THE REALITY CLUB



From: Kai Krause
Date: August 5, 2000

It's time to remember that the future cannot be extrapolated from the past!
By Kai Krause

In the 1930s there was a lovely movie called Metropolis by Fritz Lang, probably one of the best in its genre. Here was a vision of the future where factory workers in gigantic cities under glass domes would endlessly turn huge wheels and push gigantic buttons.

How incredibly far this description strays from the reality now that we have hit 2000 need not be further expounded, but it strikes me as amazing that there are still attempts over and over again to do the exact same simplistic extrapolations from today forward.

The chances that the newfangled production lines and electrical machinery of the 1930s would somehow multiply was obvious, however the manner in which this would play itself out was NOT more and larger or anything linear.

And the same will inevitably apply to the new worlds of nanotechnology and roboticae.

As a optimistic realist skeptic I have to wonder what the point is even in either ringing the alarm bells or calmly denying problems in an area that is so certain to undergo mutations at every turn no one not even in this distinguished round should have the hubris to presume they could jump over their own shadow. This is a Gödel-like system exclusion problem, not one scientist merely not having thought long enough, or his colleague overlooking some detail and if only they argue enough we'll divine this future. We won't. Period.

The only value of the recent manifestos published by Joy and Kurzweil published by Schirrmacher in FAZ may well be the PR effects for the authors, but I see literally no real basis for serious discussion in the contrived dreams or fears. It's too early, we know too little, ideas mutate too fast. Clearly there will be immense changes ahead, but what is the point of talking about "robots becoming too aware" when you can't even add a number into your cell phone without 35 keystrokes.

Where is the grandiose A.I. when we barely have machines that stay on for more than an hour without a hiccup. Why can't we build damn PCs that turn on in one second rather than talking about robots that plot evil eradication plans? There needs to be a serious discussion of the implications of technology. But a discussion of the dangers of net pornography would have been very out of place in 1912. A lengthy treatise on portable computers by scholars in 1958 would be entirely useless to us now. Let's wake up to the fact that we just don't have the data and the tools to jump that far.

To discuss the Web one needed to get at least a few years into it to have a base for the curves. Someone in 1993 would make meaningful comments on 2003 and maybe even 2013 but no one in 1976 could have talked about 1996.

For Kurzweil to talk about 40 years out, we may need to get 20 years towards it for any sentence to make any sense!

All the wishful thinking and self-important stances to toil with lofty subject matter gets us dangerously close to the other completely irrelevant "visions" of what may happen. When 1984 was still The Future and everyone works in factories when cars hover and fly away, when aliens have funny facial features and yet always just enough room for a human underneath...Watch any SciFi feature to see how things will not be.

A few other thoughts that tangentially tickle me on this:

• My disappointment lies in the fact that this is all so unimaginative and so anthropocentric. Real aliens don't need merely thicker noses. Who knows what a 3% difference in gravity could bring? You cannot extrapolate a Giraffe from a Hippo....half the creations in nature are mindbogglingly unique solutions, subtle and swift, optimized and beautiful in their mere existence and effectiveness. And yet were are sitting here with Windows Millennium debating way out of our league.

• the downfall of futuristic visions is the MUNDANE. Not miscalculations in technical details, but what real humans out there do with this shit. Spend half an hour in public transportation, watch random over the air TV and then think again. Sit in a decrepit Amtrak and then tell me about the domed cities & whose budget that is.

• the most complex part of the human system may well be the capability to self heal. Imagine every nick and cut and bruise you ever had since childhood cumulatively staying on your body... Never mind the number of neurons and fancy synapse nets that promise to be built in silicon any minute now: if the robots don't have self healing, we have little to worry about. The armies taking over our earth will stall like any hard disk from 4 years ago.


From: Clifford Pickover
Date: August 5, 2000

Frank Schirrmacher discusses several topics. The idea of getting useful ideas from science fiction is not new. Currently there is a big push for this in Europe. For example, the European Space Agency (ESA) has recently asked various foundations to conduct a study on technologies and concepts found in science fiction, in order to obtain imaginative ideas for long-term development by the European space sector. You can learn more by clicking here.

