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Friday, December 20, 2013

Dumb Dvorsky Declares Fanboy Disageekments With Him About The Singularity To Be "Lies"

In a recent article (of faith), George Dvorsky admits up front that "the singularity" is nebulous. And indeed, it is astonishing how contested (and how fervently) that futurological buzzword is given how few people actually take it seriously when you come to think of it.

Nevertheless, Dvorsky has decided that those whose singularitarian loose talk differs from his own are engaging in "lies." That's rather odd, isn't it? Futurists who use the term singularity to denote their wish-fulfillment fantasy of a techno-immortalizing life-extension breakthrough instead of the wish-fulfillment fantasy Dvorsky prefers about AI breakthroughs delivering Robot Gods unto the world are muddying the waters, confusing the issues. Ray Kurzweil, a futurological guru incomparably more influential than Dvorsky is or will likely ever manage to be (even if I quite agree with Dvorsky that he has been a very silly fellow indeed since he stopped inventing things and starting writing vapid deceptive pop-tech bestsellers), is described in his disagreements with George to be "particularly guilty." Guilty, now, is it? Telling lies about "The Singularity," eh? Does Dvorsky mean that people are saying they believe things about the non-existing "singularity" that they don't really believe? Does he mean that he or that they have actually traveled to "The Future" and lived through a techno-transcendental or otherwise robo-apocalytic singularity but are giving false testimony as to what transpired for some nefarious purpose?

It is a quality of open futurity -- that is to say the openness inhering in the present in consequence of the ineradicable diversity of stakeholders collaborating in the making and sharing of that present as it emerges onto the next present -- that actions have unintended consequences and yield unpredictable effects. To the extent that the singularity names that futural uncertainty, but, only, you know, like Extreme! 'cuz we're, like, bleeding edge techbros or what have you I cannot say that the notion has ever seemed to me more clarifying than obfuscating (except, I'm afraid, as a symptom in the therapeutic/ethnographic senses).

To the extent that singularity is meant to name a hypothesized moment when nonbiological artificial intelligence becomes "superintelligent" (and do please note all the contestable assumptions about what intelligence is or what it is good for that get stealthed away in bald oh-so-innocent assertions of "greater than" "less than"), I am afraid the term is bedeviled for me by my sense that few of those who are inclined to use the term in that way have a clear grasp of the actually-existing biologically-incarnated discursively-situated multi-dimensional phenomena of intelligence as such in the first place to repay any turn of our attention instead to their loose talk of artificial intelligence, super-intelligence, smart devices, and the rest. Indeed, you will forgive me if I admit I sometimes think the raising of the specter of "singularity" functions more often than not as a way to continue to talk about AI in what now seem to me fatally inadequate and incoherent ways by distracting the attention of possible critics from the debased state of the discourse onto wish-fulfillment fantasies premised on these inadequate and incoherent assumptions but loudly, splashily, hyperbolically projected into "The Future"!

There are of course endlessly many enormously interesting things to say technically, economically, politically, ethnographically about particular interactions -- prevailing, emerging, idiosyncratic -- between techniques and artifacts and norms and practices in people, communities, locations, positionalities, and so on. "Singularitarian" discussions of human intelligence "superseded" in some way by artificial intelligence, or "melding" in some way with artificial intelligence, or "evanescing" in some way into ubiquitous intelligence and so on (metaphors of accumulation, acceleration, convergence, disruption are all over singularitarian discourses, too, each framing techno-transcendentalizing cases differently in ways one could dig into rhetorically) has always seemed to me far too vacuous to exert much interest, except occasionally as a literary conceit (and one at this point so hoary it takes an awfully good writer to pull off the move). While those who indulge in this sort of hand-waving seem to take themselves enormously seriously when they are doing so, I'm afraid it seems to me they are not saying anything of substance or with specificity at all -- and worse that their talk functions to evacuate substance and specificity where it might otherwise occur, that it forms a barrier actively warding off substance and specificity whenever it occurs.

"The onslaught of Moore's Law appears to be unhindered, while breakthroughs in brainmapping and artificial intelligence continue apace. There are no insurmountable conceptual or technological hurdles awaiting us," declares Dvorsky rather brashly, offering us the standard Robot Cult boilerplate one would hear from extropians word for word twenty years ago... how's that for accelerating change? how's that for techbro disruption? As the transhumanoid Robot Cultist George Dvorsky proudly admits himself to be, it is no surprise, I suppose, that his own articles of faith have come to assume the force of revealed truths the denial of which seem like "lies" for him to condemn. One expects this sort of thing from faith-based zealots.

