Singularity beef, day 2

Paul Raven @ 24-06-2011

Well, we’re off to a good start. Alex “Robot Overlords” Knapp also picked up on Stross’ skeptical post and Anissimov’s rebuttal thereof, and posted his own response. An excerpt:

Anissmov’s first point here is just magical thinking. At the present time, a lot of the ways that human beings think is simply unknown. To argue that we can simply “workaround” the issue misses the underlying point that we can’t yet quantify the difference between human intelligence and machine intelligence. Indeed, it’s become pretty clear that even  human thinking and animal thinking is quite different. For example, it’s clear that apes, octopii, dolphins and even parrots are, to certain degrees quite intelligent and capable of using logical reasoning to solve problems. But their intelligence is sharply different than that of humans.  And I don’t mean on a different level — I mean actually different.  On this point, I’d highly recommend reading Temple Grandin, who’s done some brilliant work on how animals and neurotypical humans are starkly different in their perceptions of the same environment.

Knapp’s argument here is familiar from other iterations of this debate, and basically hinges on what, for want of a better phrase, we might call neurological exceptionalism – the theory that human consciousness is an emergent function of human embodiment, and too complex to be replicated with pure hardware. (I’m maintaining my agnosticism, here, by the way; I know way too little about any or all of these fields of research to start coming to conclusions of my own. I have marks on my arse from being sat on the fence, and I’m just fine with that.)

But my biggest take-away from Knapp’s post, plus Ben Goertzel’s responses to such in the comments, and Mike Anissimov’s response at his own site? That the phrase “magical thinking” is the F-bomb of AI speculation, and gets taken very personally. Anissimov counters Knapp with some discussion of Bayesian models of brain function, which is interesting stuff. This paragraph is a bit odd, though:

Even if we aren’t there yet, Knapp and Stross should be cheering on the incremental effort, not standing on the sidelines and frowning, making toasts to the eternal superiority of Homo sapiens sapiens. Wherever AI is today, can’t we agree that we should make responsible effort towards beneficial AI? Isn’t that important? Even if we think true AI is a million years away because if it were closer then that would mean that human intelligence isn’t as complicated and mystical as we had wished? [Emphasis as found in original.]

This appeal to an emotional or ethical response to the debate seems somewhat out of character, and the line about “toasting the superiority” feels a bit off; I don’t get any sense that Stross or Knapp want AI to be impossible or even difficult, and the rather crowing tone rolled out as Anissimov cheerleads for Goertzel’s ‘scolding’ of Knapp (delivered from the comfort of his own site) smacks more than a little of “yeah, well, tell that to my big brother, then”. There are two comments on that latter post from one Alexander Kruel that appear to point out some inconsistencies in Goertzel’s responses, also… though I’d note that I’m more worried by experts whose opinions never change than those who adapt their ideas to the latest findings. This is an instance where the language used in the defence of an argument is at least as interesting as the argument itself… or at least it is to me, anyway. YMMV, and all that.

The last word in today’s round-up goes to molecular biologist and regular Futurismic commenter Athena Andreadis, who has repubbed an essay she placed with H+ Magazine in late 2009. It’s an argument from biological principles against the possibility of reproducing consciousness on non-biological substrates:

To place a brain into another biological body, à la Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, could arise as the endpoint extension of appropriating blood, sperm, ova, wombs or other organs in a heavily stratified society. Besides being de facto murder of the original occupant, it would also require that the incoming brain be completely intact, as well as able to rewire for all physical and mental functions. After electrochemical activity ceases in the brain, neuronal integrity deteriorates in a matter of seconds. The slightest delay in preserving the tissue seriously skews in vitro research results, which tells you how well this method would work in maintaining details of the original’s personality.

To recreate a brain/mind in silico, whether a cyborg body or a computer frame, is equally problematic. Large portions of the brain process and interpret signals from the body and the environment. Without a body, these functions will flail around and can result in the brain, well, losing its mind. Without corrective “pingbacks” from the environment that are filtered by the body, the brain can easily misjudge to the point of hallucination, as seen in phenomena like phantom limb pain or fibromyalgia.

