Friday, September 16, 2005

How does the singularity affect writers?

Prowler
Uploaded on September 8, 2005
by null photography
Most people humanize different objects to some degree or another.
I mean, how many times do we catch ourselves talking to our computer? Our car? That blasted Zerox machine at work???
Heck, by a show of hands, how many of us ever named an object, say a car, and then continuously referred to it by name, even when talking to friends?

As writers, we humanize things daily. I say 'things,' because we don't limit ourselves to objects, we humanize aliens, monsters and other figments of our imagination. We humanize them because that's the only way we know. We can skew them vastly to be creatures of evil or beings of pure goodness, but these are always human traits that we are familiar with.
[I believe it was Gene Roddenberry, and please correct me if I'm wrong, who said that most aliens on Star Trek should be humanoid because it was very important that they'd have eyes to show emotions (not only he gave the aliens eyes, he also gave them emotions).]

What does that have to do with the singularity?
The singularity, to those unfamiliar with the concept as Vernor Vinge put forth, claims that within a few decades technological advancement will be such that we would create a superhuman intelligence. Some claim it would be the end of the human era, and Kurzweil even tries to predict the future after the singularity in his new book The Singularity Is Near : When Humans Transcend Biology

Let's assume for a moment that we are on the verge of such a change, how can we write beyond that? Even if someone was smart enough to see beyond, others wouldn't comprehend. I personally doubt that it is possible for us with our average 100+ IQ to understand beings with an average of, I don't know, at least 200+ IQ. I do not think we can understand beyond our intelligence and therefore we cannot envision or predict past that.

Another example: one of the best books I've read that is truly trying to grasp a concept that is beyond our perception is Factoring Humanity by Robert J. Sawyer. This fictional account tries to go beyond our instinctive understanding of the three dimensional space and perceive a fourth one. In order to do that, Sawyer utilizes a derivation of the fourth dimension. Ingenious. But even here, the derivation brings it back to the familiar three dimensions.

Before I lose the non sci-fi folks, I should move on.

Now I'm going to tie writing to the singularity concept. Sawyer, despite a noble attempt, couldn't possibly write about the fourth dimension without writing it in terms he and we understand. Continuing along the same line, regardless whether or not we believe in the singularity, we cannot write past it. And similarly, as far as writing is concerned, we cannot write past the 'write what you know.' Case in point - humanizing objects, we cannot really avoid that.

The 'write what you know' writers' dictum, is not to be interpreted literally, otherwise we would not have fantasy, science-fiction and horror books, for example. It is also not to be interpreted as not exploring things we don't know, just as Sawyer did in his book. Researching and learning is part of being an author.

'Write what you know' as a human-being and as part of the human collective knowledge, memory and imagination.

You can learn more about the singularity here.

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37 comments:

easywriter said...

Fascinating stuff isn't it? I'm going to have a good look at the link you provided, thanks for that and thanks for the Terry Fox post. If he could only know how he inspired, what long reaching effect he had, he would be astounded and overwhelmed. But, perhaps he does know. Do you think?

Yzabel said...

Ah, this reminds me of a point developed by Orson Scott Card. It was about using humans in our sci-fi stories, and not develop them from the point of view of fundamentally different aliens, because readers wanted (and needed) human references. One hypothetical example he gave was that it'd be very clumsy to, say, write descriptions such as "the alien imagined what it'd be like to see with two eyes, instead of with seventeen spread all over his head", and stuff like that. Funnily written, and instructing nonetheless. We need points of comaprison that we can understand, both as readers and writers, come to think of it.

As a sidenote, I'm indeed of these people who give a name to everything. My car is called the Yzmobile, and my computer bears the mighty name of taiistu-shinjin (that's because my 4 hard drive partitions are called Susanoo, Seiryu, Guembu and Byakko). I'm yet to name the oven, but even this is only a matter of time.

Eric Mutta said...

Aaah the singularity. Being the computer programming mad scientist that I am, topics of this nature are close to my heart.

One curious thing to note about the singularity is that it's probably the only instance where science and religion are in violent agreement. For example, the Bible also talks about a dramatic increase in human knowledge, happening "in the end days".

Regarding when it may happen, that estimate on Wikipedia about it being in the 3rd decade of this century seems pretty spot on. For example, this article goes to great length to estimate that computing power will match the human brain by 2020. If that date is accurate, the world in 2030 will be a very interesting place to live in.

