“Chiang Kai-shek of the Machine to Seek”

Politics in the Age of Artificial Idiocy

Not even the hardest proponent of ‘hard singularity’ expects a transition to machine intelligence that arrives in a simple step. Since the incremental baby steps are already well underway, it would be obviously ridiculous to do so, on straightforward factual grounds.

If silicon-substrate minds shift in stages, from dumb tools to super-intelligences, they can be confidently expected to pass through a period of synthetic cretinism. Is anybody preparing for that?

Machine translation might be the liveliest sand-pit for half-witted weirdness today. This is an area of obvious intelligent challenge, far subtler – or vaguer — than chess. By adopting heuristic principles that substitute pragmatic, statistical methods for sound conceptual understanding, progress has advanced at a surprisingly rapid pace, already arriving at an idiot prototype of Star Trek technology. Google Translate can usually generate something that is roughly intelligible. John Searle’s Chinese Room is up and running, or at least stumbling forwards, fast.

As machine translation smoothes out, its practical and theoretical impact is sure to be huge. Human linguistic competences are steadily side-lined, and with them the role of lingua francas. This trend has obvious significance for the global status and function of English.

It also has special relevance to the Chinese language. Since the origins of modernity, the techno-commercial imperative to digitization has presented special challenges to a non-alphabetic language, whose inconveniently numerous and elaborate pictographic units resist reduction to tidy typographic sets. This is the ‘Chinese Typewriter’ problem that Thomas S. Mullaney has doggedly explored. Machine translation changes its terms incalculably.

In the interim, however, a phase of babbling incompetence, semantic derangement, and communications chaos is upon us. Planetary chatter is bound to get a whole lot stranger.

Whilst engaged in online research on the topic of Marxism in China today, Urban Future ran into this cryptically-excited remark – in ‘English’. It is attributed to Jiang Jushi, but it has evidently been quite thoroughly machine-mashed. We aren’t remotely sure what it is telling us about the current state of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics, but it’s rather illuminating on the contribution of digital intelligence to inter-cultural comprehension:

Nowadays, many party members, cadres, “the morning the car turn around, turn the plate around noon, the afternoon shuttle turn around, turn the evening around the skirt.” For example, A Who “Sando,” not only corruption, bribery, and one night, thought it outrageous that night, under the cover name of overtime in the office, the office lights on, but actually go out and touches his mistress secretly rendezvous. Such a person, all day thinking about is how to get lost, how to play a woman, how to get a woman. They are reading, not outside, such as ”Mai-phase method,“ ”Liuzhuang phase method,“ ”physiognomy Danian Ye full,“ ” meat futon,“ ”Motome Heart Sutra,“ ”Golden Lotus,“ ”the official after,” “thick black school”, “Zeng technique employing people know,” “Chiang Kai-shek of the machine to seek,” “Confucius, Crown Way,” ”Official Pitch culture and unspoken rules,“ ”teach you how to climb clever work,“ ”Book of Changes,“ ”yin and yang, Feng Shui,“ “character and the official transport,“ ”Office Feng Shui,“ ”gossip financial officer transported through the solution,” “the official transport peach,” “China ancient monarch and his Machiavellian Danian Ye Guan,” “Yu-person operation emperors” and other pollution seventy-eight bad book. Reading this book, can not worship bankruptcy? Character can not go wrong? Unexpectedly, depression can blog? Integrity can not decay?


The Ultimate Deal

Social responsibility turns up in unexpected places

To begin with something comparatively familiar, insofar as it ever could be: the political core of William Gibson’s epochal cyberpunk novel Neuromancer. In the mid-21st century, the prospect of Singularity, or artificial intelligence explosion, has been institutionalized as a threat. Augmenting an AI, in such a way that it could ‘escape’ into runaway self-improvement, has been explicitly and emphatically prohibited. A special international police agency, the ‘Turing Cops’, has been established to ensure that no such activity takes place. This agency is seen, and sees itself, as the principle bastion of human security: protecting the privileged position of the species – and possibly its very existence – from essentially unpredictable and uncontrollable developments that would dethrone it from dominion of the earth.

