The Singularity Ain’t Near. It Ain’t Even Far. It just Ain’t.

The Singularity has become more reliable a presence in SF than have spaceships.  So, I can’t resist.  Here’s the news, far more reliable than Kurzweil’s promises:  there ain’t no Singularity.  It ain’t coming.  It’s a logical mistake.

Here’s why.

Our understanding of the world is theories.  Our theories compress information.  Instead of listing endlessly different observations of motions, for example, Newton said, F=ma.  And with that, infinitely many kinds of motion were described in this compressed little formula.  All theory is compression.

But some information is complex.  In fact, most information is complex.  By “complex,” what we mean is that it cannot be compressed very much (this is described in the branch of logic called Kolmogorov Complexity or descriptive complexity).  So, what we have to do is, develop ever more theories, and ever more complex theories.  This is why we have biology departments and chemistry departments and so on at the university, instead of just a physics department.  These fields are adding theory, of greater complexity and of specific focus.

Now, a bunch of very important but little appreciated results in 20th Century logic and mathematics show that theory cannot come for free.  It can’t come easy.  These include the Undecidability result of Turing (aka The Halting Problem) and Godel’s Incompleteness Theorems and the Incompressibility Method of Kolmogorov Complexity. These tell us:

* Undecidability:  there is no effective procedure (e.g. good computer program) to find all the effective procedures.

* Godel Incompleteness I:  for systems of sufficient strength (including all the math you need to say anything interesting), the system is either incomplete (cannot prove all truths of the system) or inconsistent (the system can prove falsehoods).

* Godel Incompleteness II:  you cannot within a system tell if the system is consistent.

* Incompressibility Method:  every theory has a strength, determined by its complexity, and phenomena of complexity greater than that strength may be indistinguishable from noise for the theory.

Put all that together, and it shows you can’t derive genuinely new theory from the theories you already have.  You have to add to your theory — but that means you have to guess (Undecidability shows you can’t just derive it), try new things out (Incompressibility shows you need new theories to explain new complex phenomena), see how they work (Godel II shows you can’t be sure it will work out), and sometimes backtrack.  You’ll always be doing this — it never ends (Godel I and Incompressibility show your theory will always miss stuff).

Note, this is true even in mathematics!  Mathematics is now recognizably like physics:  you add to your theory, and hope you didn’t just contradict yourself.  You cannot generally predict whether or not you have contradicted yourself, except to plod along as if you haven’t and hope for the best.  When you find a contradiction — the mathematical equivalent of finding an experimental result that refutes your prediction — you have to back up and try another axiom.

What all this means is that no intelligence, no matter how smart, can get theory for free.  It has to work, to guess, to try things, do experiments, and learn from them.  It has to develop ever more complex theories, the hard way:  by trial and error and tests and dumb luck.

It has been proven, in other words, that there are no free lunches.

This is the silly part of the singularity dream.  In this fantasy, you get smart machines, and they suddenly get smarter and smarter, faster and faster, from thinking alone.  It’s like imagining that if we made twice as many computers we’d all be twice as smart.  Or if our computers were twice as fast we’d be twice as smart.  Or if our computers had twice the memory we’d be twice as smart.  Yes, it really is that misguided.

But wait, you say.  Won’t it make a difference to have an artificial intelligence?

We’ve no reason to believe an artificial intelligence will be smarter than us.  And suppose it were — it won’t know anything we don’t tell it, or that it doesn’t learn the hard way.

Drop a modern but uneducated human into 10,000,000 BC.  She’ll be the smartest hominid on Earth.  Would the hominids have iPods and toilets in a few years?  A hundred years?  A thousand years?  Would our uneducated but modern human make radios out of coconuts like the Professor on Gilligan’s Island, and also write a few novels and a symphony while she’s at it?  Of course not.  Humans had to earn their radios and novels and symphonies.

“I could turn this whole island into computronium, if I just had one more coconut.”

Just so, why would a smart computer know how to make godlike computers?  It wouldn’t learn how from us.  Supposedly it just infers these things.  But that’s demonstrably impossible.  And, where does this AI get all it’s godlike knowledge to tell to its miraculously smarter children?  Again, from the miracle of logic-defying a priori inferences.  The AI just figures out all of future physics, while it sits on a shelf.  Way to go!

The whole thing is less realistic than any high fantasy story.  We’d be as well advised to invest in a Rivendell Institute as a Singularity Institute.

This is all good news, by the way.  OK, sorry, you won’t upload your brain anytime soon.  But this theme of rapture and heavenly-ascent-via-singularity is poisonous.  It is the pollyana flipside to our dispollyana era; apocalypse and singularity are two shadows of the same paralysis of imagination.  They agree that the future is incomprehensibly bad or incomprehensibly good.  They reduce humans to victims or to theme-park-visitors.

The future will not be a parade of ever-accelerating external wonders before which we must sit passively, either in despair or religious awe.  The future is ours to make.  Let the singularity faithful recline in dream, while you and I get off the couch.

The Cliche, or at least the Prejudice, of the Incomprehensible Alien

It’s an interesting theme of course, and as such worth exploration.  I would not disparage the idea of the incomprehensible extraterrestrial.  And, it has been very well done.  Lem’s Solaris, for example, is a masterwork of the subgenre.  And Tarkovsky’s filming of Solaris, a masterwork of SF film.

