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The Rapture of the Nerds
February 17, 2010 10:47 PM   Subscribe

Science Fiction writers Alastair Reynolds, Vernor Vinge, Karl Schroeder and MeFi's own Charles Stross discuss the Singularity - which, Stross cheekily points out, has been around the corner for a good 20 years.
posted by Artw (27 comments total) 24 users marked this as a favorite

 
Awesome. Thanks for posting this! Reynolds, Vinge and Stross are some of my favorite authors, and a couple of Schroeder's "sun" series books are on my gigantic "to read" pile. :)
posted by zarq at 11:16 PM on February 17, 2010


I dunno, I just came across this video of robots building industrial robots in a totally automated factory definitely gave me some future shock. And looking through some of the related videos I discovered that you definitely don't want to taunt them (and by 'taunt' I mean strap yourself into a chair and program it to... well just watch the video)
posted by delmoi at 12:10 AM on February 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


Schroeder's "Virga" books are terrific.
posted by Kikkoman at 12:22 AM on February 18, 2010


Ugh, 16 minutes in they talk about the "photosynthesis quantum entanglement" thing, Stross doesn't make the newscientist mistake of calling it quantum computing, but then Vinge immediately makes the same Penrose reference that the mefite who posted the FPP did.

Bleh.
posted by delmoi at 1:01 AM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


what kind of Zombies is Stross talking about at 29:30? Something to do with time travel? (or was he just saying "all you zombies")?
posted by delmoi at 1:26 AM on February 18, 2010


God. Ugh. Some of these questioners are seriously annoying.
posted by delmoi at 1:47 AM on February 18, 2010


Delmoi: That's "-All You Zombies-" by Heinlein, a tale of achronological genealogical bootstrapping, and thus relevant to the time travel discussion.
posted by Sparx at 1:52 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


The IEEE Spectrum "special report" on The Singularity makes for interesting reading, but I’d like you to try something as you click through it. 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."

(My personal favourite right now is "The Flying Spaghetti Monster represents the end of the supremacy of Homo sapiens as the dominant species on planet Earth.")

The Singularity is the last trench of the religious impulse in the technocratic community. The Singularity has been denigrated as "The Rapture For Nerds," and not without cause. It’s pretty much indivisible from the religious faith in describing the desire to be saved by something that isn’t there (or even the desire to be destroyed by something that isn’t there) and throws off no evidence of its ever intending to exist. It’s a new faith for people who think they’re otherwise much too evolved to believe in the Flying Spaghetti Monster or any other idiot back-brain cult you care to suggest.

Vernor Vinge, the originator of the term, is a scientist and novelist, and occupies an almost unique space. After all, the only other sf writer I can think of who invented a religion that is also a science-fiction fantasy is L Ron Hubbard.


- Warren Ellis
posted by mhoye at 2:29 AM on February 18, 2010 [11 favorites]


That link scared me delmoi. Dude's head is within an inch of the concrete, and the robot wouldn't have stopped. Seriously messed up.
posted by Peztopiary at 2:39 AM on February 18, 2010


The Singularity has been denigrated as "The Rapture For Nerds," and not without cause.

I'm not sure "denigrated" is the right word here, that phrase was coined by Ken MacLeod so whilst there is a level of irony to it, it's not straightforwardly negative. And as it happens MacLeod's blog points to the first two parts of an extended essay on the Singularity making use of his fiction.
posted by ninebelow at 2:43 AM on February 18, 2010


With apologies to DNA, "There's something big and physically binding coming at me, it needs a fancy sounding name, thermo...thermodynamics. I wonder if it wants to be friends".
posted by overyield at 2:47 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Confession: I've been looking forward to something like this to happen for most of my life. Not out of some quasi-religious desire to cheat death, but simply to see what happens.

So much of the world seems to be coming to a head -- population, energy use, the debut of exciting and/or terrifying new technologies. After millennia of brutal hunter-gathering, followed by a few centuries of imperceptible progress, the last few generations have seen a hurricane of change.

We now find ourselves at a stage where even a decade ago feels significantly different in many ways. It seems like we're converging on Something, and whether that ends up being good (upload your consciousness to the Sol Wide Web!) or bad (grey goo apocalypse!), it would be a great privilege to witness such a sea change occur in one's lifetime.

I think it's a big reason I dig science fiction. It's like the speculative fan fiction for the series finale of civilization. Who's closer to the truth: Gibson, Roddenberry, or Atwood? Tune in next week half-century to find out!
posted by Rhaomi at 3:48 AM on February 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


you definitely don't want to taunt them (and by 'taunt' I mean strap yourself into a chair and program it to... well just watch the video)

I think that we have just seen the future of dentistry.

