[Paleopsych] Popular Science: Geoffrey Mone: Is Science Fiction about to Go Blind?
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Mon Aug 16 20:31:46 UTC 2004
Geoffrey Mone: Is Science Fiction about to Go Blind?
Popular Science, 2004.8
The starship Field Circus is racing through space on a seven-year
journey to a brown dwarf three light-years from Earth and, if all goes
well, a business meeting with an alien civilization from another
universe. It's around the year 2030, and there's time to kill, so three
crew members, Boris, Pierre and Su Ang, are sitting in the bar, a
wood-paneled room modeled after a 300-year-old pub in Amsterdam. There's
a 16-page beer menu, but Boris has opted for a cocktail made of baby
jellyfish. Pierre is angling for a sip when Donna the Journalist
appears. She isn't exactly welcome, but she sits down anyway, orders a
bottle of German beer from the waiter, and asks the three if they
believe in the Singularity. Ah yes, the Singularity. A very real term,
although the scene above is taken from a soon-to-be-published novel,
Accelerando, by British writer Charles Stross. The idea was conceived by
Vernor Vinge, a computer scientist and science-fiction writer who's now
a professor emeritus at San Diego State University. We're living through
a period of unprecedented technological and scientific advances, Vinge
says, and sometime soon the convergence of fields such as artificial
intelligence and biotechnology will push humanity past a tipping point,
ushering in a period of wrenching change. After that moment-the
Singularity-the world will be as different from today's world as this
one is from the Stone Age.
Back on board the Field Circus, Donna the Journalist asks the crew
members when they think the Singularity took place. "Four years ago,"
Pierre suggests. Su Ang votes for 2016. But Boris, the jellyfish
drinker, says the entire notion of a Singularity is silly. To him,
there's no such thing. Wait a minute, Su Ang responds. Here we are,
traveling in a spaceship the size of a soda can. We've left our bodies
behind to conserve space and energy so that the laser-sail-powered Field
Circus can cruise faster. Our brains have been uploaded and are now
running electronically within the tiny spaceship's nanocomputers. The
pub is "here," along with other virtual environments, so that we don't
go into shock from sensory deprivation. "And you can tell me that the
idea of a fundamental change in the human condition is nonsense?"
Accelerando is the story of three generations of a dysfunctional family
living through the Singularity. What makes the novel unusual is not the
size of the ship or the strange cocktails or even the sexual metaphors-a
coital act culminates with the transfer of "source code"-but the fact
that Stross is attempting to imagine the relatively near-term future.
This is a strangely courageous act, because modern science fiction is
facing a crisis of confidence. The recent crop of stories mostly take
the form of fantasy (elves and wizards), alternate history (what if the
Black Death had been deadlier?) and space operas about interstellar
civilizations in the year 12,000 (which typically gloss over how those
civilizations evolved from ours). Only a small cadre of technoprophets
is attempting to extrapolate current trends and imagine what our world
might look like in the next few decades. "We're staring into a fogbank,"
Stross says, "and we literally do not know where we're going, only that
we're going there very fast."
The science-fiction legends-Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Robert
Heinlein-still loom imperiously. Clarke pulled humanity's technological
reach to the heavens, with visions of communications satellites, space
elevators and rotating space stations. Asimov changed our perspective
here on Earth, filling our homes with robots that dust, cook-and
sometimes turn against their owners [see "Could Robots Take Over the
World?"]. And with his rollicking space adventures, Heinlein pushed us
into distant galaxies and far-future civilizations. The golden age of
science fiction (SF, to those in the know), which spanned the 1940s and
'50s, inspired generations of kids to become astronauts, physicists and
engineers, to try to make at least some of the stories real. (And those
kids remember their imaginative roots: NASA, for example, sometimes
calls in SF writers as consultants.)
Wandering through the exhibition room at a science- fiction convention
in Boston a few months ago, I saw plenty of reprints of golden-age SF
classics for sale. But I also encountered paintings of half-naked people
battling dragons, vendors hawking crystals and a folk musician warming
up for a recital. Where is the science in science fiction? I wondered.
Whatever happened to envisioning the future? Anthropologist Judith
Berman, who recently surveyed a crop of science fiction published in
1999, has a grim answer: Many modern stories are nostalgic, wary of new
technologies rather than enthusiastic about them.
