Rudy Rucker versus the Singularity

Science fiction writer and mathematician Rudy Rucker takes a running swing at the idea of the Singularity, the moment in human history when we disassemble raw matter, turn it into "computronium" and upload ourselves to it, inhabiting a simulation of reality rather than real reality. It's a fine and provocative turn from our Mr Rucker, who has a fine and provocative and deeply weird and wonderful mind.
Although it’s a cute idea, I think computronium is a fundamentally spurious concept, an unnecessary detour. Matter, just as it is, carries out outlandishly complex chaotic quantum computations just by sitting around. Matter isn’t dumb. Every particle everywhere everywhen is computing at the maximum possible rate. I think we tend to very seriously undervalue quotidian reality...

This would be like filling in wetlands to make a multiplex theater showing nature movies, clear-cutting a rainforest to make a destination eco-resort, or killing an elephant to whittle its teeth into religious icons of an elephant god.

This is because there are no shortcuts for nature’s computations. Due to a property of the natural world that I call the “principle of natural unpredictability,” fully simulating a bunch of particles for a certain period of time requires a system using about the same number of particles for about the same length of time. Naturally occurring systems don’t allow for drastic shortcuts.

Link (via Futurismic)


  1. Arguably “…the moment in human history when we disassemble raw matter, turn it into ‘computronium’ and upload ourselves to it” is just one of many possible definitions of “The Singularity”.

    Vernor Vinge argues in his seminal essay “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era” that several potential outcomes – and root causes – are possible. The “computronium+upload” model is one such possibility. The rise of AI, nanotech-based power over matter & energy, effective control of genetics and the development of effective immortality, and various kinds of new physics all play roles in alternate visions of “The Singularity”. They all hold central, however, the fundamental concept that not only is the rate of change high in our modern world, but that the rate of change is itself accelerating (i.e., the ‘jerk’ factor is large). I knew understanding derivatives would be useful someday.

    Reference for the curious:
    Vinge, Vernor, “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era“,

  2. “Matter isn’t dumb. Every particle everywhere everywhen is computing at the maximum possible rate. I think we tend to very seriously undervalue quotidian reality.”

    I could argue that matter is dumb because it is not being directed to compute anything other than it’s current state of reality, which is well below its potential raw-material computational potential. If you wanted to take a drop of water and turn it into a quantum computer, the theoretical computational output could out strip every computer in existence right now. If we’re going to talk about the Sigularity and quantum physics, then we need to be deconstructionist in our treatment of matter. And then we get to energy, which is at the heart of matter. If there is a lot of computation going on, as Rucker says, then why is it happening and to what end? Did a computer matrix (our universe) just evolve on its own, by chance?

  3. Its just daydreaming for sci-fi fans who have never carried out a real life scientific experiment. Because those who have, would never make such rediculous predictions when you know how crazy squidgy matter can be, and how little we actually know.

    Stop listening to Ray! He’s an idiot!

  4. There has been not one single apocalyptic forecast that has ever come true throughout human history that I’m aware of. The Harmonic Convergence, Y2K and a whole slew of end-of-the-world predictions by small-time wackadoo religious nuts have all been complete busts. The same will hold true for 2012 and the singularity. Those are some apocalyptic predictions I guarantee to be accurate.

  5. Some time ago I saw a very interesting lecture by Douglas Hofstadter to the effect that Ray Kurzweil is a crackpot, and his whole Singularity notion is a crackpot one. However, in language of great respect, Hofstadter warned us not to dismiss his arguments to lightly, but that we need to very carefully examine them to see why they are crackpot. Ultimately he’s taken some very sound and reasonable ideas way way too far. I don’t mean to say that he’s taken them too far because we don’t want to believe them, but rather because he is omitting or ignoring other factors. Specifically he’s ignoring that:

    1) Computation is not exactly the same as intelligence (An iMac can crunch way more numbers than all the neurons in a cockroach, yet it couldn’t navigate the walls of an apartment building to find food or mates), which is not exactly the same as consciousness (Your tivo may be able to predict that you like Battlestar Galactica – but can it understand why you like it?), and:

    2) that just because we’ve seen an exponential growth in computational power up until now doesn’t mean that trend will persist (rabbits may show exponential growth, but there are other factors which may arise to limit it – ie lack of food, rise of preditor populations).

