential truth. It may not be as tasty as potato chips, but it’s what we’ve got. Might as well get ready for the mutation to begin.

Amen, sister. 🙂

[ * I fully include myself in this castigation; when I started writing for Futurismic, I was a naive and uncritical regurgitator of received wisdoms, though I like to think I’ve moved on somewhat since then. ]


Laughter and error-correction mechanisms

Tom James @ 11-05-2009

lightCarlo Strenger has written a good article on enlightenment values on Comment is Free:

…the Enlightenment has created an idea of immense importance: no human belief is above criticism, and no authority is infallible; no worldview can claim ultimate validity. Hence unbridled fanaticism is the ultimate human vice, responsible for more suffering than any other.

it applies to the ideas of the Enlightenment, too. They should not be above criticism, either. History shows that Enlightenment values can indeed be perverted into fanatical belief systems. Just think of the Dr Strangeloves of past US administrations who were willing to wipe humanity off the face of the earth in the name of freedom, and the – less dramatic but no less dismaying – tendency of the Cheneys and Rumsfelds of the GW Bush administration to trample human rights in the name of democracy.

As one of the commenters points out, the profound principle has been ignored by both 20th century secular ideologues, religious authorities, and more recent fanatics, is that of always bearing in mind the possibility you might be dead wrong.

The healthy human response to harmless error or misunderstanding is to have a laugh. Thus error is highlighted for all to see and forgiven by all parties. As Strenger puts it:

At its best, enlightenment creates the capacity for irony and a sense of humour; it enables us to look at all human forms of life from a vantage point of solidarity.

A further mistake on the part of humorless fanatics everywhere is to assume that there can ever be one, and only one, eternal truth. It may be that such a thing exists, but it is likely to be beyond our capacity to discern its true form from the vague shadows on the walls of our cave.

And so human beings are prone to error. There’s no problem with this, as failure teaches us more than success.

This notion was articulated by Karl Popper in the 20th century: it is the idea that you can never conclusively prove that an idea is correct, but conclusively disprove an incorrect idea.

And so human knowledge grows and the enterprise of civilization advances, one laughter-inducing blooper at a time.

[image from chantrybee on flickr]


Singularity season – nerd rapture or inconvenient truth?

Paul Raven @ 04-06-2008

array of computer screensNothing divides opinion like the future – it’s human nature, we all love to take a stab at predicting what will come. But it’s also human nature to disagree over what cannot yet be proven (which is something we can be sure of by looking at the past).

So, Vernor Vinge – the computer scientist and sf novelist who coined the term ‘Technological Singularity’ as used in this context during a presentation back in the eighties, and has talked about it ever since in his fiction and elsewhere – provides the capstone article to a special Singularity edition of IEEE Spectrum, defending the concept against the criticisms levelled at it by various scientists, economists and philosophers.

“The best answer to the question, “Will computers ever be as smart as humans?” is probably “Yes, but only briefly.””

For some odd reason IEEE neglected to solicit Warren Ellis‘s opinion, so he supplied it himself:

“When you read these essays and interviews, every time you see the word “Singularity,” I want you to replace it in your head with the term “Flying Spaghetti Monster.”

As always, if you want the apogee of cynicism, Ellis is your man; he’s the bucket of cold water thrown over the mating dogs of enthusiasm.

But other opinions are available, as the adverts say – George Dvorsky’s response to Ellis, for example:

“The day is coming, my friends, when Singularity denial will seem as outrageous and irresponsible as the denial of anthropogenic global warming. And I think the comparison is fair; environmentalists are often chastised for their “religious-like” convictions and concern. It’s easy to mock the Chicken Littles of the world.”

What do Futurismic‘s readership think about the Singularity – awesome sf-nal literary metaphor, or looming technological likelihood? [image by binary koala]


THE RIVERS OF EDEN by Jay Lake and Ruth Nestvold

Jeremy Lyon @ 18-07-2005

“The Rivers of Eden” is a new story from Futurismic alumni Jay Lake and Ruth Nestvold. It’s a dark little piece set in a future Waco, Texas.

[ IMPORTANT NOTICE: This story is NOT covered by the Creative Commons License that covers the majority of content on Futurismic; copyright remains with the author, and any redistribution is a breach thereof. Thanks. ]

The Rivers Of Eden

by Jay Lake and Ruth Nestvold

Gleaming monitors displayed DNA recombinance in false-color animation. Adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine. There was a hypnotic, mechanistic elegance to the rippling strands.

“The four-fold dance flows like the rivers of Eden,” said Dr. Sarahbeth Mitchell, her head bowed as was proper.

“Pison, Gihon, Hiddekel, and Euphrates.” Elder Joe McNally’s voice resonated with a deep East Texas accent. “Each rising from the wellspring of existence. Each flowing into the ocean of life.” His fleshy lips slipped into a smile not echoed in the droopy folds around his pale eyes. “Not unlike faith itself.”

“Not unlike faith itself,” she repeated.

To hell with faith and to hell with McNally. At least she had her work — including the work she concealed from her sponsors. She had often wondered about the wisdom of her decision to join the Davidites in order to avoid the Caliphate, but soon, very soon, her work would make them both history. Continue reading “THE RIVERS OF EDEN by Jay Lake and Ruth Nestvold”