The cover of the April 28 issue of the Economist magazine boldly trumpets “the coming wireless revolution.” Only a fraction of the ten billion or so microprocessors sold around the world can “talk” to the Internet or to other appliances by way of embedded wireless technology, according to the issue’s 14-page special report. All that will soon change, hence the “revolution” is at hand.
Ho hum, another revolution. How many does that make now? Those Americans and other “first worlders” born in the 20th century have grown accustomed to expecting such technological paradigm shifts, from computers to cognitive neuroscience, from broadband to biotech. At least part of the reason we’ve become so jaded about technological change is that pop futurologists, and writers of science fiction, have made us so.
Not that the power of futurology and science fiction derives from accuracy. If you grew up reading “hard” science fiction—fiction, that is, that attempts to remain consistent with the best science fact available at the time—you probably feel cheated out of the “Jetsons” future you were promised. In the 1960s, Larry Niven began publishing the Known Space stories, his thousand-year future-history arc recounting the manned exploration and conquest of the solar system in the 20th and 21st centuries, followed in the next centuries by widespread interstellar colonization. Yet while reality has failed to meet expectations like these so far, it has exceeded other forecasts. One of the first things a contemporary reader notices when perusing, say, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series or the works of Robert Heinlein, is how positively stone-age their computers seem. Here we have a star-spanning human empire of tens of millions of worlds, all in a constant state of trade and communication with one another—globalization on a galactic scale—and its denizens still consider clunky pocket calculators and Wang mainframe behemoths to be top-notch tech.
It doesn’t matter: Aside from Jules Verne’s uncanny accuracy at forecasting things like submarines and rapid global transportation, accurate prediction has never really been science fiction’s strong suit. So what can it offer? Isaac Asimov put it best when he wrote that it is a literature which “can first, and most important, accustom the reader to the notion of change. The force of change . . . is the essence of our society.” Alvin Toffler succinctly called it “the sovereign prophylactic against future shock.”
The most typical method of science fiction storytelling has been to take changes in one aspect of society, or in a few converging aspects, press the fast-forward button and imagine the result, a process known as naive extrapolation. Thus, for instance, what if our capacity to manipulate our own biological natures advanced far beyond our present capabilities (Brave New World)? What if we were able to create artificial life (Frankenstein; 2001: A Space Odyssey; Neuromancer)? What if nanotechnology virtually eliminated material scarcity (The Diamond Age)?
All of these extrapolations deal with a set of discrete variables artificially bounded off from other variables by authorial fiat. But what if, instead of talking about the social or political effects of only one or a few advances at a time, we were to speculate about how humanity would adapt to an accelerating rate of change across the board of technological innovation? That is precisely what those who have been writing about the “Technological Singularity” have been doing now for more than a decade.
The notion of a Singularity has been variously defined. Vernor Vinge, computer scientist and science fiction author, is usually credited with coining the term in the early 1980s (though the concept of a technological explosion has been around since at least the 1950s). He defined the Singularity as the point in time at which a human-equivalent artificial intelligence comes into being that is in turn capable of designing thinking machines that surpass even itself. In his 1993 essay “The Coming Technological Singularity”, Vinge wrote that shortly after this time “the human era will be ended” as machine intelligence begins to advance on a logarithmic scale, eventually making our savannah-ape-derived meatbrains look like a tapeworm’s nerve cluster by comparison. The date for the human apocalypse? “I’d be surprised if this event occurs before 2005 or after 2030”, he says.
Futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil has become perhaps the most prolific popularizer and booster of the idea of the fast-approaching irrelevance of humanity, writing several non-fiction essays and books on the subject (The Age of Intelligent Machines, The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity Is Near, to name a few). Like Vinge, he expects that human-equivalent artificial intelligence will arise within the next generation (he places it at 2027), but predicts a date of 2045 or so for a Singularity.
