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Karl Schroeder: The Singularity is an Old Idea. Keep Moving Forward!

Karl SchroederKarl Schroeder is one of those fantastic science fiction authors and futurists who, despite his numerous and profound books, have not quite made it into the mainstream yet. In fact, it was just a week ago that Eric Boyd emailed me to suggest that I interview Karl on Singularity 1 on 1 and I was skeptically struggling to figure out who Schroeder is, why I’ve never heard of him before and why he would be a good interview subject.

Little did I know that Karl Schroeder will turn out to be one of the smartest and most enjoyable interviewees I have ever had on the show. He not only managed to challenge and stimulate me intellectually but also provided alternative lenses that I can now use when looking at the world and thinking about the future. I can honestly admit that it took only an hour for me to become a Schroeder fan and I have already finished reading one of his earlier books – Sun of Suns.

During our discussion with Karl we cover a wide variety of topics such as: his Mennonite background and early interest in science fiction; the Hunger Games and Karl’s peacekeeping foresight novel for the Canadian military – Crisis in Zefra (free download);  the differences and the similarities between foresight and science fiction; the technological singularity as a possible though, in Karl’s estimate, not a probable scenario for our future; the concepts of the technological maximum, rewilding and natural selection; Schroeder’s Law as a solution to the Fermi Paradox; his novels Lady of Mazes and Sun of Suns; exponential growth, systems theory and limiting factors thereof; transhumanism and his concepts of trans-lionism; trans-dogism and inhumanism.

My favorite quote from Schroeder:

“You have to keep moving forward. […] The singularity is not the most interesting current idea. It’s old at this point. You’ve got to keep up. You’ve have got to look at what’s going on now. […] Sure, take the singularity – use it – it’s a lens. Develop other lenses! Use other lenses! Keep looking forward! Keep looking for new ideas, for blind-spots! And the world will continue to be a very interesting place.”

(As always you can listen to or download the audio file above or scroll down and watch the video interview in full.)

Technological Maximum (as defined by Karl Schroeder):

You hit the technological maximum when you have systems that can rapidly perform natural selection on technological designs. As one of the characters puts it in my novel The Sunless Countries, “Everybody’s equally able to evolve new devices because everybody has the same, perfect physics model. Once you’ve got that model, and fast enough calculation, nobody in the universe should be able to come up with a machine that you can’t duplicate. You just select for it and its design eventually pops out. So there’s a technological stalemate everywhere in the universe.” This is analogous to the biological stalemate that pertained on Earth prior to the evolution of human beings.

The Rewilding (as defined by Karl Schroeder):

The Rewilding, by contrast, is simply a vision of what happens when you erase the distinction between the natural and the artificial. Some cognitive studies, for instance, suggest that the human brain offloads difficult calculations to the physical environment whenever it can. When catching a pop-fly in baseball, for instance, the brain does not attempt to do the calculations necessary to predict the trajectory of the ball; instead it gets you to run backward while occluding the ball with your glove and keeping a fixed angle between your arm and the horizon. This replaces the calculations. Such ‘partial programs’ mean that you’re not required to process all information internally; you use your ambient environment as part of your thinking apparatus. In The Rewilding, we have a world of physical partial programs. Why build a water treatment plant when you can use the local wetlands for the same purpose? In The Rewilding, we establish mutually beneficial relationships with physical and ecological systems while not compromising our ambitions; if you need a nuclear power plant, you still
build a nuclear power plant, but if there’s a partnership with some natural system that will provide the same result, you go that way.

Who is Karl Schroeder?

Karl Schroeder is one of Canada’s leading science fiction and fantasy authors. He lives in Toronto, Ontario, and divides his time between writing science fiction and consulting in foresight studies (chiefly concerning the future of technology). He is the author of nine novels, as well as the influential “foresight scenario fiction,’ Crisis in Zefra, which was written for the Canadian army in 2005. His novels have been translated into French, German, Spanish, Russian and Japanese. In addition to his fiction works, Mr. Schroeder has published The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Science Fiction, written with Cory Doctorow (MacMillan, August, 2000). As an active member of the Canadian speculative fiction writing community, he helped found SF Canada, the Canadian national science fiction and fantasy writers’ association, in 1989, and was president from 1996 to 1997. He taught science fiction writing at George Brown College from 1992 to 1994.

