A Talk by Rudy Rucker.
I often call myself a transrealist SF writer. This means that I turn my life and my speculations into science fiction, I watch what emerges in my novelistic laboratories, and I turn my science-fictional discoveries into scientific speculation, which in turn fuels fresh novels, on and on in an endless, rising gyre. Now and then my speculations have an impact on the real world. Today I’ll give you some specific examples of science fiction affecting science fact.
(1) First I’m going to talk about a particular idea that fueled the cyberpunk literary movement in the 1980s.
(2) Second I’m going to talk about how this idea has affected technology over the last twenty-five years.
(3) Third I’m going to talk about some ideas that I’m using in my new series of psipunk novels.
(4) Fourth I’ll say a bit about how I think my new ideas might play out in the technology of the coming twenty-five years.
1. My Idea for Cyberpunk
During the year 1979-1980 I wrote a novel called Software, which was to take its place as one of the very first cyberpunk novels. My new idea for the book was this:
A person’s mind can be uploaded into a robot.
To make the situation colorful, I had the subject’s software extracted by having a gang of sleazy biker-type androids eat his brain!
Although the notion of uploading a human into a computer is now commonplace, when I wrote Software, it was a rather new idea. I came upon the notion of software immortality by thinking in terms of the then-new distinction between a system’s physical hardware and the software that’s running on it. This was not at all an obvious thought in 1979, it took me nearly a year to wrap my mind around it.
Although it would be nice to claim that I single-handedly invented the notion of software immortality, Wikipedia lists three SF authors who mention uploading human minds into computers before my novel Software .
In Roger Zelazny’s 1968 Lord of Light , just like in my Wetware, people save their minds as electronic data and load them into fresh tank-grown meat bodies.
In Detta är verkligheten (This is reality), 1968, by the philosopher Bertil Mårtensson, people become programs in a giant VR (virtual reality) computation. And in Fredrik Pohl’s Heechee series beginning 1977, we have a hero whose wife’s mind has been uploaded into a mainframe computer.
In some ways, uploading into a mainframe VR is a less interesting notion than that of a person uploading into an individual microcomputer mind which operates a real bodies in the real world, and I think this a genuinely new move in my Software. In other words, I think I really was the first to write novels in which A person’s mind can be uploaded into a robot.
This was a farfetched enough notion in 1979-1980 that I actually had my robots’ computer mind housed in a Mr. Frostee ice-cream truck following the robots around.
We all had trouble imagining how small computers were about to get. The future is always stranger than any of us expects.
2. The Tech From Cyberpunk
What’s happened in the intervening quarter century? My idea has served as a metaphor, a guide, a vision. There are a number of figurative ways in which we do now upload into the machine.
In particular I’m thinking of how people upload text, pictures, audio and video. Although I can’t literally transform my personality into software, I can create a reasonable facsimile of myself online. The Web makes all the difference.
I often use the my word lifebox in this context to stand for a collection of data that holds a copy of a person’s life. My recent non-fiction book The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul discusses whether a lifebox emulation could ever truly be alive—and I think the answer will eventually be yes—but that’s not the issue I want to talk about today. Instead I want to focus on present-day and near-future technology.
As I say, the Web makes all the difference. The Web is something that I didn’t foresee in Software, but which William Gibson stressed in his contemporaneous Neuromancer, calling it cyberspace. That’s the other piece of cyberpunk, by the way. That is, cyberpunk is the web plus software immortality.
So what’s the big deal about the web? In the past, your life’s mementoes were but a dusty drawer of photos and diaries, or a cardboard box in a basement. But with the Web, your records can become a lifebox: a hyperlinked and searchable website mixing text, photos, sound and video.
If you’re technically inclined, you might make a personal website. If you’re a blogger like me, you create part of the lifebox on the fly, as you go along. Or, if you’re busy with other things, you might employ someone to create a lifebox for you: I think of, for instance, Stephen Wolfram’s website , which includes a very nice “scrapbook” section.
In the coming decade, there will be a very big business in lifebox-generation.
Why are online lifeboxes going to be so popular? The Web makes all the difference. If I’m blogging, then I have the gratification of being able to post to my blog right away. I can post the text of this speech, and pictures of the audience, and everyone in the world can read it, and recommend it, and post comments, and give me feedback (such as a comment thread debating whether I really invented software immortality.) I’m not a lonely nut. I’m part of the planetary mind. It feels good to be plugged in.
The ability to share and be heard and be connected is one reason for wanting a lifebox. But when I wrote Software, I was thinking in terms of literal, personal immortality. That’s not happening. In the literal sense, we’re not very close to transferring minds into computers.
At present we don’t have terribly strong tools for munging a lifebox’s data. But don’t underestimate the power of automated Web search. More specifically, the Search This Site box to be found on most blogs allows you to search a series of topics so that you are, in effect, interviewing the lifebox. What is an interview, after all, but applying a search engine to a data base?
A big part that’s still missing is the AI animation that’ll get my blog site to keep on generating entries after I’m dead! I can see a story idea in that, actually…
Finally I need to acknowledge that having even an artificially intelligent online copy of me somehow doesn’t seem like true immortality. But I don’t worry as much about personal immortality as I used to. The secret is to identify my inner glowing “I Am” with the universal light that fills the cosmos, and then there is no death to worry about.