Designer molecules are currently making the biggest impact in the creation of new drugs. Scientists are creating new pharmaceuticals, new amino acids, new proteins, even new genetic codes. I'm sure that someday soon they'll construct entirely new lifeforms. However, if nanotechnology ever develops to a super advanced art in which we can construct pets and lovers from the ground up, why would we ever need "real" ones? Perhaps the difficulty would be that artificial pets and lovers would need to be constructed with a lifetime of "experience" to make them desirable. What types of artificial experience would you like to give to a simulated spouse or companion?

 


From: Stewart Brand
Date: August 6 , 2000

I agree with Schirrmacher that science fiction has had considerable influence on the current generation of technoids and scientists, but my impression is that it was books far more than Hollywood that did the deed. Asimov's Foundation series was never made into film or TV. Neither have any of Doc Smith's Lensmen series, nor any interesting Heinlein, nor Shockwave Rider, nor Vernor Vinge, nor Neal Stephenson, nor etc., etc. Were the science fiction books of America and England never translated into German? Maybe it's time they were.

Science fiction films that have conveyed serious ideas or inspiration are pretty rare — 2001 indeed, Bladerunner, Gattica, The Matrix. What else?


From: Jaron Lanier
Date: August 7, 2000

A film that moved me when I was a kid was Zardoz — I remember a sentient computer implemented in a fist-sized quartz crystal, clever extrapolations of issues from the 1960s (racism, feminism, suburban ennui), naked women in nets on a beach (I was 12 or so), interesting use of Beethoven...a sophisticated film about biotech, as I remember it. Or maybe I remember it as being more interesting than it really was. Just did a quick search on the net and found it under a site that reviews only "bad movies". But if there was a science fiction movie that influenced me, hat's the one.


From: Bruce Sterling
Date: September 7, 2000

Normally I maintain a discreet silence when I read these Third Culture things, but since "Edge 73" seems so determined to wax all science-fictional, I feel I must speak up.

I have to say I really enjoy these Teutonic perorations from Frank Schirrmacher. I read him with close attention and admire his ability to kick up dust. Could it be that American culture is really just as he describes it? Maybe we Americans really are like that! The mere possibility is mind-boggling!

I suspect, however, that Mr. Schirrmacher may have slightly misplaced his emphasis when it comes to science fiction's ability to warp and mutate culture. If you want to see a science fiction novelist with a truly powerful reality-distortion field, you don't have to look any further than Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich wasn't scripting sci-fi movies. The guy was the Speaker of the House. I further note that Gingrich's Republican majority quickly abolished the Congress's Office of Technology Assessment. Granted, the folks at the OTA were something less than prophetic oracles, but they were well-qualified, legally appointed federal authorities, who were in the everyday business of assessing technology. The OTA had the necessary funding and personnel to acquire the necessary facts and figures, they had the political power to have the players in technology hauled in for hearings under oath. They were sane, sensible and authoritative. That's why Gingrich couldn't stand them, and that's why they're extinct now. Who else is left to assess technology? There's nobody. Nobody but hobbyists, day-traders and cranks.

It seems comical to blame Hollywood sci-fi movies for warping the minds of engineers. America had a Hollywood B-movie actor as the nation's Chief Executive for two terms. So exactly what solemn Establishment applecart is being upset when oddballs like Freitas, Rifkin, Kurzweil, Venter, and Lanier speak their minds about technology? The proper public reaction should be pathetic gratitude.

When we find Bill Joy striding on the nano-frontier like Gary Cooper in High Noon, one lonely, black-clad figure in the hot sunshine of focussed media attention, we should solemnly take our hats off. Yes, he's a vigilante, but he's the only marshal around these-here parts. If we dare, we should take our rusty rifles from the closet to aid and abet Bill Joy. Who gives two pins about the guy's 1960s bildungsroman when he was watching Star Trek? If you don't like a future publicly defined by wacky cranks, do something constructive about it. Let's see you creep out from behind that Hollywood water barrel and stand up in the hot light of day.


Back to "Beyond 2001: HAL's Legacy for the Enterprise Generation" by Frank Schirrmacher




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