Monday, February 14, 2011

Singularity Stuff.

Thanks to David Regan for sending me a link to this article about the ‘singularity’. I agree with a lot of what is being said here, like, for example, that technological development is exponential and that Moore’s Law doesn’t just apply to the number of transistors on a microchip. However, this all smells of science-as-religion.

Don’t worry, look at these graphs, everything is going to get all better. Or, Jesus will return and sort everything out.

Our technology is also developing in all sorts of areas, whilst in others nothing has changed and in some cases things are regressing. Yes, we have nuclear reactors and fusion cannot be so far in the future, but all around me people are building fucking windmills. Yes, we can create high-producing GM crops, we have powerful specific insecticides and herbicides and machines that can do the work of hundreds of farm workers of a previous age, whilst lunatics are advocating organic farming that couldn’t feed more than a third of the population we presently have. Yes, we have every kind of contraception possible, even long-lasting implants, but the world population is still heading for seven billion. Yes, we are coming to understand what happened in first few seconds of the big bang, but billions on this planet think some beardy fella in the sky is in charge.

I shan’t belabour the point.

Yes, technological development is fast, but the impact of it is subverted by politics, by religion, and it is undermined by fear and subjected to the drag of human stupidity.

All that being said, I found this very interesting:

For example, it's well known that one cause of the physical degeneration associated with aging involves telomeres, which are segments of DNA found at the ends of chromosomes. Every time a cell divides, its telomeres get shorter, and once a cell runs out of telomeres, it can't reproduce anymore and dies. But there's an enzyme called telomerase that reverses this process; it's one of the reasons cancer cells live so long. So why not treat regular non-cancerous cells with telomerase? In November, researchers at Harvard Medical School announced in Nature that they had done just that. They administered telomerase to a group of mice suffering from age-related degeneration. The damage went away. The mice didn't just get better; they got younger.


vaudeviewgalor raandisisraisins said...

communism was supposed to even shit out too. it meant a really beautiful Kalashnikov making music with KGB info and some dark crowded prisons.

if you've read his books this guy takes about a hundred vitamins a day and has some i.v. drip of health once a week at least. hopeful is the key word here.
my lectures go like this: expect MAKE ROOM MAKE ROOM, SHEEP LOOK UP, and more PKD-->1984.

thats me, run over reptile.

Neal Asher said...

Population of 18 billion in The Departure. We're all modern Malthusians if we have any sense, though my answer is always: let's get off the fucking planet!

vaudeviewgalor raandisisraisins said...

oh ya, the mice who drank the wine i think had to be bred with a predisposition to accept the telomere super stranding as heard on tv from a guy who worked with the mice.

they probably didnt care for marlboros.

vaudeviewgalor raandisisraisins said...

might be good educate the human race on population blowback before handing over another planet to wipe with.

Departure II: ELECTRIC GARBAGECHUTE might be the book to do it.

FUTURE SHOCK almost had an impact in the 70s.

eddlemsg said...

I don't know if Kurzweil's and Vinge's Singularitarians are worshippers at the altar of science or not, there just doesn't seem to be much of the cultish atmosphere that most organized or even disorganized religions seem to genertate.
It seems more like what I would expect to hear from Star Trek convention goers. Then again I have heard the Singularity described as "Rapture of the Nerds" so perhaps they might drift off into the pure fantasy of the Scientologists.
I just wish De Grey would get moving on curing the ills of old age my machine is falling apart and needs a overhaul!

Neal Asher said...

eddlemsg, blackmarket teleomerase, it's the only answer.

Ben said...

PZ's got a good take down on Ray's techno over-optimism:

Nuno said...

Hey, you're the one that talks about AI minds, golems, augs and other strange stuff, maybe the concept of singularity is not that far away in your fiction? (only read Gridlinked and received Prador Moon less than a week ago, so don't know if you broached it in your other novels...).

By 2045 population will probably be 9 billion, stabilizing.

Anyway, just hope to live until 68 to see if those singular minds can do some kind of miracle on my aging body -- and I surely hope it's a lot more than a super anti wrinkle cream.

Neal Asher said...

Good article that, Ben. Lot's of quite familiar and quite relevant points:

"He loves to tell everyone what's wrong with his critics, but he doesn't actually address the criticisms."

"Kurzweil hasn't demonstrated that there is exponential growth at play here."

That is, exponential curves can stop and change direction for all sorts of reasons.

"In case he hadn't noticed, human sociology and politics shows no sign of being on an exponential trend towards greater wisdom."

Nuno, I recollect once getting cornered by a woman at a party who wanted to talk to me about UFOs. I was an SF writer so surely I believed? The mistake here is not to realise that SF writers like science and are often very pragmatic and realistic. I write about a fantastical future, and I'm sure a fantastical future will come, though certainly not my version of it nor for a long time yet.

Will people be immortal? Yes. Soon? No. I've got acne rosacea and there is no cure in sight - a spotty face that some drugs work to alleviate, yet the 'scientists' don't know why, because they don't know what it is. It's a very big leap from a world full of this kind of shit to immortality in 35 years.

Niall Kearney said...

Are windmills regressive? They're an off-shoot of progress in nuclear reactors and other power plants. All we do with fission is boil water to make steam to drive a turbine. It makes me wonder if all we'll do with fusion is boil more water.

Graeme said...

It's all there for the unpicking. Pity we won't live long enough to see it.

Ryan said...

Kurzweil is a crazy spin man. His exponential graphs consist of plotting things like writing, semaphore and drawing an exponential line between them whilst never showing why that is valid (or even any link).