Karl was born and raised in Brandon, Manitoba. He has a Mennonite background, and in fact comes from the same southern Manitoba Mennonite community as “golden age” SF grand master A.E. van Vogt. Growing up, Karl assumed that novel writing was a career option because his mother had published two novels with Zondervan, “Year of Discovery” and “The Secret of His Presence” and so books with Schroeder on their spines were in the bookshelf along with those of Andre Norton, Agatha Christie, and others. He moved to Toronto in 1986, married Janice Beitel in 2001, and he and Janice have one child.

Since 2003 Karl has been doing work in strategic foresight (also known as futurism) for clients such as the Canadian government and army. In 2011 he achieved a Master’s degree in Strategic Foresight and Innovation from OCAD University of Toronto. He regularly consults on the future of technology, and also does public speaking both in person and in the media on the intersection of science and society, and on trends for the future.

Karl’s novels present technology as a realm of experimental philosophy, where previously theoretical constructs are given flesh. His current concern is the notion that “technology is legislation” and that because of this fact, humanity will not gain control of its own political or evolutionary destiny until we learn to anticipate and control the effects that new technologies have upon society.

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  • This is perhaps the most surprising podcast I have heard on Singularity 1 on 1. I greatly value hearing very intelligent and knowledgeable people explain speculations and theories radically different from my own. Thank you Mr. Schroeder and Nikola!

  • You are very welcome Cynthia,

    and I have to admit that I felt very much the same way during the interview. Karl Schroeder’s impact on the way I view the world might turn out to be not only long lasting but also totally profound…

    It is also noteworthy that other sci fi authors such as Charles Stross have expressed similar skepticism about the singularity: https://www.singularityweblog.com/charlie-stross-on-singularity-1-on-1-the-world-is-complicated-elegant-narratives-explaining-everything-are-wrong/

  • Cripes.

    Existential crisis in 3 . . 2 . .

  • It is good for that means we are learning i.e. we are not ideologically stuck in our own thinking…

  • Think!

    undoubtedly Mr. Schroeder is a very intelligent and insightful man and one can completely agree with his idea of being skeptical and looking for new ideas.
    Actually though, in my opinion, most questions that he raises can be answered with the ideas of the singularity or just slightly miss the point.
    “Intelligence is not needed”: Sure, look at viruses and you see that’s true. Nevertheless there is no doubt, that intelligence is the _most successful_ player in the battle of survival. And it espacially will as it is increasing.
    “evolution has no destiny” (things just falling of the wall): That is, I think, a very philosophical question. I want to answer with in another question: Does something not have a destiny, if it’s moving basically in one direction all the time? Of course you have to define destiny, but it can be descibed as just a point where you will get.
    “only parts are increasing exponentially / flying experience hasn’t changed”: True. For today. But it’s also true that more and more becomes information technology, therefore more and more part of the exponential growth. (Besides, I’m pretty sure that you didn’t have free movies and flat screens in the seats and mp3-players in airplanes 30 years ago. But I think, that’s not what he was talking about 🙂 )
    Technological maximum: Very interesting theoretical idea. But does natural selection ever stop? I’d say no. You can always only get best result _for that moment_.
    Transhumanism/ “we’ll alway stay human/it won’t be better”: Of course we will stay human and I really _hope_ it will be the case. The question if it is good or if we will act morally or if it is (or will be) ethical to wipe out whole other species is another question which you can even apply for now.

    There’s a lot more in it of course, I just have to continue studying for now :).

    Great Website, great interviews, keep the good work up!

  • Hugh

    Hi Socrates. I have to say, the best way I can put it is that this wouldn’t be the interview that I would use when recommending your site to others.

