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The Value of Science Fiction in Understanding the Singularity

Many contend that science fiction has no place in the discussion of artificial intelligence and the singularity. In my opinion, that’s not true.

They argue that understanding the impact of artificial intelligence and transhumanism is serious business. When we read the work of MIRI, books like Our Final Invention, or Ray Kurzweil’s writings, we see the stakes are high for both benefits and risks. Differences in opinion cause tensions to run strong between scientists, futurists, and business leaders.

Future word cloud
At first glance, this seriousness suggests the tropes of science fiction could lead to trivialization of the singularity or more disinformation than useful discourse. Indeed, I’ve experienced people in the field of machine intelligence scoffing at the idea of reading science fiction.


But I’d like to argue there are good reasons why science fiction adds value to the discussion on the technological singularity.


1. Fiction is widely accessible and enables learning without the feeling of being lectured. The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement is one of the best selling business books of all time with more than two million books sold and is a staple of MBA courses. Although it’s written in the form of a fictional novel, it does a great job of explaining the concepts behind lean manufacturing and the theory of constraints. The Phoenix Project by Gene Kim is a novel that does the same for the field of IT management, and the just released Uncommon Stock by Eliot Peper teaches startup entrepreneurship. By presenting lessons in the realm of fiction, readers can acquire new ideas during their recreation time. Learning can also happen without provoking the defensive measures some people have when confronted with new information. Numerous studies have shown the human mind is wired to hear and remember stories, making storytelling the most effective mode of persuasion and communication.


2. Science fiction invites the exploration of ideas and expands the range of what people see as possible. I often see comments on Avogadro Corp, my novel about the emergence of AI, that it stretches their idea of what’s plausible or requires a suspension of disbelief. I’m somewhat shocked by this reaction, because Avogadro Corp is intended to reflect reality as close as possible. What I’ve gradually come to realize over several years is that I have two sets of readers: those that have a habit of reading science fiction, and those who are reading it perhaps for the first time. The latter group isn’t used to considering ideas in the wide-open-acceptance way that many readers of science fiction are. A frequent consumer of science fiction, for example, isn’t flummoxed when a story takes place on a spaceship. They accept the initial idea, and then quickly move on to explore the implications: What would it mean to live on a spaceship? How would society be impacted? What are the cultural norms on a closed environment? More frequent reading of science fiction encourages this playful exploration of ideas and their impact. This game of “what if” is crucial to the consideration of new ideas and new technology.


3. Science fiction makes it easier to understand complex ideas. Because the writer controls the story, they can choose setting, ideas, and characters that enhance the readers ability to understand complex ideas. Charles Stross, for example, explores the themes of economics and finance throughout many of his books. Readers may get a better understanding of the Bitcoin protocol by reading Neptune’s Brood than any non-fiction.


4. Science fiction may be imprecise, but so is real life. Critics of science fiction often complain about the many ways that scifi books get real science wrong. But when listening to the Singularity 1 on 1 podcast, I see there are almost as many definitions of singularity as there are people interviewed. Even so, by listening to many podcasts over time, I can gain a richer understanding of the relevant concepts, and identify what is common and what is an outlier. Similarly, any one science fiction work may contain errors, but by reading many fictional works about the singularity, a reader can gain a more nuanced understanding of the topic.


5. Familiarity reduces hysteria. Despite the prevalence of fiction about AI talking over the world, for the most part, people aren’t freaking out about it. That’s because there’s also plenty of fiction that depicts the opposite side of the coin (a few examples include Asimov’s robots, Data from Star Trek, and the Star Wars androids). They’ve had time to acclimate to the notion. Compare this to a topic like GMOs, and you can see that what we don’t know scares us. Whether the fear is justified or not, most people react to the idea emotionally rather than logically.


If you don’t read science fiction, give it a try. If you do, tell your friends about it. And if you’re a scientist or researcher working in the field, don’t just slam singularity fiction. Instead, give it a fair chance and comment on what the author got right and wrong. Most authors want to get their science right and love getting expert feedback.