Technology does seem to progress exponentially but that isn't a guaranty and as has been pointed out some things stop. The top speed and average lifetime distance that humans can travel was roughly constant for the whole of time until the last couple of hundred years where trains, planes and automobiles became ubiquitous. In 1900 the fastest man could go was by train, by 1935 we had flying machines wizzing around, by 1970 we had been to the moon, by 2005...not much more.

Tech devo only appears exponential, in reality different fields behave like a sigmoid curve. Moores law will probably go the same way as the shrinking of transistors can only go a few steps more. Then we will have to switch to designing different architectures (3d?), different materials (graphene?), better software or maybe totally different science (quantum computers?)

p.s. telomerase isnt a magic bullet for ageing, there are many other causes of aging besides telomere length. excess telomerase also causes cancers (its one of the principle reasons why cancer cells are immortal). I havent read the paper published by the recent mouse project yet but i have a heavy suspicion of media spin on that one, experiments have been done before with turning the telomerase gene on and it generally just causes cells to not die and become tumorous

Neal Asher said...

Niall, nuclear, coal and gas fired power stations all keep on working when the wind stops. They also don't soak up as much land and don't require as much conventional back-up because they don't often stop. They also don't require massive tax payer subsidies to make them anywhere near feasible. Yes, they are regressive.

I'd just like to see a man on Mars in my lifetime, Graeme.

Yes, I know about teleomerase, Ryan - you can't simply find one cure for aging (like cancer) because it isn't just one disease.

Ryan said...

My biggest criticism of the singularity especially ala kurzweil is the assumptions made about exponential development.

For example, kurzweil is constantly trying to compare the brain to a computer (whilst displaying little knowledge of neuroscience). Then he makes a number and says "today's laptops are only a thousandth of the power of the human brain, in 20 years of exponential development they will be as powerful and 20 years after that a thousand times as powerful until eventually he decrees that by early 2100 a laptop will have the power of the sum total of humans ever lived.

He pays no attention to the limits of computation and especially no attention to the fact that hardware=/=software. Even if we could make a computer capable of simulating gigabrains we have no idea of how to do that.

This coupled with the strange unjustified assumption that in a few decades we will have nanomagicbots capable of infiltrating our brain and copying us onto these computers makes the big "S" just religion with technobabble

thatsskarwithak said...

There is some very good development being down in "portable" nuclear reactors, basically self contained, arrive in a concrete block and plug into the town grid and take away after 20 years.

There is plenty of room for different power solutions, but if they aren't given a helping hand then they never come to nothing.

Would we have had nuclear power so soon, if it hadn't been weaponised first?

Nuno said...

Neal, I'm fully aware of that commonly made mistake (you even mentioned it a long time ago), my comment was on the literary side, ie, have you used that concept, and is it interesting for you?

I think the technological development is, in some field and over specific periods, roughly exponential, and is driven mainly by bursts. Take the physics example: prior to 1900, physicists thought that their work was pretty much completed, just a bit of fine-tunning needed. Enter Planck, Einstein, Heisenberg, Schrödinger et al., and physics experienced a huge burst, spawning a whole new range of fields that made possible virtually all the technology we use today. Maybe we're now in the rightmost asymptotic part of the sigmoid curve Ryan mentioned, and we need a new burst to get us on a new rising. Maybe that burst will come from computing, genetic engineering or from nanotechnology. We may be on the verge of radical changes, or we may stay much like this for the next 100 years, with just somewhat better toys. Who knows?...

Neal Asher said...

'religion with technobabble' which was precisely my point Ryan. I've been sensitized to that over the last ten or so years and people have written lots about it. Michael Crichton springs to mind.

Yes, I've been reading bits and pieces about portable reactors over on Next Big future, Skar.

Nuno, yes I am interested in it and I have written about it. One example is at the bottom of page 58 in Polity Agent (the hard back) when Blegg is chatting to the Atheter AI.

Neal Asher said...

"There is plenty of room for different power solutions, but if they aren't given a helping hand then they never come to nothing."

'anything' not 'nothing'

I have to add, in the case of wind power, that subsidising something inefficient so that it doesn't have to compete is hardly likely to lead to it being developed. A prime example is here:

Ryan said...

One of the founding ideas about the singularity is the proposal that if we could make computer program that is exactly the same as the human brain in no time at all we can make it vastly better through;
chucking more computers at it to make it run faster
storing previous memory states on separate hardrives so it can never forget
allowing it the ability to copy and paste itself to create a large workforce
allowing it to edit itself so that it can be automatically motivated, never get tired etc etc

At this point weve got a weak superhuman intelligence. Its better than us but theres nothing about it we can't understand given enough time. The big S arises when that WSI designs its replacement which goes on to design its replacement etc etc with each subsequent generation being faster and more capable than the last until we have a strong superhuman intelligence that operates as differently to us as we do to a fly.

It is an interesting idea in that respect but it seems to leave out the fact that physical research has too be done. Sure a WSI can come to conclusions and learn things far faster than a bog standard human but ask it a question that requires research and it is going to need a teleoperated lab to do anything. That may completely slow the idea down

Ryan said...

p.s this is why I LOVE Jerusalem as one of my favourite characters in any story. The idea of a super powerful AI running a mountain sized lab complex sounds like my ideal desire for the future.

eddlemsg said...

Here is another anti-aging discovery.

Although the article touts it as a possible cure for human baldness, the research was aimed at curing age related intestinal tract problems. Which it apparently does along with other age related benefits.