The Singularity

Proper Science Fiction writer Vernor Vinge is preparing his speech for the day the singularity doesn’t happen. Although I should probably get on with preparing mine for the day after it does (but who’ll listen?), I keep wanting to dive in and point out that the important thing about singularities of all kinds is that they don’t happen. Scenario planners, millenarians and apocalypticians (and geeks) thrive on predicting extreme – usually final – events. The end of this. The overthrow of that. They make these predictions by extrapolating from the potential of various technologies, institutions and practices. This kind of extrapolation always ignores the critically important context within which all these events happen. Human beings provide this context and it’s all friction.

Singularists subtract out the friction provided by human context. They make predictions based solely on the theoretical potential for X to happen – whether X is good or bad (hence Bill Joy’s hysterical revelation). Despite the unarguable logic of the bomb, nuclear wars don’t happen. With no regard to the liberating power of the net, the new economy did not sweep away the old. Whatever you read in the Sunday Papers a human clone will not take your job. This is not a cynical argument or even a jaded one. It’s really an optimistic reading of human-kind’s ability to influence our environment, neutralise extreme cases and side-step the inevitable. Vinge will make his speech.

Anyone give me odds?

This may be my weblog’s first authentic scoop. A ‘friend’ (picture removed) – an author and publishing insider – tells me, with some credibility, that Michael Crichton’s Nano-frightener Prey will be followed by two more books – each focused on extinction-level threats to humankind – from Robots and Geneticists respectively (but not necessarily in that order). The implication is that Crichton has made a close reading of uber-worrier Bill Joy’s 2000 Wired article in which he lays out the existential threat from nanotech nasties, self-replicating robots and out-of-control genetic engineering (He’s mostly wrong, of course). Joy’s paranoid-determinist vision will be published as a book next Autumn.