The Singularity comes later in Kurzweil’s estimation because he takes his definition a little further than simply machine intelligence. Essentially, he extrapolates the exponential increases described by Moore’s Law, which predicts roughly that computer processor speed will double every 24 months, and applies it beyond computer technology into all fields—especially genetics, nanotech and robotics. The Singularity thus becomes the point at which the rate of technological change becomes so great as to represent a complete rupture with all past human societies. Just as the gravitational point source of a black hole is supposedly forever hidden from us by its event horizon, beyond which nothing, not even light, can escape, there’s really no telling what the world will be like on the other side of the Singularity.
The Rapture for Nerds
That hasn’t stopped a slew of science fiction authors from trying. Vernor Vinge’s novel Marooned in Realtime explores the event by means of characters locked away in stasis fields (sort of like time capsules) who awaken to a world whose post-Singularity inhabitants have long since fled for unknown transcendent realms. The novels of Greg Egan and Corey Doctorow also touch on many Singularity themes. In The Cassini Division, Ken MacLeod tagged the Singularity with the humorous yet telling moniker, “the rapture of the nerds.” Charles Stross’ Accelerando, however, is the quintessential novel of the Singularity genre. His tale hones in on the heart of the matter—dealing with an accelerating rate of technological change—more directly and ingeniously than the others.
Stross initially conceived Accelerando in the late 1990s while working in the British software industry, jury-rigging computer code to negotiate credit card software through the inane peculiarities of the British and French banking systems. His business was expanding by 30 percent every month and new technologies were arising continuously to re-shape the economy. The stress pushed him to the edge of a nervous breakdown. Unwinding on the streets of Amsterdam during a vacation one weekend, Stross had an epiphany:
I got far enough away from the coal seam to blink, look at it in amazement, and ask once more the classic science fictional question, what happens if this goes on? What happens if you keep piling on the changes? What kind of person can actually live on the edge of a singularity, keeping pace while all around them the world is melted down and re-forged monthly, daily, hourly?
Thus Stross conceived the character of Manfred Macx, who lives at the threshold of the Singularity, in a near-future world that is at least technologically fathomable from the perspective of our own. The space business has just grown into its adolescence, with hotels and industry in low-earth orbit but little beyond. Researchers have begun experimenting with uploading complete neural-state simulations of lobsters into networked supercomputers, followed by more complex animals. Some nations have splintered, while others have formed supranational entities. The free market is triumphant.
Manfred, like Stross himself, is a former dot-com hustler and a “venture altruist” who spawns “three new paradigm shifts before breakfast every day”, which he eagerly releases into the public domain. Manfred isn’t rich, but money is no problem for him. Though his open-source policy means he receives no direct payment for his ideas, he has made so many individuals and businesses wealthy that they supply him with a steady stream of goods and services gratis, just to keep him concentrated on churning out ideas.
Manfred is also an aspiring post-human, dividing his consciousness between the real world and an “exocortex” of computers, sewn into the lining of his clothes, that augment his meatbrain and keep him constantly plugged into the Internet via a pair of souped-up virtual-reality sunglasses. His constant efforts to stay current come at a cost, however. Waking up each morning, he feels out of step, six hours behind the curve of relentless progress, the pace of which has been accelerating perceptibly even as he slept. When a mugger robs Manfred of his v-r glasses, his umbilicus to the Internet, he can barely remember his name. This portrait should hardly seem alien to the present-day reader: Pull the plug on an average office worker’s access to Google and he may suddenly find it difficult to work, think or even function at all. (Remember the breathless headlines from last April? “Major Blackberry Outages Leave Millions Without Email”—oh, the humanity.)
Character sketches like these—periodic snapshots up to and past the Singularity—constitute the core of the novel. Accelerando is thin on plot, but it works as a novel because the snapshots are compelling. Stross’ goal is to recreate for the reader what it’s like to live at the edge of the Singularity, when the pace of change outstrips anyone’s ability to cope. His main weapon in accomplishing this is the massive info-dump. On nearly every page, words and concepts from the cutting edge of science, art, law, politics, culture, mathematics and pop culture slap the reader across the face—from “ackles”, “agalmics” and “anarcho-capitalism” to “slashdotting”, “small-world network” and “strange attractor.” There’s even an online technical companion for the novel that offers a fairly exhaustive explanation of terms and concepts, but reading that would be missing the point: The effect of all this new or half-understood terminology is akin to having the grey matter scooped out of your skull and spread over a circuitboard like Nutella. Like Stross the burnt-out dot-com worker, or Manfred living on the eve of the Singularity, we’re supposed to feel overwhelmed.
