Tag Archives: Singularity

Our responsibility to the past, a war of words, and sex with machines

WARNING: This post contains vulgarity in quotes from the source material. Some of Spider’s more colorful metaphors have been omitted, but conventional swear words (S, F, etc.) are depicted as originally written. Also since this is a post about a comic that started in 1997, I’m not especially careful for the spoiler sensitive, as a discussion of the plot is necessary in many places.

When history looks down its weird evolved vestigial stump of a nose at us, it’ll have a lot of very shitty things to say. But it will eventually have to admit that the Reservations justify our existence.” ~Spider Jerusalem (Transmetropolitan Issue #9)

The world of Transmetropolitan has a tenuous relationship with the past. They preserve history but they also want the past to leave them alone. Issue #42 will later reveal that the people in this time don’t even know what year it is, instead noting the past in relative terms (5 years since that famous rocker died, 10 years since the big fire, etc.). This allows for a culture in which Nazi fetishism is just a fashion choice, with no greater context because nobody really remembers who Hitler is.

Our relationship to the past can be just as tenuous. Our nation has a document of founding principles written by white men who owned people hundreds of years ago. When it suits our political view we are strict constructionists or liberal with what the constitution actually means, and the intentions of these founders who somehow possessed greater wisdom than the sum total of humanity that followed. More recently we’ve created a view of Ronald Reagan that at times is the opposite of what the man actually thought and felt. We talk about the good old days when America was great without realizing that maybe it was only great for people who looked like us.

Transmet Volume 2 addresses the past at the individual and the cultural level. Issue #8 is told in form of one of Spider’s columns for The Word. Spider tells the story of Mary, a “revival,” a head in a jar thrown into the future through cryogenic suspension. Mary was a photographer in her previous life, chronicling wars and revolutions of the 20th century.

There was history in Mary’s head; hard history, hard-lived and loved. And all Mary wanted was to keep seeing history.” ~Spider Jerusalem (Transmetropolitan Issue #8)

Spider spends a third of the issue describing the stages of the revival process, from nano-machines repairing her frozen brain to retrieve her thoughts and memories, to her new body being grown in a vat, to waking up wet and alone “in a stiff body that felt like a glove too small.”

buildaneye

The people they’re growing all signed contracts. They get new bodies made to whatever ridiculous specifications they can think of. They get to live in a new and exciting future, and even get the money they paid back. Most of them step out the door, take one look at the world, and something breaks inside them. Culture shock of a kind we can only imagine, being thrown into a future you no longer recognize. And this world does not want the revivals. They’ll fulfill the contract, then stick you in a hostel or out on the streets with donated clothes and a hundred year lifespan.

Though the exact year for Transmet is never stated, the rough estimate is sometime in the 23rd century, so 300 years in the future. A lot of sci-fi (even sci-fi comedies like Futurama) like to think about what would happen if we took someone from 300 years ago and plopped them into today. Besides Transmet, I don’t know if I’ve seen a version of this story where the person suffers irreparable psychological damage from the experience but I wonder if that’s a little closer to what it would actually be like. And the pace of acceleration is only increasing. I suspect you could take someone from 300 years ago and the world would look more familiar to them than it would if we went 300 years forward. Hell, I’m not sure if I wouldn’t get a bit of a shock going from floppies to smartphones and that’s only about 20 years.

The sad part of this particular tale is that Mary is an extraordinary person. She has a lot of things she could tell the future, from first hand experience. And no one’s interested in listening, except for Spider.

The next issue deals with history on a macro scale, in the form of the “reservations.” The reservations are compounds in which current humans are stripped of their memories and genetic traits to live out a culture of the past, from Mayan cities, to ancient Japan or Islam. The past is preserved “as-is” with all of the horrible cultural practices from beheadings to FGM preserved without judgment. In the case of the Tikal (Mayan) reservation, this has meant having to create a new reservation five times because each civilization dies out from drinking from the same water where they toss the heads.

Again the future’s only true relationship to these reservations is to watch “Republican Party Compound” on TV. The rest are like national parks on an island nobody ever visits. The most interesting of these is the “Farsight” compound, dedicated to letting technology evolve faster than societal norms would be able to keep up. A glimpse of a possible human future preserved in a biodome.

It can seem grotesque to have to relearn the lessons of history by letting them play out in all over again, but I wonder if this is something we do anyway, making the same mistakes again and again. They say the mark of insanity is to try the same thing over and over again and expect a different result, but this often feels like what we’re being offered by both parties. But it’s something we do on a smaller scale as well. Taco Bell doesn’t agree with me, but every 6 months to a year I need to remind myself of that fact. It’s not human nature to try something once then go, *whew* never again.

Issues 10-12 cover an attempt on Spider’s life by people he pissed off with his columns, ranging from genetic trait farms, to former assistants, to the French. This last stems from Spider’s coverage of “The War of Verbals” five years prior which involved the French fighting to preserve their national language only to have speaking French rendered illegal. The main takeaways from this passage (other than a headless exploding Enfant Terrible sent to assassinate Spider) are these two little gems:

The paying masses never gave a shit about ‘The Miserables’ until it became an anglophone musical.