  6. Heh. I spent too much time with software QA to trust in Singularity.

    The old saying that “People who love sausage or respect the law should never watch them being made.” Software belongs in that category as well.

    [Are there any stories out there on Singularity beta-testers?]

  7. I don’t think any sensible person suggested that computronium could simulate in total detail the same amount of matter than it’s made of. That would be a violation of thermodynamics.

  8. corvi42 said, “..that just because we’ve seen an exponential growth in computational power up until now doesn’t mean that trend will persist…”

    I happen to think Ray Kurweil is far from a crackpot. He extrapolates and speculates and his models are mathematical in nature. I don’t think anyone can predict the future with a high degree of accuracy, but if I’m going to think about the future I want it to be at least as interesting as Kurzweil’s. Which looks a lot like a Doctorow future (Down and Out..).

  9. I got yer “singularity” right here…..

    I stand in awe of my body, this matter to which I am bound has become so strange to me. I fear not spirits, ghosts, of which I am one, that my body might, but I fear bodies, I tremble to meet them. What is this Titan that has possession of me? Talk of mysteries! Think of our life in nature, daily to be shown matter, to come in contact with it, rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks! The solid earth! the actual world! the common sense! Contact! Contact! Who are we? where are we?” (1864, Maine Woods , “Ktaadn,” 664)

  10. I don’t think the comments here are really grapsing the overall arch of what the Singularity signifies. At its most general level, Kurzweil says that when computers are able to pass human thought, then we have an event horizon of human history. Assuming our thought processes are completely modelable, how could it not be a possible future reality?

  11. One of the central factual claims of the Singularists is trivially false.

    The pace of technological change is slowing down.

    Consider. My grandmother was born in 1884 and died in 1980 at the age of 96.

    The year she was born the first Edison electric plant had been open in New York City for a short time, but to all intents and purposes she lived in “a world lit only by fire.” Travel was by foot, steam train, or something to do with horses. Bell’s (or possibly Meucci’s) telephone had been patented for less than a decade, and telephones were being sold in matched pairs to individual subscribers using purpose-built lines. Heavier-than-air flight was moonshine. Hertz was declaring his scientific demonstration of the existence of Maxwellian waves to have “no practical use.”

    My grandmother was 21 when the Wright Brothers took flight, a few years older when Henry Ford sold his first Model T, in her 30’s when mechanized and aerial warfare bloodied Europe for the first time. By the time she was fifty, radio and telephones were common and television was taking it’s first infant steps. By 70 the sound barrier had been broken, nuclear power and nuclear weapons were practical realities, and automatic computation was starting to have important business ramifications. By her 90th birthday humans had been to the Moon, and by the year she died computers that could sit on a desktop were getting to the point of actual utility.

    And that’s just the short list.

    The Internet, and mobile communications, are the only two technologies that come close to having the social and economic impact in my lifetime that a dozen or more technologies had in her lifetime. I didn’t even mention antibiotics in the above list, for example.

    And the Internet and mobile communications are incremental developments based on the semiconductor industry, which was well in hand when I was born. Most of the technological changes in her lifetime were the result of industries, like radio, television, aircraft, nuclear power, that not only didn’t exist but hadn’t even been dreamed of when she was born.

    Ergo: the pace of technological change is slowing down, if you measure technological change by the effect it has on the lives of ordinary people.

    Computational speeds will continue to increase, but our ability to organize our computations in useful ways is growing much more slowly.

    There’s story that on his deathbed Heinsenberg said he had two questions for God: “Why relativity, and why turbulence. I think He’ll be able to give me an answer on relativity…”

    Turbulence is an area where hugely increased computational power, which is directly applicable to the field, has helped us make incremental advances in understanding. This despite having a century or more of empirical and theoretical study of the subject to base new work on. To expect anything more than incremental gains from fields we know even less about is, to put it gently, optimistic.

  12. Keneke: Exactly. The problem is that it’s a future that many people aren’t able to grasp, because they don’t have the education. Or they do have the education and they have decided to look at all the negitives possiblilities instead of the positive. It’s too darn easy to just say it all ends in mass of gray goo. And even if it does, so what?