But, most times, I just don’t buy it.  A biological intelligence would have evolved — by definition.  And the constraints of evolution are universal.  Cultures can grow into dizzying varieties, of course, and as such resist explanation; but, in the end, each must obey the constraints of biology, or the culture will perish, and this provides the common foundation that means understanding must in principle be possible.  Just so, in the end, we can penetrate the purposes of an ant or a vampire squid, and we can penetrate the reasoning of a Yanomamo or Heroic-Age Greek.

I wonder if the idea of the incomprehensible alien is not a part or product of that greater cliche — the Great Cliche, we might call it:  the lazy pessimism of contemporary SF literature.  All is miserable in the future, our most awarded writers tell us.  Even those inclined not to people the future with cannibals roving sunken cities are likely to portray the future as at best incomprehensible (the singularity!).  This social and political pessimism bleeds over to an epistemic pessimism.  And yet, the evidence is against this misery mongery.

So there is here an interesting challenge:  SF that is optimistic, while realistic; that portrays aliens that are genuinely strange, but not incomprehensible.

This is a theme (or is it a meta-theme?) that I want to explore more.

Turing. And Godel. And Cantor.

My story, “The Man Who Betrayed Turing,” is available (for free) at Cosmos Online.  Cosmos is a fine Australian magazine, which does not have an equivalent on this side of the globe.  A bit like Omni, but not really — more as if Discover Magazine regularly ran SF.

The story aims to be one of a series of — what shall I call them?  Mathematical fantasies?  I’ve written two plays about Godel, but I also have a flash fiction about Godel in Shimmer, of which I am fond.  The Turing story is a kind of sequel to that, in my mind.  I’m working on one about Cantor now — though it is coming slow.

The story is at:

The historical figures are rather closely based on fact.  Whether the future figures are accurate — well, time will tell.

I hope you like it.  Let me know if you did.


An update from June, 2014:  The Cantor story, called “Cantor’s Dragon,” will be coming out in the November 2014 issue of Shimmer.

Get off the shelf, sluggard!

I’m reading a Dickens biography (Charles Dickens, His Tragedy and Triumph, by Edgar Johnson, Simon and Schuster 1952), and found a remarkable thing.  Dickens’s first novel was The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club, written — as were most of his novels — as a serial.  He wrote each month about 12,000 words, and this formed a chapter that went into a monthly magazine.


Here’s the rub.  The first four issues — even, for a while, the fifth issue — of The Pickwick Club did miserably.  Johnson reports that things were so bad that even for the fourth installment, which eventually took off, they printed 1500 issues for provincial distribution, and 1450 were returned to the publisher.

Then something happened.  People fell in love with the character of Sam Weller, who appears in the fourth installment.  Word got around.  People started requesting the earlier issues.  And it was all good news from then on.   Eventually, Pickwick was such a sensation that there was even an explosion of Pickwick merchandise (Pickwick hats, Pickwick canes, etc.), along with endless copies, knock-offs, and theatrical piracies.  But for four months, even into the fifth month and installment, Dickens’s novel looked to be a certain failure.  Only a more patient time, and Dickens’s immense force of will, together prevented its cancellation long before its explosive success.

It is hard not to notice that today, The Pickwick Club likely would have been a failure.  The big bookstores would pull a book before it racked up four months of bad sales (suppose, for example, that The Pickwick Club had been intended to appear as a trilogy of volumes, which was also a common practice then).  Sure, a genius like Dickens would try again.  But maybe not with The Pickwick Club, and so a comic masterpiece would be lost.

The economy of art has become accelerated; works must be instantaneously successful.  (Perhaps this is a trend throughout the economy; nowadays, employees are not supposed to be trained, they are supposed to arrive at their job already experts.)  The question, of course, is what might we lose — and what have we already lost — to such demands?

The Master

Today I finished The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and thereby finished a long project to read all 17 of Dickens’s novels.

Dickens is for me the essence of the novel.  I admire most of all his genius for character.  A character speaks two sentences, and you feel you know him, and could pick him out of a crowd.  It’s a mysterious skill, akin to the mystery of Shakespeare’s poetic invention.

Reading the novels together, you also get a sense of a complete world, with surprising insights into human nature, and into its most enduring features.  I was repeatedly  amused by the things that had not changed, how some of our news is not really new at all, but recognizable to the reader of fifteen decades ago.  (Random example:  there is a Bernie-Madoff-like character in Little Dorrit — shockingly like our own Madoff, except that he has the decency to feel guilty in the end.)

I’m sad that there is not another discovery before me, another Dickens novel to be read for the first time.  I have seen the arch of his genius, up to the unfinished termination.  Still:  I can always go back to the Pickwick Club, and begin again. 



To me he shall always be the writer of overflowing exuberance.  Yes, 451 is a masterwork, but I heard his voice clearest in Dandelion Wine, Something Wicked this Way Comes, The Martian Chronicles, and The Illustrated Man.  He created a form of metaphysical fiction by channeling ecstatic wonder.