Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Damn the Singularity

Recently I have run into this thing known as "the Singularity."  To me it seems fishy: here are my reasons (for the moment; in the conversation where these ideas came up, the topic of discussion was immortality, which I abjure).

Every historical development in technology ever seen has been accompanied by unexpected "evil" effects. To get to the heart of the matter immediately at hand, the advances of modern medical science have come to us at the expense of iatrogenics. There is no such thing in history as an upside without a downside, a pro without a con.

More importantly, when we come to consider systems as complex as the human body (or any ecosystem whose existence requires the cooperation of multitudes of cells and cycles), we have a species-wide tendency to think reductively (trying to explain non-linear realities in terms of linear causality, as though the reasons for a particular biological phenomenon--like, say, schizophrenia--were unitary and constant for all cases, such that my schizophrenia occurs because of the same generic malfunctions that cause yours: research is showing that this idea is simply bullshit; for a very good layman's discussion, see Matt Ridley's chapter "The Madness of Causes" in his book The Agile Gene).

If we build immortality, there is no guarantee that it would ever work for the entire species. Inevitably, the price for making some people immortal will be killing other people (when my immortality becomes your mortality, or vice versa). In a best-case scenario, future generations will be the one eating the bullet here (they will be eliminated, I guess, until we find some other environment for immortal offspring to colonize: Earth is not currently big enough to accomodate an infinite crowd of immortals; if such a group appears, you can be sure that some of them will begin living out the myth of that god-awful TV series "Highlander"). And that is being ridiculously optimistic (i.e. assuming that there are no untoward side-effects en route to the kind of immortality naively imagined by guys like Ray Kurzweil). How is society supposed to exist without death, seriously? If history is any guide, we would become a bunch of petty, selfish bastards (think of the Olympians in the Iliad and the Odyssey: they are basically immortal human beings, and most readers agree they are douchebags).

I am very skeptical of the Singularity. I doubt it will happen (since I don't see death ever being defeated: from my viewpoint, death looks like something permanent in the nature of life). But even if it does, I would reject it (as something bad--Satan's plan, if you will). As an atheist and a materialist, I choose death (which is what makes my life enjoyable, meaningful, and worthwhile: if I were immortal, I would lose my humanity, the heroic vulnerability that gives me integrity).   

These ideas came up in the context of a discussion of Mormonism.  (Some Mormons embrace the Singularity as an affirmation of their beliefs, e.g. the idea that we will eventually become gods and inhabit a glorified world.)  Some see a great divide between Mormonism and the Singularity, but I don't.  Here is why.

To my mind, the value that Mormonism adds to this conversation is that it reminds us how dumb we really are. The Singularity, in my mind, is just a modern version of the same stupid ideas that found a home earlier in Mormonism. Joseph Smith was a progressive in his time, a visionary who wanted to marry naive human fantasies (like living forever or having group orgies without any unpleasant repercussions) with practical reality. He is one illustration of the weakness (or as Nassim Taleb would say, the fragility) inherent in this kind of approach.

Nature is bigger than us, even if we are all brilliant scientists (and we're not). Cheating her is dumb. You can try it if you want, but I will always bet against you (as I bet against Joseph Smith). I think history will show the Singularity to be as silly as Mormonism, a piece of twenty-first-century lunacy that future generations will shake their heads over the same way I shake my head over early Mormons hieing to Kolob.


  1. To the larger issues of the Singularity (e.g. the development of intelligence superior to the human): I am skeptical here, too, largely because I see human intelligence as something fundamentally ignorant (in a way that a computer simply cannot be ignorant, as far as I can tell). The kind of decision-making that keeps us alive requires a level of ignorance (and unconsciousness) that machines don't have (because we don't make them to be redundant, stupid, and ignorant: we make them to be efficient, smart, and supremely competent in the area of activity where we expect to use them). Nature makes things stupid, and they work (even when things go wrong). We make things smart, and they don't work (unless everything remains the way it was when we built the thing). Nature's machines can adapt unexpectedly to unexpected environments. Our machines cannot. I can move from the South to the North and survive without falling apart and requiring a doctor to put me back together for my new environment. My car cannot. I don't see this disparity between natural machines (like me) and manmade ones (like my car) going away anytime soon. Even if we manage to make a machine that "outsmarts" us in one context (one environment), that is no guarantee that it will survive better than us in the real world (outside the one little context for which we build it). We don't understand nature as a whole, so we cannot build machines smarter than hers. Our technology is fundamentally limited by our stupidity (which nature has made an integral part of us, something we cannot get rid of, not even when we become scientists).

