Charles Stross wants to get off the bus

Upon writing Accelerando, Charles Stross became to Technological Singularity what Dante Alighieri has been to Christian cosmology: the pre-eminent literary conveyor of an esoteric doctrine, packaging abstract metaphysical conception in vibrant, detailed, and concrete imagery. The tone of Accelerando is transparently tongue-in-cheek, yet plenty of people seem to have taken it entirely seriously. Stross has had enough of it:

“I periodically get email from folks who, having read ‘Accelerando’, assume I am some kind of fire-breathing extropian zealot who believes in the imminence of the singularity, the uploading of the libertarians, and the rapture of the nerds. I find this mildly distressing, and so I think it’s time to set the record straight and say what I really think. … Short version: Santa Claus doesn’t exist.”

In the comments thread (#86) he clarifies his motivation:

“I’m not convinced that the singularity isn’t going to happen. It’s just that I am deathly tired of the cheerleader squad approaching me and demanding to know precisely how many femtoseconds it’s going to be until they can upload into AI heaven and leave the meatsack behind.”

As these remarks indicate, there’s more irritable gesticulation than structured case-making in Stross’ post, which Robin Hanson quite reasonably describes as “a bit of a rant – strong on emotion, but weak on argument.” Despite that – or more likely because of it — a minor net-storm ensued, as bloggers pro and con seized the excuse to re-hash – and perhaps refresh — some aging debates. The militantly-sensible Alex Knapp pitches in with a threepart series on his own brand of Singularity skepticism, whilst Michael Anissimov of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence responds to both Stross and Knapp, mixing some counter-argument with plenty of counter-irritation.

At the risk of repeating the original error of Stross’ meat-stack-stuck fan-base and investing too much credence in what is basically a drive-by blog post, it might be worth picking out some of its seriously weird aspects. In particular, Stross leans heavily on an entirely unexplained theory of moral-historical causality:

“… before creating a conscious artificial intelligence we have to ask if we’re creating an entity deserving of rights. Is it murder to shut down a software process that is in some sense ‘conscious’? Is it genocide to use genetic algorithms to evolve software agents towards consciousness? These are huge show-stoppers…”

Anissimov blocks this at the pass: “I don’t think these are ‘showstoppers’ … Just because you don’t want it doesn’t mean that we won’t build it.” The question might be added, more generally: In which universe do arcane objections from moral philosophy serve as obstacles to historical developments (because it certainly doesn’t seem to be this one)? Does Stross seriously think practical robotics research and development is likely to be interrupted by concerns for the rights of yet-uninvented beings?

He seems to, because even theologians are apparently getting a veto:

“Uploading … is not obviously impossible unless you are a crude mind/body dualist. However, if it becomes plausible in the near future we can expect extensive theological arguments over it. If you thought the abortion debate was heated, wait until you have people trying to become immortal via the wire. Uploading implicitly refutes the doctrine of the existence of an immortal soul, and therefore presents a raw rebuttal to those religious doctrines that believe in a life after death. People who believe in an afterlife will go to the mattresses to maintain a belief system that tells them their dead loved ones are in heaven rather than rotting in the ground.”

This is so deeply and comprehensively gone it could actually inspire a moment of bewildered hesitation (at least among those of us not presently engaged in urgent Singularity implementation). Stross seems to have inordinate confidence in a social vetting process that, with approximate adequacy, filters techno-economic development for compatibility with high-level moral and religious ideals. In fact, he seems to think that we are already enjoying the paternalistic shelter of an efficient global theocracy. Singularity can’t happen, because that would be really bad.

No wonder, then, that he exhibits such exasperation at libertarians, with their “drastic over-simplification of human behaviour.” If stuff – especially new stuff – were to mostly happen because decentralized markets facilitated it, then the role of the Planetary Innovations Approval Board would be vastly curtailed. Who knows what kind of horrors would show up?

It gets worse, because ‘catallaxy’ – or spontaneous emergence from decentralized transactions – is the basic driver of historical innovation according to libertarian explanation, and nobody knows what catallactic processes are producing. Languages, customs, common law precedents, primordial monetary systems, commercial networks, and technological assemblages are only ever retrospectively understandable, which means that they elude concentrated social judgment entirely – until the opportunity to impede their genesis has been missed.