  13. Read “The Intelligence of Evil, or The Lucidity Pact” by Baudrillard. PS, Ray Kurzweil is a irresponsible fool whos opinions are mired in performativity. We should stop idolizing him just because his opinions validate our technology fetishism. That is lazy thinking. Because someone of note calls arch-consumerism, futurism does not change the facts. Your wants and needs are engineered by a situation that did proceed you, does not care for you and will outlast you. If it can completely model us in all our nuance (which I doubt) it is only because we are simple apes. So I would ask anyone to resist “final solutions” in all their forms. It is the call of the mortals.

  14. All the cool people say we’re learning just how it is that we create the dream of matter.

    Enough with the Cartesian dualism —we’re barely working with 4.1 dimensions while the “good ETs” are working in 5 & 6—we’re still pretty slow in “manifesting” yet, but the astute know that the clockwork god is dead.

    I agree with the Ktdaan guy above

  15. Tom, while effect on people’s lives is one measure of progress, I don’t think it’s the primary one to worry about for singularity.

    Progress has, I think, outpaced some of the distribution channels. That doesn’t mean that discovery isn’t progressing, there’s just an application barrier, which may also be solved by discoveries, or by the importance of discoveries.

    Crazy stuff is just around the corner – we’re already starting to grow new body parts, create cybernetics approximating human limbs, design neural interfaces, and we’re speedily approaching the tech necessary for a space elevator.

    And yet half of America still doesn’t understand evolution. We can’t measure the pace of science by the laggards.

  16. Tom, how can you compare a roughly 100-year span to a 28-year one and say that, due to a relative lack of future shock in the latter period, the pace of technological progress has slowed? Your description of the change your grandmother witnessed during her lifetime lends itself to the opposite conclusion. When did this post-1980 slowdown occur?

    You make a valid point in criticizing the lazy fetishism of computational advances. This, however, is only a single dimension along which we are gaining accelerating returns in technology. Life expectancy, for example, increases every year by a widening margin. The amount of time it takes, meanwhile, for paradigm-shattering technologies to incorporate into the lives of ordinary humans has fallen sharply. How long after its invention did most households own a radio? A television? Cell phones? An internet connection?

    I would argue that our present lack of future shock is not the result of an actual slackening of the pace of technology. If you look at the speculations of the mid-20th century as to where we’d be now, we’ve outpaced their expectations except with regards to their some of their sexier, mostly baseless speculations (as in, the flying car, true A.I., manned missions to Jupiter and beyond the Infinite, etc.). There’s a difference between saying, Wouldn’t it be cool if we had robot slaves in thirty years, and saying that, based on current trends in development and mathematical models that have held true in the past – even under the pressure of market forces, economic shifts, and political conflagrations – that we can reasonably expect to be doing X and Y with this technology by year Z. As messianic as Kurzweil gets sometimes, he deals strictly with the latter set of predictions. These have tended, in retrospect, to be conservative projections. So, you don’t have to buy the popular notion of Singularity as an apocalyptic, transcendent event. I don’t. But acceleration is occurring, and this is reason enough to be excited.

    So why are we so bored? I’d say that we have become inured to the notion of continual change, and even the acceleration of change. Human beings, however, are only so adaptable. For me, the singularity is simply the threshold beyond which humans become incapable of further adapting to keep up with progress. That’s where our ideas about the computronium utopia and self-reconfiguring AI prove inadequate, because actually we have no idea what it will be like. We already have trouble projecting the state of the world twenty years into the future. This wouldn’t have been the case in 1960. Imagine not knowing what the world is going to look like in five years? One year? One month? Tomorrow?

    It may not be utopia, but it sure as hell will be interesting.

  17. Triple McSlice @16: You’ve got my age off by… err… more than a decade. It would be a good deal closer to the truth to say I’m comparing a half-century span to a century.

    And just looking at the half-century between 1884 and 1934, we see: heavier than air flight going from impossibility to a world-wide commercial travel industry, automobiles becoming mass-market items, mechanized warfare, radio going from nothing but esoteric theory to a huge industry, and widespread personal interconnectivity via telephone.

    From the early 1960’s to today, we’ve seen: humans going to the Moon using scaled-up 1940’s technology, the failure of commercial supersonic flight, and ubiquitous telephony and the Internet, all of which are logical derivatives of technologies that existed when I was born.