As for writing beyond the singularity? It will be challenging, but still possible I think. I have a rather lengthy explanation for why I believe that. Perhaps I'll blog on it and link back here.

Eric Mutta said...

Oh, and about naming things, my laptop is sufficiently unpredictable that it might as well be human. I call it Max :-) [I have even gone as far as giving a surname/last name: Data].

Melly said...

Easywriter, glad you found the topic fascinating, but reading it now, I feel like it's all over the place. Oh well...

I hope Terry knows in some form or another how he touched humanity. I really do.

Melly said...

LOL yzabel. I'm still cracking up.

Uncle Orson is a good resource for writers - isn't he?
It would most certainly be clumsy. But still, having 17 eyes, is having eyes. Can you imagine "seeing" by using something other than eyes. Perceiving the world differently? I don't think so. But then again, maybe I'm wrong.

Melly said...

Eric, help! Your first link isn't working, only the second.

I'll be happy to read your explanation. Please blog on it so I can.

And say hi to Max Data for me.

Eric Mutta said...

Ooops! The link was meant to point to Daniel 12:4.

I'll blog about that explanation this weekend. Oh and Max says 10101001 0010111 101010 101101 (computer talk for "hello", LOL).

Melly said...

Thanks Eric.

You should try that puzzle I had on a couple of weeks ago Nine Bows

Jennifer said...

On the note of naming things (which I do occasionally) I find it funny how certain object always seem to take a certain gender. For example: Most people when (if they do) they name their cars give them female names.

So why do we do that? Why do we see certain object as a certain gender. I find it fascinating that we do that here. I speak French and every object has a gender. They don't have a choice. A house (la maison) is female (you have no say in the matter). So while their (and many other languages) language had defined, given a personality to words, ours leaves us to pick and chose however we might decide...

I think I got a little off topic here a bit. Sorry :)

John B. said...

Melly,
Thanks for visiting my blog. I thought I'd return the favor, and I found this intriguing topic.
In his book The Order of Things, Michel Foucault talks about the notion of heterotopias, spaces that we sense exist but, because we have no direct experience of them, can't speak of them directly.

Pat Kirby said...

Bob the Bionicle is the guardian of my desk. Fred the gargoyle chases bad radio waves from the nearby stereo. Of course, there's Dark Vader, the air compressor in my husband's shop. My ugly Korean car is the Jelly Belly.

>Can you imagine "seeing" by using something other than eyes.

Yes, no, maybe. I mean, I can imagine what it would be like to use sonar like a bat. Of course, my perception of the process ultimately relies on the notion of an "image," in this case one constructed from information derived from sound. Maybe it really doesn't "look" that way at all to a bat. Who knows?

But I can "imagine" it.

Melly said...

Jennifer, getting off topic? What are you doing?
just kidding.

Actually, 'genderizing' objects is a fascinating subjects.
Maybe it's because boats and cars and other objects given feminine names used to be the domain of men.

Melly said...

Hi John, I'm glad you came :)

I've heard of Foucault's heterotopia before, and always struggled to understand the concept. I'm still not sure I do.
Do you suggest we are in heterotopia now as we stand before a major technological change?
Or is it something that happens immediately after the change?

Melly said...

Hey Pat. I believe I've read about Jelly Belly before in your blog :)

I knew someone would mention bats.
Sorry, I should have explained myself better. Bats way of 'seeing' is something we can imagine because it's within our realm of understanding. We've seen radars and sonars. The concept of getting spatial readout is familiar.
What I'm talking about is 'seeing' in a different way. I don't know what way because I can't imagine it. We can't even think of a different way for seeing because we are limited to our reality and our senses. We are limited to what we know. Maybe one day our intelligence will be sufficient for that, but right now, I don't think we can understand beyond our intelligence.

What we call 'different' is something that is particular, we are different from each other, humans are different from animal. But when I'm saying different, I mean in the general way, different from our reality/imagined reality. Just try to imagine a four-dimensional space. We can mathematically write the formulas, but we cannot grasp it.
And if you can, please tell me. I'd love to be shown 'different' ;)

Eric Mutta said...

Melly:>Just try to imagine a four-dimensional space. We can mathematically write the formulas, but we cannot grasp it. And if you can, please tell me. I'd love to be shown 'different' ;)

One of the tricks I tend to use for abstract thinking (something rather important in my day job) is changing the way things are represented.

