Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Gods and Supermen

When I was a tender lad a taboo eroded in the first Superman movie when Lois Lane suggests her boyfriend is a god. Let's be clear: there is only one God and I'm not him. Yet, mankind has from time immemorial fashioned idols that were a bit more manageable than the One who created all there is. The taboo that eroded was the notion that calling Superman a god would be blasphemous. (But nowadays, blasphemy is not a consideration, unless you're near one of those religions that sanction violent, criminal acts.) Yet we cannot let the charge of blasphemy cloud our thinking about gods.

Consider the old Star Trek episode, "Who Mourns For Adonis?" Captain Kirk and his posse happen upon a planet where the Greek mythological figure Apollo has his crib. After a bit of to and fro it is established that Apollo demands worship and Kirk says, "say what?" There's a bit of petulant rage and some '60s vintage special effects, and Apollo decides its better to fade away than burn out. Or something like that.

All the Greek gods were like that. Petulant. Jealous. Petty. Olympus was sort of like High School with lightning bolts. These gods were just normal Greek dudes and dudettes cranked up to 11. There was nothing transcendental about them or qualitatively better than their worshipers.

Then there's Superman. Not that one, Friedrich Nietzsche's ubermensch. He's a 19th century retread of Socrates' punching bag, Callicles. And he's the sort who goes beyond petulance, jealousy, and pettiness by declaring these things to be moral goods when he does them. This will to power distinguishes the everyman who is bound by social convention and the uberman who flouts it. It's a lot more sophisticated--in a Hermann Goring kind of way--but it's still not really transcendent.

When writing about aliens, they can either be dumber than us, as smart as us, or smarter than us. Moreover, when considering alien technology, it can be less advanced than ours, equivalent to ours, or more advanced than ours. Science Fiction writing is a lot easier when it's less than or equal. Less so when it's greater.

We can extrapolate small steps from what we know and understand to something just a little better. If I take 10 minutes to do my homework, Zontar over there can do it in 5 minutes. Likewise if my computer has EGA monitor on it, Zontar's has VGA. In such cases the advanced creatures are at supermen. They are not gods.

But what if the advancement is so extensive as to be incomprehensible?

This is where transhumanism comes in. If you plot improvements in the human condition and in the capabilities of our machines, you don't find linear growth curves, but exponential ones. And if exponential curves go on long enough their slope goes vertical. This is called a singularity and technological aficionados think it's mega-cool. Or mega-scary. To depict such characters, you have to make them more than supermen. You can't just crank things up to 11 or 12, you have to change from audio to video. Somehow.

Vernor Vinge has written stories wherein he talks about the singularity. His novel, Marooned In Realtime, has a character who was marooned in the future from very close to the singularity. Vinge can only provide hints and glimpses of what such people would be like and what they'd concern themselves with.

Or perhaps those exponential curves level out? That could happen. Most exponential curves I've seen flatten out then level out into a tame S-shaped curve.

That's what Michael McCloskey depends upon in his novels The Trilisk Ruins, The Trilisk AI, and The Trilisk Supersedure. He explains that there are practical, combinatorial limits on how much one can scale an AI. If you're dumber than me, you can consider 5 things in the time I'll consider 10, and if you're smarter than me, you can consider 15 things in the same time. Thus, advanced computer intelligences will run be able to consider hundreds of things more than we can, but the combinatorics will be such that they will be doing so in a sea of billions and billions of additional factoids.

The term is "combinatorial explosion" and does not mean detonation, but a very fast increase in combinations. Consider a simple example: you have 2 parents. They in turn had 2 parents. Etc. If we go back just 10 generations, that's 1024 people. If you go back 20 generations, that's over a million. With a simple branching-factor of just 2, you get a million in just 20 steps. But what if you can branch between, say the 26 letters of the alphabet? Did you know there are over 11 million five-letter words? When you throw all the factoids available to Google right now, given reasonable branching factors, the combinatorial explosion can swamp a brain the size of a planet. Only gods can digest combinatorial explosions. (They call calculus elementary TRANSCENDENTALS for a reason.)

So, maybe the singularity won't happen. It's just be another S-shaped curve that we're not smart enough to recognize. (Exercise: Apply this line of reasoning to the ideas of Thomas Malthus.)

McCloskey does aliens extremely well. He doesn't dream up aliens that look like cats or cousin It, but really alien aliens with 20-lobed brains, golden exoskeletons and 40 legs who are deaf as a post. Or aliens who have 3-lobed brains who like to body-hop into other races that are shaped like parasols. The movies will need more than guys in rubber masks.

When I finished the Trilisk Supersedure I thought he fell into the superman trap, because his aliens were a bit too mundane in their interests. My reasoning was that any race THAT advanced wouldn't fuss with the likes of us, because even if they enslaved us, we'd be incapable of creating anything of value to them.

Upon further reflection these aliens may not be capable of godhood, merely supermanhood no matter how far their technology advances. And their cognition is limited by that same combinatorial explosion I mentioned a few paragraphs ago. Sorry, you're just superman, not a god.

The Trilisk Supersedure reminded me of The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind and also Snow Crash. The alien AI is accessed by means of "wishing" for things. And if you can dream up something, you can get it by wishing. This is a pretty cool concept. And when you combine it with the notion of Trilisk Supersedure--where aliens jump into people's minds, that notion of gods speaking to not-yet-conscious people starts to resonate. I will wager that McCloskey enjoyed Snow Crash wherein Neal Stephenson toys with bicameralism.

All in all, I found McCloskey's three Trilisk novels altogether enjoyable space opera. 5 stars.

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