    I agree we are better at getting incremental advances to market faster than they were back in the day, although not by much. Nor is human lifespan increasing as rapidly as it once was. It very nearly doubled in the developed world between 1850 and 1950, with most of the gains coming in the first fifty years. By contrast, it went up about 10% between 1950 and 2000.

    So life expectancy does not increase every year by a widening margin. As a measure, it shows exactly the sort of slowing down that I’m pointing out.

    Things started to slow down in the 1950’s. By that point we’d worked out the fundamentals of most of the tech we are using today (lasers were the last kick at the quantum mechanical can, coming in the early ’60’s.) Everything we’ve done since is an incremental development of that, with nothing like the invention of flight or radio in sight, making our development path far more predictable than things were in the early 20th century.

    Quantum computers, if they can ever be made to work, might yet be useful, but so far the idea of doing complex things in low-dissipation environments has remained pretty much that: an idea. My bet is they will retain “interesting toy” status for a long time, much like the use of DNA fragments to solve the travelling salesman problem. Clever, yes. World-changing? Not even close.

    Empirically, the pace of technological change is slowing down. Twenty years from now we’ll be driving hybrid cars, electric and biodiesel cars, using more biofuel, solar and fission power, talking on cell phones, searching the Internet and complaining about the weather. Not hard to predict at all, and in fact much easier to predict than the world of 1980 would have been in 1960.

  18. Tom, Charlie Stross recently summarized an article from The Economist that comes to the exact opposite conclusions, and has statistics to back it up.

    The article is about a World Bank study that looked at the time it took for various inventions to become widely adopted (defined as being used by 80% of countries). Railways and telephones took about 120 years. Radio and airplanes took about 60 years. CAT scans, the Internet, and mobile phones took about 20 years.

  19. I don’t believe Rudy Rucker is an amazing scientific mind, but that is obvious after the first minute or so of his stories – or even the introductions to his books.

    That being said, he is a damn good writer and philosopher (a completely redundant statement), and I liked his take on the human reaction to the Singularity IF it did happen.

  20. Avram, as someone who has designed and used statistical models, I can tell you that you can design them to support your hypothesis. And let me bet you, Stross is not using the rigorous sorts of stat models I used, but intead was using financial stats that run economic models. Here’s what it boils down to: If there is a need, there will be a technology to meet that need. You think regulations are going to keep mega-billionairs from funding biotech, nanotech, AI tech? They’re doing it now. Stross’s model is based on his personality, as is Kurzweil’s.

  21. * This is very much not “Rucker vs. the Singularity.” This is “Rucker vs. Some People’s Ideas of the Singularity.” I loved Postsingular, and the end of the book details a quite magical singularity indeed, based roughly on the same ideas that he talks about here. I don’t see how anyone could deny that he’s talking about a singularity in his fiction, at least.

    * One single-celled eukaryote says to another single-celled eukaryote: “hey Larry, what if some of us started working together and then each of us specialized for certain jobs so that we could thrive as collective organisms instead of on our own?” “That’s crazy talk, Bob. In fact, it’s impossible. More importantly, I hate that idea.” (It seems that I’ve stolen this kind of analogy from a couple of people, including Hofstadter and Kurzweil)

    * A singularity isn’t reliant on Kurzweil’s accelerating returns or on anybody else’s particular itinerary. A singularity also doesn’t necessarily mean virtual-Earth scenarios like Rucker thinks are impossible; it would take a lot less than that to provide a global mindfuck worthy of the “s”-word.

    * Maybe we will go through a another “dark ages” like Mr. Doctorow talked about here, but it wouldn’t last forever. Maybe a singularity won’t happen on Earth for another billion years, or maybe humanity is going to blow itself up too soon. But the fact is that there are compelling reasons to think it could happen in this century. That’s no reason to bliss out on daydreamed apocalypse/rapture scenarios; it is reason to invest in some planning and risk assessment instead of sweeping the issue under the rug with all the other “crazy” ideas (like global warming has been for the past half-century or so).

    * In answer to Triple McSlice’s perhaps-rhetorical question about technology adoption rates: here’s a graph (the bottom one).

  22. Tom, I was not making an estimate of your age by arguing the unfairness of judging a 28-year period against a century of progress. You mentioned that your grandmother lived from 1884 to 1980, and seemed to argue the point that she experienced more technological process during her lifetime than we have experienced since her death. This seemed to me like a foregone conclusion, although I understand why it would be a difficult call to make, given the amount we’ve progressed since 1980.

