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Charlie Stross: The World is Complicated. Elegant Narratives Explaining Everything Are Wrong!

Today my guest on Singularity 1 on 1 is award winning science fiction author Charles Stross. It was his seminal singularity book Accelerando that not only won the 2006 Locus Award (in addition to being a finalist for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award and on the final ballot for the Hugo Award) but was also at least in part responsible for my launching of SingularitySymposium.com and SingularityWeblog.com.

During my conversation with Charlie we discuss issues such as: his early interest in and love for science fiction; his work as a “code monkey” for a start up company during the first dot com boom of the late nineties and the resulting short sci fi story Lobsters (which eventually turned into Accelerando); his upcoming book Rule 34; his take on the human condition, brain uploading, the technological singularity and our chances of surviving it.

As always you can listen to or download the audio file above or scroll down and watch the video interview in full. To show your support you can write a review on iTunes or make a donation.

Who is Charles Stross?

Charles Stross, 46, is a full-time science fiction writer and resident of Edinburgh, Scotland. The winner of two Locus Reader Awards and winner of the 2005 and 2010 Hugo awards for best novella, Stross’ works have been translated into over twelve languages.

Like many writers, Stross has had a variety of careers, occupations, and job-shaped-catastrophes in the past, from pharmacist (he quit after the second police stake-out) to first code monkey on the team of a successful dot-com startup (with brilliant timing he tried to change employer just as the bubble burst).

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  • Great interview!

    Two quotes I thought were highlights:

    12:00 of the second video, “I’m inclined to ask
    to what extent is a posthumanist anticipation of a Singularity a
    dangerous psychological blind spot where we are recycling the apocalyptic
    imagery that is embedded at a very low level in the firmware of the
    civilization that we live in.”

    And at the end: “if anyone ever gives you a narrative about the
    future, or the human condition , or the world we live in, that purports
    to explain everything, and it is simple, elegant and appealing, and
    internally consistent, it is almost certainly wrong. The real world is
    complicated”

    -What did you make, Socrates, of his change in opinion regarding the Singularity?

  • I think based on what he said it makes sense. Furthermore, I think his final message was indeed the most succinct yet eloquent criticism of the technological singularity in general and Ray Kurzweil in particular.

  • Yes, it is generally speaking the position of the Singularity Institute as well, and they focus on the problem of Ray’s notion ‘explaining everything’ and being ‘internally consistent’. They argue Ray gives too many details in his prediction (because he has predictions about all the sciences and the culture at each given stage) and that we should be weary of future predictions like that because although they may sound plausible (because they sound like a story with all the details filled in) the likelihood about being correct goes down with each detail you add to the story. (called the ‘conjunction fallacy’). It is easy to get carried away in predicting the future, and even though having more minimal predictions with less certainty is not as appealing on some levels, I can’t help but feel as though it is the best track to be on.

  • Marco Santini

    We are lucky the world is naturally complicated.
    This allows differentiation and increases opportunities. Saying that
    singularity is a sort of religion, implies that a forecast about its
    timing is uncertain.It is true, however, that the key elements able
    to trigger singularity – computers, biology, genetic engineering, micro
    engineering – will be fully available in about 20-30 years. Others, like
    AI or nanorobotics, are still to come, thus any forecast can only be
    hard. Is AI really necessary to trigger singularity? Or are
    sufficient other systems, like the entry of India, China and Africa
    among the advanced countries? I guess that singularity can begin with or
    without the support of AI. But only superintelligences can boost
    it, on condition we know how to build them together with the environment
    they can interact with, in order to achieve the maximum rate of
    progress (and not destruction). Yes, the world is definitely
    complicated. But this complication is a blessing, because of the many
    hidden degrees of freedom that may be used by sufficiently intelligent
    beings as levers.

  • mahatma

    i got the strange feeling you think the internet
    is a precursor to heaven and A.I.s will be lazy things that only want to
    drink piña-coladas by the swimming pool – really lacking any respect
    for the money motivation/fear factor lol

  • Dan Vasii

    I am sorry, Mr. Santini, but I don’t understand your point when you said “the key elements able
    to trigger singularity – computers, biology, genetic engineering, micro
    engineering – will be fully available in about 20-30 years”: 1. How are the items of your list “key elements” of singularity, and not the items of the second list – AI&nanorobotics; 2. Aren’t the items of the aforementioned list  “fully available” now? What are they missing in order to be so right now?

  • Dan Vasii

    Question: How the vision provided by the Three Patriarchs of Singularity(Vernor Vinge, Charles Stross and Alastair Reynolds, by the way, when an interview with the autor of “Revelation Space”?) be compared with the Deluge of statistics whose wellspring is the wellknown Mr. Kurzweil?

  • Dan Vasii

    A sheer delight to hear the autor of “Accelerando” – when I read the book, I couldn’t digest all the ideas and insights of it. Together with Vinge’s trilogy and Alastair Reynolds “Revelation Space”, it is a compelling perspective of a plausible future. This interview clarified couple of things about the background of both the autor and the novel.

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  • I don’t know any rich accountants or lawyers outside the governmental and entertainment industries. Interesting how only slightly different cultures produce differing societal norms.

    But I do share Stross’ take on fiction- to explore the human condition. I also agree with his questioning whether there will be “room for humans” in a post-Singularity environment. I like to imagine a Kurzweilian post-Singularity, where humans and machines are blissfully fused. But the doomsday outcome is fun to write about too. 🙂

    Great point about an environmentally collapsing future in which 8 – 9 billion people expect to live with a “developed world” standard of living. Ignoring that problem, either through denial (as most petroleum company-paid Republican politicians do in the USA), or via a Singularity-will-save-us mindset is betting on a future we don’t have yet. I’m reasonably convinced a Singularity will happen, but I’m not reasonably convinced when it will happen. Kurzweil’s 2045 sounds good, but humans have a long history of self-sabotage.

    My favorite quote: “The last thing we’re gonna want to do is to actually emulate a real human mind . . ” I emphatically agree, especially if that “real human mind” emulation is exponentially more intelligent than an actual human. The moral and safety considerations- for actual humans AND the emulation, would be staggering, IMO. Yet we will boldly go, because we can.

  • Great points as always Cynthia,

    The last one in particular is a great topic to discuss with Dr. Randal Koene for one of my next podcast episodes on the topic of the ethics of mind uploading and brain emulation…

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