  2. 1) We know too little to conclude that the world is ultimately a zero-sum game. I trust the world is a non-zero-sum game. If I'm wrong, my trust won't matter. If I'm right, my trust, particularly as it influences my words and actions, could make a difference.

    2) Both reductionism and holism are useful. This interaction is enabled in part by our ancestors' practical applications of both for millions of years.

    3) To the extent that there are no guarantees that we will be good, there are also no guarantees that we will be evil. History suggests that the increasing complexity of our civilization is necessarily enabled by increasing cooperation. If we do not stagnate or decrease in complexity going forward, it's reasonable to expect increasing goodness.

    4) The "best-case" scenario you describe is not the best-case scenario. I'm sure we could imagine better, but a good case scenario would be continued expansion of habitation through innovative construction and exploration. To the extent that immortality is achieved through infotech, a person could live in a much smaller space than it seems you've imagined. To the extent that immortality is achieved through nanotech, the same technology would give us access to a far broader set of resources beyond Earth.

    5) Death is not required for meaning. Only change is required for meaning. Death, as imagined by those who perceive it to be a permanent end, is a relatively meaningless form of change, given that they perceive it to lead to a changeless state.

    6) If, as you suggest, the silliness or stupidity of Mormonism and Singularitarianism will depend on future history then, for those who share in their aspirations, it makes all the sense in the world to embrace them. If their aspirations are impossible (which no one knows) then our embrace doesn't matter. If their aspirations are possible, our embrace could make a difference.

    7) The natural process of evolution results in entities that are more complex and intelligent than the process itself. Humans are mimicking this, for example using evolutionary algorithms to develop systems that are on a trajectory to becoming more complex and intelligent than we are. It is reasonable to suppose we, as extensions of nature, will prove capable of creating beyond ourselves as nature has done for billions of years.

    1. Interesting, Lincoln. My initial response would be:

      (1) The world is not a zero-sum game, but it is an opaque one: you don't know the rules until you break one too many (and then it is always too late).

      (2) I like this idea. This seems true to me.

      (3) To me it still seems that increasing good does tend (historically) to entail increasing bad. We increase peaceful local cooperation and the result is a concomitant increase in external war. The price for civilized life (more peaceful and cooperative moment by moment) is WMDs (meaning that isolated instances of wrath now carry much more potential for drastic destruction than they used to). I don't see any way around this. It doesn't mean that things won't get better, but it also makes it seem impossibly naive (to me) to imagine that this is possible without somebody taking some truly drastic and potentially terrible risks that they could go worse.

      (4) All scenarios I make up are just human imaginations. They are not really "best" or "worst"--things could always be infinitely worse or better than my ability to imagine. But this is smoke-and-mirrors. Practically, I am quite interested in developing ways to live smaller, neater, and with less fragility. I am not really invested in any particular prediction of historical futurity coming true: what concerns me is what to do in the meantime. I think we will inevitably be looking for practical ways to live better, and most likely stumbling across some solutions that end up unexpectedly worse than the problems they arise to solve.

    2. (5) Death might be required for my meaning (though not everybody's). I'm not necessarily invested in death being permanent; after my company goes bankrupt, after my kids grow up, after my body dies, I don't really mind what happens. Matter will go on, and maybe something of me (whatever that is then) will, too. Or maybe not. Whatever. But it seems bad to me to get too attached to making any individual state (economic or biological equilibrium) persist too long (historically this means prolonging death rather than cultivating life: I live longer so that I can die senile rather than go suddenly without pain the way generations of my ancestors did, before civilization). Non-attachment is something I do value, even if I cannot help being more attached to some things than others.

      (6) The people I feel for are always those who end up embracing a myth on the understanding that the upside is much bigger than the downside. The people who deliberately choose to believe in something good against a risk that they have actually considered are clear to do whatever they want, in my book. I just want to make sure they think carefully about the possibility that they might inadvertently perish in hell on the way to heaven.

      (7) I don't know how I feel about this. Maybe it's true, but I confess I don't see it (at all). In what way is modern man smarter than his Stone Age ancestors who made it to adulthood (healthier, brainier, and less likely to die senile than he is)? In what way is he smarter than the virus (which has managed to conquer many problems we keep eluding to better than we have: they are nanotechnology, for crying out loud, better than anything we have built)? How are WMDs an improvement on the rocks nature gave us in the beginning? (Maybe she wants something we don't? Is that what the viruses are telling us, too?) Dinosaurs got some really cool things (cool toys like our big brains), and they didn't make it. Most species don't (none of them that we know of anyway: like companies and individual organisms, they eventually go extinct). What if our ultimate "creation beyond ourselves" is just another Mars (an interesting graveyard for some other life to find in a future where we don't exist as us)? I am not against placing bets with Nature. I play the game, too. But I don't expect to win (not much, anyway: I have caps on my expectations, such that I am always thrilled by unexpected good news and minimally surprised by bad).

      Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  3. Hi, Hermes. Like Lincoln Cannon, I'm also a Mormon-Transhumanist. My reply was too long so I posted it on my own blog. Check it out at (I'm no longer affiliated with the other one).

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, too, Arkwelder. When it comes to the scientific credibility of guys like Kurzweil, I am not impressed. I suspect that many of Kurzweil's statistics are a mirage (he is modeling open systems as though they are closed, mistaking noise for useful information).

      The only criterion I have by which to make judgements (like "no upside without downside") is my personal experience. In my experience, my life is constantly purchased with death (the death of micro-organisms, plants, and animals--including people, since I couldn't exist if my ancestors hadn't played the game of death required to put me here). Cooperating with nature doesn't make this go away. I cooperate with her by joining one kind of life against another: something alive always dies. Somebody loses (something: genes go on, and species, too, until they also run out eventually).

      I don't think we have to become Master Mahan to live well, though. For me, part of making a good life is accepting (anticipating and trying to create for myself) a good death. I want to go. I want to make room for my kids and their kids and so on (and for other species of life, too). I think the way to play with nature is to accept the right limits (with death as a good thing: Buddhists view enlightenment as escape from samsara, and I guess I agree; for me, death of the individual organism looks more and more like heaven, when you do it right).

      But I don't mind if others place bets that I wouldn't. Let the chips fall, I say. I am betting that when they do, I will still need to worry about dying well.

  4. Here is a nifty quote I discovered that strikes me as a very apt summary of my reticence to embrace eternal life as something for myself as an individual:

    "One of the first signs of the beginning of understanding is the wish to die. This life appears unbearable, another unattainable. One is no longer ashamed of wanting to die; one asks to be moved from the old cell, which one hates, to a new one, which one will only in time come to hate. In this there is also a residue of belief that during the move the master will chance to come along the corridor, look at the prisoner and say: "This man is not to be locked up again, He is to come with me.” Franz Kafka, Blue Octavo Notebooks.

  5. I feel like you are making certain assumptions about me. I'm not offended, but I'm a little confused. I take seriously the likelihood that when I die, I'll be nothing but worm food. I could get hit by a bus tomorrow. I have no guarantee that either science or Yahweh will furnish me with an "afterlife". I haven't placed any bets whatsoever, except perhaps that I don't believe the inevitability of death is necessary for a happy life.

    I don't fear death. That's because my life is not defined by death, nor does it need to be. On the other hand, nothing I do in life is motivated by the promise of immortality. My only goal in life is to increase in love and wisdom. If something is good, I wish to prolong it. Neither death nor suffering are good; they are abhorrent. Kafka must have been suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, held hostage by the anticipation of his own demise. I don't share his view of life at all.

    I don't suppose that life is always beautiful, but I believe we should always endeavor to seek out beauty, to create and cultivate it where ever and whenever we can. Life affords us that possibility. Death, on the other hand, does not. There is no beauty in death. It is an empty void.

    1. So we probably end up agreeing more than we disagree (even if we don't see eye-to-eye on all things). That's cool. I will admit that I do fear death sometimes; but I work to put myself in a place where I don't (where it is the next step in a progression that began before I was born and will go on after I die). I disagree about there being no beauty in death. To me, the beauty of death and the beauty of life are one and the same. To deny one is ultimately, in my eyes, to deny the other.

      I am betting that the Singularity doesn't pan out the way certain prophets think. That's really all this was (or will be). At this point, I don't think these prophets are awfully dangerous (to me or anyone), but maybe that will change (if we come up with something that seriously bids to make some of us immortal). I am putting up defenses against that eventuality by finding my own meaning and happiness outside such promises. My position is that I choose mortality, and that when it comes to making my mortality I want maximum possibility for benefit and minimum possibility for harm (for me and the collectives where I exist: sometimes these conflict irreconcilably, such that I don't think any permanent reconciliation is or will ever be possible).

      Don't worry too much if I don't get you. I won't always get things. I am not the sharpest knife in the drawer. Thanks for hanging around to try to help me see your reality, though. I appreciate that.