Leo Lake on Fri, 29 Mar 2002 14:54:11 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> LL 26 The Singularity, Communication versus a future that does matter

[*] Please ignore this text if you prefer good english or useful 
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LL 26 The Singularity and human communication versus a future that does 

Soon the computer will take over. So they say. The singularity is the 
name reserved for the moment our computers will out-smart us and develop 
their own minds.

Singularity theorists think they see an important similarity between 
humans and computers: they both think. However, given the vast 
differences in the circumstances under which humans and computers 
compute, this discovery of similarity is both a remarkable and a 
suspicious one. Even when thinking only of thinking, the differences 
between both seem to be more important. The current machine computer 
performs it's tasks in glorious isolation from which it can be 
interrupted, the human computer is closely linked to it's environment: 
it is fundamentally event-driven. If a human computer is not driven by 
events it comes to an halt. A machine computer is more likely to halt 
when it is, occasionally, interrupted.

Event-driven becomes almost synonymous with distraction when humans and 
computers are considered similar. When we, humans, think, we get so 
easily distracted that those who do not get so easily distracted become 
famous. When we solve a differential equation, we often get thirsty or 
develop a pseudo-philosophy about the color of the pencil used to jot 
down the intermediate steps. When we listen to music, the proverbial fly 
on the nose too easily becomes the most urgent thought. When we play 
chess for an audience, our eyes often wander to sexy examples of the 
desired sex.

Our environment pulls the strings of our attention. We "think" in messy 
dependence, not in the computers glorious isolation. The machine 
computer extrapolates from axioms numerous consequences, the human 
computer basically reacts.

This is probably due to our hardware, our brain. The larger part of the 
human brain has not developed to deal with the movement of the stars, 
musical compositions, chess, poetry or abstract logic. The brain was not 
designed to extrapolate, but to react. React to what? Well....to other 
human brains. Indeed, the main objects in our environment are people. 
The brain has adapted it's structure to this social environment. Our 
brain is not a general purpose computer. Our notions of mind, of person, 
of subjective experience may be the result of the way our brain adapts 
to other brains. All brains together may be an all-purpose computer, but 
  probably not.

Is the singularity theorist correct in ignoring the vast differences in 
the pragmatics of computation as done by machines and as done by humans? 
It may be that they see an arrow of brain-development that is, to a 
large degree, an illusion.

Why? It all has to do what the fundament of what our mind is. That 
fundament is called "being a person". I will return to this in the next 
paragraph, but let me first be explicit on the consequences of this 
claim. It is unlikely that the person concept will be developed by 
machine computers, or by any "running" computational process. This 
notion however controls to a very large degree what a human does and 
thinks. In the degree the concept of person matters, in that same degree 
humans and computers will be different. In the degree the concept of 
person matters, in that same degree a personless future becomes 
irrelevant to us here and now.

Let's inspect the development of personhood a little closer to make such 
statements credible. When we see a body we automatically infer that it 
is a person, endowed with consciousness, with feelings and subjective 
experiences. This point is made in an exquisite book by Leslie Brown 
(Friday's Footprint, 1997). Our brain is hardwired to develop the notion 
of person, she claims. The notion of person is instrumental in 
co-adjusting the behavior of a group of human bodies. That it is 
hard-wired means that we cannot see a body without seeing a mind, 
without inferring the existence of subjective experience in the other. A 
similar point has been made by Peter Strawson, who claims that concept 
person is logically more primitive than the idea of subjective experience.

There is nothing mysterious about this process of person construction. 
When we see a string of letters that form a word in a language we speak, 
we cannot but see it's meaning. Exactly what meaning depends on what we 
have learned, just as the rather abstract concept of person will be 
endowed with numerous characteristics based, mainly, on what is learned 
during the conversations between two or more human bodies.

The notion of person is a construct of our brain. It comes to being when 
brains and bodies interact. A person is therefore a social phenomenon. 
It is not 'in' a brain, it is distributed over at least two brains.

Back to our singularity theorists.

