Accelerando II

Were it merely the case that all Charles Stross was offering in his novel Accelerando was a kind of critique of contemporary economic trends veiled in an exquisitely Swiftian story the book would be interesting enough, but what he gives us transcends that. What it offers up is a model for how technological civilizations might evolve which manages to combine the views of several of his predecessors in a fascinating and unique way.

Underlying Stross’s novel is an idea of how technological civilizations develop known as the Kardashev scale.  It is an idea put forward by the Russian physicists Nikolai Kardashev in the early 1960s. Kardashev postulated that civilizations go through different technological phases based on their capacity to tap energy resources. A Type I civilization is able to tap the equivalent of the solar radiation present its home planet, and he thought that civilization as of 1964 had reached that level. A Type II civilization in his scheme is able to tap an amount of energy equivalent to the amount put out by its parent star, and a Type III civilization able to tap the energy equivalent to its entire galaxy. Type IV and Type V civilizations able to tap the energy of the entire universe or even multiverse have been speculated upon that would transcend even the scope of Kardashev’s broad vision.  Civilizations of this scale and power would indeed be little different from gods, and in fact would be more powerful than any god human beings have ever imagined.

Kardashev lays most of his argument out in an article On the Inevitability and Possible Structures of Supercivilizations.   It is a fascinating piece, and I encourage you to follow the link and check it out. The article was published in 1984, a poignant year given Orwell’s dystopia, and at the apex of the Second Cold War, with tensions running high between the superpowers. Kardashev, of course, has no idea that within a few short years the Soviet Empire will be no more. Beneath his essay one can find lurking certain Marxist assumptions about technological capacity and the cult of bigness. He seems to think that the dynamic of civilization will require bigger and bigger solutions to problems, and that there is no natural limit to how big such solutions could become. Technological civilizations could expand indefinitely and would re-engineer the solar system, galaxy, or even the universe to their purposes.

Yet, this “bigger is better” ideology is just that, an ideology, not a truth. It is the ideology that led the Soviets to pump out more and more steel without asking themselves “steel for what?” The idea of throwing more and more resources at a problem might have saved Russia during the Second World War, but in its aftermath it resulted in an extremely complex and inefficient machine that was beyond the capacity of intelligent direction, which ultimately proved itself incapable of providing a standard of living on par with the West. We are, thankfully, no longer enthralled to such gigantism.

Stross, for his part, does not challenge these assumptions, but rather build’s his story upon them.  Three other ideas serve as the prominent backdrop of the story: Dyson Sphere’s, Matrioshka Brains, and the Singularity. Let me take each in turn.

In Accelerando, as human civilization rapidly advances towards the Singularity it deconstructs the inner planets and constructs a series of spheres around the sun in order to capture all of the sun’s energy. These, so called, Dyson Sphere’s are an idea Stross borrows from the physicist Freeman Dyson, an idea that Kardashev directly cites in his On the Inevitability and Possible Structures of Supercivilizations.  Dyson developed his idea back in 1960 in his article Search for Artificial Stellar Sources of Infra-Red Radiation, which proposed 24 years before Kardashev, that one of the best ways to find extraterrestrial intelligence would be to look for signs that solar systems had undergone similar sorts of engineering.  Dyson himself found the inspiration for his sphere’s in Olaf Stapledon’s brilliant 1937 novel Star Maker, which was one of the first novels to tackle the question of the evolution of technological society and the universe.

A second major idea that serves as a backdrop of Stross’s novel is that of a Matrioshka Brain. This was an idea proposed by the computer scientist and longevity proponent, Robert Bradbury, who in sad irony, died in 2011 at the early age of 54. It is also rather telling and tragic that in light of his dream of eventually uploading his mind into the eternal electronic cloud, all of the links I could find to his former longevity focused entity Aeiveos appear to be dead links, seeming evidence that our personhood really does remain embodied and disappears with the end of the body.

Matrioshka Brains builds off of the idea of Dyson Spheres, but while the point of the latter is to extract energy the point of the former is to act as vast spheres of computation nestled one inside the other like the Russian dolls after which the Matrioshka Brain is named. In Accelerando, human-machine civilization has deconstructed the inner planets not just to capture energy, but to serve as computers of massive scale.

Both of these ideas, Dyson Sphere’s and Matrioshka Brain put me in mind of the idea of the crystal spheres which the ancients imagined surrounded and circled the earth and held the planets and stars. It would be the greatest of ironies if the very science which had been born when men such as Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo overthrew this conception of the cosmos gave rise to an engineered solar system that resembled it.