I can assure I don’t give a crap either way. I find ‘The Miserables’ to be my least favorite musical. I mean, it tries to warn you with its title! 🙂

English is an ugly, lurching fool of a language.

But it communicates hate well.

We’re certainly seeing examples of that every day lately.

I’ll end today’s post with beginning of Volume 2, Issue 7, which finds Spider’s assistant, Channon Yarrow, mourning the scheduled death of her boyfriend Xiang. Or rather, the uploading of his consciousness into a cloud of nano-machines. This story takes the idea of transferring our consciousness into an immortal vessel a step further into something that doesn’t even retain the human form. It’s the technological equivalent of being transformed into pure energy.

The “Foglets” as they are called, live as dispersed clouds of millions of tiny machines, unless they pull themselves in tight enough to be seen as a pink cloud with a false face. The issue deals pretty rawly with the emotions involved in someone making this choice, whether it’s death or rebirth. The process has a certain beauty, the chemical energy of the body being used to start up the machines. And it is clear from the presence of Tico, a Foglet friend of Spider’s, that these Foglet humans maintain aspects of their previous personality; they can be just as arrogant and self-centered as the rest of us.

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Overall this volume covers ground that are staples of cyperpunk and science-fiction, but does so with a unique bent that at times feels more plausible than the clean future of Star Trek (or the idealized democracy of The West Wing which kicked off this whole marathon diary in the first place). The next volume, Year of the Bastard, dives straight into the middle of a political convention and a contest between two candidates that nobody really likes. And prepare yourself for those last pages, because you’re in for quite a shock.

Next post on Friday, probably.

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What I’m Reading

I read probably 99% for enjoyment these days, evidenced by the fact that a lot of what I’m reading are comic books.

I love going book shopping with Brian, not the least of which just for the excuse. He has less good used book places to go in Findlay so whenever he’s in town we do the rounds of the Half Price Books or Acorns. Trouble is whenever we leave the store I’m walking out with CDs/DVDs and a few comic books, and Brian is walking out with a whole stack of books on Zen philosophy or old classics or books that look a whole lot more impressive.

And Brian writes and distills these ideas well. When he discussed The Myth of Sisyphus I actually thought it might be something worth reading, and at the very least I came away with an understanding of what the book was trying to say.

Now truth be known I’m not suddenly going to become a philosophy major. And there’s a good case to be made for my love of genre fiction since I’m trying to be a good genre fiction writer. But the best genre fiction, the best writing, has a depth to it that comes from reading more than just pulp novels. It comes from a curiosity about the world.

Now I do have a curiosity about the world, particularly mathematics, and more specifically fractals, as you might have already guessed. But truthfully I haven’t figured out how to make fractals into a good story, or fractal thinking, or the fractal nature of the universe. I love writing books about how to create fractals, and suspect I will write another, but it doesn’t help the fiction much.

What I’m looking for are books that make me think. I read a lot of interesting articles, and sometimes I share them with all of you. But I only read maybe 1 or 2 books a year that really make me examine he universe, life, and everything. And more importantly, at least to me, spark ideas for how to explore those concepts in fiction.

I’d like to tackle the Singularity of course, but I feel like I haven’t quite figured out how to talk about that without sounding like the crazy bearded man on the street with a cardboard sign taped around his neck saying “Repent. The end is near.”

So I guess what I’m asking is what do you think I should read that I shouldn’t miss? What book that you’ve read would you look at me in disbelief for not having tried? And what new or old idea should I take a look at?

Maybe something old and something new, definitely something borrowed, but nothing blue. Not looking to be depressed people 🙂

Leave your thoughts in the comments and thanks!

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AI Week, Day 2: Repent! The Singularity Is Near!

I believe in the Singularity.

I don’t know when it will happen. There are a lot of hurdles to overcome, technological, biological, even philosphical. But I believe that day is coming.

And on that day I shall mourn.

There are a lot of definitions of the singularity, but fundamental amongst all of them is the belief in something that will transcend human intelligence, whether it will augment us or be separate is unknown, but the goal of many who pursue this dream is simple, immortality.

Immortality in this sense is achieved in a couple of ways. The body is augmented with machines that help it to run better and more efficiently (something we’ve already begun to do with artificial organs and limbs). Second, our minds are augmented through thousands of tiny nano-machines which store information, connect us to the net, and can even back up our consciousness. We’re already treading into the realms of science fiction with this idea, but we have technologies that exist today that can translate thoughts into actions, like shooting a monster in Doom.

Along the way these technologies are invented and created by an Artificial Intelligence, capable of increasing its intelligence exponentially to the point where it can solve problems that would take us thousands or millions of years to solve. At some point we may even choose to fuse our consciousness with this intelligence, or with each other in a connected network.

Let’s be a little more concrete for a moment.

