Technological Singularities: A Medium for Accident and Chance

“Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.”
Vernor Vinge, 1993

KRYTEN: It’s something we tried once on the Nova 5. It uses exactly the same science as generating a hologram. We wipe all your brain patterns and put them on a storage disk. Then we transfer the Captain’s mind from his hologram personality disk into your empty brain.
LISTER: And you tried this on the Nova 5?
KRYTEN: Oh, yes.
LISTER: Did it work?
KRYTEN: No. But I’m pretty sure I know what went wrong.

It may not look it, but this is an example of a technological singularity (sometimes called a Vingean singularity, named after SF author Vernor Vinge). A Vingean singularity is about technological progress growing beyond our ability to comprehend or predict. James Patrick Kelly further explains some of Vinge’s ideas:

“Vinge’s idea is that, with the accelerating advances in technology, it won’t be long before something surpasses human intelligence. The paths to that singular something are many. One leads to – and passes through – artificial intelligence.

“Another path to Singularity leads through improved human/machine interfaces. What if we could enhance our memory and creativity cybernetically? […] Since the eighties, science fiction writers have been busily exploring the notion of wetware, a slippery term which sometimes refers to the human nervous system but which more often describes a mind with both biological and manufactured components. Coinage of the term wetware is commonly attributed to Rudy Rucker.

Ray Kurzweil argues that we’ll probably be taking the middle path to the Singularity: we and our computers will become one.”[1]

More specifically, this scene from Bodyswap is an example of the idea of Vingean singularity being used in conjunction with the Turing Test. This concept is best explained by Cory Doctorow:

“…a computer sits behind a locked door with a chat program, and a person sits behind another locked door with his own chat program, and they both try to convince a judge that they are real people. If the computer fools a human judge into thinking that it’s a person, then to all intents and purposes, it’s a person.”[2]

The biggest difference between Bodyswap and this scenario, of course, is the fine line between replicated intelligence and artificial intelligence. The easiest way to explain this is by saying that Kryten is artificial, since he was created by Professor Mamet, whereas Carol Brown’s mind is replicated, since it was taken from a living being. This brings about several crucial questions about the nature of intelligence and personality. If Brown’s mind was replicated, would it still be Carol Brown? The only way to find out is to ask it several key questions, and see if it responds in the same way as Brown would (that’s where the Turing Test comes in). The problem with this is the process of change; if you were to replicate Brown’s mind at age twenty, and again at age thirty, the age twenty version would not be able to pass as Carol Brown.

While you may be skeptical that anything as complex as human consciousness can be fully captured on a computer chip, don’t dismiss it out of hand. Rudy Rucker explains:

“What is reality? One type of answer to this age-old question has the following format: ‘Everything is _______.’ Over the years I’ve tried out lots of different ways to fill in the blank: particles, bumps in spacetime, thoughts, mathematical sets, and more. […]

“Lately I’ve been working to convince myself that everything is a computation. I call this belief universal automatism. Computations are everywhere, once you begin to look at things in a certain way. The weather, plants and animals, your personal thoughts and shifts of mood, society’s history and politics – all computations.”[3]

Rucker goes on to state that the human mind is a “gnarly” computation – referring to processes that are structured in interesting ways but behave unpredictably. That is, they are full of coherent patterns that cannot be predicted. Gnarly computations lie somewhere between being completely random and entirely predictable. There are patterns in the human brain; recurring moods, for example. There are specific moods that are so common we have even named them: you’re feeling happy, sad, melancholy, nostalgic, etc. These can be seen as coherent patterns, and yet there is no way to predict what may cause these moods. A poorly chosen word, for example, can ruin someone’s entire day. Or, if you like, think bigger: the constantly changing stock market, fads of popularity, and so on.

You may think that all of this shows that such a thing as recording someone’s personality onto a computer chip is impossible, but keep listening. Newtonian physics gives us a method of explaining how an object will be affected by the Earth’s gravity. However, Rucker says, if you want to get full accuracy, there’s no shortcut. You have to be there, in real life, and record what actually happens.

“There is a fundamental gap between T-shirt physics equations and the unpredictable gnarl of daily life.” [3]

This is why Kryten has so much difficulty in understanding or using human emotions. He is an artificial intelligence, and as such is limited by his programming. This could be a result of the technology (or lack thereof) that was available when he was created. The only way he is able to use human emotions properly is to learn and practice from the gnarly computations that he sees all around him. Carol Brown’s personality chip is, in essence, Carol Brown, because whatever recorded her personality was clearly able to observe her in reality and accurately record her personality, whereas Professor Mamet modelled Kryten after John Warburton. She clearly had no interest in making Kryten an accurate depiction of John Warburton. She despised him, and so decided to make Kryten a caricature of him, and, consequently, of his gnarly computations. (Ooh, vicar!)

The big problem people have with science and science fiction is that they don’t see how it can relate to everyday life. Science has subject matter, but that subject matter isn’t necessarily its purpose. Technological singularities and gnarly computations aren’t about equations or even about solutions; they’re about unpredictability, about the mystery of life. It’s about being human, and the journey that entails.

KRYTEN: My favorite one is that I’m, I’m in a garden. I’ve never even seen a garden except in books. And I’ve planted everything and made it grow. It’s my garden. And there’s no one there except me, just me and all the things I’ve made live. Silly.

KRYTEN: In a way, I feel somewhat disturbed by this turn of events. It is written in the electronic bible that it is not possible for an android to enjoy itself. Not until the afterlife. Yet last night, I quite clearly approached a state that could be approximated to “enjoyment.” Last night, for the first time in my life, I lived.

KRYTEN: I’m human – my greatest dream come true! For the first time in my life I can experience real feelings. I’m experiencing one now – I’m in “happiness” mode. I’ve never experienced anything like it before! Oh, except for that one time when I accidentally welded my groinal socket to a front-loading washing machine. I’m alive!

Works Cited

1. Kelly, James Patrick. “On the Net: Singular.” Asimov’s Science Fiction.
2. Doctorow, Cory. “Thought Experiments: When the Singularity is No Longer a Literary Device.” Asimov’s Science Fiction, June 2005: 10 – 19.
3. Rucker, Rudy. “Thought Experiments: Adventures in Gnarly Computation.” Asimov’s Science Fiction, October/November 2005: 12 – 21.

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