    I’d like to see your statistics regarding human life expectancy. Keep in mind that the extension between, say, seventy and eighty represents a much more profound medical advance that what would have sufficed to turn thirty-five into seventy. Are you saying that 1850 to 1950 was a more lucrative period for medical science than 1950 to 2008? Show me.

    It seems as though you’re looking at the rate at which early 20th century science identified new lines of inquiry and holding that to be the standard indicator of technological progress. The subsequent advances within these fields are much larger and more complex than you give them credit for by dismissing them as “incremental,” and much more relevant to our overall body of knowledge. Besides, I think the sequencing of the human genome and the practical development of nanoscale technology trump the discovery of radio and flight in both implication and application, although only time will tell.

  23. Some excellent comments! I’m glad ….

    Rucker makes this passing comment:

    I might also ask why someone would passionately want to believe that we can be translated from flesh into bits? There’s something ascetic and life-hating about the notion. It’s a bit like a religious belief; one thinks of the old “work now, get rewarded in heaven” routine.

    That’s the crux of the matter, really (pun intended).

    Religious conditioning runs deep. I argue that metaphysical beliefs inform “rational” beliefs and behaviour. Especially when the metaphysical beliefs are unexamined and unsconsciously held, often because they were imprinted early in life when people are the most vulnerable, before rationality and emotional independence can develop.

    Christianity, Judaism and Islam , all of which apparently posit a heaven/promised land/divine immanence and some form of denial of mortality, teach similar metaphysics and generally get people to run in the direction of death instead of life.

    Even people who are not consciously religious often hold the same metaphysics of transcendental rewards and the evils of matter and mortal, fleshy bodies.

    Societies where such religion is or has been prominent in education and conditioning also happen to be full of people that are alienated from nature and their very bodies, and many who harm nature and their body, consciously or unconsciously.

    I am not bashing all religious people here, i am commenting on what may be driving the beliefs and actions of people who are supposed to be well-meaning free thinkers. How open is your mind really?

    Unlike apples, technology doesn’t grow on trees. Technology is a product of market forces and some very very chilly and lethal economic real realities.

    The concept of technological transcendence via a singularity appears to be a modern version of apocalypse obsession. People who believe computer networks and AI can model or surpass or even complement natural intelligence , or that it would be great to upload ourselves into some mainframe and live in an eternal simulation spend too much time on their computers ! (They are probably Mac users who never see the Blue Screen of Death)

    They ignore that the juice won’t just magically keep those computers running forever, and natural resources are (shock horror) finite !

    The fantasy of exponential “progress” and infinite technological expansion is a teenage boy fantasy totally ignorant of ecological, social and psychological realities.

    Every immortalist, if their fantasy was ever realised , would eventually have to escape madness by wiping out all their memories and their identity, and would have to re-invent death in order to live again.

    What the techno VR fetishists are all missing is that reality is already virtual, this is all a quantum mega massive multidimensional multiplayer game, a simulation of a simulation ad infinitum.

    We are already “inhabiting a simulation of reality rather than real reality”. The task is not to attempt to create further puny VR simulations but to attempt to get closer to RR.

    As if.

  24. I agree that much of the obsession and fetishism associated with the computer-centrism of Singularitarian belief is just a new face on the old Judaic/Neoplatonic meme – denial of the flesh, ascent to a better and purer state of being, the transcendent end of history, etc. – basically the Rapture recycled for nerds. It’s helped along by the social rejection and poor body image common in the early developmental periods of most so-called “nerds”, especially in the US.

    However, I think it is without doubt an immediate ad logicam fallacy to dismiss the entire idea of discursive intelligence expansion based on the cultural roots of some of its proponents’ motivations.

    There are two different, very separate views that are both independently justifiable, though not to the same degree: first, that the information density of space is unstable and subject to discursive fractal recomplication – the formation and spread of life, then intelligence, and intelligence’s continuous, expanding transformation of natural/dumb matter into more of itself across deep time.

    This process may experience multiple inflationary periods of varying magnitudes, purely because of material preconditions…one such I would agree is currently upon us, given the computational revolution as well as the prospects of biotech and nanotech. Whether there has been a single, smoothly continuous inflationary period throughout human history so far is up for debate, and not really relevant.

