Sunday, September 24, 2006


On the Singularity talk site started recently by Ben Goertzel of Novamente, a company he heads which is attempting to create Artificial General Intelligence, he asked the following:

“I have been considering co-authoring some verbiage aimed at explaining the Singularity notion to intelligent, educated non-nerds (together with a writer I know who is more experienced and expert than me at writing for a non-technical audience). ”Of course this has been done before, e.g. it has been done excellently by Kurzweil and Broderick, but their wonderful book-length treatments are IMO too long, involved and complex for a lot of people to take the time to wade through.... And I find that Kurzweil's graph-centric approach has plusses and minuses -- there is a lot of mistrust of "lies, damn lies and statistics "out there. And, I much admire Eliezer's essay "Staring into the Singularity", but it's way too intense for most readers.... ”Anyway, I am curious if anyone would like to share experiences they've had trying to get Singularitarian concepts across to ordinary (but let's assume college-educated) Joes out there. Successful experiences are valued but also unsuccessful ones. I'm specifically interested in approaches, metaphors, focii and so forth that have actually proved successful at waking non-nerd, non-SF-maniac human beings up to the idea that this idea of a coming Singularity is not **completely** absurd...”

A lively discussion ensued, which predictably (amongst futurists) involved those who thought there was no problem with the existing information – which also meant if most people didn’t get it, then tough; those who believed Singularity wasn’t provable enough as a concept to bother translating; those who thought time would make it easier (i.e. when the Singularity gets here, it won’t be so hard to explain!); and those who thought it was a fool’s game to even try, whether it was possible or not.

Maybe I’m a fool to try, but maybe I can also turn this discussion 90 degrees and look at it from a different angle…

Below, I have talked about the issue of bilingualism (and eventual multilingualism) as pertains to futurist communication in a piece called “Are You Bilingual?” The gist of it is scientists/academics/H+rs/SFers/fellow travelers speak in a language that the rest of the world doesn’t understand anymore. They speak the logical, analytical, textual language of the scientific method and the structured argument. Unfortunately, it’s a dying language, born of Descartes, Bacon and Voltaire, but whose death knell was rung by Howdy Doody. Most of the First World speaks the newer, moving visual language taught to them by Howdy and the rest of the TV/movies/Internet nexus. It’s the emotional, visceral, narrative language of the video, the blog, the sound bite, the play-to-the-emotions rhetoric we are all confronted with daily. This is the language the mass audience speaks.

More importantly, this TV-oriented, visual language is character-based, not idea-based. The world is attracted to personalities, because we have been taught they are important by the Close Up and "Entertainment Tonight." It is the Age of Celebrity. Not the Age of Ideas. It’s why hard SF appeals to only us Enlightenment types: it’s usually idea-based, not particularly character-based and we are the few who are still think in terms of ideas.

I have read Kurzweil and Yudkowsky and all the rest. (Although I haven’t yet read Damien Broderick – but I’ve got you on the shelf, Damien – I’m going to remedy that really soon!) Only Fellow Travelers (and I consider myself one) would do likewise. This, if I am reading Ben's original query correctly, is NOT who he is trying to address. He is trying to address everyone else. To do that, he must tell a story. Speak their language. If he cannot, he must find those who can. If one is terribly clever, maybe he can guide a small handful of those who forgot they were bilingual back to the text/graph/math-based arguments.

I guess it isn’t surprising, but given what I do for a living, I think Yudkowsky misses the point completely in “Staring into the Singularity” when he discusses the role of storytelling in communicating the Singularity or transhuman ideas. (Otherwise, I think his essay is an enthusiastic and appropriately awe-inspiring primer on the subject and should be read by anyone with an interest in the subject.) He expects fiction writers to stick to his notions of what the Singularity is, all the while saying he can’t possibly know what the Singularity is!

But most writers don’t write stories because they want to convey complex concepts accurately. They write stories to communicate about whatever they think is important at the time, and pray it will resonate with their audience. For instance, Yudkowsky singles out “Flowers for Algernon,” as not accurately describing the transhuman experience. Daniel Keyes never had that in mind in the first place. It was written for a more profound reason: to explore what it means to be human. Not transhuman. Eliezer makes a good and classic point about not making your hero so smart that you can’t think for him. That is why we hobble our creations, Eliezer. We keep them human. In uplifting Charlie from mentally retarded to genius, he gets to embrace his fully conscious humanity for the first time. And as in all existential experiences, it makes him both exhilarated and depressed when he realizes the complexity, temporality and unfairness of life. When he didn’t fully grasp what it meant to be human, he was much happier. Ignorance is Bliss. This story touches everyone who reads it, because it’s not about hard SF concepts. It’s about a character whose existential concerns mirror our own, whose cause we support and yet whose fate is tragic. Each of us is Charlie, no matter where we fall on the intelligence curve. I don’t know about you, but I cry every damn time I read it. (Sorry, Eliezer, but you went gunning for my favorite short story of all time and got caught in the crossfire!)

On the other hand, Charles Stross’ Accelerando stares into the Singularity with his gimlet eye and encounters the classic problem of hard SF: the ideas are brilliant, just bloody brilliant (and I will never look at lobsters the same way again), but the characterizations are thin on the ground, sacrificed on the altar of the Big Idea. And as Eliezer predicted, once the Singularity hits, all bets are off. Character itself becomes irrelevant – which is an excellent and possibly accurate point – but there was nothing left for me to hold onto, no less the Average Joe! These are fascinating thoughts for the likes of futurists and SF geeks, but not for the great mass audience. And it clearly wasn’t written for them. Unfortunately, it means I won’t be giving Accelerando to my neighbor to explain the Singularity.

