Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Singularitarianism In the News and on the Go Go Go! (Response to MA Part One)

Michael Anissimov begins his response by stepping back from the fray a bit and providing an intriguing indication of what singularitarian Robot Cultists see as the context in which my response to Hughes is taking place:
It's interesting how consumed everyone is with mentioning/rebutting Singularitarianism nowadays. Has this sect really grown so fast and exerted so much influence over anything to merit such attention? I am doubtful, but you guys keep going on about it...

Needless to say it is actually the case that only a vanishingly small number of people are even aware of movement transhumanism in the first place, let alone care about the inter-sectarian squabbles among the various flavors of transhumanism, the more Ayn Raelian "extropian transhumanists" who pout and stamp their feet at both death and taxes equally, the nerd rapture "singularitarian transhumanists" who squint into the future for a glimpse of The Robot God, the "democratic transhumanists" with all their curious authoritarian friends, the "techno-immortalist transhumanists" who plan to be therapized or roboticized or digitized into eternity, the "enhancement transhumanists" who would facilitate the arrival of an "optimal" post-human according to their parochial values on the matter through the application of "liberal eugenics," and so on.

I have always found the Robot Cultists a rather fascinating sub(cult)ural exhibition of techno-utopian madness on their own terms -- not to mention a usefully illustrative window by way of their very extremity into attitudes and rhetorical frames in the actually prevailing market-driven determinist corporate-militarist techno-hype of mainstream neoliberal "development" discourse. But I don't think my enjoyment of the ongoing trainwreck of movement transhumanism is particularly widely shared, and I don't think my own reference to it is much increased or decreased lately in respect to the other things I talk about here, and I can't think of anybody who seems particularly "consumed" by the apparently attention-starved singularitarians.

I think Michael must be feeling that his sub-sect of the Robot Cult is the apple of every eye at the moment because best-selling-complete-joke popular futurist Ray Kurzweil happens to have made some noise lately -- and much more to the point, seems to have attracted some real dough from otherwise respectable sources like NASA and Google and Stanford University -- creating his palpably embarrassing "Singularity University" that isn't actually a University. I talked about this curious development at the beginning of the month myself, and joked about it a couple of other places around then as well. Jamais Cascio demolishes Sing U "constructively" here, and P.Z. Myers sledgehammers singularitarian superlativity as silly (in a post tagged, perfectly appropriately, "kooks") here, in case you missed the non-event in real-time.


Robin said...

Did you know the American Academy of Religion is soliciting papers for a panel that addresses the explicit religiosity of movement Transhumanism for their next conference?

How far we've come from the days when I just started to notice people arguing with me on my blog whenever I spoke ill of the all-mighty Kurzweil, and got a vague hint of the blind faith of adherents. Apparently it's being recognized as a full-blown Robot Cult now, even to the *religious*. That's gotta hurt.

Anonymous said...

best-selling-complete-joke popular futurist Ray Kurzweil happens to have made some noise lately -- and much more to the point, seems to have attracted some real dough from otherwise respectable sources like NASA and Google and Stanford University -- creating his palpably embarrassing "Singularity University" that isn't actually a University.

I don't know if you've already mentioned this in your critique before but hasn't the Singularity Institute finally given you one good example of transhumanists/singularitarians succeeded in skewering the budgetary priorities of government and academia?

ddjango said...

I think calling your self a "university" is one of the few ways left to get someone to give you money.

Nato Welch said...

And Richard Perle now says, "[[ What neoconservatives?]]"

jimf said...

From a book I encountered today at Barnes & Noble.

_Sun in a Bottle: The Strange History of Fusion and the
Science of Wishful Thinking_ by Charles Seife

Chapter 10, "The Science of Wishful Thinking", p. 220

"When one turns to the magnificent edifice of the physical
sciences, and sees how it was reared; what thousands of
disinterested moral lives of men lie buried in its mere
foundations; what patience and postponement, what choking
down of preference, what submission to the icy laws of
outer fact are wrought into its very stones and mortar;
how absolutely impersonal it stands in its vast augustness, --
then how besotted and contemptible seems every little
sentimentalist who comes blowing his voluntary smoke-wreaths,
and pretending to decide things from out of his private

-- William James, "The Will To Believe"

We see what we want to see. That is why science was invented.

Science is little more than a method of tearing away notions
that are not supported by cold, hard data. It forces us to
discard ideas that we cherish. It eliminates some of our hopes,
some of our dreams, and some of our wishes. This is why science
can be so soul crushing to even its most devoted adherents. . .