But I if data won’t really make you immortal, why have a lifebox, a personal website, a photo-sharing page, a video-sharing presence, or a blog? To communicate with lots of people at once. To enable strangers to get to know you. To build a playground that people can interact with for a long time to come. To work in a new medium, to create a new kind of art.
And I would argue that technology has brought us these pleasures as part of our instinctive quest for Software Immortality.
3. My Ideas for Psipunk
Nowadays I’m dreaming of getting rid of computers. What are the ideas that I’m using for this? And what tech might this lead to?
I got started by thinking about what comes after the vaunted computational singularity that we may be approaching. I think most thinkers get it absolutely wrong. They think we’re heading towards an ever more digital world. I believe that the opposite is the case. Chip-based digital machines will son go the way of horse-drawn carriages, steam engines, and wrist-watches made of gears.
How would this work? I have two goals or desiderata, as the philosophers say: non-digital computational engines, and a means of interfacing with them. To wit:
Natural objects can do all the computation we need.
We can talk to objects.
The first of these goals is reasonable. As Wolfram has pointed out, any gnarly, chaotic natural process embodies a classical universal computation. And at the quantum level, even dull-looking objects are seething with universal quantum computations. In my recent novel Mathematicians in Love, I wrote quite a bit about naturally occurring universal computations.
The second of the goals seems harder to bring about. Achieving a natural interface with computing natural objects is hard. But science fiction is all about transmuting philosophy into funky fact, and having whatever you want. In order to imagine a world where my goals are attainable, here are the SF-ictional axioms I’m now working with:
Every object is alive.
Telepathy is possible.
Hylozoism has an estimable history in philosophy, the word come from the Greek hyle, matter, and zoe, life. Hylozoism is related to the similar doctrine panpsychism , which says that every object has a mind.
As for telepathy, in my short story “Panpsychism Proved” in Mad Professor, I have a preliminary sketch of using quantum-entanglement based telepathy to talk to objects.
I combine the two axioms at the end of my novel Postsingular , (Tor Books, October, 2008). I show how to move through a nanomachine-based singularity into a digital-free future.
And in the sequel I’m now writing, Hylozoic, everything is alive. You’re building a stone wall, and the stones are talking to you, they’re happy, they think it’s cool to get to live half a meter off the ground, and they dig being mortared together. But, oh oh, you pissed near the stream, so now the stream gets the trowel to twist and cut your hand. Animism becomes real.
How do the objects wake up? Well, at the end of Postsingular, I give every point on Earth an infinite memory upgrade. It’s just a matter of unrolling the eighth dimension—which today’s stingy physicists have insisted on rolling into a tiny loop. Unroll the eighth dimension and make tick-marks on it for memory!
Might my new work be part of burgeoning literary movement? I don’t know, though some like-minded people are gathering in the pages of my webzine Flurb.
Call it psipunk.
4. The Tech From Psipunk
Okay, so we still can’t really upload ourselves into computers, but the idea of it us has led us to photo-sharing, personal web pages, social networking, and blogs. Where do hylozoism and telepathy lead?
Let’s take telepathy first. Cell phones, instant messages, and email are already bordering on telepathy. One missing thing is the ability to link into another person’s mind.
Ordinarily, I communicate an idea to you by talking or writing. I give you a kit so that you can reconstruct my idea in your own head. If I had telepathy, I could pass you a link that would let you directly access the idea ready-formed in my head, without your having to reconstruct it.
In terms of technology, this might mean an increased use of links. Why are we distributing bit-built music files? Why not have a music player that just holds links? Why not have the one platonic music file for each song and let people link into it with a micropayment structure? This was Ted Nelson’s Xanadu dream back when I was working with him at Autodesk in the 1990s. Maybe it’s finally time to make it work.
Another technological aspect of telepathy is that we imagine it as working across great distances. How can this be done? Quantum entanglement may yet lead the way. We haven’t yet begun to utilize the magic of quantum computation.
A more rudimentary instance of telepathy-like tech: cell phones that can detect and transmit subvocal speech, so you don’t have to actually talk out loud like a crazy person on the street.
Let me move on to the less familiar notion: hylozoism. As I mentioned earlier, there’s two ways in which ordinary objects are universal computers. As I discuss in my tome, The Lifebox, The Seashell and the Soul, Stephen Wolfram’s analysis of computational complexity suggests that natural processes are already carrying out universal computations. And if we take a femtoscale—rather than nanoscale—view, any object is seething with quantum computation. When I look at a stone, I think of ten octillion balls connected by springs. There’s a lot going on in any object.
Now, at present, objects are solely interested in computing themselves. But why not siphon off some of this richness for our own purposes?
I can think of one simple, easily attainable technology that shades towards hylozoism: finally giving our desktop and pocket-sized computers really good voice and gesture recognition. Let them track your eye movements as well as analyzing your voice. If your computer can simply watch and listen to you and figure out what you want, it’ll feel like as if it’s finally alive. As an example, the MIT AI lab has some robotic heads that turn and watch you walking around.
Ubiquitous computation and giving objects RFID identifiers also shades into hylozoism.
As with Software Immortality, think of Hylozoism and Telepathy not so much as things we actually expect to achieve, but as dreams to beckon us forward into a fresh wave of technology.
The future is always stranger than any of us expects.