Wash. Monthly: Singularity, Free Will, etc. It's a short article.
October 11, 2005 3:26 AM   Subscribe

So. What will happen when our computers get good enough
posted by Tlogmer (30 comments total)
Well, shit. I thought I had a question mark on the end.
posted by Tlogmer at 3:27 AM on October 11, 2005

Hehe, great way to lead up to the web comic. I enjoyed it. Although Bullshit! You can't be homeless, you're too clean. is a pretty lame statement to come from a hobo.
posted by furtive at 3:51 AM on October 11, 2005

The first web comic I've seen since 1993 that impressed and entertained me enough to bother reading all the way from beginning to end.

Great post.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 3:55 AM on October 11, 2005

This was the first post in a very, very long time where I actually enjoyed every link. I read that comic and another one on e-sheep, and was thoroughly impressed -- a bunch of stuff linked on wikipedia from the singularity page -- and that Washington Monthly post was quite interesting, too. Thanks, Tlogmer.
posted by blacklite at 4:35 AM on October 11, 2005

It can be hard to have interesting discussions about "the singularity" because it's not really speculation so much as it is a manifestation of the millenarian yearning for cosmic re-birth.

So much ground on this has already been covered, here, too. Bruce Sterling gave a great "calm down, folks" take [mp3 link] [ogg] on the Vingean Singularity at the Long Now foundation. KirkJobSluder does a great job in the linked thread of critiqueing Vingean/extropian "singularitarian" ideas -- he hits a number of points that Sterling misses. (Just scan for his ID, he makes too many good entries to link.)

I'm generally skeptical that the singularity will be in any way singular. I'll borrow Sterling's phrasing for this, and point out that in any singularity scenario, there is one constant: We're part of it. We can look at what we've done, and have a reasonably good idea of things we might do. (What we will do is another matter, of course.) Unless we explicitly set out to do so, we won't be creating SkyNet.

One point that I can't remember hearing (though it's probably buried in the singularitarian conversations somewhere) is that we've arguably already had a "singularity". It happened at some point in the late middle ages (or early Rennaissance), when Capitalism as we now knoww and understand it came to be. If there's any "intelligence" that will take over and control human actions going into the future, it's "the Market", not "the Singularity".

In fact, writers like John Crowley have expended a great deal of ink in their obsession with the idea that the history of mankind is filled with singularities. In the Crowleyan "singularity" (though he doesn't use the term), though, only the omniscient narrator, and perhaps one or two fortunate witnesses, actually knows it's happened, before or after.

Finally: Any post that points to eSheep (and especially to almostguy) is a good post. And that's all I've got to say about that. For now.
posted by lodurr at 4:37 AM on October 11, 2005

I think we're in a race between Technological Singularity and Mad Max-style post-Peak Oil collapse.
posted by alumshubby at 4:39 AM on October 11, 2005

....With global warming as the dark horse.
posted by alumshubby at 4:42 AM on October 11, 2005

Global warming and Peak Oil are not mutually exclusive, of course. You need energy to deal with change on a global warming scale. Without it, things get a lot messier.

Or do they? (Well, yes, I guess they do.)
posted by lodurr at 4:57 AM on October 11, 2005

In physical systems (as opposed to mathematical models), nonlinearities always kick in to rein in the singularity.

What is the source of the nonlinearities in this case? I go with alumshubby.
posted by mondo dentro at 5:03 AM on October 11, 2005

...but I'd also add intrinsic perceptual/cognitive limitations. It's not inconceivable to me that the speed of technological and cultural innovation--of (post)modernity--could lead to mass psychosis, for example one in which huge majorities of the Earth's population are flee back into a medievalist mindset based on magical thinking and authoritarian religion.

Oh, no way that could ever happen nowadays...
posted by mondo dentro at 5:10 AM on October 11, 2005

But peak oil and global warming aren't directly coupled to the computer industry -- I agree, actually, that the race is on and in practice they'll probably be what ends up stopping the exponential curve, but there must also be some sort of nonlinearity built directly into the system: when will it get hard to make computers better?