    Second, that we are approaching a uniquely (up til now) asymptotic event in the human state and in history. This is a much more difficult-to-justify and potentially “faith-based” claim. I find the idea that a strange or acausal physics could give birth to a local computational Eschaton or uplift a segment of the human population into a radically different form, rate, and substrate of consciousness in a short period of time, with radical and massive accompanying changes to the structure of local space or human society, to be immensely interesting. Sort of a mesh of Clarkeian inexplicability, Kurzweil’s singularity, and a near-term, localized Tiplerite scenario.

    But while it’s interesting, it isn’t provable, and attention is better spent on reading or writing good transcendental scifi about the topic, or doing the physics which might lead to it – not debating seriously about whether it’s going to happen.

  25. the Singularity is not about uploading everyone into a computronium substrate.
    The Singularity will occur when an intelligent machine designs another intelligent machine without human assistance, making the rate of technological advancement exponential.

    This is why I am interested in the Singularity, but am a Transhumanist, I want cool high tech stuff, augmented senses and bodies, but I want to remain in my body, I’m rather fond of it.

  26. I don’t think I’ve seen so many straw men on one web page in my entire life.

    Doesn’t anyone ask questions instead of making assumptions, anymore?

  27. Wow. 26 people make reasoned arguments in grown up, written-out language and you dismiss them with a pre-packaged insult. You must have a really big intellect. And by intellect, I mean head.

  28. One last comment before I bow out.

    Triple McSlice @23: Sorry for the confusion. I was intending to compare the rate of change my grandmother experienced vs what I have experienced. Our lives overlapped somewhat, but it hardly matters as the rate of change in my lifetime (and the tail end of hers) was so slow.

    Avram @18: So Charlie Stoss and I agree that we are somewhat better at getting incremental developments to market faster. I’m not clear on why you say we come to opposite conclusions. My argument is not about how quickly we go from prototype to market, but that the number and scope of technological changes has been slowing down. Getting ideas to market more quickly does not mean a higher rate technological progress if they don’t have a large effect on people’s lives, and stuff like CT scanners don’t have a large effect on people’s lives. Certainly nothing like the effect radio, heavier-than-air flight and electricity had on my grandmother’s generation. For example, the US has far more CT scanners per person than Canada, and yet Canadian lives are significantly longer. So it’s not the technology that makes the difference.

    I do stand corrected, or at least confused, on the rate of increase in human lifespan. A check on the English Life Tables (a fascinating resource I was previously unaware of) suggests a relatively constant rate of lifespan increase from 1841 to 1971 of about 1 year per decade for a 20 year old male. I need to look more deeply at those data, and for more recent decades.

    That said, genomics is a good example of the slowing pace of progress. Watson and Crick published in 1953. Sequencing the human genome took billions in government investment, and has yet to produce a viable treatment for anything. Part of my professional life involves analysis of genomics data, and I can tell you that we are not yet standing at the brink of a revolution in medicine, despite being fifty years on.

    For example, consider our understanding of the role of non-coding regions–miRNAs and the like. Ten years ago we knew nothing about them. Today we know they play a number of very important roles, particularly in oncogenesis. In another decade or two we might be able to do something useful with them, and with all the other knowledge we are gleaning.

    By contrast, Hertz validated Maxwell’s equations in 1885-1888, the first commercial radio stations were licensed in the US in 1919-1920, and radio was a major industry affecting millions of people by 1930. And that’s ignoring the significant commercial history of radio prior to 1920, when it was used for wireless telegraphy ship-to-shore, etc.

    So fifty years after Watson and Crick we are still “just about” to get something useful out of it, and 30 years after Hertz we had an entirely new mass medium.

    Note that it will not do to point out the relative complexity of biology vs physics, unless you want to concede my point. We are dealing with incremental improvements to complex systems, not the creation of entirely new industries out of the whole cloth of raw science.

    This has been a useful discussion. Thanks.

  29. Tom @ 29:

    Note that it will not do to point out the relative complexity of biology vs physics, unless you want to concede my point. We are dealing with incremental improvements to complex systems, not the creation of entirely new industries out of the whole cloth of raw science.

