RE: Singularity Media (was: Wednesday's chatlog)

From: Ben Goertzel (
Date: Sun Mar 10 2002 - 08:43:31 MST

> To get greater exposure (with the ultimate aim of adequate funding for the
> right projects) we need more than books. We need Singularity:
> The Magazine,
> Singularity: The Multimedia Experience, Singularity: The TV Documentary,
> Singularity: The Motion Picture, Singularity for the Mac and the PC, and
> yes, even Singularity: The Jiggling Plush Novelty. (I'm thinking fluffy
> bunnies here)

I agree that wider exposure to the Singularity idea (and related but yet
shocking notions) could possibly be a good thing.

However, there are several major cautions to be observed here. I will list
two, in order of increasing severity.


One large risk, which I am certainly not the first to observe, is as
follows. Suppose someone creates a huge media uproar over the
Singularity -- with good intentions, but resulting in a widespread
superficial, glitzy "Hollywood" style vision of the Singularity. People get
excited. Then the Singularity frustratingly fails to come tomorrow --
instead there's another dot-com crash or 9/11 disaster, or whatever. The
Singularity becomes the next Virtual Reality -- i.e. the next craze to get
people overoptimistically psyched about the possibility of X, and then
disenchanted with the slowness of the actual advent of X.

"Singularity: The Movie" sounds great. Sure, if it comes out like "2001: A
Space Odyssey". But what if it comes out like "A.I.: Artificial
Intelligence", or, say, "Robocop." Feeding deep ideas to the popular media
mill has a way of transforming them into trivial and foolish things, easily
dismissed as fantasies.

I'm not saying this is an unavoidable problem, but it's certainly a big
risk. Modern culture can absorb *anything* as superficial entertainment,
even the end of the world as we know it... (wait a minute - hey - that's a
pop song already! ;)

Really getting the average person to *think* about something, to accept the
reality of something counterintuitive, is a much harder problem than
disseminating ideas in popular media forms.

I don't have the solution to this problem right now, but I can tell you that
the solution to *effectively* popularizing the Singularity lies in a really
subtle consideration of mass psychology. And the solution will be very
different in different countries of the world.


Thinking about the great variety of nations in the world brings up another
risk: that popularization leads to rampant spreading of some variant of
Luddite meme.

The Singularity sounds pretty fucking different in Brazil than in the US, to
name two of the countries with which I'm fairly familiar. For one thing,
the average person in a poor country will immediately assume that the
Singularity is going to be only for the rich -- since, well, nearly all
other technology is, right?

The statements of Moravec and other Extropians to effect that "the poor of
the world are like dinosaurs headed for extinction, and who cares" -- should
they ever get widespread international media attention -- aren't going to
play very well in the favelas on the hills outside Rio...

And remember, nearly all people in the world are religious. I don't have
anything against religion as a general principle -- I have great respect for
many of the varieties of spiritual experience, and in fact my wife is a
Buddhist priest. But the fact is that most current religions teach
superstitous doctrines that are implicitly or explicitly anti-Singularity in
nature. Religious people by and large are made very uneasy by cloning,
uploading, and other ideas that we on this list take for granted.

It seems very, very possible that wide attention brought to the consequences
of future technology, might lead to a widespread outcry to SQUELCH this
technology, just as we're seeing now with stem cell research and human
cloning in the US.

Sure, I believe that squelching AI would be vastly harder than squelching
biotech, since computers are everyday household appliances by now. But do
we really want government agents trying to crush AI research, so that this
e-mail list has to be conducted with homebrew crypto, and academic
researchers working on Real AI have to adopt mainstream "cover-up" research
programs or lose their jobs (heck, this is already almost true just based on
cultural bias within the computer science community!!)?

We need to seriously consider the possibility that mass understanding of the
Singularity at this point would be a BAD thing.

I am not saying for sure that it would be a bad thing. But to so blithely
assume it would be a good thing, seems to me very naive about human nature
and the diversity of world cultures.

>From this point of view, the "trivialization" risk may be a *good* thing.
It may be that the only thing saving us from demonization by the masses,
and consequent government repression of our research, is precisely the
INABILITY of the masses of humanity to do anything but reject or trivialize
ideas as far-out as the Singularity. (Please note my wording: I said it
"may" be. I don't know.)

I'm sorry if this sounds elitist. However, the fact is that a large
percentage of the world's population holds what I (and probably almost all
of us on this list) consider to be ridiculously dangerous and irrational
views. Examples are well-known:

-- the post-death journey to Heaven or Hell

-- reincarnation

-- the belief that their own racial or cultural group is somehow objectively
superior to all others ("the chosen people of god", to use a phrase
associated with one of the cultural groups into which I was born)

-- the use of the belief in their own group's superiority to justify
murdering members of other groups, individually or via intertribal or
international warfare

These beliefs gratify human emotions in deep ways and have proved
impressively resistant to reason. Reasoning about the Singularity is not
likely to sway them. And that is all we have to offer about the Singularity
right now: Reasoning, plus a bit of associated poetry. [Furthermore, this
is a line of reasoning that even the vast majority of academics and
scientists and intellectuals do not (yet) accept....]

Well, I have typed on this long enough for the morning -- time to get the
kids brekky -- but although I have not brought this message to any grand
conclusion I hope I have at least made the point that popularizing the
Singularity in an effective way is neither

a) easy, nor

b) necessarily desirable

There are big, big issues here.

-- Ben G

-- Ben

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