Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Rapture of the Nerds

Today on Radio New Zealand National at 11:05 I talk about a lot of things, but my main topic is the Rapture of the Nerds – or, rather the technological singularity (as more sober commentators describe it). Who knew that it, like so much of modern computing, came out of Bletchley Park?

You can read on for my speaking notes, or after the broadcast you can download the audio as ogg or mp3.

Clip: Also Sprach Zarathustra, from 2001 Soundtrack

Q: The rapture of the nerds? What do you mean by that?

A: There’s a concept called the ‘singularity’. It’s just a notion at this stage. It’s based on some smart people saying – computers are increasing in power at an ever-increasing rate. What happens when they are smarter than us?

Q: What does happen?

A: The singularity happens when the computers take over building more computers in successive generations more and more rapidly and we humans either get sidelined, hugely empowered, or exterminated.

Q: There’s a lot to unpack here. First of all – why is it called a singularity?

A: The concept was popularised by science fiction author Vernor Vinge, and he christened it. The term singularity originally comes from mathematics – it means a place where some part of mathematics breaks down and you lose information. Dividing anything by zero is an example – you get an undefined result, and its no longer possible to reconstruct what you started with. Then, the term became used of black holes. The singularity is the heart of the black hole, the point at which density becomes infinite, and we lose all information about what’s been thrown in. More recent black hole theory says that black holes do have entropy – information about what’s inside, but the name singularity has stuck to mean the place we can’t look into.

Q: So what did Vinge mean by singularity?

A: He was referring to a kind of technological singularity. Incidentally, I found when researching this, that the concept was originated by a man named Irving John Good, who was one of the Bletchley Park wartime cryptanalysts who worked with Alan Turing. Good wrote this in 1965, when he was at Oxford:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.

Vernor Vinge posits that this would lead to a rapid and radical transformation in society, like the agrarian revolution when humankind started cultivating its food instead of hunting and gathering, or like the industrial revolution, but a lot faster in its effects. Vinge writes: When greater-than-human intelligence drives progress that progress will be much more rapid. He sees a kind of positive feedback loop, a virtuous cycle. One economist has suggested that we could see amazing economic growth with the global economy doubling every few weeks.

Q: So what if the computers thought they could do better without us?

A: Like this guy?

Clip: I’m sorry Dave, I can’t let you do that (2001: A Space Odyssey)

That’s the computer in 2001 A Space Odyssey which has realized that humans are a threat to its mission and kills them off. As a fascinating aside, I.J. Good I mentioned earlier worked as a consultant on supercomputers to Stanley Kubrick when he was making that film. Good may well have invented the HAL 9000.

More modern concerns about all-powerful machines are in The Matrix, where everyone lives in some kind of artificial reality to keep us quiet, and Skynet in the Terminator series. There’s an institute that exists to try to produce a friendly artificial intelligence as a way to forestall the rise of hostile ones.

Another strand in thinking about the technological singularity is the notion that we might one day be able to upload our consciousness into a machine.

Q: Why would you want to do that?

A: I can think of lots of reasons: immortality, freedom from a decaying body, ability to be in many places at once, ability to think much faster. That’s where the tagline “Rapture of the Nerds” comes from – it was coined by author Ken MacLeod, I think to lampoon the rather breathless enthusiasm for uploading into a machine. The rapture is a piece of Christian eschatology, in which the faithful are taken bodily up into heaven at the start of the tribulation. And I can’t help feeling that there’s a rather self-satisfied and smug thread running through the whole notion of the technological singularity.

Q: You don’t think it will happen?

A: I really don’t know. But I think there are grounds for concern at least as great as there are grounds for adoration. A final comment from HAL:

Clip: I know that you and Frank were planning to disconnect me


Meet Irving John Good of Bletchley Park and 2001 A Space Odyssey. He invented the concept of technological singularity.

A paper by Vernor Vinge who named and popularized the singularity.

Ray Kurzweil, futurist, and his book The Singularity is Near.

Accelerando, a novel by Charles Stross about life in the singularity – available online

The Singularity University

posted by colin at 9:02 pm  

1 Comment

  1. Regarding the singularity:

    And the nerds make better lovers bit should amuse my mother-in-law who listens to your show.

    Comment by Matthew Holloway — 28 May 2009 @ 9:46 am

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