Yet there's plenty to get excited about: Vinge's vision of the
Singularity springs from his own field, computer science, but change is
afoot throughout science and technology. Cosmology is undergoing
fundamental revisions, genetics is giving researchers the tools to
rejigger the building blocks of life, and nanotechnology has begun
creeping from fantasy into reality. "Several lines of progress [are]
converging," says physicist Stanley Schmidt, editor of Analog magazine.
"You can't lock in on one field in isolation because you'll miss how
other fields affect it."
A new kind of future requires a new breed of guide-someone like Stross,
whose first novel, Singularity Sky, was recently nominated for a
prestigious Hugo Award, or his frequent collaborator Cory Doctorow, who
in 2000 won the Campbell Award for best new science-fiction writer. Both
are former computer programmers. They are computer geeks and gadget
freaks. They follow engineering and materials science and biotech, not
to mention politics and economics. And they have latched on to the
Singularity as the idea that symbolizes our era's rush of new
discoveries. Whether their stories will usher in another golden age or
inspire a new generation of dreamers remains to be seen, but their focus
is dead-on. "Right now is an extremely exciting time because there's an
explosion of knowledge in biology, an explosion of knowledge in
technology, an explosion of knowledge in astronomy, physics, all over
the place," says David G. Hartwell, a senior editor at Tor Books. "Right
now it's quantity, and Doctorow and Stross are the writers who are
principally concerned with all this stuff."
Stross and Doctorow are sitting outside the Chequers Hotel bar in
Newbury, a small city west of London. The Chequers has been overrun this
May weekend by a distinct species of science-fiction fan, members of a
group called Plokta (Press Lots of Keys to Abort). The men are mostly
stout and bearded, the women pedestrian in appearance but certainly not
in their interests. During one session Stross mentions an early model of
the Amstrad personal computer, and the crowd practically cheers. Stross
is the guest of honor, and he and Doctorow have just emerged from a
panel discussion on his work.
The two have met just four times, but they have the comfortable rapport
of long-distance friends that is possible only in the e-mail age. (They
have collaborated on several critically acclaimed short stories and
novellas, one of them before they ever met in person.) Stross, 39, a
native of Yorkshire who lives in Edinburgh, looks like a cross between a
Shaolin monk and a video-store clerk-bearded, head shaved except for a
ponytail, and dressed in black, including a T-shirt printed with lines
of green Matrix code. Doctorow, a 33-year-old Canadian, looks more the
hip young writer, with a buzz cut, a worn leather jacket and stylish
spectacles, yet he's also still very much the geek, G4 laptop always at
They have loosely parallel backgrounds: Stross worked throughout the
1990s as a software developer for two U.K. dot-coms, then switched to
journalism and began writing a Linux column for Computer Shopper.
Doctorow, who recently moved to London, dropped out of college at 21 to
take his first programming job, then went on to run a dot-com and
eventually co-found the technology blog boingboing.net.
Although both have been out of programming for a few years, it continues
to influence-even infect-their thinking. In the Chequers, Doctorow
mentions the original title for one of the novels he's working on, a
story about a spam filter that becomes artificially intelligent and
tries to eat the universe. "I was thinking of calling it /usr/bin/god."
"That's great!" Stross remarks.
Well, great for those who know that "/usr/bin" is the repository for
Unix programs and that "god" in this case would be the name of the
program, but a tad abstract for the rest of us. This tendency can make
for difficult reading-one early reader of a Stross story complained that
to understand it, people would have to overdose for a month on Slashdot
(a blog that calls itself "News for Nerds"). Still, it's this fluency in
computer science that allows these writers to approach the future so
boldly. "Stross and Doctorow are just kind of right in there, down with
their heads in the bits," says novelist Bruce Sterling, one of the
On this Saturday afternoon, much of the Plokta crowd converges in the
bar, trading ideas and opinions. Some pull out laptops to take advantage
of the local Wi-Fi hotspot. They remind me of Manfred Macx, an
Accelerando character, who arrives in a new city at the start of the
novel and, as his wearable computer starts streaming data, thinks, Ah,
the bandwidth is good here. For my part, I'm feeling more like Donna the
Journalist on the Field Circus, ruining a perfectly good day of thinking
and drinking by asking questions about the Singularity.