Additionally, without context we may lose the ability for empathy, as is shown in Bacigalupi’s disturbing story People of Sand and Slag. Empathy is as instrumental to high-order intelligence as it is to survival: without it, we are at best idiot savants, at worst psychotic killers. Of course, someone can argue that the entire universe can be recreated in VR. At that point, we’re in god territory … except that even if some of us manage to live the perfect Second Life, there’s still the danger of someone unplugging the computer or deleting the noomorphs. So there go the Star Trek transporters, there go the Battlestar Galactica Cylon resurrection tanks.

No signs of anyone backing down from their corner yet, with the exception of Alex Knapp apologising for the “magical thinking” diss. Stay tuned for further developments… and do pipe up in the comments if there’s more stuff that I’m missing, or if you’ve your own take on the topic.

OpGaGaRah and the Celebrity Singularity

Paul Raven @ 26-05-2011

There are many reasons I like Ryan “Grumpy Owl” Oakley, but his view of celebrity culture is one of ’em. Here he is invoking the ghost of Guy Debord to ask whether the celebrisphere is contracting toward its very own singularity:

Today, I watched Oprah’s final show then Lady Gaga Live.

They seem to be very different entertainers but they gave the same speech with the same message. Oprah talked about her hard-knock life, told people that if they just loved themselves, their dreams would all come true and nothing could stop them from being happy and successful. Gaga talked about her hard-knock life, told people to follow their dreams and love themselves and nothing could stop them from being famous.

After all, it worked for them, right?


Right now, in a corporate laboratory, scientists are creating OPGAGARAH. They’ve tried before. Tyra Banks was their most recent failure. But they will get it right.

Then, we shall have one media personality who appeals to every demo/psychographic. A monopoly on all culture. A common goal that tells us to love ourselves and our dreams will all come true. A psychic hegemon to cower before while aspiring to be. Someone that both parent and teenager likes. A beautiful monster that eats life and shits profit.

I hear you, Ryan. For all GaGa’s supposedly transgressive behaviours (and, for the record, I think the most interesting and important thing she’s done is speak out in vocal support of non-heterosexual lifestyles), she’s an accelerating convergence of all the banal pseudotransgressive and titillatory po-mo pop tropes of the last thirty years or so, slowly accreting into a black hole that will hoover in money and attention until it collapses in on itself; like an overclocked Madonna aimed at the dissipating heart of popular culture.

The sad thing is, I don’t think she even realises it; like all the best pop stars, her belief in the independence of her agency is what makes her powerful, but it also blinds her to her own status as a puppet of a dying industry that will sell anything to keep its business model – and the executive carpool, natch – rolling for another few months.

[ Side note: I think the suggestion that GaGa – and others – are starting to sell transhumanist tropes into the mainstream actually supports my argument; last year’s transgression is this year’s coffee-table culture, and they’re running out of more acceptable novelties to peddle. ]

The Singularity is the deus ex machina of the transhumanist narrative

Paul Raven @ 05-05-2011

The presumably pseudonymous Extropia DaSilva neatly sums up my problems with Kurzweil-branch Singularitarianism (and one of the major reasons I repeatedly identify as a fellow traveller of the transhuman project rather than a card-carrier) over at H+ Magazine; in a nutshell, the Singularity is the ultimate authorial handwave:

The ancient Greeks also gave us the phrase “deus ex machina,” which the Oxford Dictionary defines as “an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play or novel.” A deus ex machina makes audiences and readers roll their eyes when they encounter it in a play or a story, and we should likewise roll our eyes when we encounter a deus ex machina being used to resolve all questions regarding the feasibility of achieving transhuman goals within our lifetime. “The Singularity will fix it” is a deus ex machina.

It also turns transhumanism into an infinitely variable explanation. Just like the myth of Demeter, you can continue to believe in the swift and inevitable success of transhuman dreams if you can invoke a godlike power that can fix anything. Hell, you can even posit a total rewrite of the laws of physics, thanks to the Singularity hacking the program that runs the universe. So even if some of our dreams turn out to violate physical laws, there is no reason to abandon faith.

