Stross starts Singularity slapfight

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.)

13 thoughts on “Stross starts Singularity slapfight”

  1. Haha, Charles is like some kind of abominable master troll & Mike has been baited easily enough before. Hope Charlie’s new book sells well!

    I’m pretty much wait and see on this as well, tried to get my head around the whole thing once & ended up mostly only capable of making fun of it. The Nerdfights are not exactly light reading…

  2. Two points:

    1. I’m an atheist and skeptic. Singularitarianism has enough of the attributes of a religion that it has begun to ding my skeptic bell very loudly and clearly.

    2. “Rule 34” does indeed cover some of this territory, although it’s probably unfair to cite a not-yet-published work.

    Oh, and (3) I used to be an *abominable* internet troll in the early 1990s 🙂

  3. Anissimov is unclear on a number of basic concepts and he also uses common terms in ways that differ radically from dictionary definitions. I’m an atheist — I wrote an essay for Voices of Disbelief by invitation — and I know, from knowledge of simple biology, how unlikely godlike AIs and mind uploading are. Materialists accept the inseparability of brain from mind; it’s people who believe in souls or aurae or èlan vital as some ectoplasm separate from the brain that consider uploading possible and end up forming messianic cults, of which Singularitarianism is a textbook example.

    I wrote about some aspects of this in H+ magazine two years ago. Perhaps it’s time to reprint the relevant essay… if only to show that scientists (female non-UK scientists, at that) have been pondering these issues for a while. As in, yanno, being thinkers.

  4. More evidence for my theory that Charles Stross IS an AI. Obviously he’s trying to throw us off.

  5. You’re are undoubtedly being too kind, Mark, but thank you nonetheless. I think of myself as a curator, really, but I guess “scout” has a more active kind of feel to it…

  6. @Paul: It’s enough that one of the triumverate of singularity gurus, among others, is openly arguing against the premises of his own singularity-centric novels. The the Overton Window, the trajectory of the discourse, is gravitating away from the romantic honeymoon phase of singularital infatuation and geek-rapture circle-jerk into an actual discussion. Milieu accomplished.

  7. Wintermute, I am *NOT* a “singularity guru”. I wrote one overt singularity novel, and acknowledged Vernor’s point about having to address it in order to write space opera in an earlier duology. (And please note, the novel published as “Singularity Sky” was given that title by the publisher, *not* by me — because they thought the “S” word was “hot”.)

    Oh, and I should also note that “lets you and him fight” sucks, and I refuse to be a party to it.

  8. @Charlie: Fair enough. I think it’s also fair to say that Accelerando is one of the works used as a touchstone, if not manifesto by many Singularitarians, trashumanists and the like. It’s a pretty defining “hit” work, consistently shows up in top-10 Singularity lists, whether that’s desired or not. In the same way that Gibson long moved on and openly protested the marketer’s label “cyberpunk” after writing Neuromancer, that could not prevent the Neuromancer subcultural phenomenon from becoming the bible of cyberpunks, computergeeks, and other people with interesting hair cuts. And Gibson spends the majority of his book tours arguing against *his* hit-single book, debunking his own mythology trying to convince people he is not the CP-guru and fending off the rabid pleas for more cyberpunk, insisting that people move on and try his new jazz albums.

    So, no, you’re not a guru in the way Steve Jobs is an active, proud gadget guru. But the subcultural import to many people of some of your work is what it is.

  9. I should add that I commend you for taking the Singularity skeptic stance. And I agree the slapfight metaphor is perhaps better suited for Fox News. What’s going on is more of a well-reasoned discussion

  10. @Athena: Seriously?

    Have you spent much time on the geek forums like lesswrong?

    I can state categorically that the most hardcore singulatarians are the one’s who *don’t* believe in souls. The argument is that it’s about information content and whether a teleported copy of you is the same as the original you.

    The ones who say that it *is* the same as the original you are the most hardcore singulatarians and their argument is usually *against* souls. More specifically “so you’re saying that the only reason the copy is not the same as the original is because of some non-scientific quantity we can’t measure. i.e a soul?”

    Unless you mistyped and meant to say that “those who believe in souls think uploading is IMpossible.”

    For the record, *I* don’t discount anything and take the paradoxical position that religions are both true and untrue if we take as priors the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics and that since due to the mediocrity principle we know intelligence is possible and we also know that computers can operate faster than human thought and IF we can run a simulation of intelligence in a computer then at least weakly godlike and potentially strongly godlike AI is possible.

    On the other hand, while I believe uploads are likely possible, I believe they will be able to pass the smoke test of being functionally equivalent to the original, I take the position that since quantum states cannot be copied, they are not the *same* and are and always will be a *copy* and are NOT mathematically equivalent to the original. (Though they likely will be functionally equivalent).

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