Stross is right to bundle singularitarian and libertarian impulses together in the same tangle of criticism, because they both subvert the veto power, and if the veto power gets angry enough about that, we’re heading full-tilt into de Garis territory. “Just because you don’t want it doesn’t mean that we won’t build it” Anissimov insists, as any die-hard Cosmist would.

Is advanced self-improving AI technically feasible? Probably (but who knows?). There’s only one way to find out, and we will. Perhaps it will even be engineered, more-or-less deliberately, but it’s far more likely to arise spontaneously from a complex, decentralized, catallactic process, at some unanticipated threshold, in a way that was never planned. There are definite candidates, which are often missed. Sentient cities seem all-but-inevitable at some point, for instance (‘intelligent cities’ are already widely discussed). Financial informatization pushes capital towards self-awareness. Drone warfare is drawing the military ever deeper into artificial mind manufacture. Biotechnology is computerizing DNA.

‘Singularitarians’ have no unified position on any of this, and it really doesn’t matter, because they’re just people – and people are nowhere near intelligent or informed enough to direct the course of history. Only catallaxy can do that, and it’s hard to imagine how anybody could stop it. Terrestrial life has been stupid for long enough.

It may be worth making one more point about intelligence deprivation, since this diagnosis truly defines the Singularitarian position, and reliably infuriates those who don’t share — or prioritize — it. Once a species reaches a level of intelligence enabling techno-cultural take-off, history begins and develops very rapidly — which means that any sentient being finding itself in (pre-singularity) history is, almost by definition, pretty much as stupid as any ‘intelligent being’ can be. If, despite the moral and religious doctrines designed to obfuscate this reality, it is eventually recognized, the natural response is to seek its urgent amelioration, and that’s already transhumanism, if not yet full-blown singularitarianism. Perhaps a non-controversial formulation is possible: defending dimness is really dim. (Even the dim dignitarians should be happy with that.)


Bits and Pieces

P2P or not 2P, that is the question

As the US dollar reaches depths of debasement that would have stretched the imagination of Caligula, people have been searching for alternative candidates for a global reserve currency. The problem is formidable. The Euro and Japanese Yen face comparable calamities of their own (mixing debt crisis and demographic collapse), the Chinese Yuan is non-convertible, and the IMF’s hybrid Special Drawing Rights (SDRs) merely bundle together a group of troubled fiat currencies under a technocratic acronym.

Precious metals enthusiasts have an obvious option, and one that is already being spontaneously exercised. Yet whilst growing numbers will no doubt cling to gold and silver as financial lifeboats, their wider use as currency (as opposed to stores of value) is obstructed by an intimidating range of technical and political problems. They are not digitally transferable without complicated mediating instruments, and they remain exposed to extreme political risk – financial crises have been regularly accompanied by seizures and controls directed at private precious metals holdings and transactions.

To overcome such problems, a currency would need to be structurally immunized against the depredations of central bankers, to share the deflationary bias of precious metals, and to participate fully in the technical trend towards mathematical abstraction and electronic communicability, whilst also enjoying strong cryptographic protection against surveillance, expropriation, and fraud. Astonishingly, such a currency seems already to exist. Its name is ‘Bitcoin’.

The twin, interactive drivers of modernity – commerce and technology – come together in Bitcoin with unprecedented fusional intensity. This is a currency that is simultaneously an open source computer program, entirely native to cyberspace, and a financial innovation, conducting a real-time experiment that is at once social, technical, and economic. Built on the foundations of public key encryption (PKE), it creates a peer-to-peer open network – without any controlling node or discretionary human management – to sustain a radically decentralized monetary system.

Originally devised by Satoshi Nakamoto (whose outline paper can be found here), Bitcoin disconnects trust from authority. In particular, it is designed to overcome the problem of double spending.

Because digital ‘goods’ can be replicated at near-zero cost, they are economically defined as ‘non-rivalrous’. If you sell me a computer, I now own it, and you do not. As with all rivalrous goods, ownership implies exclusion. If you sell me a computer program, on the other hand, there is no reason to assume that you have not kept a copy for yourself, or that the ‘same’ program could not be sold to multiple purchasers. Such non-rivalrous goods pose numerous intriguing economic questions, but one thing is entirely clear: non-rivalrous money is an impossibility. Without scarcity, or exclusive exchange, the very idea of monetary quantity loses all sense, as does monetary value, spending and investment, and consumer choice.