4D-space is hard to imagine if you try and represent it using techniques that suffice for 3D-space. However, if you change the representation and use flat shapes with N corners where each corner is a single dimension, you can imagine movement in N-dimensional space for any value of N.

For example, with 4D space, you can use a square (as it has 4 corners). Stand anywhere in the square, then draw lines from each corner to the point where you are standing (you'll end up with 4 intersecting lines). You can then describe your position in terms of the 4 angles formed at the corners. (There's a total of 8 such angles, 2 in each corner - you can pick any set of 4 so long as you pick the same way for each corner, e.g the angle on the right-hand side of each line, for each corner).

The nice thing about the above method (apart from working in any number of dimensions) is that it can be done on flat paper (i.e 2D-space) and still look legible!

elcapitanhink said...

I have a friend who is a physicist. We have discussions.

Him: "If you think 4 dimensions is hard, try eleven."

Me: "Ahh, but what is a dimension, outside of something we as humans have invented as a benchmark of perception?"

Him: "Now you're just being difficult."

Me: "Ahh, but what is difficulty?"

Him: "Get out of my house, you metaphysical titwomp."

Melly said...

Eric, sorry to be difficult. Your explanation is similar to the one I read in the book with the derivation. It still explains it in terms we understand.
Describing a position in terms of 4 angles, is similar to a mathematical exmplanation. It's still not grasping the 4th dimension.

Maybe I'll go the other way, imagine a 2D creature trying to grasp 3D. The creature could see our shadow, even understand it mathematically, but can the creature grasp 3D?

Maybe it's just me being difficult. I'm sure it is.

Melly said...

Ouch, Josh, my tummy. Have mercy. I'm still laughing.

elcapitanhink said...

There's a classic piece of nerd fiction about a 2-d world called Flatland. Some nerdnik has gone to the trouble of putting the entire text online. Interesting work -- we were assigned that book in HS physics, and it went a long way to helping me grasp "dimensional politics", as it were.

Eric Mutta said...

Melly:>Maybe it's just me being difficult...

Actually, not at all Melly. I forgot to add the caveat about abstract thinking (and specifically about that model): the new representations one comes up with are just that - representations. They redefine reality on paper, so your mind can reason about it, but they do not and cannot change reality in the world.

This caveat is the source of a lot of confusion in many scientific fields, the worst one being physics where absolutely bizarre ideas continue to confuzzle (i.e confuse + puzzle) many people. For example, the physicists are still having a hell of time explaining what causes gravity.

The theory currently reigning came from Einstein's famous ideas on relativity. Einstein said gravity is the result of space and time bending around heavy objects. Huh?? Space and time bending? When one asks how you can bend nothingness (i.e space), the metaphysicists step in and will happily tell you that space is not nothingness, at which point any normal person goes away to do something less disturbing (like watching Sesame Street). Why is the theory still accepted? Well, apart from the politics of fame, the theory works great on paper (they even have an analogy for it involving trampolines, bowling balls and marching ants!).

elcapitanhink said...

Is it that the theory works well on paper, or indeed the opposite? One usually knows the consequences of a bellyflop, but rarely has occasion to consider why the electromagentic force makes the landing so hard.

Melly said...

Thanks for the link, Josh.
What's so nerdy about the book, though, I'm curious.

Now, about that last comment of yours - pardon me???!
I'm stumped.
Bellyflops and electromagnetic forces?!
Okay, I'll admit my first reaction was to laugh. Was that the intention or am I completely daft?

Melly said...

Eric, I'm confuzzled alright.
There are still problems with Einsteins gravity theory, that's why they have the string theory, no?

"they even have an analogy for it involving trampolines, bowling balls and marching ants!"
I think I now understand what Josh meant, and if that's the case, I'm getting ever so closer to understanding bellyflops, dimensional politics and marching ants.

elcapitanhink said...

Who knows what the hell I was talking about. I was going to rant about Einstein's cosmological constant, and how some of his theories - thought to be determinist rubbish in the heyday of Bohr and Heisenberg - are now cropping up in the lectures of string theorists and dark matter hunters all over the world.

But that would've been considerably less funny than invoking the image of a tubby guy like me yelling BaNzaI! and vaulting from the 3-meter, right?