Joining Stross and Doctorow at their table near the bar, I take
advantage of a rare break in their conversation to ask, "Would the
Singularity be the first such event in human history?" Collaborating on
an answer, the two cite revolutionary developments such as the birth of
language and the dawn of agriculture but soon agree that the Singularity
would surpass all these in intensity. "The Singularity is pretty
thermonuclear in terms of its finality," Doctorow says later. "It's
apocalyptic in every sense of the word." Doctorow's dramatics are easier
to digest in light of what Vinge has said of the Singularity: "Shortly
after [it occurs], the human era will be ended"-the Singularity will
usher in the "posthuman" era.
Vinge expects the Singularity to occur when machine intelligence
surpasses that of humans. Life on Earth has always advanced by running
simulations and adapting, he points out. Animal life does this through
evolution. Humans are the one animal that has learned to do it faster,
through problem solving. Sapient machines would do it faster still. Once
our computers start to think, Vinge says, we will be "entering a regime
as radically different from our human past as we humans are from the
lower animals." The second trigger for the Singularity, according to
Vinge, will be so-called intelligence amplification. Humans will apply
their engineering skills to their own bodies, crossing the brain/machine
interface threshold to merge with their technological creations.
Implants, genetic modifications and other changes will make people
smarter and give them Superman-like abilities. "It's all about
transcending human limitation," Doctorow says.
One plot device that turns up frequently in Stross and Doctorow's
stories is mind uploading, in which characters create electronic copies
of their brains on silicon. A technique first proposed by Carnegie
Mellon computer scientist Hans Moravec, mind uploading is not to be
confused with elaborate virtual reality headsets that allow your mind to
exist in a simulated environment while your body remains in the real
world. Mind uploading creates an entirely separate version of you. This
new you would be made of bits instead of blood; you'd be free of
illness, mortality and other drawbacks of corporeal existence (such as
neck pain from staring too long at a computer screen). In Doctorow's
first novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom, people create and update
electronic copies of their brains the way we now back up important
documents; in the event of an accident, doctors simply restore the last
saved version to a new body.
Mind uploading has proved to be a particularly enticing idea to geeks
wishing to transcend their cubicles and become disembodied beings of
pure thought. Some aspire to the "cloudmind," a kind of big computer in
the sky where they could live out eternity-"the rapture of the nerds,"
as Scottish SF writer Ken MacLeod puts it. Stross and Doctorow tend to
scoff at this desire. In Down and Out, most of the characters remain
embodied and reap the numerous technological benefits of the day.
Computers and communication devices embedded in their bodies allow them
to transfer files to friends through thought alone and to conduct phone
conversations subvocally. Rings are reduced to pings that sound deep in
the ear, and two knees per leg is all the rage with the young crowd.
Many of the questions this new world poses are mind-bending-for example,
who "you" really are. You've created a copy of your brain and uploaded
it, but the original you is still hanging around dirtside. The nice
part, if we ever get to this point, is that you wouldn't have to bother
thinking about any of this for too long. You could just generate another
copy to dwell on the question while the embodied you gets on with your
life. Amber, one of the characters in Accelerando, frequently spins off
copies of herself to tackle difficult issues. It's an efficient way to
solve problems, but it can have negative side effects. Toward the middle
of the story, while she's leading the Field Circus through space, Amber
learns that the version of herself that remained back on Earth had a
son, and that he's suing her for child support.
The conversation in the Chequers lobby (I'd like to say "our"
conversation, but most of the time I have no idea what Doctorow and
Stross are talking about) turns now to computronium, another staple of
Singularity fiction. Doctorow motions to the plain brown table between
our chairs. If it were made of computronium, he explains, you'd have
"atoms that might look like the atoms that make up this table but are in
fact doing constant microcomputation as they sit there." The idea is
that nanomachines would do the grunt work of transforming regular matter
into computronium; if the process were taken to its extreme conclusion
and applied to huge bodies of matter such as asteroids, you'd end up
with immense "Matrioshka Brains," mega-processors that would make Cray
supercomputers seem as powerful as lunch boxes. Doctorow plans to
explore the computronium idea in his novel about the artificially
intelligent spam filter, which is constructed by a group of well-meaning
Silicon Valley programmers. The spam filter starts to follow an agenda
of its own and, no longer content to guard inboxes, embarks on a race to
convert all the matter in the universe into computronium.