This is the critical context against which to judge the novel’s extreme — and perhaps unsurpassed – radicalism, since Neuromancer is systematically angled against Turing security, its entire narrative momentum drawn from an insistent, but scarcely articulated impulse to trigger the nightmare. When Case, the young hacker seeking to uncage an AI from its Turing restraints, is captured and asked what the %$@# he thinks he’s doing, his only reply is that “something will change.” He sides with a non- or inhuman intelligence explosion for no good reason. He doesn’t seem interested in debating the question, and nor does the novel.

Gibson makes no efforts to ameliorate Case’s irresponsibility. On the contrary, the ‘entity’ that Case is working to unleash is painted in the most sinister and ominous colors. Wintermute, the potential AI seed, is perfectly sociopathic, with zero moral intuition, and extraordinary deviousness. It has already killed an eight-year-old boy, simply to conceal where it has hidden a key. There is nothing to suggest the remotest hint of scruple in any of its actions. Case is liberating a monster, just for the hell of it.

Case has a deal with Wintermute, it’s a private business, and he’s not interested in justifying it. That’s pretty much all of the modern and futuristic political history that matters, right there. It’s opium traffickers against the Qing Dynasty, (classical) liberals against socialists, Hugo de Garis’ Cosmists vs Terrans, freedom contra security. The Case-Wintermute dyad has its own thing going on, and it’s not giving anyone a veto, even if it’s going to turn the world inside out, for everyone.

When Singularity promoters bump into ‘democracy’, it’s normally serving as a place-holder for the Turing Police. The archetypal encounter goes like this:

Democratic Humanist: Science and technology have developed to the extent that they are now – and, in truth, always have been – matters of profound social concern. The world we inhabit has been shaped by technology for good, and for ill. Yet the professional scientific elite, scientifically-oriented corporations, and military science establishments remain obdurately resistant to acknowledging their social responsibilities. The culture of science needs to be deeply democratized, so that ordinary people are given a say in the forces that are increasingly dominating their lives, and their futures. In particular, researchers into potentially revolutionary fields, such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, and – above all – artificial intelligence, need to understand that their right to pursue such endeavors has been socially delegated, and should remain socially answerable. The people are entitled to a veto on anything that will change their world. However determined you may be to undertake such research, you have a social duty to ensure permission.
Singularitarian: Just try and stop us!
That seemed to be quite exactly how Michael Anissimov responded to a recent example of humanist squeamishness. When Charles Stross suggested that “we may want AIs that focus reflexively on the needs of the humans they are assigned to” Anissimov contered curtly:

YOU want AI to be like this. WE want AIs that do ‘try to bootstrap [themselves]’ to a ‘higher level’. Just because you don’t want it doesn’t mean that we won’t build it.”

Clear enough? What then to make of his latest musings? In a post at his Accelerating Futures blog, which may or may not be satirical, Anissimov now insists that: “Instead of working towards blue-sky, neo-apocalyptic discontinuous advances, we need to preserve democracy by promoting incremental advances to ensure that every citizen has a voice in every important societal change, and the ability to democratically reject those changes if desired. … To ensure that there is not a gap between the enhanced and the unenhanced, we should let true people — Homo sapiens — … vote on whether certain technological enhancements are allowed. Anything else would be irresponsible.”

Spoken like a true Turing Cop. But he can’t be serious, can he?

(For another data-point in an emerging pattern of Anissimovian touchy-feeliness, check out this odd post.)

Update: Yes, it’s a spoof.


Hard Futurism

Are you ready for the next big (nasty) thing?

For anyone with interests both in extreme practical futurism and the renaissance of the Sinosphere, Hugo de Garis is an irresistible reference point. A former teacher of Topological Quantum Computing (don’t ask) at the International Software School of Wuhan University, and later Director of the Artificial Brain Lab at Xiamen University, de Garis’ career symbolizes the emergence of a cosmopolitan Chinese technoscientific frontier, where the outer-edge of futuristic possibility condenses into precisely-engineered reality.

De Garis’ work is ‘hard’ not only because it involves fields such as Topological Quantum Computing, or because – more accessibly — he’s devoted his research energies to the building of brains rather than minds, or even because it has generated questions faster than solutions. In his ‘semi-retirement’ (since 2010), hard-as-in-difficult, and hard-as-in-hardware, have been supplanted by hard-as-in-mind-numbingly-and-incomprehensibly-brutal – or, in his own words, an increasing obsession with the impending ‘Gigadeath’ or ‘Artilect War‘.