The mechanisms of science are, essentially, protection against
wishful thinking. This protection takes many forms, but
the strongest come from the scientific community itself.
Published scientific research is peer reviewed and vetted by
rivals to ensure that its authors have made no obvious
mistakes. The scientific community demands that experiments
be repeatable, and if any question arises about the validity
of an important experiment, scientists will clamor to have
a second group verify the result with a different piece of
equipment. And if there's a hint of incompetence or fraud,
the community will howl for the blood of the malefactors.
It can be brutal, but this is the way science protects itself
from the dishonesty, the stupidity, or the human failures
of an individual scientist. This is what makes science seem
so inhuman. The scientific method has no sympathy for
wishful thinking. . .

This can be hard on even the most brilliant scientists. As
they practice their craft, they are forced to renounce some
of their beliefs, no matter how deeply held they might be.
If they err -- as they almost certainly will -- they must admit
that they have decieved themselves. They have to do it
publicly and without regard for their fragile human egos.
They must eviscerate themselves on the altar of science.
At least, that's what their peers expect.

For Andrew Lyne, an astronomer at the Jodrell Bank Observatory
in England, the day of reckoning came in January 1992. . .

When Lyne took to the stage, he was petrified. "It was a
large audience of extremely eminent astronomers and scientists,"
he said. However, he had decided what to do. Instead of
telling everyone about the discovery of the extrasolar planet
as originally planned, he told the gathered audience, in
great detail, how he and his team had deceived themselves by
failing to check their software properly. It was humiliating.
Yet, at the end of his presentation, the audience broke out into
a long, loud round of applause. Lyne was shocked. "Here I was,
with the biggest blunder of my life and. . ." Lyne paused,
gathering himself, "But I think that many people have nearly
done such things themselves."

This is the way science is supposed to work. When a scientist
discovers he has erred, that he had deceived himself, he gives
the scientific community a full and detailed report about
his folly. The scientist abases himself, science rids itself
of the erroneous notion, and the march of research continues
on. However, reality isn't always so clean. Sometimes, other
experimentalists join a scientist in self-deception; this makes
it much harder to correct an error. It is also difficult when
ego gets involved, as it often does. Lyne was lucky; he found
his error himself. It's much harder to come clean when other
scientists -- your rivals -- find your errors for you.

There are some who make a different decision. Many scientists,
forced to stand on the edge of the abyss, gather their strength
and leap. The annals of science are littered with the names
of once-celebrated scientists whose wishful thinking forced
them to jump into the fringe. If their pet theories become
immune to contrary evidence, if their logic resists any criticism,
if their peers suspect that they have fudged results, they are
expelled from the scientific community. Usually this process
takes years. With fusion, it can take just weeks.

Pons and Fleischmann were at the brink days after they went
public. Almost immediately, Fleischmann in England and
Pons in Utah discovered that their peak was in the wrong place --
the gamma rays they thought they were detecting didn't have
the right energy. They had to make a decision: retreat or
press on despite the damaging evidence.

Taleyarkhan's group was nearing the brink even before their paper
was published. At Oak Ridge, scientists had replicated the
experiment with better neutron detectors and found nothing.
It was a devastating blow. They had to make a decision: retreat
of press on despite the evidence.

The Taleyarkhan decision, at least at first, was more defensible
than Pons and Fleischmann's. But in the end, they all wound up
leaping into the void. Almost as soon as the researchers announced
their results, accusations and investigations sent them to
the fringe. The scientists of cold fusion and bubble fusion will
never rejoin the ranks of the mainstream.

Every scientific field has its scandal and its renegades. There are
biologists who dwell on the fringe, just as there are materials
scientists, physicists, chemists, and geologists. But there's
something about fusion that is a little different -- the power of the
dream of unlimited fusion energy that makes generation after
generation of scientists deceive themselves.

The wishful thinking about fusion extends far beyond a handful of
shunned individuals like Pons and Fleischmann, Taleyarkhan, and
Peron's Ronald Richter. Individuals like these flare brightly and
are quickly extinguished. They become the source of dark rumors
and conspiracy theories, but they do superficial damage once
they are excluded from the scientific community.

The real danger of wishful thinking comes not from these individuals
but from the wishful thinking at the very core of the scientific
community. This, and not the threat from a handful of renegades,
is what makes the dream of fusion energy so dangerous to science.

The community seems in thrall to a collective delusion. Since the
early 1950s, physicists have convinced themselves that fusion
energy is nearly within their grasp. The perentially overoptimistic
Edward Teller thought that within a few years, hydrogen bombs would
carve canals, propel spacecraft, and generate almost unlimited amounts
of energy. Lyman Spitzer thought powerful magnetic fields would
create an artificial star within a decade. The ZETA team thought
they had achieved fusion in 1958, freeing the planet from its
dependence on fossil fuels. Laser fusion scientists thought that
Shiva would produce energy, and that Nova would produce energy.
Wrong, wrong, wrong. The history of fusion energy remained a
series of failures.