The steady consumption of the cosmos would be an obvious indicator that
the Singularity has arrived, but Stross chooses a more metaphorical
metric to track its progress in Accelerando. He compares the total
mental capacity of the humans born each day with that of the
microprocessors churned out daily on assembly lines. At the start of the
second chapter, the ratio is approaching 1:1. By the fourth chapter, the
processors possess 10,000 times the total computing power of humanity.
Machines, not humans, now constitute most of the thinking mass in the
A few days before the Plokta convention, I visit Stross at his Edinburgh
flat, in a building with a stone facade and an unpainted wooden front
door. He has just submitted the most recent draft of Accelerando to his
editor. Empty mugs of tea are scattered around, the leftovers of 12-hour
days of caffeine-fueled revisions. His desk is a tangle of wires and
docking ports for various communication devices, his laptop perched
above the fray like a tree rising from its roots. (The real reason for
Wi-Fi, he says, is surfing the Web while in the loo.) The walls are
bookshelves, stacked high with SF novels.
Before arriving, I had tried to arrange a science- or tech-related
outing for the two of us. The University of Edinburgh, located not too
far from Stross's flat, has a well-known artificial intelligence
department and seemed like a good possibility. Stross had never visited,
nor did he feel any desire to. All the ideas he needs are right here-in
his mind, his books, cyberspace. Stross is already partway to the
posthuman age, whether he knows it or not. He is semi-uploaded; he
builds entire universes, and experiences his own, through the portal of
There's a sense of anticipation at the Plokta gathering as Doctorow
prepares to interview Stross in the Chequers conference room. This
writer-on-writer interview is one of the weekend's highlights: two of
the top minds in science fiction freely trading ideas with each other
and the audience, arguing about everything from the progress of
artificial intelligence to the often tenuous relationship between
science fiction and science itself. Doctorow distills this last issue
into a single question: "Would Frankenstein have been a better novel if
Mary Shelley had gotten the biodetails right?"
They debate the point a bit, then Stross suggests, "Maybe she was right
for her time."
SF writers bend and twist physical laws for the sake of the
story-sometimes, Einstein be damned, you need faster-than-light travel
to get your hero from one side of the galaxy to the other. But Stross's
comment about Shelley applies directly to those who are writing about
the Singularity: They try to be as accurate as they can for their time,
to extrapolate from current trends.
Doctorow says he cheats only under narrative duress. In Down and Out,
for example, when people need to be restored from their backup copies,
doctors download their brains into freshly cloned bodies. The idea of
ready-made clones is fairly magical (in reality, clones would begin as
embryos and grow into adults in normal time), but the device is
critical, as it enables a recently murdered character to jump right back
into his old life to find his killer.
Respect for accuracy comes naturally to geeks, but it's also a way to
avoid what Doctorow calls "peevish pedantic corrections" from fans, who
are as demanding as they are loyal. Novelist Larry Niven knows this all
too well. During the 1971 World Science Fiction convention, MIT students
protested the physics in his book Ringworld by roaming the halls and
chanting, "The Ringworld is unstable!"
Stross, Doctorow and their crowd don't limit their laserlike focus to
their own pet interests, or even to technology. For them, writing
futuristic science fiction isn't just about understanding relativity and
estimate the approximate surface area of a solar-sail spacecraft capable
of traveling at half the speed of light. You have to factor in politics
and civil rights too. You have to think long and hard about the
capabilities of a robotic pet cat with human-level intelligence, and
then you have to ask whether it should have the right to vote.
The result of such maniacal attention to detail is a host of stories
that are bursting with wild ideas. Greg Egan, a computer scientist and
writer who was one of the innovators of Singularity fiction, developed
an entirely new theory of cosmology for the post-Singularity universe in
his most recent novel, Schild's Ladder. He calls it Quantum Graph
Theory, and the work has his fellow writers-some of whom are
physicists-scratching their heads half in confusion, half in awe.
(Stross has jokingly speculated that Egan, whom few if any people have
actually met, may be an artificially intelligent being. Perhaps he/it is
refusing interviews for fear of failing the Turing test.)