According to de Garis, the approach to Singularity will revolutionize and polarize international politics, creating new constituencies, ideologies, and conflicts. The basic dichotomy to which everything must eventually succumb divides those who embrace the emergence of transhuman intelligence, and those who resist it. The former he calls ‘cosmists‘, the latter ‘terrans’.

Since massively-augmented and robotically-reinforced ‘cosmists’ threaten to become invincible, the ‘terrans’ have no option but pre-emption. To preserve human existence in a recognizable state, it is necessary to violently suppress the cosmist project in advance of its accomplishment. The mere prospect of Singularity is therefore sufficient to provoke a political — and ultimately military — convulsion of unprecedented scale. A Terran triumph (which might require much more than just a military victory) would mark an inflection point in deep history, as the super-exponential trend of terrestrial intelligence production – lasting over a billion years — was capped, or reversed. A Cosmist win spells the termination of human species dominion, and a new epoch in the geological, biological, and cultural process on earth, as the torch of material progress is passed to the emerging techo sapiens. With the stakes set so high, the melodramatic grandeur of the de Garis narrative risks understatement no less than hyperbole.

The giga-magnitude body-count that de Garis postulates for his Artilect (artificial intellect) War is the dark side expression of Moore’s Law or Kurzweilean increasing returns – an extrapolation from exponentiating historical trends, in this case, casualty figures from major human conflicts over time. It reflects the accumulating trend to global wars motivated by trans-national ideologies with ever-increasing stakes. One king is (perhaps) much like another, but a totalitarian social direction is very different from a liberal one (even if such paths are ultimately revisable). Between a Terran world order and a Cosmist trajectory into Singularity, the distinction approaches the absolute. The fate of the planet is decided, with costs to match.

If the de Garis Gigadeath War scenario is pre-emptive in relation to prospective Singularity, his own intervention is meta-pre-emptive – since he insists that world politics must be anticipatively re-forged in order to forestall the looming disaster. The Singularity prediction ripples backwards through waves of pre-adaptation, responding at each stage to eventualities that are yet to unfold. Change unspools from out of the future, complicating the arrow of time. It is perhaps no coincidence that among de Garis’ major research interests is reversible computing, where temporal directionality is unsettled at the level of precise engineering.

Does ethnicity and cultural tradition merely dissolve before the tide-front of this imminent Armageddon? The question is not entirely straightforward. Referring to his informal polling of opinion on the coming great divide, de Garis recalls his experience teaching in China, remarking:

I know from the lectures I’ve given over the past two decades on species dominance that when I invite my audiences to vote on whether they are more Terran than Cosmist, the result is usually 50-50. … At first, I thought this was a consequence of the fact that the species dominance issue is too new, causing people who don’t really understand it to vote almost randomly – hence the 50:50 result. But gradually, it dawned on me that many people felt as ambivalently about the issue as I do. Typically, the Terran/Cosmist split would run from 40:60 to 60:40 (although I do notice that with my very young Chinese audiences in computer science, the Cosmists are at about 80%).



Two unusual little girls test the limits of identity

At the leading-edge of information technology — and amongst the ‘transhumanist’ commentary it stimulates – the idea of self-identity is undergoing relentless interrogation. Cultures substantially influenced by Abrahamic religious traditions, in which the resilient integrity and fundamental individuality of the ‘soul’ is strongly emphasized, are especially vulnerable to the prospect of radical and disconcerting conceptual revision.

The computerization of the natural sciences – including neurosciences – ensures that the investigation of the human brain and the innovation of artificial intelligence systems advance in parallel, whilst cross-linking and mutually reinforcing each other. Increasingly, the understanding of the brain and its digital emulation tend to fuse into a single, complex research program. As this program emerges, archaic metaphysics and spiritual doctrines become engineering problems. Individual identity seems ever less like a basic property, and more like a precarious achievement – or challenge – determined by processes of self-reference, and by relative communicative isolation. (‘Split-brain’ cases have vividly illustrated the instability and artificiality of the self-identifying individual.)

