Saturday, July 3, 2010

A Singular Complaint

Pretty much since I first learned about the concept, I've taken a rather dim view of the Singularity. If you've never heard of it before, let me summarize - the Singularity is a concept of the future, first explored in detail by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge in the 1980s but now greatly associated with futurist Ray Kurzweil, which holds that the pace of technological development will continue to accelerate and soon come to a point wherein it's impossible to speculate on what things might be like on the far side of it - a cultural version of a black hole's event horizon.

The reason I take a dim view of it is because, to me, pursuing this ideal is crazy. Look around and evaluate how well we've managed the world and ourselves, how optimally our societies are running as technology and methodology becomes progressively more and more advanced. As it is we're just muddling through in the best British tradition, even though we've had the benefit of decades of speculation about what prospects the future holds. How well do you think we'd do when we couldn't even hope to see what's coming?

Artificial intelligence is a common component of Singularitarian speculation. The idea there is that once the first AI is built, it will redesign itself to become more intelligent and capable of faster thought, onward and upward until it ascends to some kind of technological godhood. There's never any explanation as to why this is the case - the assumption is that it's inevitable, just because, and that humanity would of course be brought along for the ride. Because, really, aren't you just dying to shed your fleshy prison by uploading your consciousness into a computer, and thus becoming a true citizen of the Singularity Age?

The big problem with this, though, is that as far as I'm concerned it's all a scam. There's no such thing as digital immortality. If you upload your consciousness to a machine, you're not saving yourself. You're not cheating death. All you're doing is creating another perspective, a sophisticated computer program that has been trained to think just like you and has all your memories. Meanwhile, the original "you" is dead on the operating table, as the general idea right now is that uploading a consciousness would, of necessity, include a destructive scan of the brain - and the brain's important. At least for me. It's where I keep all my me-ness.

This is not to say that I think the idea of consciousness uploading, as a technology, is ridiculous. I think it's quite plausible, and the presence of consciousness uploading and artificial intelligence in a future culture does not validate the Singularity. That's one reason I can stomach Transhuman Space - sure, it's got AIs and ghosts flitting around the networks, but it's still a fundamentally comprehensible setting.

What really gets me is the general assumption of how easy it is. Maybe with the right tools and skills the process of uploading would be straightforward, but then there's everything after that. If you're looking for digital immortality, you're going to want the computer program that thinks it's you to survive and prosper for ages, right? One problem - it's damned expensive, and difficult besides, to ensure survival as a ghost in the machine.

Come on, computer! If you're so awesome, then defend yourself!

Think about it - how often have you had a hard drive fail, or a USB drive go kaput? A computer running an uploaded consciousness would have to not only be of extremely rugged construction, but proof against electromagnetic pulses, viruses, and so on, in addition to whatever properties might be required for a conscious program - maybe it would have to be a quantum computer. I can't imagine anything but large, dedicated machines running these self-aware programs. Maybe they're installed in lunar lava tubes, and rely on secrecy for security - maybe they're maintained by teams of technicians and guarded by an army of security in some Earthbound hideaway. Either way, it doesn't strike me as something that would be generally accessible to the average person.

But there have got to be interesting stories in that - human conflicts against a digital aristocracy.

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