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.”

Sisyphus in Mississippi

The Los Angeles Times published a great “Column One” story yesterday, entitled “For Delta Librarian, The End.”

In it, Ronnie Wise retires as the chief librarian of Bolivar County, Mississippi, which has one of the highest illiteracy rates of any county in the US. Guess how high? 41%. Yes, you read that correctly. And the reason it isn’t higher is because of Ronnie Wise and the library system-sponsored literacy classes he created. The Sisyphusian struggle he and his coworkers wage against poverty, indifference, politics, racism, crime, etc. is the most important social work I have seen done anywhere in the US. And for some reason that Ronnie Wise refuses to share, he has chosen to stop. He has had enough.

The article brings up three issues that interest me.

1) Books are not a dead technology. Literature and reading are vitally important. The irony is that these people are not living in the 21st Century. They’re not even in the 20th. For them, like those who lived from the 15th to the 19th Centuries, books still hold the keys to escape, entertainment, knowledge and self-sufficiency. For these descendents of slaves, they hold the keys to freedom. The “Neil Postman” side of me loves that. Freedom isn't given to you courtesy of MySpace or Google. Freedom is the ability to take your mind elsewhere, using only your own imagination and intelligence and some wood pulp. This is what creates the potential for informed citizens and participatory democracy. And happiness. Not the Internet.

2) It also ties in with the theory of literature developing social empathy (see my essay “Empathy in the Time of Technology” on my website). Illiteracy is the mind killer, as much as fear. In fact, the former begets the latter.

3) How can we ‘talk the talk’ of new communication technologies if people can’t read? Computers are still text-dependent and $100 MIT laptops to developing countries are meaningless if you can’t read the text. (And what about the poor this country???) We need to ‘walk the walk’ first with universal literacy or the haves/have-nots gap widens to a chasm.

I realize I mention Neil Postman a lot. That’s because he’s really important to the entire debate of the role of technology in society. If you haven’t read “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business” and/or “Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology,” then you should. They should be required reading for every college-educated person, but if you are a scientist/technologist, you should read “Technopoly” right now. Don’t wait. You can’t consider yourself ethically or morally consistent if you don’t grok his message. You don’t have to like him, because you probably won’t. He’s the archetypal academic curmudgeon. You don’t have to agree with him, although I’d be surprised if you didn’t at some level. I personally think he’s right on the money. You just have to “get it” and apply a level of self-consciousness to your work (and life) that I believe is avoided in science education and industry, generally. If I were to recommend either one to a general reader, I’d still say read “Technopoly” since both books cover much the same philosophical ground, but “Technopoly” is broader in scope, more recent and its thesis is more powerful. Then for fun, read “Amusing…” and see just how remarkable and prescient his book is, over 20 years after he wrote it, in dissecting how television has destroyed American political, social and cultural discourse. What is chilling is how so much of the book could simply replace the word ‘television’ with ‘Internet’ and continue to be true…