And yet, here outside the online sanctuaries of faith-based techno-transcendence, "brain mapping" doesn't equal AI or render AI inevitable in the least: As it happens, a picture of a brain isn't intelligent however detailed it gets any more than a picture of you is you even if it fools somebody for a moment that it might be. Likewise, as it happens, Moore's Law won't spit out an AI any more than an accumulating sand pile or even an accumulating pile of abacuses will spit out an AI, spontaneously, and in any case it is a tricky business declaring Moore's Law is even still in play in stricto sensu even now given the creaky state of the art in the computer industry, really, and that quite apart from the wrinkle Lanier pointed out already way back at the height of irrational techbro exuberance (namely: "As processors become faster and memory becomes cheaper, software becomes correspondingly slower and more bloated, using up all available resources."), not to mention that it is outright incoherent to pretend that any such generalization won't hit hard limits in a finite universe in which our understanding of physics is even approximately true. What can I say? Oh, George!

All that aside, I will conclude, however, by pointing out the profoundly pernicious suggestion by Dvorsky that critics like me who notice that there is no such thing as "the singularity" and that the state of computer science and discourses about intelligence don't seem the least bit to be verging on managing to create an intelligent non-biological entity (whatever marvelous helpful secure use-friendly software and network apps they do manage to create), indeed, critics like me who notice that those who seem to believe otherwise often seem to talk about the phenomenon of intelligence in frankly embarrassingly facile and incoherent ways, that singularity critics like in are engaging in so doing in a kind of "singularity denialism." How can you deny God when the Kingdom of Heaven is all around you, gets at the spirit of the thing as it looks from here (as a cheerful nonjudgmental atheist of many decades I've heard a lot of this sort of thing, you know). In describing the singularity as an "existential threat" and skeptics about singularitarian discourse as "denialists" it seems to me that Dvorsky is plainly analogizing those who do not embrace his faith-based futurological fantasies with anthropogenic climate change denialists, benighted ignoramuses endangering the survival of people around the world with our foolish incredulity. It is hard to know where to begin to respond to such an outrageous analogy, if such is Dvorsky's intention here. Even singularitarians would surely not try to pretend that "the singularity" is happening in the way the consensus of climate scientists overwhelmingly agree that anthropogenic climate change is happening? Scientific understanding of the phenomenon of human intelligence is, to say the least, unfinished -- and although there are enormously important gaps in our understanding of the atmosphere, geosphere, local ecosystems, their interactions, and so on, I couldn't say with confidence that our understanding of intelligence approaches yet the richness of our environmental sciences. To analogize singularity to climate catastrophe draws on an assumed prior sense of the urgency of the latter with which Dvorsky wants to invest the latter -- which is outrageous to the extent that futurological existential risk discourse about robocalypse, nanogoo, asteroid impacts, futuristic WMD and so on as promulgated by corporate-military think-tanks thronged by futurologists function to distracts attention and resources away from precisely the urgent problem of catastrophic climate change and resource descent onto hyperbolic rationalizations for profitable military R&D. And don't get me started on the futurological faux-green bullshit of "geo-engineering" profitable megascale corporate-military boondoggles in which bad actors acting badly will save the world they have destroyed by continuing to act the same way, but, you know, for kids! It is well known that religious fundamentalists pining for the end-times don't always exactly make the best allies in the work to educate, agitate, organize, legislate ways to solve out shared environmental problems and propose sustainable alternatives. Market fundamentalists, futurological fundamentalists (and it is worth noting that there is considerable overlap between those two cohorts) who think it is cute to compare robocalypse skeptics with climate change deniers reveal themselves no more reliable as allies in the work technoscientifically literate can contribute to real progress in the real world.

1 comment:

jimf said...

> Market fundamentalists, futurological fundamentalists (and it
> is worth noting that there is considerable overlap between those
> two cohorts) who think it is cute to compare robocalypse skeptics
> with climate change deniers reveal themselves no more reliable. . .

Particularly since some (many? most?) market fundamentalists,
some (many? most?) futurological fundamentalists, and
some (many? most?) robopocalypse true believers **are**
climate change deniers (or at best belligerent climate change
skeptics). Teknologie uber alles.