(Well, arguably it's hard already, what with bloated code, an ecosystem of malicious software, etc. But are those problems just blips? The interesting thing about this whole debate is that it all comes down to specifics, which nobody knows. (That is, if, like me, you've stopped paying attention to the "computers can't really think!" stuff.))
posted by Tlogmer at 5:19 AM on October 11, 2005

So, what about a future where all-controlling computers extract oil from the middle east to moisten my rippling muscles?
posted by selfnoise at 5:20 AM on October 11, 2005

John Connor will save us.
posted by caddis at 5:23 AM on October 11, 2005

One point that I can't remember hearing (though it's probably buried in the singularitarian conversations somewhere) is that we've arguably already had a "singularity".

Here's a good science fiction quote about that.
posted by Tlogmer at 5:26 AM on October 11, 2005

I suspect that it's wrong to assume that our future super-intelligent selves will have the same motivations that we do, any more than a super intelligent monkey has the same motivations as an ordinary monkey.

Whether the result of evolution or intelligent design, it seems unlikely to me that people in 100 or even 1000 years are going to be any more intelligent than people are today - or were 100 or 1000 or 10,000 years ago. Future generations will benefit more from the collective advances in human knowledge, but they will still be every bit as stupid and lazy as we are and subject to the same motivations.
posted by three blind mice at 5:29 AM on October 11, 2005

Oh. Might as well tie the Flying Spaghetti Monster into all this.
posted by Tlogmer at 5:32 AM on October 11, 2005

We, not only as humans, but as a race of beings, are living faster. Life is more complicated, with stimulation and activity beyond what we could possibly comprehend in the past. With new advents, the complication of life increases.

We sleep less than we used to, and now there's medication that can deny the need for sleep far longer than thought possible. Our schooling and education leave us capable of more specialized thought in fields than the masters of a few hundred years ago. Even a bachelor's degree in math is so advanced, there are people alive who knew of a time where the greatest of mathematicians were still reaching into this new and uncharted territory.

Yet, we hold to limits. We are specialized, losing the benefits of a classical education and the widespread knowledge of previous generations' definition of learning. This information is far from lost, there are specialists in every field. There's enough people for us to afford such a luxury. Yet, where are the ones who can understand multiple fields? Who links together the knowledge, seeing the relationships between fields easily considered unrelated?

We enter the same quandary with machines. Computers are designed to run in a specific way, specializing in performing so many functions in so many ways to achieve so many goals. They are far more specialized than we are, we have designed computers to go as far as we can make them go in one direction. Generalization is much more difficult, something we have barely scratched with computing.

We fight the rules of nature, specializing so intently to try and break barriers that have held for so very long. Given that humanity continues to survive and advance, we will eventually reach a point where we can relax our relentless advance in specialization. Those who generalize and patch together the works of genius may yet understand how to do this with computing. It will require a relative handful of people, but people so far advanced, most of current humanity could scarcely comprehend such a thing. Perhaps then, we can use the specialization of knowledge, patch so much together, and create an artificial life with the capacity to learn how to live, without the dire focus necessary to perform relatively simple tasks.

To create something so incredible, to advance to a point where even a group of people in unheard of synchrony can create something we could recognize as capable of self-sufficient and self-aware life... Some might say that we were gods.

Yet... in our relentless drive to reach such a point, we must sustain ourselves, in the face of forces far beyond our comprehension. Would we face a god? Would we face the destiny of nature? Would we allow our own creations to advance, perhaps to where we were at that point?

It would be foolish to say anyone could predict what would happen at this point. Even to begin is a descent into madness. What will happen will certainly reveal much about the nature of man, and what our limits truly are. Some find this ground far too dangerous to tread upon, wishing to be content with what we have. Others would continue endlessly, whether advents and singularities of mankind would bring us damnation or salvation.