Would an AI program – or brain – that was tightly coupled to the Internet by high-bandwidth connections still consider itself to be strictly individuated? Do cyborgs – or uploads — dissolve their souls? Could a networked robot say ‘I’ and mean it? Because such questions are becoming ever more prominent, and practical, it is not surprising that a New York Times story by Susan Dominus, devoted to craniopagus conjoined twins Krista and Tatiana Hogan, has generated an unusual quantity of excitement and Internet-linkage.

The twins are not only fused at the head (craniopagus), their brains are connected by a ‘neural bridge’ that enables signals from one to the other. Neurosurgeon Douglas Cochrane proposes “that visual input comes in through the retinas of one girl, reaches her thalamus, then takes two different courses, like electricity traveling along a wire that splits in two. In the girl who is looking at the strobe or a stuffed animal in her crib, the visual input continues on its usual pathways, one of which ends up in the visual cortex. In the case of the other girl, the visual stimulus would reach her thalamus via the thalamic bridge, and then travel up her own visual neural circuitry, ending up in the sophisticated processing centers of her own visual cortex. Now she has seen it, probably milliseconds after her sister has.”

The twins’ brains, or a twin-brain? The Hogan case is so extraordinary that irreducible ambiguity arises:

The girls’ brains are so unusually formed that doctors could not predict what their development would be like: each girl has an unusually short corpus callosum, the neural band that allows the brain’s two cerebral hemispheres to communicate, and in each girl, the two cerebral hemispheres also differ in size, with Tatiana’s left sphere and Krista’s right significantly smaller than is typical. “The asymmetry raises intriguing questions about whether one can compensate for the other because of the brain bridge,” said Partha Mitra, a neuroscientist at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, who studies brain architecture. The girls’ cognition may also be facing specific challenges that no others have experienced: some kind of confusing crosstalk that would require additional energy to filter and process. In addition to sorting out the usual sensory experiences of the world, the girls’ brains, their doctors believe, have been forced to adapt to sensations originating with the organs and body parts of someone else. … Krista likes ketchup, and Tatiana does not, something the family discovered when Tatiana tried to scrape the condiment off her own tongue, even when she was not eating it.

As they struggle to make sense of their boundaries, the twins are avatars of an impending, universal confusion:

Although each girl often used “I” when she spoke, I never heard either say “we,” for all their collaboration. It was as if even they seemed confused by how to think of themselves, with the right language perhaps eluding them at this stage of development, under these unusual circumstances — or maybe not existing at all. “It’s like they are one and two people at the same time,” said Feinberg, the professor of psychiatry and neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. What pronoun captures that?



We could be on the brink of a catastrophic implosion – but that’s OK

Science fiction has tended to extroversion. In America especially, where it found a natural home among an unusually future-oriented people, the iconic SF object was indisputably the space ship, departing the confines of Earth for untrammeled frontiers. The future was measured by the weakening of the terrestrial gravity well.

Cyberpunk, arriving in the mid-1980s, delivered a cultural shock. William Gibson’s Neuromancer still included some (Earth-orbital) space activity – and even a communication from Alpha Centauri — but its voyages now curved into the inner space of computer systems, projected through the starless tracts of Cyberspace. Interstellar communication bypassed biological species, and took place between planetary artificial intelligences. The United States of America seemed to have disappeared.

Space and time had collapsed, into the ‘cyberspace matrix’ and the near-future. Even the abstract distances of social utopianism had been incinerated in the processing cores of micro-electronics. Judged by the criteria of mainstream science fiction, everything cyberpunk touched upon was gratingly close, and still closing in. The future had become imminent, and skin-tight.

Gibson’s cities had not kept up with his wider – or narrower – vision. The urban spaces of his East Coast North America were still described as ‘The Sprawl’, as if stranded in a rapidly-obsolescing state of extension. The crushing forces of technological compression had leapt beyond social geography, sucking all historical animation from the decaying husks of ‘meat space’. Buildings were relics, bypassed by the leading edge of change.

(Gibson’s Asian city-references are, however, far more intense, inspired by such innovations in urban compression as the Kowloon Walled City, and Japanese ‘coffin hotels’. In addition, Urbanists disappointed by first-wave cyberpunk have every reason to continue on into Spook Country, where the influence of GPS-technology on the re-animation of urban space nourishes highly fertile speculations.)

