Ah…the Singularity. Yeah.
I mean, I thought I was done with it. But apparently it isn’t done with me. I think you’ve all heard me say that I’m only interested in the Singularity as the fearful shadow of what’s really coming toward us from the futureward direction, i.e. a diaspora rather than a unification, a splintering of science and technology into two seperate things: a balkanization of knowledge-bases, massive theory-shock setting in as our increasing experimental power starts to collapse the ideal of Ye Progresse around our very ears. Yeah: quite the opposite of our machines taking the burden of science away from us, as though you could send your arms and legs to go to work for you while your torso sleeps…it’ll be more like our machines delivering too much of science’s burden to us, too many observations for our contextualizations to keep up with them. Hey, we’ve had it easy up ’til now, folks! All we’ve had to worry about is society keeping up with technology — “alienation”, we call it in the English biz. But soon we’re going to have to worry about knowledge keeping up with facts, and that’s going to be, yeah…a bit of a liminal experience.
But not a Singularity. Although the feeling will be much the same: in that it will be an antipodal feeling, a feeling very nicely matched to the feeling explored in “Singulatarian” SF, by being its exact mirror image.
You can see its first stirrings all around you, if you look. Discoveries in Discipline X rely on yardsticks supplied by Discipline Y, which rely on the consensus figures delivered by Discipline Z, which gets its benchmarks from Discipline X again…but the more exciting our scientific times, the more the yardsticks are all in flux, and these are indeed very, very exciting scientific times. So you can’t really do Discipline X in glorious isolation anymore…not that you ever really could, except the “brain” of Science was large, and its neural firings intermittent, and its emergent thoughts slow, so you had time to work within a provisional conceptual framework, maybe even spend most of a career there, before the cogency of new information caught up with you. Time between thoughts: beautiful, beautiful interval. But it’s not like that anymore, and it’s going to get a lot less like that as time goes on. So right now to be a really good specialist, you need to have good interdisciplinary skills as well…at least, you have to be a good interdisciplinary reader. Which is a tougher job than it sounds! But you don’t yet have to be a specialist-level cruiser of X and Y knowledge, just to do some fruitful Z…and thank goodness for that, but make no mistake, these are the good times, and we’ve already passed Peak Interval, and it’s all uphill from here. The days of being a standalone “X Specialist” are going, and soon they’ll be gone…and then the days of being an “XYZ Specialist” will go. And the prospect is certainly like that of a Singularity, isn’t it? As all disciplines seem fated to become one discipline, and all knowledge one knowledge, it seems we approach a miraculous unity-point where a sufficiently-intelligent being or being-grouping could know everything all at once. And okay…so we know that intelligence won’t be us. But maybe it could be a daughter species of ours that contains some vestigial “us-ness” to it, enough for our own agency to be plausibly displaced into it…enough so that we can imagine being carried along, somehow, into those unsown fields that bear ripened fruit. Where the children of men and the children of gods too, will see Baldr come again to the war-god’s fane.
So the Singularity, you see, is a solution.
And that’s the problem. Except, it isn’t the problem critics of the Singularity think it is…and that’s another problem. Because what use is it, to argue the nature of technological change with Singulatarians? It’s quite beside the point: as absurd as arguing biology with Creationists when they could be so much more easily brought low by arguing astronomy with them. The fact is, to get right down to it, the Singularity is bunk. It’s pie in the sky. It can’t withstand the facts.
Here are the facts.
There is no strong AI. There isn’t going to be any strong AI. What we have here is a definition problem, to which the tools of engineering (“reverse-engineer the brain!”) have already proved inadequate, and will continue to prove inadequate. The belief that we can produce conscious self-awareness simply by throwing complexity at a system, is a primitive one; not unlike to the idea that we can produce “life” by throwing electricity at a bunch of dead tissues. Surely we would’ve already created life, if that was the case? Just how complex do systems have to be before they acquire self-awareness? This isn’t the enlistment of natural forces, it’s the blind invocation of them: stand the thing out in the rain and God will touch it with heavenly fire…probably. Of course if there’s anything more improbable than something working in accordance with our wishes based on our lack of understanding of its principles, then the word “probability” must surely acquire a new meaning before any amount of metal and any amount of current can acquire what is popularly referred to as “intelligence”…I mean, we might as well wish to induce salt to taste sweet by cutting out our tongues, as assume that Moore’s Law will deliver strong AI to us without us even doing anything…! Ah, the metaphor of the “electronic brain”, how powerful a hold it has on us! Only build it, and consciousness will come…!