Exponential growth of technology does exist. We use our latest technology to develop the next generation. We double computing power every year. At some point the hardware, if not the software will exist to make AIs possible. We don’t know exactly what kind of software will be necessary, and it may take more than technological advances to achieve it, some novel elegant thinking about the problem. Insight, intuition, we’ve solved hundreds of problems as a species with these methods. This one is no different.

I don’t want to die.

We’ve all faced death, whether it’s the death of a loved one or a more personal glimpse of mortality. I’ve had two such glimpses in my life, a brush with cancer and a genetic heart condition that 10 years ago would not have been able to be corrected. Both of these problems have been fixed by modern medical science, and I expect technology will help us to live longer than ever before in the future as it has for centuries.

But one day I shall die.

And that’s okay. As a Christian I believe in another kind of eternal life, a life with God in heaven. C.S. Lewis writes about humanity in The Screwtape Letters that we’re amphibians, capable of living in the temporal and the eternal world. Our lives on this planet are part of a long chain for which death is only the beginning. In the temporal world it can be hard to get a sense of the eternal, but it is what we were made for. Before the fall we were meant to live forever. Everything since that moment has been moving toward a day when that fall will be corrected.

I fully admit it takes faith to believe this. Ray Kurzweil, one father of the idea of the Singularity, would say that I have created this belief to cope with the idea of death, and that no one can truly accept death. But it also takes faith to believe that technology will positively enhance our lives beyond our limitations, or that a super-intelligent AI would have any interest in helping us.

I have practical concerns as well. A society so directly infused with technology would be dangerously susceptible to EMP (Electro-Magnetic Pulse, think Goldeneye). And if I were able to back up my brain to a disk and my body fails, would the restored mind be me? It might act like me, but I still died. It’s like identical twins, except that in addition to physical characteristics their minds are copied as well. If one dies do they continue to live forever in the other twin. And what’s to stop me from putting copies of my mind in other bodies. The world does not need more than one of me, trust me.

I was talking to my dad last week about Faith and Reason. Scientists have a kind of faith, a faith that the entire world can fit into a logical and describable framework. To me this seems incomplete. We have emotions, intuition, feelings about the world. If logic was meant to be the only way to solve and understand the world, why would we also have these other aspects of our humanity. Some problems, some answers to questions about life, are better sussed out by our feelings than by our logical minds.

I think Kurzweil and other futurists have chosen well in calling this advance the Singularity. Singularities are destructive, uncontrollable, they seem to violate the laws of nature. And they are a point from which we cannot escape. I find myself filled with an existential horror at the notion of being replaced by an intelligence greater than my own. I do not want to change the nature of my body, my mind, this machine I am tuning myself to be this engine of creativity.

It’s possible I am part of the last generation of humans who will die a natural death. The singularity is something that may effect my children or my grand-children, and I want to leave an idea of humanity before that point arrives. We can dismiss this as science fiction, and it is, but science fiction has always been unusual as a genre in that if often predicts the future correctly, the problems we will have to face as a society, and the technological implications of the paths we’re traveling down. I think it’s an idea that Christians and parents and everyone will have to understand in twenty years. Already we have a generation of children, just a couple of years younger than me, who conduct their lives socially online without a thought to what they are sharing about themselves. The idea of privacy as a desired thing is falling away. I think an aversion to technology being implanted in the body will disappear the same way. Children are raised as if the world in which they exist is normal, is intentional, is the way things should be. I hear Borg when someone talks about uploading and sharing consciousness on the net. My children may see something else, a kind of inseperable love, or an exploration of worlds beyond imagination. It is folly, but it is a child’s folly, and so an understandable and inevitable one.

I think God does want us to live forever, but not like this.

I understand the desire. Ray Kurzweil is motivated by many things, the death of his father, his own health problems, and a belief in a bright future for humanity. He wants to live forever, and even bring back his father using old notes and papers and an AI to emulate him. He wants to create God, rather than meet him. I can’t hate a man like this, who’s experienced many of the tragedies life puts upon us. Rather I pray for him, that he will someday have faith in something in addition to technology, that God might meet him in the end. That’s where I believe true eternity lives, and that’s where he can meet his father again.

Afterword: Okay this got a little more somber and serious (and rambling) than originally intended, but it is a serious topic, even if it may be many decades in the future. It’s something we should think about both intellectually and emotionally, since these are both facets of our humanity. A lot of material for Singularity theory for this post came from the documentary “Transcendent Man” which is on Netflix streaming at the moment. It’s provocative stuff, and may make this a little more real for those of you who still think this is wackadoo Sci-Fi (yes WordPress, it’s a word). Additionally, Ray Kurzweil has done a number of TED talks which are fascinating listening (some material from which is in the documentary), and has started a SingularityU designed to advance technologies, partnered with Google and others. And if you want a more amusing perspective try Season 4 Episode 2 of The Big Bang Theory, “The Cruciferous Vegetable Amplification”. Also, be sure to head on over to the Buckley Blog for his take.

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