We now find ourselves at a stage where even a decade ago feels significantly different in many ways. It seems like we're converging on Something, and whether that ends up being good (upload your consciousness to the Sol Wide Web!) or bad (grey goo apocalypse!), it would be a great privilege to witness such a sea change occur in one's lifetime.

The only problem is that people have been feeling this way, very genuinely, for a very long time, a thousand years at least, probably a lot more. This is the basis of every millenarian movement I can think of, for example. It's like how people have been complaining about "kids these days" for a long time, too -- there's a universality to thinking our particular historical moment is extraordinarily unique, when really it's just a moment in time.
posted by Forktine at 5:02 AM on February 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


The only problem is that people have been feeling this way, very genuinely, for a very long time, a thousand years at least, probably a lot more. This is the basis of every millenarian movement I can think of, for example. It's like how people have been complaining about "kids these days" for a long time, too -- there's a universality to thinking our particular historical moment is extraordinarily unique, when really it's just a moment in time.

Vinge actually said something really interesting about that, which was actually something someone said to him.

His point was that when you have a rapidly rising slope, it actually depends on what your scale is. So for example, an exponential increase looks like a flat line when graphed on log scale.

But what his friend said was that if increasing technology makes you smarter and more capable, and the thing you're trying to measure is smartness and capability, then at each point how smart and capable people are is just going to seem like a flat line gradually rising.
posted by delmoi at 5:15 AM on February 18, 2010


The Singularity scares the living crap out of me. Should I read the interview, or will it leave me rocking in the corner, pointing at my laptop and saying "WITCH?"
posted by mccarty.tim at 5:21 AM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Y'know... In the last month I've read a few MeFi articles on The Singularity (and I'm not even sure it deserves the capitals) and listened to one well-placed TTBOOK program on Hive Minds.

The episode of TTBOOK specifically focused on ant, bee and other insect minds. But, the last segment was an interview with Jaron Lanier. Who is highly critical of the the Singularity == geek religion and the Singularity == human hive mind concepts.

And I've formed the following opinions on the subject; if The Singularity is real we won't know that it has happened until much later. The Singularity might not be the formation of a hive mind and technological rapture. When the singularity happens it will happen with the sort of all encompassing technological jump that followed the advent of the steam engine, or the automobile or the internet. Yes, it will be a huge shift in the use of technology from our present technological forms to another. Yes, it will involve most, if not all, of humanity. But, it has happened before and we're still here.

I feel that any hope for a Rapture Event is pure escapism; not useful for the betterment of humanity. And I hold this opinion up to any dogma that contains the idea of a Rapture.
posted by Severian at 6:09 AM on February 18, 2010


Thanks for the post. That was a great listen. (mccarty.tim, it's actually a pretty well-considered presentation; you won't leave scared.)

To extend the 'singularity' metaphor past its breaking point, remember that the 'edge' of a black hole (a gravitational singularity) isn't something physical, it's the distance from the center of the black hole inside which light - and therefore information - can't get out. For smallish (i.e. star-sized) black holes, the event horizon is close enough to the black hole that the difference in gravitational force over the length of your body is enough to kill you. But for extremely big black holes, the event horizon could be far enough from the center of the black hole that you don't even notice you've passed it.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is delmoi's; we won't necessarily know if or when we cross boundaries of technological prowess that accelerate our capacity to cross boundaries of technological prowess.
posted by Fraxas at 6:54 AM on February 18, 2010


It was an interesting watch, though I wish it had been a little longer and maybe more structured. I liked the direction that Schroeder seemed to be thinking in, questioning the assumptions that underlie most thinking about the singularity. I think that's probably the most productive direction for thought and discussion of the topic. By digging into what it is we even mean by 'the singularity', and what conditions would be required for it to occur I think we can come up with a lot of interesting stuff. That was something the panelists mention that I agree with. Above all else the singularity is an excellent topic for beanplating.

But what his friend said was that if increasing technology makes you smarter and more capable, and the thing you're trying to measure is smartness and capability, then at each point how smart and capable people are is just going to seem like a flat line gradually rising.

Right, I think that was Moravec he was talking about. That also ties in with a point that someone (I think Charlie) made about the internet already making us (at least feel...) smarter. The more capable we become, the more we want, so I think that the idea of a smooth, rapidly steepening curve might be more accurate and useful than the idea of the singularity. I mean, we can never really turn back can we? It's not like we have to cross some kind of event horizon for that to be true. We can't undo the internet, or automobiles (as mentioned above) and there's definitely no way we can go back to the way things were before.