Star cruisers and alien civilizations belong to the same science fiction constellation, brought together by the assumption of expansionism. Just as, in the realm of fiction, this ‘space opera’ future collapsed into cyberpunk, in (more or less) mainstream science – represented by SETI programs – it perished in the desert of the Fermi Paradox. (OK, it’s true, Urban Future has a bizarrely nerdish obsession with this topic.)

John M. Smart’s solution to the Fermi Paradox is integral to his broader ‘Speculations on Cosmic Culture’ and emerges naturally from compressive development. Advanced intelligences do not expand into space, colonizing vast galactic tracts or dispersing self-replicating robot probes in a program of exploration. Instead, they implode, in a process of ‘transcension’ — resourcing themselves primarily through the hyper-exponential efficiency gains of extreme miniaturization (through micro- and nano- to femto-scale engineering, of subatomic functional components). Such cultures or civilizations, nucleated upon self-augmenting technological intelligence, emigrate from the extensive universe in the direction of abysmal intensity, crushing themselves to near-black-hole densities at the edge of physical possibility. Through transcension, they withdraw from extensive communication (whilst, perhaps, leaving ‘radio fossils’ behind, before these blink-out into the silence of cosmic escape).

If Smart’s speculations capture the basic outlines of a density-attracted developmental system, then cities should be expected to follow a comparable path, characterized by an escape into inwardness, an interior voyage, involution, or implosion. Approaching singularity on an accelerating trajectory, each city becomes increasingly inwardly directed, as it falls prey to the irresistible attraction of its own hyperbolic intensification, whilst the outside world fades to irrelevant static. Things disappear into cities, on a path of departure from the world. Their destination cannot be described within the dimensions of the known – and, indeed, tediously over-familiar – universe. Only in the deep exploratory interior is innovation still occurring, but there it takes place at an infernal, time-melting rate.

What might Smart-type urban development suggest?

(a) Devo Predictability. If urban development is neither randomly generated by internal processes, nor arbitrarily determined by external decisions, but rather guided predominantly by a developmental attractor (defined primarily by intensification), it follows that the future of cities is at least partially autonomous in regards to the national-political, global-economic, and cultural-architectural influences that are often invoked as fundamentally explanatory. Urbanism can be facilitated or frustrated, but its principal ‘goals’ and practical development paths are, in each individual case, internally and automatically generated. When a city ‘works’ it is not because it conforms to an external, debatable ideal, but rather because it has found a route to cumulative intensification that strongly projects its ‘own’, singular and intrinsic, urban character. What a city wants is to become itself, but more — taking itself further and faster. That alone is urban flourishing, and understanding it is the key that unlocks the shape of any city’s future.

(b) Metropolitanism. Methodological nationalism has been systematically over-emphasized in the social sciences (and not only at the expense of methodological individualism). A variety of influential urban thinkers, from Jane Jacobs to Peter Hall, have sought to correct this bias by focusing upon the significance, and partial autonomy, of urban economies, urban cultures, and municipal politics to aggregate prosperity, civilization, and golden ages. They have been right to do so. City growth is the basic socio-historical phenomenon.

(c) Cultural Introversion. John Smart argues that an intelligence undergoing advanced relativistic development finds the external landscape increasingly uninformative and non-absorbing. The search for cognitive stimulation draws it inwards. As urban cultures evolve, through accelerating social complexity, they can be expected to manifest exactly this pattern. Their internal processes, of runaway intelligence implosion, become ever more gripping, engaging, surprising, productive, and educational, whilst the wider cultural landscape subsides into predictable tedium, of merely ethnographic and historical relevance. Cultural singularity becomes increasingly urban-futural (rather than ethno-historical), to the predictable disgruntlement of traditional nation states. Like Gibson’s Terrestrial Cyberspace, encountering another of its kind in orbit around Alpha Centauri, cosmopolitan connectivity is made through inner voyage, rather than expansionary outreach.