The major backdrop of Accelerando is, of course, the movement of human begun technological civilization towards the Singularity. In essence the idea of the Singularity is that at some point the intelligence of machines that originated with human technological civilization will eventually exceed human intelligence. Just as human beings were able to design machines that were smarter than themselves, machines will be able to design machines smarter than themselves, and this process will accelerate to an increasing degree with the time between the creation of one level of intelligence and the next falling to shorter and shorter intervals.  At some point the reality that emerges from this growth of intelligence becomes unimaginable to current human intelligence- like a slug trying to understand humanity and its civilization. This is the point of the singularity- an idea Vernor Vinge in his 1993 article The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era, borrowed from the physics of black holes. It is the point over the event horizon over which no information can pass.

If you follow any link in this article I would highly recommend that you read Vinge’s piece, for unlike the optimist Ray Kurzweil, Vinge is fully conscious of the existential risks that the Singularity poses and the philosophical questions it raises.

Stross’s novel, in its own wonderful way, also raises, but does not grapple, with these risks and questions. They remain for us to think our way through before our thinking is done for us.

Koestler, Kurzweil, Wakefulness

I first looked into the work of Arthur Koestler after I had heard that he had something particularly interesting to say about Pythagoras.  Koestler is one of those writers who, sadly, lies largely forgotten. This is striking given that he was one of the most popular writers of the mid-20th century, and showed a degree of versatility almost unheard of today, writing not only the great anti-Stalinists novel Darkness at Noon, but also penetrating works on the history of science such as The Sleepwalkers.  The value of the man’s work is obscured not just by forgetfulness, but by personal scandal, the most damning of which is an allegation of rape by the wife of Koestler’s friend. An allegation, it must be said, that was made after Koestler had died, and against which he, therefore, was never able to defend himself.

For anyone interested the CBC has a detailed biography of Koestler over at IDEAS.

There are several lessons that can be taken away from The Sleepwalkers, written in the 1950s, that are extremely relevant to the present, most especially when one applies the insight of Koestler with those of a current mystic/scientist- Ray Kurzweil.

Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers reminds us of the spiritual origins of science. This was the case with Pythagoras, who was the first person to conceive of the universe as a mathematical model, right down through Kepler and Newton who were both on a spiritual quest to uncover the “mind of God”.

Koestler also brings to our attention the zig-zag nature of what we would call progress.  There are long dark spells in the history of human knowledge such that “the world in 1500 knew less mathematics than at the time of Archimedes “, and also long plateaus where nothing really interesting seems to happen.   Periods of progress are the exception not the norm, though such periods can be spectacular in how they revolutionize human life.

If we step back to take in the big picture we do indeed see something like an almost linear advance of human knowledge and power over nature the progress from “cavemen to spacemen” in Koestler’s corny characterization.  What we do not see, and this was something that would have been especially apparent to Koestler writing just after the horror-show of World War II, is anything like a corresponding moral progress of human kind.  In fact, periods of the greatest technological and scientific advancement also saw the greatest extension of human cruelty.  And it is this technical progress coupled with moral immaturity that Koestler sees as our greatest danger.

What does all of this have to do with Ray Kurzweil? Well, Kurzweil is the best known prophet of what is known as the Singularity- a distinction which won him a profile in Time Magazine a few years back. The Singularity movement essentially holds that the exponential growth in computer power will eventually result in machines that match and then quickly exceed human intelligence.  This world of post-human intelligence will solve the perennial problems that are now largely in the realm of religion- especially the problem of death. Human beings will be able to integrate themselves with superior machine intelligences, and be able to avoid death by uploading to a digital “cloud”.

Kurzweil is like an Al Gore from the other- side of the sun. He is famous for his slideshows and graphs which show exponential progress of almost everything, but especially the ability of computers. Exponential curves grow very slowly at first and then explode with incredible impact, like the proverbial lilies on a pond that seem to cover almost none of the water until their final set of doublings where they expand to cover everything.  By the middle of this century technological progress will become so rapid and so overwhelming that we will leap into a post-human world seeming overnight.