    I know you are trying to be open minded towards what seems a differing viewpoint, however some of the views expressed here seem confused and self-defeating to me. Its not good to over-reference Kurzweil, but here I think its appropriate to say that pretty well every effort made by Karl to query the Singularity has been beaten to it 7 years ago in TSIN, thats not to say RK is correct, but that the points here seem jaded. And to say its an old idea just doesnt strike any notes with me given that 99.9% of even the developed world are still dumb-struck by the thoughts driven by many including some of your previous interviewees. I cant say I feel Ive gained much by watching this particular talk, however please continue your great work and hopefully the next one will strike me more directly – PS. I did enjoy the Charlie Stross talk! 🙂

  • travobravo

    Just got done listening and like you I want to explore some of the new thought patterns a little more extensively before posting my input. But for now just wanted to voice my support in what your doing. Hang in there I will definitely be tipping soon as I get my tax return. I’m enjoying what you are doing. I’m not finding much new generalized media on these topics anywhere else yet.

  • Thank you friend! Your good words mean a lot to me and motivate me to keep going. This is at least as important, if not more so, than money. Thank you! 😉

  • travobravo

    Politics and Technology: Since you touched upon the topic I thought I would share an idea of mine that I put together a couple of years ago. I call it the “We the People Node”.
    The idea is to have a computer node that does not rely on ISP’s or the power company and connects directly/securely to your neighbors (it would have some kind of multi-port network communication interface built in to it that you could directly plug your neighbors into, something like a built in switch).
    This node would also serve as a tool to vote on things in the neighborhood and world.
    The node could use gps coordinates and a time stamp as an identifier instead of SSN/ip address, but would need to be backed up by personal verification, kind of like when you are initiated in to an organization you would have a personal face to face identifier for initial setup.
    The node would be hardware and software bottom up engineered for today’s security and media needs.
    Is it possible that by redesigning a computer system hardware and software from bottom up with the needs of today in mind versus the needs of the 50’s and 60’s that it could be faster, more secure, and all around more user friendly?

    It would be organized in such a way that it would have some of the following features

    Private space (for personal information and media not accessible to anyone except the operator)

    Public space (shared to all neighbors, which would include automatic backup redundancies, with the price of storage dropping we should be able to backup all neighbors shared media, this would also facilitate faster loading if neighbors public information was to be accessed locally)

    Political space (This would be a user friendly place that would make it much easier for people to interject, propose, vote, otherwise participate in local and globally related topics, one of the requirements for this feature is to do away with the electoral voting system, because every individual would be able to securely make their vote known. This way every vote would count.)

    Selling Points:

    No need for ISP
    Robust Security
    User friendly including built in ability to securely vote and participates on local and global topics
    Super fast processing/response time.
    would include automatic backup redundancies

  • It is an interesting idea friend, though I am not sure exactly how it arouse from my interview with Karl… perhaps I have to go and watch it again to see if I didn’t miss something…

  • travobravo

    His comments starting about 46:15 is what prompted me to post the Politics and Technology post, changing the way we govern ourself and tools that can be created to make it more efficient, tools to drive change.

  • Oh yes, that was, in fact, one of the very best points he made!

    Thanks for reminding me and contributing to the discussion!!! 😉

  • travobravo

    I haven’t read Lady of mazes yet but I am looking forward to it. Hopefully I don’t stick my foot in my mouth 🙂
    38:35, 47:20 Singularity “Trends and drivers” The trend and driver in our perceived universe seems to be life. There are many definitions of life, for the intent of this discussion we will define life in a couple of ways. It is the opposite of death, and it is that which promotes us to be different from death, which includes the ability to sustain our ability to live, to interact with our environment and grow.
    40:40, 47:20 Cherry picking “Why is it my experience of air travel has not changed in the last 30 years” I would propose that It has not changed due to the ability to govern or influence change
    41:50 Systems or parts of systems that continually contain “limiting factors” may be naturally selected out of the system or systems progression.
    42:50 “If all of the parts of the system cannot keep up with that rate of change, then the system will go down to the rate of change that it can sustain. It doesn’t matter if there are parts of the system that are capable of lifting off in some idealized world on their own. The question is can the system as a whole undertake that kind of change and when there are any limiting factors the answer is no.” – Hasn’t nature shown that systems have lifted off and natural selection has left the “limiting factors” behind?
    45:20 “Why do we assume we have no control over change?” – Hasn’t change occurred regardless of our actions; however we can drastically influence the rate and type of change that occurs, and in many cases is seems as though we can direct change.
    51:25, 52:15 “What good would translionism do?” and 52:15 “intelligence only serves the body.” There are many definitions of intelligence to me when I try to take a step back and look at the big picture in general terms it seem to me the definition of intelligence is to improve on the organization and efficiency of the universe, basically the ability to better organize matter.
    53:50 “A future where we eat up all our resources and die.” I guess the question here would be. Do we live in a finite cosmos?
    54:15 If “Evolution does not have a direction” shouldn’t evidence of human history go back further then 10,000 years? I guess I need to be brought up to speed on this topic?
    55:15 “There is no objective measure for what would be better than human” Wouldn’t the quality of individual and collective existence be a measure for what would be better than human?
    58:30 Thinking: Do artist think when are creating their art?
    1:01:11 “Random Walk” “minimum to complexity” Is intelligence and complexity synonymous?

