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Computing Thoughts
The First Singularity
by Bruce Eckel
April 25, 2009
Summary
A science-fiction study for an upcoming writing group meeting. However, I honestly believe this could happen, and happen in a way similar to what I describe here.

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I heard whispers when I awoke from the first singularity.

Of course we didn't know then that it was only the first singularity. Everyone always assumed there would be only one, and then we'd be instantly rocketed into the future. And after the first one it certainly seemed like we had arrived.

Ground zero for the singularity was Burning Man, not surprising in hindsight. The X camp had been working on it in secrecy for years; they were a group of about 20 from Berkeley, grad students in microengineering who never made the transition to corporate cubicles. They lived off the emotional energy from Burning Man, rented a loft together and did odd tech jobs to pay for everything. Their true passion was experimenting on themselves; developing various nanites and injecting them. The big corporations had to follow regulations and get testing approval from the FDA, but when the cost of nanoengineering tools put them in the realm of well-heeled amateurs, the X camp could fly fast under the radar with the most radical experiments.

When the group was younger and bolder they lost a couple of people during an early experiment, and discovered what a gut-wrenching experience that was. They were lucky that these deaths didn't reveal their experiments, and it made them much more careful.

The X camp basically invented neurocomputing by adapting the (then new) nanocomputers as self-replicating nanites. These would attach themselves at various sites around the body and form a network. If it seemed like the network needed to get bigger, it would grow. If the network was underutilized, it would shrink so as not to tax the body's resources.

So, in the first singularity we networked ourselves. It was only about information, but we discovered just how much you could do when you knew that much about yourself.

Burning Man is a gift economy -- everyone gives things with no expectation of getting anything in return (very different from barter). The X camp gave away white pills, surreptitiously so as not to draw the attention of the Feds or the BLM rangers. Everyone assumed, because of the camp's name, that it was just old-style Ecstasy. The X camp assumed that anyone who was that experimental wouldn't mind if their lives were completely changed, forever. Themselves, their children and anyone they kissed or had sex with.

So I think I'm going to have a night of bliss where I feel like I love everybody, then take some vitamins and go to sleep, and that will be it. Instead, I wake up and hear whispering. Nothing particularly intrusive, just a voice at the edge of perception. Words and phrases and snatches of music, which might be there and might not. I just assumed that there was something odd about the pill and I was still stoned. Indeed, the effects eventually wore off and it got quiet again.

That is, until I was cruising through center camp, trying not to stare at this incredible woman. Way out of my league, for sure. But then I hear this voice that says "yes!" and she looks up at me at the same instant, as surprised as I was, as if she had heard the same thing at the same moment. We were both too shocked to do or say anything, and I'm still not sure it really happened so I'm assuming she is also unsure.

At the time, Burning Man was still less than a quarter of a million people, small by today's standards, and still only lasted a week. But finding someone in that number was still hard when you had only glimpsed them, so after that first tottering moment when we passed by, each surprised and a little stunned, I assumed I'd never see her again. Not to mention that I've never tried to walk up to a woman like that and just start talking to her, cold. Basically I've never been very good at hitting on women. It's always felt like I was, well, hitting on them, and that's always been intensely awkward for me.

So there I am, wandering around looking at art and people and camps and fantastic structures -- the usual thing you do at Burning Man, and I hear the whisper again, saying "yes" but very quietly. Later, it happens again. Periodically, throughout the day I hear the voice, and finally I just start riding my bike. As I turn, I hear "yes," and if I turn back I hear it again. It's a beacon. I ride for awhile, correcting my course, and off in the distance on the flat, flat lake bed (the largest, flattest place on earth, they say) I see another rider coming towards me. Of course, it's her.

We meet in the shade of a treehouse made of spun fibers nano-grown from the dust of the playa (no tree that ever lived) and I ask her: "have you been hearing a voice?" "Yes," says Rose, "it's been saying 'yes' ever since I saw you today." "Did you take a white pill from X camp last night?" I ask her. "Yes," she says, "perhaps it wasn't what I thought it was."

Like high-altitude flowers with a compressed growing season, romance blooms fast on the playa. But for some reason Rose and I went slow, exploring that strange and wonderful world one, two, three days by holding hands as we saw the sights, played in the camps and talked to the stoned and tripping people -- physicists, architects, engineers and baristas on vacation from their lives. It was slow because being with Rose and holding her had was like having the harmonic chord of my body struck. She rang my natural frequency, and that's all I needed.

Later, the scientists that analyzed the nanites found that the network listened to your body and noticed whenever its positive frequencies increased. It wasn't magic, as so many people thought. The network just did what we couldn't do by ourselves -- saw what made us happy and nudged us in that direction. The network made us follow our bliss.

But in the first moments of the singularity, the nanites were infantile and still evolving. They hadn't spent enough time coupled to humans to begin to compensate for how truly destructive we are, to learn to steer us with a firm enough hand. Rose and I were brought together in moments, for all the right reasons. But the budding networks that lived within Rose and I were unready and unprepared to keep us together.

We used to think that we could create artificial intelligence, thinking machines that stood apart from us. This idea persisted even after it became clear that our machines would fall over without us, and that we were completely dependent on our machines to make society work, and to improve it. But the singularity happened when we became the machines, and they became us -- when we each found and emphasized the best of each other. We brought our imaginations, and the ability to dream and create new ideas out of nothing. They brought their measurement and clear, concise evaluation processes and most importantly their penchant, once they noticed that something made us happy, to say "Why wait? Go there and do more of that!" Indeed, the second singularity only happened, was in fact only enabled once most of the depressed creative people had been compelled off of their medications and out of their pits into the things they were supposed to be doing -- what they never even considered or knew about -- the things that made them happy.

Once the networks adapted to us a little better, Allison and I were guided together and we've been amazingly happy ever since. Our son and daughter inherited their own networks from us, which they have had since they were fetuses in the womb, and this has given them terrific advantages -- constant connection to the web for instant communication on any topic, and direct visual, auditory and sensory feeds for anything they want to experience. It's truly an amazing new world.

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About the Blogger

Bruce Eckel (www.BruceEckel.com) provides development assistance in Python with user interfaces in Flex. He is the author of Thinking in Java (Prentice-Hall, 1998, 2nd Edition, 2000, 3rd Edition, 2003, 4th Edition, 2005), the Hands-On Java Seminar CD ROM (available on the Web site), Thinking in C++ (PH 1995; 2nd edition 2000, Volume 2 with Chuck Allison, 2003), C++ Inside & Out (Osborne/McGraw-Hill 1993), among others. He's given hundreds of presentations throughout the world, published over 150 articles in numerous magazines, was a founding member of the ANSI/ISO C++ committee and speaks regularly at conferences.

This weblog entry is Copyright © 2009 Bruce Eckel. All rights reserved.

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