The Bitcoin algorithm makes a digital currency rivalrous, and thus effective as money, without recourse to any administrative authority. It does so by initiating an automatic or spontaneous ecology, in which computers on the network authenticate Bitcoin exchanges as a side-effect of ‘mining’ for new coins. Nodes earn new coins, at a diminishing rate, by solving a difficult digital puzzle – accessible only to a brute force, computationally-intensive approach – and thus exhibiting proof-of-work. This test screens the system from malicious interventions, by establishing a practically insurmountable barrier to any user who seeks to falsify the record of exchanges. Competent discussions can be found here, here, and (most diversely) here.

This problem, and solution, is very far from arbitrary. It is precisely because existing fiat currencies have taken on disturbingly non-rivalrous characteristics that alarm about currency debasement has reached such a pitch of exasperation. When a central bank, in the course of running a typically loose monetary policy, can simply speed up the printing presses or (still worse) the electronic equivalent, the integrity of the money supply is devastated at the root. Bitcoin rigorously extirpates such ruinous discretion from its system, by instantiating a theory of sound money as a precisely and publicly defined electronic experiment.

Unsurprisingly, the Bitcoin monetary aggregate is modeled on precious metal, generated by miners from a finite global reserve, with rising extraction costs. The reward for coin mining falls over time at a logarithmic (Zenonian) rate, towards a limit of fractionally under 21,000,000 BTC. Each Bitcoin can be subdivided to eight decimal places, to a total of over two quadrillion (2,100,000,000,000,000) fragments, equivalent to 210,000 Bitcoin ‘quanta’ for each of the 10 billion people making up the earth’s anticipated climax human population. A Bitcoin quantum (0.00000001 BTC) is named a ‘Satoshi’ (after Satoshi Nakamoto), although amendment to the system allowing for further sub-division at some future stage is not foreclosed. (For the total size of the Bitcoin economy look here.)

Bitcoin is programmed for deflation (of a sort). This is a source of delight to hard money types, and of outrage to those in the loose money (inflationary) camp. As an experiment, the great merit of Bitcoin is to raise this antagonism beyond the level of reciprocal polemics, to that of potential historical evidence — and real choice. Austrolibertarians have long claimed that free money systems are biased to deflation, and that central banking encourages inflation as a surreptitious mechanism of economic expropriation, to ultimately disastrous effect. Keynesians, in contrast, deplore deflation as an economic disease that suppresses productive investment and employment. Empirical testing could soon be possible.

Numerous other questions, theoretical and practical, present themselves. At the practical level, such questions work themselves out through speculative volatility, institutional adaptations, and technical challenges. Since the entire Bitcoin economy remains very small, relatively modest shifts in economic behavior yield wild swings in BTC value, including bubble-like surges, precipitous collapses, incontinent hype, and extravagant accusations. Despite the resilience of the core algorithm, the peripheral institutions supporting the Bitcoin economy remain vulnerable to theft, fraud, and malicious interventions. As with any revolutionary experiment, the developmental trajectory of Bitcoin is likely to be tumultuous and highly unpredictable.

The theoretical questions can be entertained more calmly. The most important of these concern the essential nature of money, and its future. Does Bitcoin successfully simulate the significant features of precious metals, such that their substance can be discarded from the monetary equation as irrelevant dross? How powerful are the forces leading to monetary convergence? Will first-mover advantage ‘lock-in’ Bitcoin at the expense of later alternatives? Or will multiple money systems – perhaps ever more heterogeneous ones – continue to co-exist? Is Bitcoin merely one stage in an open-ended sequence of innovative money systems, or does it capture the essential features of money quite definitively (leaving room only for incremental improvements, or tinkering)?

Supporters of the monetary status quo might insist on a further, more derisive line of questioning: is Bitcoin a dead end, an irrelevance, or a deluding libertarian cipherpunk fantasy, to be judged eventually as something akin to a hoax? Which is to note that, ultimately, the largest questions will be political, and the most heated discussions already are.

Can governments afford to tolerate unmanaged, autonomous currencies? We’ll see.