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The Coming Singularity And What It Means To Me: an ArmadilloCon 2003 panel

Participants: Daniel Abraham, Jess Nevins, Vernor Vinge, Sage Walker (Moderator), Don Webb

Topic, according to the convention program: Our panel looks for the coming breakthrough in technology that changes everything.

For another debate on Singularity, see my blog post from the SXSW 2011 Singularity panel with Doug Lenat, Michael Vassar, and Natasha Vita-More.

Sage Walker opens the discussion on this somewhat disturbing topic with a light note. She cites 3 things she has found out about Vernor Vinge during the pre-ArmadilloCon pizza lunch:

  • When she asked when his next book is coming out, he said "95K and maybe there is an ending";
  • 2. He's no longer teaching except when he's teaching;
  • 3. He likes spinach pizza if that's all there is.

Daniel Abraham reminds us, for starters, what singularity is: a point in history where technological progress is at its fastest, so fast that it's impossible to predict. "Technology and its applications is going to be a comment on our society", he says and follows up with a quote from Derrida that goes something like that: "if we are not talking about justice, justice is going to come and talk about us".*

Vernor Vinge. In real life singularity is a place where the model needs to be changed, replaced by a more complex model. It's the moment where humanity has created critters that are smarter than us. Futurology becomes very hard beyond this point.

Don Webb. The real issue is that we'll have to change our view of who we are as people. Western people had a notion of themselves as very fixed, static, with well-defined relationships; and we are entering an era where our relationships will be very fluid because there are so many ways to interact with each other.

Jess Nevins. My take on the Derrida quote is very different. Singularity, if there's justice to it, will have to have equal effect on dispossessed masses, and unless multinational capitalism goes away, that's not going to happen.

Daniel Abraham. I'm not sure singularity is a tool for justice. We're talking about a technological increase. If we build critters smarter than we are, the "tool" won't be ours. We won't be the ones to apply it.

Jess Nevins. How will singularity affect lifes of poor, dispossessed people?

Daniel Abraham. I would say, poorly.

Jess Nevins. That answers the question. Singularity won't do anything for them at all.

Don Webb disagrees. He says something about Egyptians.

Sage Walker to Vernor Vinge. Tell us what decisions those critters will make for us?

Vernor Vinge. "Intrinsinc property of singularity is unknownability. You can only use analogies. One analogy is the rise of the humankind among animal kingdom." He elaborates: just like you could never explain to an animal, even a very intelligent one like a chimpanzee, what humans are "about", the same way we would never be able to understand post-singular beings, they would be as far beyond us as we are beyond animals. "That's very sobering. Think of how we treat animals."

Sage Walker. Is singularity just another tool in the science fiction toolbox?

Daniel Abraham. It is only another tool if it doesn't happen. I work in tech support, so I'm not convinced it's going to happen. [Laughter in the audience.]

Vernor Vinge. Yes, I noticed that programmers, of all technical people, are the ones with the most hard-earned skepticism about singularity.

Yet there are some intriguing speculations about singularity.

At the end of the 20th century, novels communicate between each other. Short stories are packets of communication among the writers. This wasn't the case at the beginning of the 20th century.

Vernor Vinge mentions the cave art of the first humans and from there he goes on to wonder: "What would be the first art, first stories that posthumans would write? I bet the first human jokes were really bad. They only had animal world as a model."

Don Webb considers the "mythical" (in his own words) significance of singularity. He compares the anticipation for singularity to the anticipation of Y2K and that the Y2K "letdown" made people skeptical of technological prognostication. "For the last 200 years we've been living in expectations. After that, the easiest thing to hang on to was Y2K, when nothing happened. Can we sustain this level of expectation for singularity? Most likely people will say 'we don't know what's going to happen', because that's one thing we won't be wrong about."

Daniel Abraham. Another model/metaphor, in addition to human/animal is a new kind of intelligence emerging from neurons, and if so, it may have already happened, and we'll never know about it."

Vernor Vinge. Another analogy is how bacterial networks keep track of data.

So one can say that the ability of bacteria to exchange genes of antibiotic resistance, and to coordinate their actions, e.g. waiting to release toxins until their colony is big enough, is an example of emerging intelligence. In other words, it's a singularity of a sort. As far as definitions of Singularity go, that's somewhat of a stretch, and Sage Walker takes this idea to a humorous extreme: "So the very first singularity occurred when a bunch of thingies got together and said: hey look, we could be a sponge!

Don Webb. We'll have tools that completely change the definition of self/another. Networks that are large may enable us to see epiphenomena that we are unable to see at small scale.

He added, not without sarcasm, that eugenics networks already exist: they are called Ivy League colleges.

Sage Walker notes that Vernor Vinge, in his works, always created ways to get around Singularity. He invented plot devices to avoid addressing how it happened and what it was like. In "Marooned in Realtime", all the post-singular beings left the Earth, never to be heard from again, while the characters of the book were unaffected because they were "embobled" at that time (completely isolated from the outside in stasis field bubbles). So the book characters have no idea as to how singularity happened and what the post-singular beings were like. In some other novels Vinge invented reasons why singularity never happened.

Vernor Vinge. I couldn't talk about what happened during the singularity, because I'm not smart enough to know or imagine what happens, and the reader is not smart enough to understand. Ken MacLeod, M John Harrison, Peter F. Hamilton, Greg Egan, Charlie Stross are some of the writers that have discussed singularity. A writer that starts with W, that wrote about group mind... about how it's much better to live in group mind than in human society.

Somebody from the audience asks if Vinge means Wil McCarthy.

Vernor Vinge. If writers write about more than 50 years in future, they almost always find a way to either invent reaons why it didn't happen, or a reason why, after singularity happened, it is still meaningful to talk about the human society.

Sage Walker observes that so far the discussion centered on singularity through artificial intelligence, but what about a possibility of singularity through biology, through fleshware innovations? Panel participants acknowledge such a possibility, but nobody goes deep into this topic.

Vernor Vinge is asked by someone in the audience what indicators one should pay attention to, that may give us an inkling that singularity is near. Such indications, in his opinion, would include success of very large parallel computing projects, and successful replacement of parts of animal (and/or presumably, human?) brains with implants.


*I (the author of this article) still don't know how the exact quote goes, how it's related to singularity or what this topic has to do with Derrida. I googled Derrida and justice, Derrida and singularity, and I have not found this quote. In a few places where the word "singularity" is mentioned in the context of Derrida, it's meant in a very different sense than the one Vernor Vinge wrote about. If anyone knows the quote I'm talking about and can tell me what it's got to do with singularity, please add a comment or email me.