Singularity

If you are an action philosopher, research happens. If you are human, shit happens. If you are me, it all happens. I just spent a few days pondering the deeper meaning of what may be called discovery and what may be called invention. It is strange because I was not thinking along these lines until somebody pointed me in that direction. I am much more interested in the issue of ownership, in particular knowledge ownership. Nothing new here, I am hard-core when it comes to my favourite ideas, and knowledge ownership is one of those concepts that I just can not shake loose: I want to get to the bottom of this issue. Period.

In a paper by Nick Bostrom – “A History of Transhumanist Thought.” Journal of Evolution and Technology (2005) I found the following citation attributed to Stanislaw Ulam and dating from 1958, that is from about half-century ago:

One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.

Ulam, S. (1958), “John von Neumann 1903-1957”, Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society (May).

If you are interested in transhumanism and its discourse, Bostrom’s article (or any of his writings) does (do) make for a good read. I for my part, at least today, I am interested in that idea so charmingly named as singularity. In my view, we are already in the middle of it, and somehow most of us have failed to register the event.

When it comes to discovery and invention, the plot thickens, and it thickens very fast because in the very technical language of jurists, policy-makers and lawyers there is a distinction between discovery and invention. it is a distinction that leads to the difference between what is private property, and what are public goods. I think that I missed my call along the way, should have been a farmer. All that I can think of now is the archaeological work from long ago in Jordan that had me in involved debates about what constituted Bedouin tribal land and what did not, or why to the dismay of modern technocrats, the Bedouins still have some say in local politics. Now, land is real, it is physical, and although you can not consume land, if it is not properly husbanded then it loses its value as a resource for renewable agricultural goods. (You did wonder where I got my connection to agriculture, did you?)

Again, returning to the matter of knowledge, information and intelligence, add a bit of salt and pepper, and you have the singularity. It is here. What does this mean?

It means that in the two hundred years since Darwin went for a five year spin around the globe on board the Beagle, a whole lot has happened in discovery and invention. I may be wrong on this, but we can not comprehend the extent of our knowledge and information without machine help. Even with machine help, there is much that we do not comprehend, much less understand. We know a few facts, but do we really understand what is going on?

There are facts in what I have observed in the physical world that I certainly can not comprehend or understand, although I am in a position to write down a few lines of theory and a few equations that account for the causality of the phenomenon. That kind of scientific hand-waving still does not mean that I have understood it. It just means that I can invent a plausible narrative to account for the observed. I associate understanding with cognitive processes that involve some form of causality. I understand pain, and that you may or may not enjoy being punched in the face, or have your hair pulled or a knife cut your skin. In this kind of understanding, observation, experience and causality are involved. But do I understand the Pauli exclusion principle? Not really. It is a fact that I have catalogued in my biologically supported information database. The theory behind the Pauli exclusion principle, that is just another set of information, and it is one that is of a different category from the information pertaining to the observed phenomenon.

Only recently did I realize that it has been a mere 200 years since Darwin, and that during his time we had not invented electronic devices, nor had we discovered DNA. We? We – the humans – have discovered these things. When I first sat in genetics and comparative anatomy lectures, to me the idea of evolution was bought wholesale and without putting up a fight, it made perfect sense to me from day one. Mendelian genetics also did not afford me much controversy, and finally I had figured out why my sister had blue eyes and I didn’t. Between peas and Drosophila, there is a whole lot of genetics that we have learned since. We have even sequenced the human genome and then realized that that in itself was but the tip of the iceberg. There is more to the code than inheritance, there is also a whole lot of regulation encoded in the code, and that one we have not yet understood. The transhumanist discourse has now been going on for a few years, and in my view, most transhumanists are a bit short sighted. I get their motivation, that is, their thinking seems transparent enough to me, but it is riddled with belief systems that I suspect to be full of flaws.

Today in another book – John Johnston “The Allure of Machinic Life” – I came across a piece that I found quite appropriate within the context of the relationship between humans and technology.

… Maturana and Varela advance their central claim that “autopoiesis is necessary and sufficient to characterize the organisation of living systems”. … they make two points. First, they argue that since living systems are machines, once their organisation is understood, there is no a priori reason why they can not be reproduced and even designed (by humans). To think otherwise would be to succumb to the “intimate fear” that the awe with which we view life would disappear if we recreated it or to the prejudiced belief that life will always remain inacessible to our understanding.