Another point that was mentioned in the talk is that incomprehensibility is a key part of the singularity. The idea that at some point things are going to get so batshitinsane that people can no longer keep up with progress is a pretty natural one I think. Future Shock is not a new concept, but I think again the (a?) singularity might not be the best metaphor for thinking about this. There are, probably always have been, and maybe always will be bleeding edge adopters of new ideas/technology, and people who want nothing to do with it as well. Most people are going to be distributed somewhere in between the two extremes. Important developments like cars, computers, etc, might cause that distribution to slosh around a bit, but I think as long as these developments are not instantaneous (as in literally overnight, causing mass hysteria), then people will more or less be able to cope with them. The developments themselves are not evenly distributed either. There are still plenty of people in the world without cars, the internet, and all kinds of other things.

If you wake up one morning feeling completely depressed about your own life and the state of the world, stressed out beyond all belief, you can fire up your computer get on Ask Metafilter and say "Hey Hivemind, I think I've got a nasty case of Future Shock and I don't know how to go on. What can I do?" The Hivemind will say back to you "Don't worry, this is really pretty normal. Go see a doctor, try some therapy, and it will probably work out fine. You can do this."

That all being said, what separates the singularity from the kind of smooth curve of progress Moravec mentioned to Vinge? If they're not substantially different, then why keep the idea of the singularity around?
posted by benign at 7:44 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Back when I was in high school, I too, wholeheartedly believed in the coming singularity (although my friends and I called it "convergence" instead).

Then I went to college, experimented more freely with certain kinds of peak experience than I probably should have, and came to realize a profound, if deceptively banal, truth: Every present moment is the singularity we perennially deem as being just around the corner, representing the convergence and mutual annihilation of the determinate past and indeterminate future in the cataclysm of the possibility-devouring present.

Then I got a job, married, settled down, and now I'm pretty sure it was all just an hallucination.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:47 AM on February 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


That link scared me delmoi. Dude's head is within an inch of the concrete, and the robot wouldn't have stopped. Seriously messed up.

I don't know how he didn't throw up. :P
posted by zarq at 8:45 AM on February 18, 2010


“I feel that any hope for a Rapture Event is pure escapism”
I think this is a failure of the imagination. Not on your part Severian, but on the part of the folks who encapsulate the event(s) in such a way.

Clarke (I believe) said either we are alone in the universe or we are not. And both are equally terrifying.
There is a magnitude in implication there that I think the mind recoils from. It’s hard to look out into the night sky with any genuinely informed mind that comprehends what it is you’re looking at and think in all that vastness we are utterly alone as the sole sentient species. It’s just as startling to think that there are other sentient species and despite our best efforts to date we have no idea how to communicate with them much less understand them if we could.
In either case, even accepting the shock of the change, the enormity of task in either case is staggering.

And however we express ourselves as individuals, as a group, we can never return to the past. In that sense, we certainly have passed event horizon (innumerable ways to elucidate – but nukes alone do it).

So, I agree it’s escapism, I’m a bit more forgiving though. In part because it's scared the wet blueberries out of me as well. And plus there are plenty of concepts lacking context and language and connections.Things we can think and amorphously conceptualize but not bring into sharp focus.
Look at Da Vinci. Give him an internal combustion engine and he would have invented the first airplane. Or Hero of Alexandria. 'Hey, Hero, steam engine. Great. But what would we do without all the slaves? Nah, get rid of it, it’s useless.'
The concept of ‘atoms’ under the Greeks and Heraclitus saying “all is fire,” and Newton questioning the interchangeability of matter with energy but not until Einstein does that concept really start to come to fruition and any practical realization.

I think there is a great deal more hope now that we make connections much faster.
Even though we, as Einstein said, can only comprehend the magnificent structure of nature imperfectly, and the idea of a rapture does seem to be a complete lack of humility, perhaps it’s that belief in and hope for the idea that we can make better and faster cross connections and make use of practical ideas faster in a constantly accelerating (if not exponential) manner – before we fail to adapt to the environment we ourselves created. (There’s a name for cross-connections in history contributing to advancement. Not in my head right now tho)
Same sort of deal. We’ve come far enough along that as a species we either live or die. And both prospects are equally terrifying.

