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Left Behind

Bruce Sterling on the singularity:

The singularity's biggest flaw isn't that it's hard to imagine, but that it flatters its human inventors. We may be on the verge of an astounding breakthrough! Or, with equal likelihood, we may be at the edge of a new dark age of plagues, mass hunger, and climate destabilization. More likely yet, we live in a dull, self-satisfied, squalid eddy in history, blundering around with no concept of progress and no sense of direction. We have no idea what we really want from our own lives or from society. And no Moore's law rising majestically on any 2-D graph is ever going make us magnificent or spiritual when we lack the will, vision, and appetite for spiritual magnificence.

First, let me take issue. No matter how dull, squalid, and self-satisfied we may be as individuals — or even as a species, although I don't think we are — there's no way those adjectives can be applied to this era in history. There is simply too much going on. Even if we aren't doing it, even if technology is just evolving more or less "on its own" (which is kind of hard to picture) this is still an amazing period of change.

It's been suggested (slide 20) that the rate of technological change, not to mention the increase in the rate of technological change, has been fairly consistent irrepective of economic or political circumstances. If we face good times, we have spare resources to create new technologies. On the other hand, if the plagues, mass murder, and climate destabilization do show up, we'll desperately need new technologies to deal with each of them

So I think Sterling is off base on the signficiance of the current and coming periods in history. However, his question about whether we're ready to become supermen is an excellent one. After all, most of us are still trying to figure out what exactly it means to be human. How can we become superhumans or transhumans if we're not even clear on how to be plain old humans? That doesn't necessarily mean we aren't ready for the next stage. I didn't have a very good idea of what it meant to be a toddler while I was still a toddler, or even when I became a teenager. I'm not even sure I know now.

The next stage might very well hit us, ready or not, like puberty or menopause. Or maybe not. Maybe it will require, as Sterling said, a certain will, a certain vision, a certain appetite. And maybe we're not there yet.

Meanwhile, our silicon-based progeny continue to develop, with or without our help. They haven't reached the human level yet, but the expectation is that — once they do — they will grow well beyond the level of human intelligence very rapidly. Then the question will be whether they have the right stuff to grow into something else: not just smarter, better. There's no gaurantee that we can build the right vision and will into them, but for some reason I have this idea that it might be easier to give it to them than it would be to build it into ourselves.

If that were to turn out to be the case, we might be facing a future which isn't flattering to us at all. In this scenario, we stand by and watch while the computers become the transcendant beings that we believed it was our destiny to become.

Even if these meta-beings care for us and want the best for us, even if they want us to join them in the kind of existence that they have found, they might find that there is still an enormous gulf between the deepest desires of the human heart and the ability of the human will to make itself better. Our electronic descendants might decide to leave us alone in the hopes that we can eventually find our own way to where they are.

In his novel Till We Have Faces, C. S. Lewis retells the myth of Cupid and Psyche to illustrate the difference between the grasping, controlling need which passes for "love" in most human relationships, and the giving, sacrificial nature of spiritual love. One of the characters nurtures a long-term grudge against the gods which she is finally able to bring before them. It is only after she has made her case against them that she comes to a profound realization:

When the time comes to you at which you will be forced at last to utter the speech which has lain at the center of your soul for years, which you have, all that time, idiot-like, been saying over and over, you'll not talk about joy of words. I saw well why the gods do not speak to us openly, nor let us answer. Till that word can be dug out of us, why should they hear the babble that we think we mean? How can they meet us face to face till we have faces?

When the Singularity comes, we may be left behind by transcendant beings who want nothing more than to have us with them, but who can't or won't force us to be like them. The silence they leave would be as deep and utterly frustrating as that encountered by any of us who have ever cried out to heaven for answers...and in return heard nothing but the beating of our own hearts.

Comments

I tried to comment, but I'm speechless. Maybe we will be left behind for a time, but I believe we humans will have transcendant existence ultimately.

Kathy

I agree.

"Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known." 1 Corinthians 13:12

We'll have faces someday.

Bruce Sterling may be "dull, squalid, and self-satisfied", but I'm pretty sure the condition isn't universal nor unavoidable. Perhaps, to paraphrase biblical quotes, he should pick the beam out of his eye before he starts working on the motes in other peoples' eyes. Whining in Wired magazine just doesn't seem to help.

I've been losing patience with Bruce Sterling for a while now. In my opinion, you have to have your head pretty far up, uh, a dark place, to look at the wonders all around us and still be a pessimist.

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