Accelerando began life as a short story about Manfred, but the notion of accelerating change proved too rich to be contained in a tale about only one generation. So the story moves from Manfred in the early decades of this century to his daughter, Amber, in its middle decades.
Appropriately for a story about accelerating change, the differences between Amber’s society and Manfred’s are even greater than the distance between Manfred’s and his parents’. In Amber’s world, human-equivalent artificial intelligences are now reality, not theory. Manfred’s crude, computer-laden clothing and v-r glasses have given way to true mind-machine interfaces. Advances in genetics, nanotech and robotics have made not just fabulous wealth but good looks, intelligence and immortality into unalienable rights. And communism is back: Thanks to some of Manfred’s earlier innovations, an economic system has evolved whereby semi-autonomous corporate and legal entities now adjust for the inefficiencies of a command economy, much like computers today make constant adjustments to the flight controls of a highly advanced yet inherently unstable modern fighter jet.
Amber’s story concerns her and her crew’s expedition in an interstellar light-sail ship to investigate a presumed alien message received from a nearby star. Amber’s ship is unlike anything from Asimov, Heinlein or Clarke: It’s a coke-can-sized chunk of “computronium”, which is matter optimized at the atomic level to act as a mega-computer. This computer runs a virtual-reality simulation program, à la The Matrix, into which Amber and her crew have uploaded their consciousnesses, leaving their real-life, “meatspace” copies behind in our solar system.
Their mission is to make contact with a post-Singularity alien civilization, one that has taken the unrelenting logic of Moore’s Law and the inexhaustible need for computer processing power to an extreme. Such a civilization, we are told, eventually finds it necessary to disassemble all of the “dumb” matter of its home solar system—planets, moons, asteroids and all—to construct a Matrioshka brain. Matrioshka brains, like the Russian dolls-within-dolls after which they are named, are giant, ultra-thin Dyson spheres of computronium. The innermost layer of a Matrioshka brain uses direct sunlight for energy, while outer layers are powered by the waste heat of the inner layers.
Let’s pause for a moment to further ponder the concept of a Matrioshka brain. In 1997, computers became capable of beating a world chess champion. Some predictions hold that a computer costing only $1,000 will have the computational power equivalent to a human brain by 2023. By mid-century, the computational power of a $1,000 computer might match that of all human brains on earth. A Matrioshka brain—interlinked, solar-system-sized shells of matter optimized on a nanotech scale for computer processing—would provide computational power and memory to run perfect virtual-reality simulations of not just every human being alive today (six billion plus), not just every human being who has ever lived (sixty billion plus), but as many virtual humans as would fill the galaxy if every star in it (hundreds of billions) contained an earth-like world—perhaps even as many as the sum of all possible human beings. Such a civilization, therefore, wouldn’t even need habitable planets on which to host its population; it would be more efficient just to upload everyone’s consciousness into a reality-simulation program.
We can therefore easily understand why Amber and her crew expect some sort of life-altering, transcendent first contact with such an alien civilization. Much greater the surprise, then, at the intelligences they do meet when they upload themselves into an alien router connected to a galactic network of Matrioshka brain civilizations. The original creators of the routers and the civilizations—whoever or whatever they were—are nowhere to be found. They have been supplanted, consumed or replaced by hyper-intelligent, self-aware corporate/economic instruments optimized to trade the only remaining scarce commodity, “quantized originality.” To the sentient alien corporations, Amber and her crew are novelties and therefore currency in their economy, so they are taken captive. Amber and her crew soon escape, however, by colluding with a rogue sentient corporation, an alien “pyramid scheme crossed with a 419 scam.” It’s an ironic plot twist that the great parodist Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) would have appreciated: Humanity’s first contact with the Galactic Internet amounts to a bad case of sentient Nigerian email scams.
