the awfully lazy wonders of the nerd rapture

December 3, 2012


The mindset of a Singularitarian is an interesting one. It’s certainly very optimistic, countering a lot of criticisms of their ideas by declaring that surely, someone will solve them with the mighty and omnipotent technology of the future, technology that pre-Singularity primitives like us won’t even be able to conceive because we don’t understand their mythology of exponential growth in scientific sophistication. And it also has some very strange ideas about computers, placing them as useful and powerful tools, our potential overlords, rogue agents to be tamed like pets, and as new homes for our brains after our bodies are past their use-by date, all at the same time. Now, I’m not exactly surprised by this because the original concept of the Singularity as detailed by a paper by Vernor Vinge is pretty much all over the place so overlap and conflicting opinions are pretty much inevitable as everyone tries to define what the Singularity really is and when it will arrive, generally settling on vague, almost meaningless cliches for the press.

But what does surprise me is how brazenly Singularitarians embrace the idea of a future where computers can and will do it all just by having more processing power or more efficient CPUs on display in this H+ Magazine review of a transhumanist guide. While ruminating on the awesome things we’ll get to go with infinite technological prowess in Q&A format, the book’s author blithely dismisses the notion of using advanced cyborg technology for space exploration. According to him, we’ll have so much computing power available that we could simulate anything we wanted, making the notion of space exploration obsolete. In the words of Wolfgang Pauli, this isn’t even wrong. We have a lot of computational power available today though a cloud or by assembling immense supercomputers with many thousands of cores and algorithms which can distribute the work to squeeze the most processing power out of them. All that power means squat though if it’s not used wisely, like, for instance, to simulate things we know too little about to simulate.

How can we simulate Mars or Titan if we’re still not sure of their exact composition and natural processes and use these simulations as viable models for exploration? Look at the models that we had for alien solar systems in the 1970s and how little resemblance they have to what we’re actually seeing by exploring the cosmos. Instead of organizing in neat groups and orbits which look like slightly elongated circles, exoplanets are all over the place. We didn’t even think that a Hot Jupiter was a thing until we saw one and even then, it took us years to say that yes, they’re really a thing and it definitely exists. And after all that, we also find that they appear to be rather common, making our solar system an outlier. Now this may all change with new observations, of course, but the point is that we can’t simulate what we don’t know and the only way to know is to go, look, experiment, and repeat the findings. Raw computing power is not substitute for a real world research program or genuine space exploration done by humans and machines.

The scary thing about this proposal though is that I’ve heard very similar views casually echoed by members of the Singularity Institute as well as mentioned by transhumanists around the web while they disparage the future of human spaceflight. I’m a firm believer that if anything would be able to qualify for a Singularity, it would be augmented humans living and working in space and carrying out complex engineering and scientific missions beyond Earth orbit. Considering what long term stays in microgravity and cosmic radiation do to the human body, augmentation of our future astronauts is just downright logical, especially because it could be put to great use after it proves its worth to help stroke and trauma victims regain control of their bodies or give them new limbs which will become permanent parts of them, not just prosthetics. Rather than run with the idea, however, too many Singularitarians prefer to believe that magical computers endowed with powerful enough CPUs will just do everything for them, even their scientific research. That’s just intellectually lazy and a major disservice to their goal of merging with machines.

[ illustration by Oliver Wetter ]

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  • TheBrett

    Good post. My only concern with augmenting astronauts is that realistically, you’re going to have to make it tough enough to survive the radiation issues that you raised in a previous post (when defending manned space travel versus sending AI’s). I don’t know enough about, for example, SpaceX’s new capsules to see how that’s progressed since the Space Shuttle.

    I definitely agree with the point about how super-computer simulations are largely junk without real data to design the models around.

  • Hi. Vance here.

    Thanks for noticing my book, The Meatbot’s Guide to the Technological Singularity. I totally agree with you (at least I think I’m agreeing with you when I say) that knowledge comes from a combination of data collection and computational power. But it’s a dynamic relationship: more of one can permit us to get by with less of another. Of course, more of both is usually best (at least until we start factoring in the costs of obtaining more of one versus the other). It looks like you and I disagree about whether and when we humans (or whatever we become) will have the computational power to simply imagine/know/compute, for example, what possible combinations of elements and strata exist on Mars given whatever data we have on hand (which no doubt will be considerable given its proximity to us). Sue, closer inspection will always more information, but then again, everybody reaches a point when other questions simply become more interesting. I guess it’s a factual dispute. Time will tell, I think, whether we’ll be satisfied with what we know about the entire physical universe that we’ll forego extra-solar space exploration altogether. I’m curious though, what’s your solution to the Fermi Paradox?

    I also get the impression that you deny, or at least are undecided, on the issue of whether or not brains are computers. It seems that you are rather skeptical of the at the idea that anything other than organic brains can give rise to or support or supervene (or however you want to say it) consciousness (given that you apparently believe that other futurists conceive that we’ll transplant our brains into robot bodies but that we’ll never ever figure out how to do our thinking with anything other than brains). For my part, I definitely believe we’ll soon (as in decades) figure out how to replace and supplement all parts of the human body, including brain matter, and that we will all become off-the-charts (by current measures) intelligent. I suppose that, too, is a factual dispute, one that I’m predicting we will resolve within the next forty years.

  • gfish3000

    I’m curious though, what’s your solution to the Fermi Paradox?

    I’ve put forward several possible solutions. If you would be so kind to do a search, you’ll find a number of them. Considering that we’re talking about something as abstract and tenuous as alien civilizations, I don’t think we can have just one firm answer.

    I also get the impression that you deny that brains are computers…

    Whether brains are computers is more of a philosophical question. Technically, if you pursue this blog a little further on comp sci topics, you’ll find that anything that takes an input and produces a response can be called a computer. You seem like you’ve been either looking around Michael Anissimov’s blog about me (if we go off assuming things) because you’re using his typical approach to what I do or don’t think.

    The issue is that all these Singularity technologies we’re supposed to have in 30 or 40 years are based on taking major strides in medicine and computer science that give us another few inches of new territory and boldly claiming a few light years on their possible follow-ups. And when we have trouble defining the basic terms of the discussion consistently and objectively, questions like “do you believe that the brain is a computer or not?” are just too far removed from a practical debate on the subject.

  • Oh. My apologies.