    We need to reach an agreement on what constitutes technological progress. You argue that we ought to measure advancement as the rate of generation of technological novelty – that the leap from 0 to 1, so to speak, matters more than the series of leaps from 1 to 10 or 100 or 1000. Under this logic, it would follow that the Gutenberg printing press was a greater scientific achievement than the typewriter or the word processor. Of course, the printing press was historical milestone and the catalyst for a much more drastic cultural shift than its incremental successors were responsible for. Each increment, however, is cut from an enormously larger piece of “the whole cloth of raw science,” and each represents a more profound advance in our body of knowledge.

    I’ll willingly concede that technological novelty has become harder and harder to come by if that means I can point to the persistence and growing complexity of scientific discovery – not between specific fields of inquiry, but between increments of advancement – as evidence that technological progress is accelerating. The pace at which we acquire knowledge, whether novel or incremental, has done so and will continue to do so. Although much of this not immediately useful to the average consumer, it means that we will reach the next game-changing novelty in twenty years as opposed to a hundred.

    That said, genomics is a good example of the slowing pace of progress. Watson and Crick published in 1953. Sequencing the human genome took billions in government investment, and has yet to produce a viable treatment for anything. Part of my professional life involves analysis of genomics data, and I can tell you that we are not yet standing at the brink of a revolution in medicine, despite being fifty years on.

    W & C published their model of the double-helix model of DNA in 1953. We didn’t begin sequencing the human genome until the early 1990s, in what was intended to be a fifteen-year project. Kurzweil uses this often as an example of demonstrated exponential growth. Seven years into the Human Genome Project, only 1% was finished. Yet they managed to complete the sequence right on time – ahead of schedule if I remember correctly, but this might just be added hyperbole on my part – with the bulk of the genome having been deciphered in the final year of the project.

    Progress, no?

    Sure, maybe we aren’t yet standing on the brink of a genomics revolution in medicine. But that brink is a lot closer than we could have anticipated it being, even as late as ten years ago.

  30. A lot of misunderstanding of what the Singularity is here in this thread. Fortunately there seem to be a few informed voices as well.

    #22 nails it on the head, and I’m in the camp of #26. The ‘computronium’ idea is indeed somewhat silly, but it’s not what the Singularity is about.

  31. We should probably defer definition to our imminent post-human overlord, the Wikipedia:

    The technological singularity is a hypothesized point in the future variously characterized by the technological creation of self-improving intelligence, unprecedentedly rapid technological progress, or some combination of the two.

    Part of the difficulty in discussing the singularity is that it’s become something of an umbrella term for a variety of eschatological-ish events. I think von Neumann’s original characterization is broad enough to encompass all of these, and yet stand on its own:

    One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.

    In other words, it could be triggered independently by any number of the aforementioned conditions: recursive AI, evolutionary leap via mastery of the genome, and so on. These are all interesting ideas but secondary to the central notion of the singularity itself: the point beyond which what it means to be human has inexorably changed, after which our knowledge of the past provides us absolutely no insight into, or ability to predict, what will come next. That’s why all this post-human speculation so often seem trite and implausible. By nature, they represent judgement calls that we are fundamentally incapable of making.

  32. Metabaron @24 said, “We are already “inhabiting a simulation of reality rather than real reality”. The task is not to attempt to create further puny VR simulations but to attempt to get closer to RR.

    As if. ”

    I’m thinking that is our lot in life. Perhaps if we were to hack “RR” and be able to appreciate the universe from the ground state, then maybe we would be one with RR. Filters are required for a good reason, and that’s what our brain is doing to a very large extent: keeping out too much information.

  33. A computer is like a monkey, except much further away from being able to think than a monkey. So let’s put the monkey on speed, and cage not ten thousand monkeys, but ten trillion.

    The Singularity is the day Mankind learns how to program a massively parallel computer. The singularity is software, not hardware based.

    Free Will Paradox by NikFromNYC:

    If you were born the same, lived the same life until this moment, would you still be typing what you are now typing, or reading this question?

    If not, you have no free will since randomness rules your fate, not will.

    Simulation Paradox by NikFromNYC:

    If, by odds, we are living in a simulation, then by rights, by logic alone, those who are simulating our reality are also living in a simulation.

    Why am I crying?

    Because somewhere I know we are neither without free will, nor living in a simulation.

    “Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
    That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
    And then is heard no more; it is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing.” – William Shakespeare (Macbeth 1606)

    Yet if you were simulating a world would you not call that world’s best wordsmith “Shake Spear” just as a joke?