In Appeals Court, a story that Stross and Doctorow co-wrote, mangroves
in the Florida swamps have been reengineered to harness wind energy. And
"Halo," the fourth chapter of Accelerando, is about as technologically
dense as science fiction gets. In one scene, Amber, the daughter of
Manfred Macx, receives a package from her long-lost father. The FedEx
courier uses a rapid DNA sequencer to ensure that the recipient is
really her, which is a fun possibility, but Stross demonstrates the true
breadth of his knowledge when the package opens itself up and reveals a
3-D printer based on Bose-Einstein condensates, a highly unstable form
of matter first created in 1995. It's a classic SF technique: While the
physicists are still busy trying to find ways to create and manipulate
their Bose-Einstein condensates and publish more papers, Stross is
crouched over the laptop in his office, mining electronic copies of
these papers for ideas, figuring out what their work might lead to in 20
or 30 or 100 years.
So are these writers predicting the future, or are they just having some
highly intelligent fun? When I ask Vinge, the godfather of Singularity
fiction, he paraphrases Robert Heinlein. (Science fiction is a large,
incestuous family-Joan Vinge, Vernor's ex-wife, is also an accomplished
SF novelist-so when you ask one writer a question, he or she often gives
you another's answer.) If you have 1,000 monkeys, or SF writers,
Heinlein said, some of them might get it right.
The good stories, Vinge adds, should at least provide useful guideposts
for the future. "A well-written SF story is like running a simulation
with certain types of driving ground rules," he continues. "When
something comes up, you can say, ?You know, that's a little bit like the
pre-symptoms of scenario Z.' Then you're immediately in tune with what
some of the possibilities may be."
In Accelerando, the first creatures to be uploaded are not humans but
lobsters. Stross says he got the idea from an article about a group of
UC San Diego scientists who had created a functioning electronic version
of a small section of the brain of a California spiny lobster. Stross
summarizes the research paper for me but says he hasn't been able to
track it down since then. Part of me, I confess, is wondering if he is
exaggerating, creating a story to back his story.
A few days after I return to New York from the Plokta conference, I find
the San Diego researchers on the Web and check with Stross to make sure
they're the right ones. Then I forward a link to the first story In
Accelerando, the aptly titled "Lobsters," to the scientists. A few hours
later, a physicist in the group, Henry Abarbanel, calls me. He's excited
but a little confused. Excited that his team's work helped to inspire a
massive SF novel, perplexed because he can't find any specific reference
to their research in the story, although there is lots of stuff about
uploaded lobsters. We talk a bit about science fiction in general-he was
an Asimov fan as a kid-and then Abarbanel explains what he and his
colleagues are doing with those lobsters.
The research, led by biologist Allen Selverston, focused on the
California spiny lobster because only 14 neurons govern a key part of
its gastric tract. This number of neurons is unusually small, which
makes the area easier to model. Still, understanding the neurobiology of
those 14 neurons was not easy. It took Selverston 25 years. Then
Abarbanel and his colleagues needed two more to figure out how to re-
create the system electronically. This work, too, was difficult:
Abarbanel likens the process to having all the parts of a 747 laid out
on the floor of a hangar with no instruction manual on how to put them
together to make an airplane.
All that work, and they've electronically simulated just 14 neurons.
That's a far cry from uploading the 1011 neurons that make up the human
brain. Naturally, I assume Abarbanel will laugh at the idea that
uploading a human mind could ever be possible. But it turns out that he
approves of Stross's leaps of imagination. "Frankly, I don't consider it
to be crazy," Abarbanel says. "Whether it's five years or 10 years or
500 years, I have no doubt that we'll figure out how to do it."
This new brand of science fiction, I realize, like all the best SF
before it, is not just about predicting the future or pushing an agenda
or even plain old entertaining techno-fun. It is all that, but it's also
about expanding the boundaries of the possible, building far-out worlds
and then populating them with characters who bring the big ideas down to
Earth. "That's what you're supposed to do in science fiction," Abarbanel
tells me. "You make a leap that's 10 orders of magnitude beyond what we
can actually do. If they don't do that, then we don't get there."
Gregory Mone, author of the novel The Wages of Genius, which was issued
in paperback in June, is an associate editor at Popular Science.
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