But what is “consciousness”?
See, the “electronic brain”…that was a literary solution to an existential problem too, right? “Man will be discovered to be nothing but a machine!” Okay, fine…but what if a machine can gain a “soul”? Dwell for a moment with me on the word “animal”, if you will…what does it mean except “objects that move around without the wind blowing on them”? Objects with behaviours instead of properties. Yes, once we thought of them so.
So why shouldn’t we think of robots the same way?
You see what I mean, it’s a cool idea for a story…but it really isn’t how real robots work. And it actually doesn’t solve our existential difficulty, just to say “if it moves without the wind blowing on it, it must be as alive as anything else!” If that were the case, windows would be more alive than doors, and fires would be more alive than foxgloves. It’s a definition problem. We don’t know what constitutes “life”. We don’t know how to tell if something’s intelligent, unless it’s made outta carbon compounds and has a face. All of this “life” stuff, all of this “inanimate” stuff, it’s all just atoms and molecules…and nanotechnology’s the same. I’m not going to be the one to say it’s impossible to make a pencil with a stainless-steel tip instead of a graphite one, but I am going to suggest that no amount of trying to fool the pencil-user into thinking steel is really graphite is going to make any difference toward being able to write with it, unless the “fooling technique” consists of coating the steel with graphite. I mean ultimately, what’s the difference between a thing that moves on its own, and a thing that only moves when the wind blows on it? Energy is energy, right? Reaction is reaction, right? Processes are processes, surely? Why should we ever think anything is not alive and conscious, if we think we are?
Like I said: what is consciousness? Is this consciousness, only consciousness with an even slower thought-process than Science? Sure, it’s “wind” that sculpts it and causes its changes, but it isn’t “real” wind…or is it?
Can the electrochemical processes of the brain be considered “wind”, by some definition?
You see…it’s ridiculous. Because of course the electrochemistry of the brain can be called “wind” (by the way, did you know that Odin was originally a Wind-God?), but that doesn’t help us to make machines that can pass the Turing test. Just like, if you’ll pardon this brief digression, you can’t discover Einsteinian physics from quantum-mechanical postulates: because the first is physical reasoning based on visual apprehension of systems, and the second is physical reasoning based on auditory apprehension of systems. Yeah: I’ll say it. The barrier to any GUT is in essence a sensory barrier. Bear in mind that from a very strict evolutionary perspective there is no difference between sight and hearing — both are equally based on physics and chemistry, the properties of elements and media, the fact that from a certain perspective there is no difference between an organism and its surroundings…or, sorry, is that evolution talking, after all?
Because it sounds like philosophy, doesn’t it?
Except it doesn’t: because philosophy doesn’t even exist without the supposition that there are differences in the field of existence, that are capable of categorization. And understanding.
So where is the understanding of consciousness, in the world of AI research?
There is none. Not since Alan Turing. And by the way have you read his famous test? To this day there is no computer that can satisfy its conditions. We have computers that can beat Grand Masters in chess…we have computers that can “learn” from their environments, backed by a speed of thought unimaginable to the human physical structure. So why don’t we have thinking machines yet?
For heaven’s sake, how long do we have to wait?
That’s how you know the Singularity isn’t coming, friends. Because our technologists may be fully of the twenty-first century, but their philosophy’s strictly of the nineteenth. Possibly even: the eighteenth. Because that’s when John Locke coined the term “consciousness”, eh? And meant it to mean: that which can be used to determine a person’s responsibility for their actions. With “consciousness”: responsibility. Without “consciousness”: by definition, no responsibility…
…Hey, what were we talking about, again?
OH YEAH THAT’S RIGHT.
Singulatarians do not know what they are talking about.
There’s no strong AI.
There can’t be any strong AI.
Because we don’t even know what it would look like.
None of our yardsticks for the thing popularly known as “intelligence” may be right.
In fact they may always have been wrong…and we’re only just now finding out about it. And, how unfortunate that would be! What a problem for the progress of human knowledge!
Oh, if only there was some solution to it…! Preferably an easy one…! BUT THERE ISN’T.