Members of the Singularity movement certainly bear a striking resemblance to the mystic-scientists of Koestler’s imagining- the very people who gave birth to the scientific world-view in the first place.  It would be a colossal mistake to dismiss Singularians as a bunch of sci-fi addicted kooks. Kurzweil himself is a genius inventor and the figures of some of the very largest tech companies, such as Sergey Brin at Google, are disciples of the movement. Indeed some of the best and brightest in the fields of computer and genetic science are consciously pursuing the religious goals that are at the root of the Singularity movement.

Believers in the Singularity will be the first to insist that theirs is not a utopian movement, which is the best give away that we are dealing with a true utopian line of thought. Indeed, from where I sit, it is hard to see the Singularity as anything less than the mother of all utopias with its promise of immortality, universal abundance, machine sentience, and omniscient intelligence. Like other utopian ideologies we’ve seen before Singularians exhibit a weird mix of determinism and human freedom. The Singularity is said to be written in the stars, the destiny of the universe once intelligent life emerges, and at the same time is relentlessly pursued by individual inventors and thinkers.

The Sleepwalkers should provide a cautionary tale for true believers in the Singularity. Koestler makes us aware of the non-linear nature of progress when viewed in the time frame of an individual life, and even centuries. Sometimes humanity gets stuck and just spins its wheels, and even lurches backward. In fact, some of the best critics of the assumptions regarding the current rates of progress held by Singularians today comes from the school that might be called “where is my jetpack?!” These thinkers argue that not only has present realty failed to live up to all of the hype from the middle of the last century- instead of bases on Mars and cold fusion we have the iPhone- but that the very lack of technological progress is the true source of our current economic ills. There is mounting evidence that we may have even hit a plateau in terms of scientific discovery.

Singularians appear almost fanatically driven by the desire to make their vision come true right now. One wonders why someone would push so hard to reach what they consider an inevitable destination, especially where trying to get there so fast potentially puts humanity in such grave danger- how could the earth possibly survive if people physically lived, not just a century, but centuries, and under conditions of hyper-abundance? What will people do to sustain themselves if we ever actually do manage to create sentient machines? And these are only material questions, the moral questions aren’t dealt with at all including the existential value of the fact that we die, so beautifully articulated by one of the few giants of the tech industry who didn’t believe in the Singularity- Steve Jobs.  One wonders, what is the rush?  Only to realize the hurry is because of the fact that the Singularians themselves hope to defeat death. They are terrified of death, in fact so terrified they are willing to risk humanity itself so that they personally will not have to die.

And this is another thing that The Sleepwalkers points out to us. That technical and scientific knowledge does not entail our moral development- quite the opposite. That technological change, especially rapid technological change, seems to go hand in hand with the periods when human beings treat each other the worst from Iron Age warfare, to the religious wars fueled by the Guttenberg printing press, to the industrial revolution and total war.  For Koestler we were at a crossroads hurtling towards utopia or dystopia, and The Sleepwalkers was meant as a warning.  He wrote:

Thus within the foreseeable future, man will either destroy himself or take off for the stars. It is doubtful whether reasoned argument will play a role in the ultimate decision, but if it does, a clearer insight into the evolution of the ideas that led us to the current predicament perhaps may serve of some value.

(It) may serve as a cautionary tale against the hubris of science, or rather, the philosophical outlook based on it.

Our hypnotic enslavement to the numerical aspects of reality has dulled our perception of non-quantitative moral value: the resultant end-justifies-the-means ethics may be a major factor in our undoing.

(Koestler hoped his tale) may have some sobering effect on the worshipers of the new Baal lording it over the moral vacuum with his electronic brain.  *

Perhaps we could have avoided all the carnage and dislocation that occurred in past periods of technological change had we kept our wits about us and thought things through before we acted.  Kurzweil himself has acknowledged that there may be some “bumps in the road” as we approach the Singularity, but working as a consultant for the US Military, and founding a “university” in search of ways to contain the ill effects of a reality he himself is trying to create seems a little like sub-contracting out strategies for climate change adaptation to Exxon-Mobile.

Kurweil himself does not believe in regulating technology. The future is for the technologist not the government to decide. But to the extent that in a democracy we are the government he leaves no role for all of us to have a say in the future world that both we and our children will inhabit.

I have no idea how we might choose our technology in a way that has never been done before, in a reflective way, but I do know one thing, while I may not have time, we have time to think about what we are doing before we cross what may be very dangerous thresholds- we have the chance to finally cease being sleepwalkers and wakeup.

* The Sleepwalkers, 1959, Arthur Koestler, pp. 552-553