Will smart computers, or smart computational processes, have a mind, as 
so many singularists seem to imply? Probably not. A mind, as I've hinted 
above, is a sensation, of if you prefer cog-speak or have, unlike me, a 
degree in psychology, a schema, constructed by humans because it has a 
survival value in the war on the battlefield of interpersonal relations. 
Mind is conditioned on personhood. A mind is an attribute, it is a 
relation, or relation producing form, and therefore has no essence. If 
it *has* a reality it *is* a social reality. Whether something like a 
mind will exist in the future universe of computational processes after 
the singularity, depends on how, and if, these processes will 
communicate, parallel computation being assumed, of course. They will 
only develop a person schema of a kind we, humans, can relate to, if 
they interact closely with humans. Given the schism between machine 
computer and human computers in the degree they are event- driven, this 
is unlikely to happen. It becomes even more unlikely if we compare a 
brain and computer on the speed of their constituents. The brain is many 
orders slower than a computer. The notion of mind will most likely not 
even develop in the ongoing conversation of computational processes. 
What will computers develop to understand eachother? It will probably 
not be something we, humans, cannot understand, or something we couldn't 
possibly be interested in. If these communication processes become 
controlled by a new environment, however they too may get caught in new 
endless and pointless circles of communication, and they may theselves 
desire a singularity renewed. But who cares?

Does the future of the singularity theorists matter to us? That future 
is so alien to us, that it cannot matter to us. However, if their future 
is futile, their method of transcending the present is/maybe not.

The real value of singularity theory is that it is an attempt to 
transcend human existence. It does this by focussing on using a small 
part of our mental capacities, problem-solving, and on the production of 
machines that are good at it, better than humans. This transcendence is 
lacking in our picture of mankind as a set of communicating brains. As 
said, brains have developed to cope with other brains. Even the notion 
of person serves an instrumental role. If, as is bound to happen, this 
insight becomes part and parcel of our cultural discourse, than all we 
can do is stare at a rather nauseating circularity; brains exist to 
understand other similar brains. It is like saying that the reason for 
my being is your being: that the reason for existence is existence. From 
essence to being.. let's not go there. Our cognitive apparatus itself 
may just be a way nature has found for one brain to make other brains 
more predictable. If this does not annoy you already, let me try to rub 
it in using an analogy.

There are animals who have learned to develop a thick skull because 
banging heir heads against other skulls has proven it's survival value. 
Talking to other people maybe just be the human variation of banging 
each others' skulls. Survival value is highly dependent on a 
self-created context and thereby becomes utterly point-less. We 
communicate to survive. Period.

The singularity theorists do have a way to transcend the mess (some call 
it mesh) of our existence. We, whose existence is conditioned on being a 
person, are bound to a brain that only wants to survive amidst other brains.

How to transcend human existence if the cognitive way of transcendation 
leads to an incomprehensible world? And should we?

If the answer is yes, we face the task of finding something between the 
meaninglessness of brains that develop just to understand other but 
highly similar brains and the unimaginable, even when unavoidable, 
existence of smart communicating parallel computational processes.

To this end we have to focus on bendings the arrow of our real 
brain-time development. Pointless conversations may precisely be the 
substance of our future, if we do nothing to prevent that. This is not a 
mere academic point. Our informational environment is increasingly 
orienting our brains to pointless communicaton.  The human capacity to 
transcend the present is under serious threat. The singularity theorists 
are probably sensitive to this threat, but their solution has some 
escapist tendencies.

Bending the arrow of brain-time into a direction that keeps the future 
related to the present, requires a different technique of transcendation 
than the protagonists of the singularity propose. They enhance only a 
part of a human. It also means a break with the ideology of protagonists 
of the dominance of the social, the worshippers of human communication, 
including the omnipresent practioners of irreflective communication.

The singularity theorists transcend humans by, perhaps implicitly, 
abandoning the concept of person. That will disconnect us from their 
future. But staying were we are, amounts to the closing in of human 
development in a small, narrow and incestuous circle, one where all that 
counts is coping with the brain of the other.

To transcend the present is to transcend personhood without abandoning 
it. Perhaps even without rewiring our brain. Since abstract personhood 
is filled in by conversations, we effectively need to transcend 
communication: we need an "uber-language". If we want one...

Here my story probably ends.

E. lake@lake.nl
W. http://www.lake.nl

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