Count me in with the latter. I'd sooner labor towards self-annihilation than decay through stagnation. Even if entropy is fated to destroy the last memory of man, let it never be said that it was a dull memory.
posted by Saydur at 5:40 AM on October 11, 2005

I'd sooner labor towards self-annihilation than decay through stagnation.

Uh, could I have another choice, please?
posted by mondo dentro at 5:47 AM on October 11, 2005

... annihiliation ...

The King is gone, but he's not forgotten
This is the story of Johnny Rotten
It's better the burn out
Because rust never sleeps
The King is gone, but he's not forgotten
posted by lodurr at 6:06 AM on October 11, 2005

Great post, and I second what PeterMcDermott said about the comic.
posted by languagehat at 6:23 AM on October 11, 2005

I agree with "The Last Question."
posted by Dr_Octavius at 6:29 AM on October 11, 2005

My theory is that progress is represented by a Sigmoid function.

It looks like a singularity on the way up, but, it's not. As we increase or technological abilities, we will eventualy reach the 'limit' and progress will slow down. My guess is the inflection point will be sometime in the next century, althoug I could be way off.
posted by delmoi at 7:36 AM on October 11, 2005

What? He became a html-coder? That's the finale?

And to think I could have spent those 20 minutes sleeping.
posted by spazzm at 7:47 AM on October 11, 2005

I love the bit in "Waking Life" where the wacky Irish(?) professor-type explains the coming singularity, or at least evolution of man. Believable, far out, and optimistic all at once!

I've also always been intrigued by Robert Anton Wilson's (or was it Terence McKenna's) idea that the singularity is coindicing with the Mayan calendar, which has an end date of 2012. The Mayans believed this is the end time of the current cycle, and a new one will begin then. December 23, I do believe. The interesting thing is McKenna put important historical dates and graphed it on a computer, and came up with that approximate time for a singularity (or Eschaton) before he had even heard about the Mayan prophecy.

I guess in about 7 years we'll find out.
posted by zardoz at 9:21 AM on October 11, 2005

What? He became a html-coder? That's the finale?

I'm glad I wasn't the only one disappointed. A great story, but make up a better ending.

Although Bullshit! You can't be homeless, you're too clean. is a pretty lame statement to come from a hobo.

The meter is not great, but it's plausible.
posted by mrgrimm at 10:54 AM on October 11, 2005

I really liked that ending. It rings true for me; it's consistent with the character logic. He has the scales ripped from his eyes and finds that his utopia is just a weird kind of marketing scam; he passes through his valley of despair; and he emerges on the other side to discover that there is an ordinary world out there with ordinary people in it, and that living in it can provide its own kind of joy.

And anyway, since AFAIK it's autobiographical, I'd wager Mr. Farley isn't that interested in changing it...
posted by lodurr at 12:23 PM on October 11, 2005

Butlerian Jihad, duh.
posted by Smedleyman at 1:58 PM on October 11, 2005

... that living in it can provide its own kind of joy

I was with you till the end. I disn't see the joy. Or any kind of character transformation or much of anything. And the way "everything kind of worked out that summer" leads me to believe his rent problems were exaggerated.

So basically we have the story of the Class of '94 (counting me). No jobs from '94-96, then Interweb businesses took off, bringing material comforts to codemonkeys (counting me). I still don't see the joy.

His final destination in the story seems like more of the marketing scam than the utopia.
posted by mrgrimm at 4:45 PM on October 11, 2005

What's wrong with this picture?


Well, we tend to remember things that happened more recently as more important. Also the paradigm shifts that happen more recently affect us more.

Life was always fast moving. Our memory can't keep up with everything. Still . . . we are leading somewhere with technology, but Ray Kurzweil reminds me of Buckminster Fullers promise that there will be fleets of air balloons bringing people across the ocean.

That being said, I welcome the coming of extropy.
posted by klik99 at 9:28 PM on October 11, 2005

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