To me, there is something deeply troubling about using the Singularity as a kind of protective barrier against all skepticism regarding the likelihood of achieving transhuman goals within a generation. It is difficult to reason with people who use the Singularity concept in this way, and even harder to have a logical debate with them. They have a deus ex machina to hand that can demolish any argument designed to show that transhuman dreams will not inevitably come true within our lifetime. This kind of reaction takes reasonable, scientific expectations of a brighter future and pushes them dangerously close to being an irrational pseudo-religion. And I find pseudo-religions boring.

I actually find pseudo-religions fascinating, but as subjects rather than objects; indeed, it’s the current schismatic/metastasising phase of transhumanism-as-pop-culture-meme that attracts my interest, far more than the promises of the technology on which it builds. The latter is pure speculation, which has its own intellectual rewards, but the former feels more like a chance for me to observe the way ideas spread and mutate in the antfarm of a networked global society.

(Now that I’ve typed that out, I realise it makes me sound like some sort of cultural peeping-tom. Ah, well. 🙂 )

However, lest we throw the baby out with the bathwater here, I think the Singularity has a certain value in its ability to attract attention. From a personal perspective, I would probably never have discovered transhumanism if it weren’t for the rash of science fictional Singularities I encountered over the last decade or so. Compressing the transformative power of technological change (and our convergence with such) into a momentary timeframe makes the underlying point – that we change as our technologies change, and that the relationship is a positive feedback loop – much clearer to the uninitiated.

However, that same temporal compression chimes with the transcendent Final Trumps of apocalyptic religions, and there’s a very frustrating human tendency to read metaphorical truths as literal ones (which I claim no immunity from myself, I might add); explicitly reframing the Singularity as a rhetorical narrative device might make it a slightly more useful thing, but I suspect the real root of the problem is that we all secretly long for something to swoop in and fix everything for us (hence the 90s popularity of the alien intervention narrative – surely an extant intelligence greater than [or perhaps merely different to] our own offers hope of us surviving our imminent civilisational bottlenecks?).The Singularity’s seductiveness lies in its tendency to brush aside unanswerable questions.

I imagine anyone who’s written fiction knows the temptation of the deus ex machina; the only alternative to its deployment is to think hard and rationally about ways to overcome an obstacle. Religions – and their rationality-tinged descendents, like Singularitarianism – are an inevitable by-product of human intellectual laziness.

Transhumanism is a philosophy, but Singularitarianism is a cult.

Transhumanism has already won

Paul Raven @ 01-03-2011

So claims Nikola “Socrates” Danaylov of, anyhow [via Mike Anissimov]. His argument is that transhumanist/Singularitarian topics and pundits (especially the ubiquitous Ray Kurzweil, who has a movie to promote) are cropping up regularly in mainstream news outlets (TIME Magazine, The Daily Show, so on and so forth).

I can see where Danaylov and Anissimov are coming from, here; transhumanism is definitely breaking the surface of the media ocean, but much like an iceberg, only a small part of it is visible to Josephine Average thus far. Sure, the internet is full of deep engagement with the technological and philosophical questions raised by transhumanism, and some of the more serious journalism attempts to grapple with the big issues, too. But I think Danaylov is caught in a kind of subcultural myopia; you could come to the same conclusion about the ubiquity of transhumanism as a discussion topic just by looking through my own RSS reader’s XML file, but there’s a big selection bias going on there. Perhaps it’s different in the US, but over here in the UK I’d be surprised if one in ten randomly selected folk-on-the-street would recognise the words transhumanism, singularity or Kurzweil. (The latter might ring a bell for veteran synthesiser collectors, of course, but they’re an even smaller demographic than transhumanists… )

Of course, if Kurzweil’s movie makes a big enough splash, that may change, but I think transhumanists could do with taking a cautionary lesson from the science fiction community which might be best summed up as “when everyone’s talking about your thing, they may not talk about it in the ways you’d have liked”. The cost of that increased media profile will be paid in pillory: rather than being a unified political movement, transhumanism is a loose collection of politely (or sometimes not so politely) warring factions, a rhizomatic network rather than a hierarchy. When the mainstream media goes out to research a story, it looks for the folk at the top of the pyramid, and it treats their take on things as representative of the collective… which means that while Kurzweil’s movie is surely going to raise the profile of transhumanism as a concept, it will do so at the price of enthroning Kurzweil as the figurehead of the entire movement.