It could be that Maturana and Varela do not quite do it for you on the scale of intellectual visionaries, but it happens that many of their arguments make some sense to me. The disciplines of biomimetics are exactly all about discovering the organization of living systems, and then reproducing it, even designing variations on nature’s original invention. I happen to think that we do not even need to understand such processes, we just need to be able to reproduce them. Of course understanding the whole, even if with the blind aid of theories, would facilitate the task of designing new living systems. However in my view, this is past the singularity point and it is point right to it. Human affairs have changed immensely in the past two hundred years, and that change has certainly accelerated in the past fifty years since I am around. Our modernity includes life lived with machines at all levels. The unspectacular conscient worms that we are can still survive in the wild, but that too is a dying species, and we may be losing our ability to survive naked on the prairie. Would that be so bad after all?

My only trouble is that invention and discovery are so blurred these days and their definitions so out of date, that I may have more work to do than I had imagined. There is a new kind of literacy that is desperately needed if we are to rise to the challenges of our ever evolving relationship to technology. Any ideas?

(xposted on http://www.unconditon.blogspot.com)

Communication: Cyclying and Disinhibition

It has been several weeks if not months since I last opened up the RSS readers that I have in use including Bloglines, endo, netvibes, and Google Reader. This is a statement that I can safely make with some sort of periodical recurrence. I struggle to not drown in information. Finding what I need is much more important than being bombarded with potentially interesting information. I am starting to think that the key to our information universe is indeed mastering the economics of search. When I need information, I need it fast, and I want it yesterday, not tomorrow. Impatience is often one of my driving forces, or alternatively a great source of frustration.

I find that the excuse of not having time is one of the lamest ever for not doing something. When we want it bad enough, we all find the time for it, and most are willing to totally step out of the space-time narrative to attain that which is desired. I easily get bored or overwhelmed or both with the influx of information coming in my direction in the space-time map. Mind you, I am fascinated by people and some people write very decent copy about topics that I find of interest and relevance, but at this point I am much keener on just plain information, and the people while not relegated to the realm of necessary evil, are not on my top priority. Just as a reminder, I still love animals, human animals included. Then there is the litany of the day having 24 hours and all the things that one must do, and that there is not enough time for it all, etc, etc.. ad nauseam, or what I would call caught in the space-time doldrums.

There is one not so very recent bit that I particularly like from Nicolas Nova, and that contains a few words that I like “Disinhibition with virtual partners…” For those interested in real non-utopic urban spaces, then both Nicolas‘ and Fabien‘s are blogs to keep an eye on. If the hypothesis that I am at present exploring within the jazzy gardens of academia will bring any insights to our understanding of the present technology and our relationship to it, then there is much of surprise to be learned in the interaction between machine and man.

When I say that I do not have the time, it is always the equivalent of using polite language to say that I am either not interested, or that I am not willing to take the responsibility for calling it in any other way. It takes great courage to be able to say that I do not want to this now, or that I do not want to talk with you now. When one human approaches another and asks for attention in the form of time, I do wander what exactly it is that it is being asked. Perhaps it does not matter, for there is no such thing is as the true reason for something, yet reason is something very ingrained in our culture. We either do something or do not do it. Reason is the step-child of causality, and to me it often seems to have been poorly educated among most inhabitants of the planet, or it could be that I am the only and sole being afflicted by this calamity. In my case, when I utter the standard issue “I did not have time” then it is either that I totally forgot or that I just am not keen on the task for whatever reason, and more often than not I may not even know what that reason is, it is just something along the lines of “I do not feel like doing this now” or it is that the task luring and not beaconing at me in the future has, for all its projected magnificence, lost all appeal in my mind’s eye. I remember spending summers during my school years in the house library reading books from cover to cover while other kids were out getting into normal kinds of trouble. I would go out towards the late afternoon and then would roam the fields alone as most of the time there were no peers nearby, or those that were nearby did not share my very strange world. If I was not at the country house with said library during the summer, then I was at the beach and with it in a totally different social setting where I tended once more to be the odd one too young for the wilder escapades of my cousins and too odd otherwise. Strange to me now is that although there were always people around, it seems that I chose to be alone regardless of the social setting. In this respect, there is not much that has changed in my life and that is perhaps what I find so fascinating about engaging with virtual partners. I have done this for the whole of my life, and I have often done this in written. I talk to the walls and my computer, I talk to the trees, and I scream at the ocean.