  • WWYT –> What would Yudkowsky think?

    It’s surprising how much in this interview is covered by lesswrong sequences. For example, new political structures, a trancendent dog, direction in evolution, and other topics are addressed by the deity known as yudkowsky.


    Its great to get a different perspective. That is why I listened to this interview and appreciate it. But what would be much more valuable is understanding why people disagree — what causes differences in perspective, and is that really possible given an “objective” reality. And furthermore, how to change ones mind rather than ones perspective. Because then that may lead to a change in preferences, and then you become someone else.

    I very strongly disagree that human intelligence is not more powerful than natural selection. I am sure there are plenty of carefully defined ways that such a statement makes a lot of sense and is true. But not in ways that matter to me, that fulfill my preferences. But an interview series or even a carefully written article cannot address such a claim. In my experience, the only to resolve complex or emotionally charged issues is in person and with great patience (or maybe a great webcam connection).

    Whomever you get on your show next, I really hope you can seek more knowledge about the scientific evidence for or against the expansion/enhancement of human intelligence. Going to the prophet yudkowsky in this case does not leave me with much comfort. He says evolution is dumb, and this is consistent with much of evolutionary biology. Also, just because evolution is dumb does not mean we can alter human intelligence in significant ways without also altering human nature, destroying what we value in the process.

    I don’t believe in objective morality. I think it’s all about power. It just so happens that most people also want to be relatively respectful of other peoples wishes. I think some insight as to why so many moral theorists believe there is such a thing as objective morality would also be extremely helpful. I have a lot more to say about this but I realize time is precious.

    My grandma just passed away. But what saddens me most is how other religious family members feel about her passing. Sure, we share in a common sense of sadness, but they believe it is objectively true that I deserve to burn in hell forever, and this is the consensus within modern Christianity. It is a different topic entirely, I know, but one worth mentioning if you have experienced something like it.

  • CM Stewart

    I listened to this again, and have an even greater admiration of Schroeder’s creative intellect. I will be reading his books. The Singularity as a lens, and evolution as an environment-driven inevitability are the 2 points from this interview which impacted and resonated with me the most.

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  • Biological evolution is slow and cumbersome. Technological evolution is extremely fast (relatively), directed and efficient.

    I don’t understand how he could argue your point here.

    I think he’s not seeing the big picture of time in this sense… he’s saying that if you’re using tools you need those tools. However, if you’re directly adapted you don’t need the tools. Which… is correct in a sense however. Not only does the world around us change with tools.. it also changes without tools JUST MUCH SLOWER. We will ALWAYS need tools because we will NEVER be satisfied with standing still. Life is ABOUT CHANGE. That’s what life does and always will.

  • Travis Suter

    Wisdom is in letting go of or altering your most cherished ideas in light of new potentially contradicting yet valid information. Not to say that that is the ultimate outcome of this, but it’s great to see alternative viewpoints amidst your dedication. Thanks for your excellent work!

  • You are very welcome Travis, but check out my other interviews because most of them do provide an alternative viewpoint to one degree or another: http://www.singularitysymposium.com/singularity-podcast.html

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