    Yet there isn’t just heaven. Hell is knowing that simulators simulate simulators, in a closed, timeless circle, the only hope being that the Yin-Yang of that circle is really a spiral moving towards something, in spacetime, but not in space, nor in time.

    “I wondered if I was in a prison being tortured, and why I remembered having heard it said that people learn through suffering,’ and in view of what I was seeing, the inadequacy of this saying struck me so much that I said, aloud, to suffer is to learn.’ With that I became unconscious again, and my last dream immediately preceded my real coming to. It only lasted a few seconds, and was most vivid and real to me, though it may not be clear in words. A great Being or Power was travelling through the sky, his foot was on a kind of lightning as a wheel is on a rail, it was his pathway. The lightning was made entirely of the spirits of innumerable people close to one another, and I was one of them. He moved in a straight line, and each part of the streak or flash came into its short conscious existence only that he might travel. I seemed to be directly under the foot of God, and I thought he was grinding his own life out of my pain. Then I saw that what he had been trying with all his might to do was change his course, to bend the line of lightening to which he was tied, in the direction in which he wanted to go. I felt my flexibility and helplessness, and knew that he would succeed. He bended me, turning his corner by means of my hurt, hurting me more than I had ever been hurt in my life, and at the acutest point of this, as he passed, I saw. I understood for a moment things I have now forgotten, things that no one could remember while retaining sanity. The angle was an obtuse angle, and I remember thinking as I woke that had he made it a right or acute angle, I should have suffered and seen’ more, and should probably have died. He went on and I came to. In that moment the whole of my life passed before me, including each little meaningless piece of distress, and I understood them. This was what it had all meant, this was the piece of work it had all been contributing to do. I did not see God’s purpose, I only saw his intentness and his entire relentlessness towards his means. He thought no more of me than a man thinks of hurting a cork when he is opening wine, or hurting a cartridge when he is firing. And yet, on waking, my first feeling was, and it came with tears, Domine non sum digna,’ for I had been lifted into a position for which I was too small. I realized that in that half hour under ether I had served God more distinctly and purely than I had ever done in my life before, or than I am capable of desiring to do. I was the means of his achieving and revealing something, I know not what or to whom, and that, to the exact extent of my capacity for suffering. While regaining consciousness, I wondered why, since I had gone so deep, I had seen nothing of what the saints call the love of God, nothing but his relentlessness. And then I heard an answer, which could only just catch, saying, Knowledge and Love are One, and the measure is suffering’ I give the words as they came to me. With that I finally come to (Into what seemed a dream world compared with the reality of what I was leaving), and I saw that what would be called the cause’ of my experience was a slight operation under insufficient ether, in a bed pushed up against a window, a common city window in a common city street. If I had to formulate a few of the things I then caught a glimpse of, they would run somewhat as follows: The eternal necessity of suffering and its eternal vicariousness. The veiled and incommunicable nature of the worst sufferings; the passivity of genius, how it is essentially instrumental and defenseless, moved, not moving, it must do what it does; the impossibility of discovery without its price; finally, the excess of what the suffering seer’ or genius pays over what his generation gains…. I perceived also in a way never to be forgotten, the excess of what we see over what we can demonstrate. And so on! these things may seem to you delusions, or truisms; but for me they are dark truths, and the power to put them into even such words as these has been given me by an ether dream.” (Woman quoted in The Varieties of Religious Experience by William James, 1902)

    Philosophy Paradox by NikFromNYC:

    It is blogs run by science fiction writers and readers that ponder Philosophy, not academic Philosophers. No professional philosophers even acknowledge technology or how science changed things, whereas philosophy, perhaps rightly, runs in circles.

    Singularity Fear:

    When any kid with a non-bound quark chemistry set can destroy the world, just to try it, except it’s not reversible.

    Non-Singularity Fear:

    The speed of light FOREVER locks us in a prison in which we never find signals from alien life, since we were indeed a SINGULAR experiment, thus we are are already in hell, our simulation sitting in the solar powered cell phone memory of a cell-phone computer, destined to an entropy-death in an ever more rapidly expanding universe land dump of the simulator society. Our future children wont even be able to see the stars, since space will soon be expanding faster than the speed of light.

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