Lots of folks have been focused on the apocalyptic end of that (be it nukes, environmental degradation or zombies even). A little 'what if?', even in terms of a techno-rapture, meh.
It’s nice we’re looking at maybe we’re smart enough to make it instead of just smart enough to eradicate ourselves and ways to speak about that future.
posted by Smedleyman at 11:11 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


(And indeed, to paraphrase Rothstein on Clarke 'perhaps any sufficiently sophisticated science fiction is indistinguishable from religion.')
posted by Smedleyman at 11:15 AM on February 18, 2010


Perhaps some post-humans will arrange for a rapture-type event to explain what happened for the rest of us.
posted by wobh at 11:20 AM on February 18, 2010


To extend the 'singularity' metaphor past its breaking point, remember that the 'edge' of a black hole (a gravitational singularity) isn't something physical, it's the distance from the center of the black hole inside which light - and therefore information - can't get out. For smallish (i.e. star-sized) black holes, the event horizon is close enough to the black hole that the difference in gravitational force over the length of your body is enough to kill you. But for extremely big black holes, the event horizon could be far enough from the center of the black hole that you don't even notice you've passed it.
Someone posted this video on the holographic principle that talks a lot about black holes. It's mostly about black holes and information theory. Very interesting stuff. At the end he takes a question about what happens inside a black hole and he says that even light gets annihilated pretty quickly as it enters. I'm not sure how it gets annihilated, but it does.
posted by delmoi at 12:22 PM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Meh- we've been through singularities before, and remained essentially human while changing, and there's no reason to think that won't be the same again. That's right, singularities; transition points where technology fundamentally changes the way people live. We've transitioned through the discovery of fire, development of agriculture, creation of cities, empires, automobiles, airplanes, the internet...and our fundamental drives remain the same.

One thing that's occurred to me though is that later singularities require more of a preceding infrastructure to be developed in order to enable them, and hence have actually been slower and smaller in scale. Fire required only lightning and wood, cities required agriculture and the right landscape, however automobiles needed a wide range of technological innovations ranging from internal combustion, to metallurgy, to factory development, and the adoption of the automobile was still hindered by road quality. The internet and genetic revolutions required even more interlinking background technologies, and have been slowed as a result. If we assume the oncoming singularities will need even more diffuse enabling technologies, then it seems quite possible that they will be even slower to take place, and we may not even notice the transitions.

In any case, if you want to look at the motivations of our post-singularity descendants, then it's most likely they're going to be the same as the motivations of those humans 10,000 years ago, a few singularities before us. It's simply hubris to assume that our singularities are going to change everything.
posted by happyroach at 7:38 PM on February 18, 2010


If The Singularity (I use capitals, because happyroach speaks of 'other singularities', whereas the topic of discussion is broader than specific technologies) happens, what concerns me most is, Who is in charge?

Not that I want to twist this discussion into politics, however, this aspect of the situation worries me. I already see the United States gone considerably off the rails due to manipulations of the media etc, where We the People are confounded by carefully crafted misinformation. While at the same time, technology is providing increasingly scary tools to keep the crowds under control, and the ability to gather data from diverse sources gives unprecedented ability to determine too many details about individuals.

What if The Singularity has already happened, but the Morlocks have "it" in their pocket, and the rest of us are doomed to remain Eloi? Or, if not already having it, the wrong people have their hands on the means to control it. Mind, I appreciate that my reference to an "it" is highly questionable, as if The Singularity were some specific thing. Yet there is technology involved, and some folks get to use technology, and other folks get to be abused by it. Ask the Japanese.
posted by Goofyy at 8:46 PM on February 18, 2010


I think there is a great deal more hope now that we make connections much faster.
Even though we, as Einstein said, can only comprehend the magnificent structure of nature imperfectly, and the idea of a rapture does seem to be a complete lack of humility, perhaps it’s that belief in and hope for the idea that we can make better and faster cross connections and make use of practical ideas faster in a constantly accelerating (if not exponential) manner – before we fail to adapt to the environment we ourselves created.


One way of reading "constantly accelerating" yields the definition of an exponential.

Personally, I'm not so sure this kind of linear analysis is particularly interesting. Understanding is more like looking deep into a fractal. You keep on zooming in, you do a lot of thrashing, but you never really make much progress toward the goal--that is to say, you never make progress toward absolutist goals. For some enlightened individuals the process is the goal--the singularity would suck for them, Left Behind by Raptularity.

Actually, the fractal notion is not far different from the argument above about looking at exponential growth on a log scale ending up with linear progression. If your problems become more complex, you have to do a lot more work to take a step. But then I guess anyone who has played Civilization has already figured that much out.

(There’s a name for cross-connections in history contributing to advancement. Not in my head right now tho)

Sure, the name is James Burke :)

I love that idea, "both possibilities are equally terrifying", like a classic duality.
posted by Chuckles at 11:27 PM on February 18, 2010


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