At this point I do not know how the cycling got into the title of this little note, but somehow it seemed relevant when I wrote the first sentences of this a few weeks back. Communication beyond the space-time map has been on the back of my mind quite a bit lately, it happens to be an area that I am researching now. Somehow it all has something to do with entanglement, the big bang and why the Higgs may remain enigmatic.

Death and Others

As I write this there was just one day last week when I thought that after I lay down, I may never wake up. I had a very minor accident and the accompanying strong headache that followed as a result of a mild concussion fed into my awareness that life is finite, that one day I will die and that that day may have just arrived. Mid-afternoon and with no drugs, I laid down, slept the sleep of the innocent and carefree and then woke up when a friend was at my door expecting dinner. Dinner had to wait, and I was alive.

However for some odd reason, death has been very present in my life this year. At one point I bumped into a colleague in the bus and casually asked her how she was. I was not ready for the answer, her husband had just died, she was returning from her sister’s who happens to live around the corner. All I could do was take her into my arms. I could not really imagine what it is like to loose a husband, but I could imagine what it is like to loose a good and dear friend, or a member of the family. When the freshman class at CMU is given the assignment to read Randy Pausch’s Last Lecture, then all of a sudden, brutal or inconsiderate as it may seem, death is about life. It is a call to go for your dreams, and it is a reminder of what the nature of nature is.

At this point theoretical man is on my top priority list, or if I had the say, it would be my top priority. If I think of death, it is my own death that I rarely thing about as that to me is easy because after that event, there will nothing that I will have to do or think about and I am not inclined to dwelling on what those surviving me will have to deal with. Last year at one point I declared to a friend of mine that if I were to die that day, I would die happy. It is a remarkable claim given the very fact that the word happy seldom computes in my world, but then I do live in a world that explores the very limitations of words. Happy is one of those words whose meaning I often question, interrogate and massage while often the yield of these efforts to conclude that there is some form of emptiness to the word. I have experienced immense joy and something that I would want to label ecstasy, but happiness? What is happiness other than the grand Utopia?

Why is it that I think that I do not have the say when it comes to what my priorities are? When last year I first saw the video of Randy Pausch’s last lecture I run a mental inventory of my own dreams and those that I have brought to bear on reality. The score is good, very good, and often I tend to forget how very good the score is and then all sorts of drama surfaces in my narrative. I have however no particular attachment to drama, but do have a great deal of curiosity as to what the nature of nature is and within it, what the nature of man is. I postulate that one aspect of human nature is man’s ability to abstract, conceptualize and theorize.

A few weeks ago a casual friend confided that he often goes through depression phases when he totally shuts out the world and that in him then all is rather dark and that he finds himself in a place inaccessible to others around him. I am not one prone to believing every word of confidence that I hear, however in this case I am willing to assume that this may indeed be as I was told. Intimate interactions, or that which is told in confidence when two humans interact is always fascinating as it reveals detailed aspects of human nature and communication. Depression of any kind is not really what is considered an acceptable conversation topic outside of the clinical and private spheres, much less within a context of technology. The confidence took me by surprise, yet I was curious as to what drives somebody to make such a confidence in a crowded hallway. Am I just asking what it is that attracts one man to another?

Why are humans so susceptible to suggestion? Are other animals equally susceptible to suggestion? What drives the suggestion susceptibility? What does any of this have to do with death or what attracts one man to another? How do any of these questions connect to those dreams that we are all born with?

Many years ago I got to read the novel Das Parfum (1981) by Patrick Süskind. My reading of that novel within the then context of my life has in itself all the great elements of what could de turned into fascinating narrative. Like it often happens to great literature, I get so involved and overwhelmed, that often I can not finish reading the story. There is a Swiss writer whose word-craft seems magic to me, and each time that I sit down to read his work, I get so entrained in his words that I can not proceed with the reading. This is for me the power of words, and how I deal with the books that one of my neighbours writes.

Death is just the only certainty that I do not yet know.