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Before the Dumptruck

In an exchange with ankh_f_n_khonsu about the the coming singularity, mungojelly made one prediction that seems ironclad, no matter the specific implementation of the coming "intelligence explosion." Regardless of whether the explosion occurs as a result of a campaign of augmenting human (and possibly animal) intelligence or whether it takes the form of completely independent artificial intelligence, we can rest (pretty much) assured that the following will come to pass:

It's not a little bit of spice here, a bit more parsley there. The soup pot of the human experience is about to encounter a dumptruck full of computation. So I hope you're in the mood for information stew.

Just one little dash of added computation and externalized memory has just recently made a big change to the flavor of my daily experience. I listen to a lot of podcasts these days. I've had an mp3 player for a few weeks now, and I think it no exaggeration to say that it has significantly changed my life. It has certainly changed my relationship to both radio and the internet.

Shortly before I got my mp3 player, I moved from a rental house in a suburban neighborhood of Fayetteville, Arkansas to a house on 4.7 acres in very rural Gravette, Arkansas, and in so doing, I have traded wireless broadband in my home for a rickety and glacial dial-up connection. The thought of downloading a podcast at home, by its sheer absurdity, brings a smile to my lips. So when I head out into the world with my laptop, I make stops at public wireless broadband watering holes. I'll stop into the Atlanta Bread Company, or the Fayetteville Public Library, or Barnes and Noble, download 2 or 3 podcasts, and then get back on the road with my mp3 player connected to the car stereo using an adapter plugged into the long-forgotten cassette player.

Recently, in additon to my usual podcast diet, I've been listening to mp3s of the speeches delivered at the Stanford Singularity Summit, as have some of the other participants of the singularity_now LJ community. A lot of the recent discussion here has revolved around speculations about the kinds of minds we're likely to pull out of the unimaginably vast design space of all possible minds. Given that these posthuman Minds may warrant a capital M to distinguish them from the relatively puny minds which form the nodes of the meatspace hive mind and given that humans as they now exist, what futurists and SF prognosticators have called "old-style humans," "original substrate humans," or "unaugmented humans" will have little comprehension of, much less any say in, the resource allocation decisions of the post-singularity Minds and Powers, to the extent that we understand the scope of the cognitive/computational differential between US and THEM, we take great interest in the question of their disposition towards us.

Hollywood reaches to one tiny region of mind design space for its visions of things to come. They make it their "go to" zone because the particular style of post-human mind residing there, slightly more advanced than unaugmented human minds and decidedly zero-sum in its philosphy of machine/human relations, provides plot jet fuel for futuristic action flicks. Eliezer Yudkowsky, in his Singularity Summit talk, referred to this sterotyped Hollywood troup as an "ethnic stereotype."

We simply cannot wrap our intuitive understanding around the vastness of the variety of minds we might possibly pull from the design space of possible minds, but it seems intuitively obvious that the kind of post-human consciousness we summon from the design space of all possible minds and the disposition of said consciousness toward us apes will depend in great part upon the state of human consciousness at the moment of the Singularity. We know that our soup pot of human intelligence is heading for its encounter with that dumptruck of computation, but before that happens, we will see the maturation of the pharmacuetical industry's ability to re-shape our minds according to the demands of the marketplace.

In a talk entitled "Pharmacology and the Posthuman Phuture," delivered as part of the Palenque Norte lecture series at this summer's Burning Man festival, technology historian and Wired contributor Erik Davis anticipates enormous changes to the post-human sense of subjectivity resulting not from a merger with technology but rather by taking a transhumanist approach to the options for transforming human cognitive capabilities presented by a matured neuropharmacological science. Even if the AI Singularity arrives on Ray Kurzweil's optimistic schedule, the human sense of subjectivity, our attitudes about individuality and collectivity, and our willingness to accept the kinds of human limitations that Bill McKibben romanticized in his Singularity Summit lecture will have undergone a couple of decades worth of transformation under the influence of ever denser and more immersive media and pharmacological science.

If you listen to the Erik Davis talk you might want to download the podcast and then skip ahead 17 minutes. Davis takes that long to get around to the declared topic of his lecture. If you have any interest in visionary art and visionary artists and the role they play in shaping the memetic landscape, they you might want to listen from the beginning. If you listened to Eliezer Yudkowsy's talk, notice how both speakers gravitate to the same closing call to action.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 24th, 2006 11:08 pm (UTC)
(side note: I can see two instances of this post on my friends page)

I'm a little unconvinced of the value of podcasts. I generally prefer the printed word. Not sure why - I guess I think the spoken word can be a little harder to critique at times.

The Yudkowsky talk from the SSS is the only one I've listened to so far - it was interesting. First time I've heard the distinction between an "intelligence explosion" and a generic singularity in the rate of technological advance pointed out. Which others from the summit are worth a listen?
Sep. 25th, 2006 01:43 am (UTC)
(side note: I can see two instances of this post on my friends page)

Glad to see you commenting here. Had you looked earlier in the day, you might have seen four instances of this post, some with bits of broken html sticking out.