(Yes, yes; I know he isn’t, and so do most other folk with an interest in the field. But beware the simplifying and polarising impulse of mainstream journalism: movements must be capped with a leader and placed on the political spectrum, and they’ll do both on your behalf even if you’re leaderless and disconnected from the tired Left-Right axis. Just ask your nearest anarchist.)

As a fellow-traveller (the less charitable might say camp follower) of transhumanism, this is where things start to look really interesting; the most exciting phase of any subculture is when the mainstream discovers it. My concern is that many transhumanists, being generally smart and intellectual types, are fatally underestimating the general public’s capacity for fear, disgust and ridicule; the spotlight of publicity can get pretty hot, especially when your core ideology questions deeply held cultural values. (I’m put in mind of the reaction of British culture to the punk rock explosion back in the late seventies; the politico-economic climate is similar, for a start, and transhumanism’s core interests just as transgressive of body/identity politics, if not more so.) It’s all very well to claim that you see transhumanism as a platform for a secular examination of mortality and the afterlife, but once the Daily Mail (or FOX News, or whoever) has painted you as mad scientists who want to stuff yourselves full of silicon and live forever, you’ll have a hard time getting that philosophical nuance across to the public. Visibility leads to demonisation; if you think the mainstream techgeek scene can be disparaging of transhumanism, just wait until the America’s Got Talent demographic gets a smell of blood in the water.

As an observer of culture (and as a writer of stories), this is the moment when transhumanism comes into its own for me; its internal conflicts are intellectually interesting, but it’s as it rubs up against the belief systems of the majority that sparks will start to fly, and I suspect that a lot of transhumanist advocates are going to get a pretty rude political awakening – not just from media misrepresentation, but from co-opting and branding efforts by bandwaggoning corporations, and schismatic clades of oddballs and outsiders glomming on to the parts of the ideology they like while throwing out the more troubling philosophical questions.

Luckily I have a decent excuse to be pondering such matters; I’ve been invited to be part of a panel discussing the impact of transhumanism (and Kurzweil’s movie in particular) at a Humanity+ UK meeting in London on Sunday 9th April. Given that the other panellists are likely to be proper boffins and theorists (I see Dr. Anders Sandberg is already on the list with me, which means I’m already outclassed on IQ and knowledge by at least an order of magnitude), I’m going to focus on the cultural bow wave that will form as transhumanism plows its way into the Zeitgeist. I fully expect to learn a great deal more than I teach, but I’m hoping that my fence-sitter status gives me a usefully different perspective on things.

If not, it should be an entertaining couple of hours of being made to feel incredibly stupid. 🙂

Josh Harris still on the MIT campaign trail

Paul Raven @ 01-02-2011

I never thought I’d ever get to say that I’d scooped the folk at Wired, but it looks like I did (even though they’re billing their piece as an”exclusive”, I’m magnanimous enough not to make a big deal about it – I know my place in the information ecosystem). Their Josh Harris screed is a little longer (and a little more unhinged, especially the sidebar about, um, toothpaste) than the one I ran here last year, but the core idea is very much the same: 1) get MIT Media Lab directorship, 2) build monetizable participatory panopticon, 3)… erm, well, the next step is a bit unclear, but I figure the way forward will become apparent when the earlier stages are in the bag.

I note with interest that the comments thread is much more vehemently opposed to the idea of Harris taking the post than the Futurismic equivalent. One could put that down to Wired‘s larger audience (YA RLY), but I’m gonna assume it’s something to do with Futurismic‘s readership being that little bit more open to craziness. Hell, you all read my jibber-jabber every day, you must get some sort of kick out of it… 🙂

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