If you’ve never read singularity fiction, here are a few books I love:


  • Accelerando by Charles Stross: Accelerando is the book that changed how I thought about the entire field of science fiction. Stross made it so that any science fiction novel that didn’t consider the technological singularity seemed implausible.
  • The Lifecycle of Software Object by Ted Chiang: The Lifecycle of Software Objects is a wonderful story about how complex AI will grow and learn much the way humans do. I suspect that much of the early-generation strong AI will be like this, and we’ll end up with tech startups whose speciality will be training and educating AI.
  • Computer One by Warwick Collins: In Computer One, Warwick Collins lays out a compelling argument for why it’s likely that AI would try to preemptively wipe out humans. I think it’s an important read in the field of AI.
  • Daemon by Daniel Suarez: Daemon is mind-blowingly good. The basic idea is that a videogame designer dies, leaving his massively multiplayer online RPG running, with its AI set to take certain actions on his death. The AI has the ability to interact with the real world through text messages, emails, and phone calls. Brilliant and scary.
  • Nexus by Ramez Naam: Ramez goes deep into what it means to have connected minds. The focus is less on AI and more on transhumanism.

book on star background.Elements of this image furnished by NASA

When China wondered why their scientists and engineers weren’t as creative as their American counterparts, they set out to study why. Talking to scientists and engineers around the world, they found those with the most imagination and creativity all shared a love of science fiction. The race to create strong AI as well as the race to protect us from possible dangers can both benefit from such creativity and imagination.


About the Author:


William-Hertling-thumbWilliam Hertling is the award-winning author of Avogadro Corp, A.I. Apocalypse, and The Last Firewall. His science fiction series, set at ten year intervals, explores the emergence and coexistence of artificial intelligence and transhumanism. You can follow him at @hertling


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  • Should universities build SF into their science/engineering curriculum? Seems like the scientific community could benefit (and students might enjoy a break from textbooks!).

  • My answer is an emphatic “Yes” Eliot! And William Hertling’s books are a very good place to start actually.

  • I’m with your Socrates! The Singularity Series should be required reading for anyone studying computer science.

  • Madeline Ashby

    And if you’re interested in a couple of books on the subject written by a woman, there are always my Machine Dynasty novels.

  • Good point Madeline, all of the above books are written by men ;-(

  • RedneckCryonicist

    A couple generations back, science fiction writers propagandized our fathers and grandfathers with the idea that they would live in a technologically progressive “space age” in the 21st Century. And we’ve seen how that turned out. Science fiction writers don’t have any privileged insight into “the future.”

    In fact, it must suck for the surviving science fiction writers, the guys born in the 1930’s and 1940’s who grew up reading this space age propaganda in pulp magazines and added their own – namely, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Ben Bova, Gregory Benford, Vernor Vinge et al, – to realize that they live after the space age.

    Just like I think it will suck for today’s science fiction writers who write singularity propaganda if they survive to the 2040’s and realize that they live after the time of a nonexistent singularity.

  • What’s the relationship between gender imbalance in SF and gender imbalance in engineering? Anything counter-intuitive?

  • williamhertling

    I think no singularity may be the less risky option, so I’m not sure it would be so bad. Aside from that…

    While physical technology progressed far slower than anticipated by both scientists and writers, information technology has progressed far faster than anyone anticipated. If you look at the fiction of the 50s through 80s, there was very little about information technology.

    That may be the simple reality of bits versus atoms.

    The differing pace of each of those areas suggests to me that even though we’re not all living on space habitats, we are still likely to see intelligent AI.

  • That may have been because space exploration was for so long the province of government. Pournelle’s & Niven’s 1981 classic, A Step Farther Out, showed how free enterprise could do it, and now we have the dot com billionaires who established Planetary Resources pursuing the goal of mining asteroids. Drexler’s 1992 book Engines of Creation made a similar contribution to the evolution of thought regarding transhumanism, but there has been less government interference and the advances have come much faster. Government always involves decision making by committee, which can take forever. Change tends to happen faster when you have visionary entrepreneurs (or deranged dictators) calling the shots.

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  • Im American teaching science fiction writing/reading in top science university in China. Students love it. It opens their mind, allows them to discuss possibilities, and actually relaxes them from the rigors of their PhD studies. Should be an elective in all American unis.

  • Im American teaching science fiction writing/reading in top science university in China. Students love it. It opens their mind, allows them to discuss possibilities, and actually relaxes them from the rigors of their PhD studies. Should be an elective in all American unis.

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