I found something of value in just about every presentation, but the talks by Cory Doctorow and Max More stand out most in my memory (other than the Yudkowsky talk which I've listened to three times now).
Sep. 25th, 2006 02:36 am (UTC)
Re: Podcasts
I have a love/hate attitude towards Yudkowsky, much like the late Carl Sagan.

Such brilliance coupled with profound fundamentalist materialist objectivism.

I haven't been watching much of my communities lately. singularity_now has such an abundance of materialists.

Sep. 25th, 2006 01:20 pm (UTC)
Re: Podcasts
I think you might enjoy Max More's Singularity Summit talk. He emphasizes the need for integral intelligence in addition to merely super-specialized faster, better, more task-oriented intelligence.

As for singularity_now, yes, lots of narrow materialist ideology in play there, but I suspect that a number of the lurkers take a more flexible stance.

I know what you mean about Yudkowsky. My primary association with him prior to the Singularity Summit had to do with his banning any mention of Terence McKenna and any ideas associated with him from discussion on his website forum. He reminds me of Richard Dawkins in that respect. Still if you're going to lock yourself into an inflexible ideology, you can do a lot worse that scientific materialism.

I take far greater interest in the insights that scientists glean from their psychonautical excursions than from the revelations experienced by people with no interest or background in science.

Also, as McKenna pointed out in his Palenque talk "Linear Societies and Non-linear Drugs," while most of the people interested in psychedlics come at it from a shamanic or neo-primitive perspective, the leading lights of the community use the methodology and language of science.

I wrote this little essay as much for Google as for any of the humans likely to read it in the short term. Formerly, Wikipedia, in describing Terence McKenna's Time Wave Zero notion, linked it to the idea of the Singularity. Shortly after the shamanism skirmish spilled over from the singularity_now group into the SL4 group all mention of McKenna's Time Wave idea disappeared from the Terence McKenna page on Wikipedia, thus removing the link between the Singularity and Terence McKenna on Wikipedia. I wanted to create a document that explicitly links the ideas about the Singularity presented at stuffy academic conferences like the Stanford Singularity Summit to thinkers from the intellectual tradition of people like Terence McKenna, Erik Davis, and Mark Pesce. The Monday morning intellectuals may well revise history in the short term to stake an exclusive claim of ownership of the idea of the Singularity, but with Google archiving all publicly accessible posts like this one, their efforts will ultimately proove futile.
Sep. 25th, 2006 03:02 pm (UTC)
Re: Podcasts
I'll see if I can track some of his work down.

Thanks for the reference.

Sep. 28th, 2006 03:01 am (UTC)
The nature of our future Mind has yet to be determined. This is, then, the greatest political struggle humanity has ever encountered. I have a deeply eerie impression that the Alpha Males who pull the strings of international intelligence & intrigue are not as ignorant of the situation as we might like them to be. But the uncertainty of the situation is enough to allow some slim chance for any & all ideas.

In a comment thread here, you refer to a struggle for ownership of the concept of Singularity-- of what it could be. This struggle is of course essentially identical with the struggle to actually control the event. It is such a suggestible genie we're uncorking.

There is nothing sensible to do except to clarify our wishes. To develop hearts that are open enough to embrace a beautiful transformation.
Sep. 28th, 2006 01:14 pm (UTC)
Cancel the Apocolypse
Your comments remind me of Daniel Pinchbeck's 2006 Burning Man lecture, "Cancel the Apocolypse." A great many people, upon hearing that the current economic system may suffer a total collapse in the next few years respond with, "Thank God. The sooner the better." Pinchbeck encouraged the folks at Burning Man to embrace the idea that the current system, despite its many flaws and institutionized injustices, needs to remain viable long enough for a new support system to take shape. If we let the old order fall before the new has arise, the so-called "Creative Destruction" route, then we will suffer through a hell on earth a la The Road Warrior.

I understand the anger and sense of disenfranchisement that motivates this longing for the apocolypse. I've certainly lived in it and entertained my own survivalist fantasies, and I agree with Pinchbeck that, all things considered, the current state of affairs beats dog-eat-dog, survival mode, social disintegration.
Oct. 5th, 2006 04:55 am (UTC)
Re: Cancel the Apocolypse
For the time being, a steady course is probably the best option. Things are going to change very rapidly, though, and new options will open up. What if we're talking about a situation where humans are dramatically healthier, saner, and smarter than they are now? Forms of social organization that now seem idealistic may come into the realm of possibility.

What we have is a continually unfolding memetic situation. Ideas are being exchanged, and the people exchanging them are changing. As people start to really change, the kinds of ideas being exchanged will change. New feelings will rise up.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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