It's an excuse more that a reason, really.

Melly said...

Any excuse you can find to share your words with me(us), Josh, is fine by me.
As for reason, ummm, are you sure about you and reason? ;)

elcapitanhink said...

Not at any given moment, no.

Eric Mutta said...

Melly:>There are still problems with Einsteins gravity theory, that's why they have the string theory, no?

Correct. They are still searching for the TOE (Theory Of Everything) that will bind all the pieces together, forever and ever, amen. String theory (in fact that should be theories because there's more than one) looks like the most promising candindate as the TOE.

I think the next great physics theory will come from a nobody, much like the theory of relativity did (Einstein was a lowly patent clerk when he wrote those papers in 1905). Those interested more in this can listen to the online shows the BBC did: Relatively Einstein and In Einstein's Shadow. Oh, and you don't need to be a mad scientist to understand the shows - they use plain English and are very informative.

Melly said...

I didn't think so Josh ;)

Eric, new picture?
Thanks for the info and the links. Maybe we should create a shared arts/science blog.

Eric Mutta said...

Melly:>Eric, new picture?

Yes, decided to add a face to my musings :-)

Melly:>Thanks for the info and the links.

My pleasure.

Melly:>Maybe we should create a shared arts/science blog.

Sounds like a great idea! I'll send you an email so we can discuss further.

Pirx the Pilot said...

The bbEWS Early Response Team is now forming and will be tasked with formulating a set of defensive protocols in anticipation of potentially harmful activities of advanced artificial intelligence and the predicted "technological singularity" that may arise on Earth within the next 50 years.

Volunteer participants from a wide variety of interests and backgrounds are invited to join and participate in discussions and workshops leading to activation of the operational phase.

See: Bootstrapped-Brain Early Warning Station

Melly said...

Eric, this picture is very familiar. Where do I know it from?

Melly said...

pilot pirx, I'll come check it out.

ObilonKenobi said...

Funny. I heard two podcasts about the singularity. At first I thought it was rediculous but I guess the concept of the internet seemed the stuff of fiction fifty years ago. Personally I do not have that sense of impending doom regarding the advance of technology. It does make us somewhat lazy and dependant but it has so much going for it. (Blogging!) I think the major debate here is what is life? Will computers and machinery ever live? Will they question their existance? Will they havewants, needs and desires like us? Will it love? Hate? See even if the computers can process so wuickly they can network together an imitate life, the beauty of life (bilogical, life as we know it) is that each of us, you and me encompase a whole host of emotions, ideas, potential that I think a machine can't have. It can't grow like us. Growing, struggling, surviving despite all odds, that is what makes a being eligible to be considered alive. Each of us in our journey from birth to death grows and learns so much that we are different from each other as can be. My universe is not your universe even though we live together. Even though we share the same space. Machines can not live if they merely download the information they've learned from geenration to generation. We have to learn it all except the most basic biological functions. In life, we must earn our way. Life is precious. Life is tragic. How concerned can I be with a machine whose whole existance is backed up on a server. You and I, Melly are not "backed up." We exist once and then as unfair as it seems, in a brief time we dissapear, never to exist again. Never to occupy the same space again. Never to "be" again. That is the essence of life. It only happens once and it is beautiful and fragile. It is not a series of codes that can be copies from memory to memory.

melly said...

Lon, there is a beautiful short story I once read about..., well, I don't want to spoil it, here's the link: Algorithms for Love.

I agree with what you're saying, only two things:
1) we cannot really imagine what it would be like to have "artificial intelligence." We cannot imagine what their universe would be like. Perhaps you're right, but then again, perhaps there will be a sparkle of life in them.
2) the singularity offers many routes, teh most probably one is a combination of biological and technological advancement, that is a being that is both genetically engineered with technological components. Something of the sort. Again, I don't know what that would mean if we become part machines ourselves or if we manage to engineer ourselves biologically far away from our current biology.

And the thing is that it might be scary and that's why so many scientists who believe in teh inevitability of the singularity want to practice "safe" science so that we don't create monsters that will overcome us. They want to keep that exact thing you talked about that makes us who we are...

null photography said...

i like the pic used for the story :)

Melly said...

Hi null and thanks. Guess what? I liked the pic too.

It was perfect because at first I talked about humanizing objects and the car in the pic has a face. I thought it fit.

Thank you for the beautiful picture :)