Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Future Smuture: "The Singularity is (probably) bunk" and what the future will likely look like

Kurzweil's extension of Moore's law 
I love Science Fiction . So I am attacking Worlds Without End's lists of "Science Fiction Classics" and "The 101 Best Novels 1985-2010."

I have been amazed at how many 21st Century books focus on Vernor Vinge's "Singularity." Which is the idea that computers will eventually become sentient, and begin replicating themselves, rapidly creating a huge network that will colonize the entire galaxy. And, eventually, man will be able to "piggy back" onto this network to transcend reality.

Not particularly scientific -- even if it's based on Moore's Law and Metcalfe's  Law. The Singularity is scientific mysticism -- the natural correlate to Scientism, which is my term for people who deify science, and follow its dictates as if it were gosepl "truth." When science is nothing more than a rational, conscious exploration of what can be measured.

But, something  seems wrong about the Singularity. There evidence that science is hitting the wall on processor growth which will cripple the acceleration of technical progress on CPU's, which is central to Singularity Theory. According to what I've read, it will soon cost manufacturers too much to add circuits to chips. Not to mention that we are limited by the size of electrons and atoms. After which we are in the probabilistic quantum world. Which will make computing unreliable....

And let's not forget that we need people to write programs to take advantage of the new CPU's.

Or that our current use of network traffic is heavily weighted to mindless Tweets, X-Box Live, and watching American Idol on Hulu. While worthy projects, like the open source Mathematica replacement Sage Math, languish.

Not exactly the stuff of Artificial Intelligence...

Metcalfe's Law: The exponential expansion of network utility

So I am wondering why our current batch of Science Fiction writers are so enamored of cyber-culture. To me, it seems so limiting, Since it ignores huge swaths of science that are important, though under appreciated by most SF fans these days.

Consider the lowly social science of anthropology. Not sexy or cuber-cool. However, anthropology gave us the masterworks of Ursula K. Le Guin -- especially in The Word for Wold is Forest and The City of Illusions -- and Orson Scott Card's breathtaking, thought provoking and unsettling Speaker for the Dead.

Other things this overt technological focus gives short shrift to are things that are likely going to consume us in the future.  Sustainable technologies, like urban agriculture and renewable energy, that will likely be a huge part of our post petroleum future. And how many SF authors seem to understand the findings of psychology, cognitive science, and behavioral economics?

These are real, quantifiable and unsettling gaps.

Because in my opinion, any fiction calling itself Science Fiction should encompass these social sciences as well as digital and physical technologies. For, without this broad, deep understanding of science, we will end up with non-scientific musings -- like misunderstood linguistics allowing Neal Stephenson to postulate that a person could use Sumerian to reprogram the brain's Operating system in Snow Crash.

Which, when I read it, had me scratching my head. I mean, something this non-scientific posing as a plausible world in a Science Fiction novel? No way!

I suppose that this is a consequence of the genre, whose target audience is largely males, who use computers more fluently than most. But it points to a blind spot in the genre which is worth noting.

Because, when all is said and done, the Singularity is not science. It is more belief than anything. It may come to pass, not doubt. But that seems unlikely.

Until then, we have to live. Eat. Love. Breed. And ultimately die. And I am more interested in that, and how humans will go about it in post peak-oil conditions. And not some wacky mystical transcendent "Singularity."

But then, I gotta admit that Vinge's A Fire Upon The Deep  was an excellent SF space opera set in a post-Singularity universe. Which seems really cool... =)

1 comment:

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