In a later post, Ben Goertzel said: Maybe most people are not ready to grok these concepts ... but yet, maybe some people would be **more** open to the Singularity idea if it were presented more in terms of human experience and less in terms of statistical curves and processing power....” All I’m proposing is Ben’s Singularity-as-human experience. In telling the story of the Singularity as a character-based narrative, you will be giving an audience what might be its only opportunity to understand, or even encounter the concept. But you’ll have your work cut out for you. Even Eliezer quotes Vernor Vinge: “Of course, I never wrote the 'important' story, the sequel about the first amplified human. Once I tried something similar. John Campbell's letter of rejection began: 'Sorry - you can't write this story. Neither can anyone else.'" Unless you hobble your creation. There. I've said it twice. Which is okay. Audiences actually like that. No one really wants their hero to be too much smarter or more fabulous than they are.

In my own work – I am writing an H+ technothriller right now – I am avoiding the Singularity like the plague. I am dealing with enhancement technologies and their possibilities, but purposefully setting them in a contemporary setting that doesn’t support the Singularity (or Grey Goo for that matter). While this may be inaccurate, anachronistic or whatever, and will most likely remain so, the problem with the alternative was pointed out very well by Ben – if transhumanism and the Singularity happens too far in the future, no one cares, because it won’t happen on their watch. They dodged the bullet and they’d rather watch “Fear Factor” and crack a brewski in the Lazy Boy than think about what the Singularity means to them. But take selected issues that can be comprehended and put them in the here and now and you’ve got something your audience can relate to. I really want people to think about issues of more-than-human consciousness and perception and reality and such, as baby steps to the Singularity. And BTW, my hero is hobbled mightily. And I think the audience will like him all the more for it.

Maybe that’s the real point about how you explain the Singularity. Do you remember the movie, What About Bob? “Baby steps, Bob. Baby steps.”


Blogger Joel said...

In the Age of Spiritual Machines by Kurzweil, he as a section at the end of each chapter that fictionally talks with someone in the future who is experiencing what he discusses.
Although they were very speculative they we're also very engrossing because there was a character that you wanted to know the story of.

September 25, 2006 7:49 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with you wholeheartedly about character driven explorations of H+ issues. I think that there are many ways to attack the thorny singularity though.

Your novel is fizzing on the edge of the possible. Its science moves from what is publicly understood as cutting edge and moves onto introduce a more radical vision later on.

The fine line between an absorbing human drama and engaging science is a difficult one. I'm reading Darwin's Children by Greg Bear at the moment. I thought it would be a quick pulp read but its boring me half to death. I'm reading a few pages a night to send me to sleep. The problem is that Bear hasn't meshed his reasonable characters with the, "at some points", interesting future science. I might have a misconception about writing but I'd like to think that if I did write I'd setup my book like a 4D movie set then dream up the character's and let them loose.

If I was going to write fiction about the the singularity I'd focus on moving my characters from 2006 to the future. As we know thoughts about age and aging would not be a problem but the human psyche certainly would be. I'd take some simple tenants from the singularity and imagine the characters interacting with these concepts.

How about the fact that AI's and robots of sub, equal or greater than human level intelligence would likely out number us at some point. I'm not framing this as dystopian just interesting in what effect it would have on humans. We could take a progressive baby boomer from the 20th century and move them through the acceleration. This is a future where synthetics are more common and boomers are the oldest sentient beings in our known culture. If humans are rare then boomers who have not gone digital would be the rarest of us all. I can imagine that itself would make for an interesting dynamic.

I'm a big fan of David Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas", although its a touch Huxley dystopian I love its span of time. Any novel wanting to take in the singularity needs to have an equally fine grasp of time spans and acceleration. A different (less subtle) equal to Cloud Atlas might be Kubrick's 2001 bone to spaceship sequence.

As for shock value of the singularity I think that it can be negated (somewhat) by making strong links to natural evolution and the natural processes of the universe. Nick Bostrom does this in a dry academic way with his view that life is created lives and dies many times over before luck and then intelligence overcome existential risks like planetary meteor strike, mutual destructive war, star supernova, end of the universe...

I think the field is wide open for new visions of the technological acceleration, the baton is up for grabs.

Russell R

September 27, 2006 3:25 PM

Blogger PJ Manney said...

Sorry it's taken me so long to respond. I've been rather incapacitated and typing in bed is very tiring.

Joel -- You are absolutely right. I had completely forgotten about Molly in Kurzweil's TAoSM. It is an incredibly effective device. It helps make TAoSM more palatable for the newbie than The Singularity Is Near and it drives the 'story' -- in this case, the story of the singularity -- forward. But there wasn't exactly a lot of conflict (drama) in Molly's story, so it could never stand alone and I found reading it was more an entertaining pause in the more theoretical proceedings. But Kurzweil isn't interested in drama. If anything, he's resisting it, because he doesn't want to entertain bad things happening in the Singularity to repel his readers. TAoSM is all about prostelization.

Russell -- You make some excellent points. Yes, there are so many potential creative approaches to presenting the Singularity that are possible. Dictates of character based and driven drama (and yes, Mitchell's Cloud Atlas is a beautiful example of this) say that the characters should be set against our natural human reactions to the Singuality in some ways, much in the same ways that Mitchell's many characters battled against the same aspects of human nature, repeated over and over (the will to power, social darwinism, human corruptibility etc.) through the extended period of the story. This means that a strong story, by definition, won't be cheerleading the Singularity. And let's face it, evolution ain't pretty. We can use it as a comparison (hey, it's just a continuation of evolution!), but that won't necessarily make people feel better about it. They are now the Neanderthals.

But it's food for thought...

October 09, 2006 7:45 PM

Blogger marion said...

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


May 19, 2010 10:12 PM


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