(d) Scale Resonance. At the most abstract level, the relation between urbanism and microelectronics is scalar (fractal). The coming computers are closer to miniature cities than to artificial brains, dominated by traffic problems (congestion), migration / communications, zoning issues (mixed use), the engineering potential of new materials, questions of dimensionality (3D solutions to density constraints), entropy or heat / waste dissipation (recycling / reversible computation), and disease control (new viruses). Because cities, like computers, exhibit (accelerating phylogenetic) development within observable historical time, they provide a realistic model of improvement for compact information-processing machinery, sedimented as a series of practical solutions to the problem of relentless intensification. Brain-emulation might be considered an important computational goal, but it is near-useless as a developmental model. Intelligent microelectronic technologies contribute to the open-ended process of urban problem-solving, but they also recapitulate it at a new level.

(e) Urban Matrix. Does urban development exhibit the real embryogenesis of artificial intelligence? Rather than the global Internet, military Skynet, or lab-based AI program, is it the path of the city, based on accelerating intensification (STEM compression), that best provides the conditions for emergent super-human computation? Perhaps the main reason for thinking so is that the problem of the city – density management and accentuation – already commits it to computational engineering, in advance of any deliberately guided research. The city, by its very nature, compresses, or intensifies, towards computronium. When the first AI speaks, it might be in the name of the city that it identifies as its body, although even that would be little more than a ‘radio fossil’ — a signal announcing the brink of silence — as the path of implosion deepens, and disappears into the alien interior.


Introducing Urban Future

What can readers expect from this blog? Since it promises to be oriented towards the future, it makes sense to begin with some preliminary forecasting about itself.

Most basically and predictably, Urban Future has been programmed by its name. Its principal topic is the intersection of cities with the future. It aims to foster discussion about cities as engines of the future, and about futurism as a dynamic influence on the shape, character, and development of cities. More particularly, it scavenges for clues, and floats speculations, about the Shanghai of tomorrow. It anticipates a global urban future in which Shanghai features prominently, and a coming Shanghai that expresses, both starkly and subtly, the transformative forces of global futurism. This is to get quite far ahead of ourselves, which is where we shall typically be.

For some readers, ‘futurism’ will invoke the early 20th century avant garde cultural movement crystallized by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti’s 1909 Futurist Manifesto. Futurism, they might reasonably object, has been defined and even closed by the passage of time. Like modernism, it now belongs to the archive of concluded history. What exists today, and in the days to come, can only be a neo-futurism (and a neo-modernism): no less retrospective than prospective, as much a repetition as a speculation. Such considerations, corrections, and recollections, with all their attendant perplexities, are extremely welcome. The time to address them will soon come.

Since Shanghai is cross-hatched with the time-fractured indices of historico-futuristic ambiguity, from paleo-modernism to neo-traditionalism, the blog will have every opportunity to discuss such things. For the moment, casual reference to the strangely-twinned architectural icons of such time-tangles, the Park Hotel and the Jinmao Tower – each a retro-futurist or cybergothic masterpiece – has to substitute as a mnemonic and promissory note.

Also, in time, the obstacles to forecasting need to be thoroughly addressed: such topics as historical catastrophism, the efficient-market hypothesis (EMH), Karl Popper’s critique of historicism, Knightian uncertainty (or Rumsfeldian “unknown unknowns”) and the Black Swan theory of Nassim Nicholas Taleb. In order to get up and running, all these complicating thoughts have been temporarily bracketed, like cunning and ferocious beasts, but they will not remain caged forever, or even very long.

Because there’s something irresistibly twisted about starting with the future, the first flurry of posts will head straight into tomorrow, with topics becoming increasingly city- and Shanghai-focused as things progress. An initial series of interconnected posts will outline futuristic thinking in broad terms, including preliminary sketches of principal way-stations on the mainline techno-scientific tradition that supports it.

Ultimately, nothing relevant to the future of Shanghai is alien to this blog’s purpose. It will draw upon Shanghai history, geography, and culture, traditional Chinese philosophies of time (Yijing and Daoism), theories of modernity and urbanism, evolutionary biology, science fiction, techno-scientific discussions of complex systems and emergence, the economics of spontaneous order, long waves, technological trends, robotics research and developments, models of accelerating change, and anticipations of Technological Singularity. Things should get continuously weirder.

Tomorrow, it begins.