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Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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Milestones leading up to the Good Singularity?

David Brin

Contrary Brin

June 29, 2011

A “Good Singularity” will rely more on vigorous self-improvement than on external factors.

I have long held that our present American Civil War (no less than that) is a three-sided affair. There is a quiet majority who still believe in things like pragmatic problem-solving, grand ambition, chipping away at old-bad habits while pursuing technological progress and—above all—courteously negotiating in good faith, instead of raging at our neighbors and our institutions, portraying them as monsters. This majority is presently beleaguered from all sides. Both Left and Right seem bent on crushing any remnant of the old optimistic, can-do spirit that built the nation and an amazing civilization.

All right, I’ll admit that one of those two wings happens to be, at present, far worse, more dangerous, and profoundly more insane; but the other is no less poisonous in its underlying cynicism and suspicion of can-do enthusiasm. Hence, what are we to do… those of us who think that (1) past efforts at self-improvement actually worked… and hence (2) more efforts at vigorous self-improvement should be high on our agenda?

The solution? To keep on plugging away! To persevere. Continue fighting to make our kids and their kids better than us, the way our parents and grandparents tried to do that—and succeeded—with us. By proudly endeavoring to make the next generation both more ethical and vastly more scientifically/technological powerful—because only that combination can save the world.

With me so far? Then let’s look for examples of our side in this civil war… or rather, our center… fighting back.

A Manufacturing Renaissance?

We’ve launched an all-hands-on-deck effort between our brightest academic minds, some of our boldest business leaders and our most dedicated public servants from science and technology agencies, all with one big goal, and that is a renaissance of American manufacturing.

That’s from U.S. President Obama, in remarks at the National Robotics Engineering Center at Carnegie Mellon University, a high-technology facility adjacent to a rusted factory symbolic of the area’s industrial past. Obama said federal agencies would invest more than $500 million to seed the initiative. Of that, $70 million is to go to robotics projects.

TinkerersI was already on board the effort to spark a new manufacturing renaissance. A year ago, I was asked by the Metals Service Center Institute to create a comic book set 20 years from now that discusses the many reasons for US industrial decline… and how it might come back. Have a look at Tinkerers

One of the biggest challenges we face as a nation is the decline in our ability to make things.

That’s from Dr. Regina Dugan, Director of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency). DARPA is investing $1 billion in alternative design and production methods, enabling new generations of modular, networked, “seamless,” and democratized manufacturing. In our pragmatic civilization, we need to remember that individuals and self-made teams are the long-term solution creators… but our government, the one we own, will be key to empowering, stimulating, playing a vital role.

Encouraging Kids to Program

Speaking of empowering… Computerworld recently examined the strange disappearance of any useful programming language from modern personal computers, a topic that I launched with my much-discussed Salon article “Why Johnny Can’t Code.” It’s a subject of great importance, since without a reliable common “lingua franca” language that all students share, teachers and textbooks cannot do what was routine in the 1980s… assign simple, 12-line programs to their kids, introducing them to the very “basic” notions. Like the fact that human-written symbols propel math-fueled lines of code that command every single pixel they ever see!


People arguing over “which introductory language is best (e.g. Python vs Perl etc) miss the entire point and are wasting everybody’s time. The lack of any shared, simple language on ALL computers has crippled the ability of educators to reach the millions of kids who own computers right now. Kids who could be computer tinkerers, the way their parents were. Any shared language… any at all… would empower educators and students, so long as using it involves as few steps as possible. Anything that requires downloading, instructions or procedure-teaching will lose 95% of students.

My original article sure stirred up a storm! And now I am pleased to say this problem was solved—somewhat—by a person it inspired. Drop by QuiteBasic, a complete turnkey BASIC system that a kid can start typing into the instant the window opens, showing both graphics and results sections, as well. Totally intuitive. Suddenly, via the web, every BASIC assignment in all those old textbooks can come alive!

A perfect solution? Heck, no! By all means start a grassroots campaign to persuade Apple and Microsoft et al to agree on a turnkey educational, compact, and simple introductory language to offer on all PCs! Make it Python, Perl, whatever. Just do it. But till then, at least QuiteBasic offers a glimpse of that old can-do spirit.

And While We’re Talking Progress Toward the Singularity

The Technological Singularity—a quasi-mythical apotheosis that some foresee in our near, or even very near, future. A transition when our skill, knowledge and immense computing power increase exponentially to enable true Artificial Intelligence, and humans are transformed into… well… godlike beings. Can we even begin to imagine what life would look like after this?

An excellent article by Joel Falconer on The Next Web cites futurist Ray Kurzweil on the coming Singularity, along with my warning about iffy far-range forecasting: “How can models created within an earlier, cruder system, properly simulate and predict the behavior of a later, vastly more complex system?”

petsIf you want an even broader perspective, try my introduction to the whole topic: “Singularities and Nightmares: Extremes of Optimism and Pessimism about the Human Future.” For there are dangers along the way, one being Renunciation—as a fraction of the population rejects science and technology as a means toward progress.

How about portrayals in fiction? I mean, other than clichés about mega-AI gone berserk, trying to flatten us? Now, from a writer’s perspective, the Singularity presents a problem. One can write stories leading up to the Singularity, about problems like rebellious AI, or about heroic techies paving the way to bright horizons. But how do you write a tale set AFTER the singularity has happened—the good version—and we’ve all become gods? Heh. Never dare me! That’s the topic of my novella, Stones of Significance.

Ah, but not all techies think the Singularity will be good. One chilling scenario—humans serving our new machine overlords. Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak speculates that people may become pets for the robot masters: “We’re already creating the superior beings, I think we lost the battle to the machines long ago. We’re going to become the pets, the dogs of the house.”

David Brin Ph.D. is a scientist and best-selling author whose future-oriented novels include Earth, The Postman, and Hugo Award winners Startide Rising and The Uplift War. David's newest novel - Existence - is now available, published by Tor Books."


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