Amber’s return to earth’s solar system is marred by the grim realization that humanity appears to be headed down the same path as the alien civilization from which she has just escaped. The uploaded consciousnesses of Amber and her crew are reincarnated into fresh bodies by Sirhan, the son of the meatspace version of Amber who remained behind as “virtual” Amber crossed the stars. (If you find it confusing tracking two versions of the same character, well, get used to it. This is the future, after all.) Sirhan has formed a growing refugee community of sorts who live in habitats floating in Saturn’s upper atmosphere.
These refugees are fleeing from what has become of human civilization in the inner system. The changes between generations have once again leapt an order of magnitude. The neo-Marxism of Manfred and Amber’s world has given way to a system called Economics 2.0, and humanity’s place in this new society isn’t a given anymore. As Sirhan explains:
Take a human being and bolt on extensions that let them take full advantage of Economics 2.0, and you essentially break their narrative chain of consciousness, replacing it with a journal file of bid/request transactions between various agents; it’s incredibly efficient and flexible, but it isn’t a conscious human being in any recognizable sense of the word.
Welcome to the late 21st century, and the end of the human era.
Sirhan and the other Saturnian refugees possess technological capabilities that burst the seams of even the descriptor “godlike.” Their personalities, their identities—their “who-they-are”—live only marginally in their corporeal bodies, instead flitting about between their meatbrains and omnipresent clouds of ultrafast computer processors. Needless to say, this has had an effect on things like ordinary family relationships and, well, love. Meet someone new? Not sure if they’re Mr. or Ms. Right? No problem: Just spawn off a virtual copy of yourself and your new friend, run a relationship simulation at faster-than-realtime speeds, and find out in a second or two whether any irreconcilable differences will creep into your future. But watch out: Those simulations you just spun off might end up declaring independence from you and applying for citizenship themselves. Calling such a society “human” still fits, but just barely.
The new intelligences spawned by Economics 2.0—called the Vile Offspring by the refugees—relentlessly seek to convert all of the unused “dumb” matter of the solar system into the “smart” matter of a Matrioshka-brain civilization. This of course leaves no room for old-fashioned biological humans, augmented humans, meta-humans, or any recognizable variants. Sirhan’s generation is thus faced with a stark choice: Surrender their humanity, thus transforming into Vile Offspring themselves; or flee, and continue to flee further into the galactic backwater until they can safely live deathless lives of conservative obsolescence. Maybe even become Republicans.
Like much of science fiction these days, Singularity stories often give a downbeat portrait of the future. At the same time, works of alternate history and pure fantasy have increasingly crept on to the nominations lists for prizes like the Hugo and Nebula awards—the gold standards of success in the field. The themes of space travel that dominated the fiction of authors like Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Herbert, Farmer, Niven, Card and countless others haven’t disappeared, but their presence in bookstores and on bestseller lists has diminished.
Though general observations like these are easy to counter, science fiction authors themselves have often noted that their publishers seem to think that dark tales and darker endings sell better than lighter tales with happy or just hopeful endings. That in and of itself is a noteworthy shift of assumptions about consumer behavior. “We don’t really trust human nature to solve the problems needed to get us to the planets and stars”, science fiction author and Nebula Award winner Mary Turzillo explained to me a few years ago.
So we have dark futures in which we’re unable to get off earth and are cursed, instead of blessed, by any scientific discoveries or inventions. . . . I think it’s kind of scary. We like black, we hate happy endings, and we like authoritarian rule sugared over by the prettiness of dragons and rightful kings.
Forget for a moment the likelihood that any of science fiction’s current grim predictions of the future will actually come true. If Toffler is right that “science fiction is the sovereign prophylactic against future shock”, then what does a true-to-type Singularity story like Accelerando say about the future of this branch of science fiction? If our headlong sprint into the post-human future will inevitably outpace the ability of even the tech-savviest among us to adapt, then the Singularity genre has prophesied its own doom. Indeed, the surge of new fantasy and alternate history genre fiction could be read, in that case, as a retreat from hard science fiction reality, or perhaps as a Luddite reassertion of the human spirit against the relentless logic of the machine. With all of these damned revolutions, we could probably stand a happy ending or two about now.