Even if scientists finally change their luck, even if NIF breaks even
and ITER manages to get a plasma burning for minutes at a time, both
machines are still far from becoming working fusion reactors. NIF's
design, particularly its slow lasers that need to cool for hours
between shots, suggests that researchers will have to move to an
entirely different type of laser system to have any hope of a practical
energy source. ITER will never achieve ignition and sustained
burn, the hallmark of a successful fusion reactor.

It is entirely possible that after billions of dollars and decades
of research, fusion scientists will take the experimental results
from ITER and turn them into a design for a viable fusion reactor.
No physical law stands against it, after all. But if history
is any guide, a long, long road lies ahead before physicists will
be able to tame fusion reactions in a bottle. . .

[T]he fusion community clings to the hope that fusion energy is just
thirty years away -- and that it will solve **all** our energy
problems. Despite the failures of the past, despite the enormous
hurdles ahead, despite tremendous cost, despite the easier
alternatives, scientists still insist that fusion energy is the
path forward. It is just another case of wishful thinking.

There's something uniquely powerful about the promise of fusion
energy. It harks back to the ancient quest to build a perpetual
motion machine, but this time the source of unlimited energy doesn't
violate the laws of physics. To anyone who could harness the
energy of a miniature star, fusion promised power. Not only would
it give the world endless electrical power, it would give power
to its inventors. To some scientists, this meant financial power.
Still others sought the power of fame. Some saw military and
political power. The rewards are so great that they can blind
the scientists on the quest. . .

The promise of a fusion reactor a few decades away has been a
cliche for a half century. Every time it is repeated, it just
illuminates how generation after generation of scientists, drunk
with the promise of personal glory and unlimited energy, keep
forgetting the hard lessons learned by their predecessors.
The quest to put a star in a bottle is intoxicating. Fusion
might be the energy source of the future. If fusion scientists
are unable to rid themselves of their intemperate self-deception,
it always will be.

Anonymous said...

Ah! But there is a perfectly viable (this is debatable; it could certainly be viable within the next ten years) way to use fusion to get plentiful energy: solar power. Why bother making your own when you already have such a tremendous source of energy at your fingertips?

jimf said...

> Ah! But there is a perfectly viable (this is debatable; it could
> certainly be viable within the next ten years) way to use fusion
> to get plentiful energy: solar power.

Maybe, but the point of my excerpting that long quote had nothing
to do with fusion per se. It was more about how hankering after
big payoffs can lead astray even folks who should (and who are
trained to) know better.

Try substituting "AI" for "fusion" in the above passage, and see how
it reads.

Dale Carrico said...

The problem with that substitution is that fusion is more plausible than what the Robot Cultists mean when they speak of "AI" -- one would do better to offer up as substitution the Second Coming of Christ.

jimf said...

And speaking of fusion, here's a sad example of what can
happen when science **fiction** authors (not to mention
readers) lose touch with reality.

An odyssey of sorts - author Arthur C. Clarke -
Special Issue: The Coming Age of Exploration - Interview
Discover, May, 1997 by Fred Guterl

Recently the 80-year-old Clarke took time out
of his hectic schedule to talk with Discover's
Fred Guterl by telephone from his home in Sri Lanka.
Here are some of the highlights of their conversation. . .

[Guterl:] I'd like to talk to you about your ideas concerning
space travel.

[Clarke:] I've written dozens of books on the subject
and I'm sick and tired of talking about it. I've got
nothing new to add, except I think more and more that
the new space age, and the new everything age, is
linked more and more to the new energy revolution.

[Guterl:] What energy revolution is that?

[Clarke:] For one thing, there is this so-called
cold fusion. Which is neither cold nor fusion. Very few
Americans seem to know what is happening, which is
incredible. It's all over the world, except the
United States. There are hundreds of laboratories
doing it, they've got patents all over the place.
The prototypes are on sale now. There are 7,000 units
operating in Russia right now and no one in the
United States seems to know about it.

Oh dear oh dear oh dear. :-/

Michael Anissimov said...

I don't even agree with a lot of what Kurzweil says, and most of his predictions for 2009 are wrong. In my most recent post I criticize him pretty harshly.

Dale Carrico said...

I wouldn't bet on Ray Kurzweil over Richard Jones either, that's for sure, at least not as a general matter.