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Singularity on a stick

After various discussions around the house with matociquala over the past couple of weeks, her post today on Singularity finally motivated me to read Vernor Vinge's original Singularity paper.

Oh. My. God. What a heap of dreamily quaint notions about the transformative power of technology. What is it about 'technology and the future' that causes people to go off on these flights of apocalyptic fancy? The most thoroughly proven thing we can say about technology and the future is that most of our predictions will be wrong.

Take a look at any of the future predicting movies from the '50s (atomic cars) or '30s (flying cars) and get back to me. Oh, and what was that concern in the '60s – that technological 'labor saving' devices would take up the burden of so much of our daily work that the big social problem of the future would be too much leisure time. Hello, I just put in a fourteen hour day yesterday turning my little cog in the wheel of technological progress. The Machines have not yet set me free.

And, why, oh why, are people (who are educated enough to know better) compelled to say things like "Large computer networks (and their associated users) may "wake up" as a superhumanly intelligent entity"...? Who started this idea that if you cable enough shit together it will suddenly come alive? Do you have any idea how excruciatingly dumb a router is? No collection of web servers, database servers, and IRC bots is going to have a mass epiphany and take over the world.

Vinge goes further saying of the Singularity "If networking is widespread enough (into ubiquitous embedded systems), it may seem as if our artifacts as a whole had suddenly wakened." And I ask myself, does Vinge have any concept of how limited the intelligence in a network-attached refrigerator would be? A tadpole has more brain power. Why? Because if Maytag can't add Ethernet or WiFi and digital temperature controls to a fridge for less than twenty bucks they're not going to do it. You're not going to see a robust general-purpose CPU with lots of resources in your Frigidaire. It'll be some light-weight low-power web-server-on-a-chip with a couple of DSPs for interfacing with the thermometer, humidity control, motor control and the switch in the door that makes the light go on and off. A big herd of interconnected dumb devices is just a big herd of dumb devices. A vision of the future that has "ubiquitous embedded systems" "waking up" ... words fail me.

And there are other forces out there to pour cold water on Singularity. Social and economic inertia are two of them. The latter being far more fatal to rapid technological change. Vinge's own third possible cause of Singularity ("Computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent.") turns out, in his own paper, to be an evolutionary – not revolutionary – development of the teaming of man and machine. Which leads me to one last observation: we have absorbed – for better or worse – every technological change in human history. What makes Vinge so sure that our capacity to roll with the punches is going to expire in the next twenty four years?


( 5 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 1st, 2006 03:06 am (UTC)
What makes Vinge so sure that our capacity to roll with the punches is going to expire in the next twenty four years?

When you think about the change humans have been able to absorb in the last 100 - or even only 50 - years, that worry is ridiculous.
Mar. 2nd, 2006 11:14 pm (UTC)
Mar. 1st, 2006 04:51 am (UTC)
Not for nothing...
I believe it was Arthur C. Clarke who said "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Currently, computers are that technology.

Computers are, for lack of a better way to say it, can be that technology, with you, chummer, as one of the high priest's of the new religion / mythology -- sacrifice Willy the Mail Boy, lest the servers punish us, blighting out data. They don't understand G.I.G.O. They don't get that its all just ones and zeros. We have myths that go back *how* far -- Greece? Statues that come to life, disaster in a box... Its a common theme / motif -- we were raised with tales of Pinnochio, watched Capt. Kirk take down M-5, heard about the Golem and the magic words, watched late night movies like Colossus: the Forbin Project. The difference is where we learned about computers and can make them do things -- you more than me, but hey, that's life.

Folks who can't, who get frustrated, attribute malign intellect to the damn things -- "they seem to have a mind of their own," et al and ad nauseum. Its not that far a leap to the next step -- prjecting that image as a "coming certainty."

Don't let the chicken-entrail readers get you down, man. Que sera, sera, or some such.

Mar. 1st, 2006 12:56 pm (UTC)
Nice to see that I'm not the only one whose response to that article was roughly in line with my response to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster's analysis of the inverse relationship between pirates and global warming.

- Tom
Mar. 2nd, 2006 11:14 pm (UTC)
Yes, but (the obvious political point they're making aside), the FSM folks are joking!
( 5 comments — Leave a comment )

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