Jaron Lanier on Singularity

Eliezer Yudkowsky, of the Singularity Institute, interviews AI pioneer Jaron Lanier. Lanier is a proponent of “phenotropic computing”, the idea that “intelligent” computer routines could be programmed to interact via interfaces designed for humans. In this interview, Lanier doesn’t talk about “phenotropic computing”, but instead demolishes any faith in the “singularity”. Lanier scorns any blind faith in the reducibility of consciousness, and is relentless in this interview.

Lanier has a ton of credibility, having been mentored by Marvin Minsky and having known Dennett for decades, as well as being responsible for some of the most interesting AI work of the last century. I would hate to ever get in an argument with Lanier, but Yudkowsky holds his own quite well. I’ve watched several interviews conducted by Yudkowsky, and this has to be one of the most difficult by far. He does a great job, but in this debate, which I’ve watched twice, I’m persuaded by Lanier.

Slouching Towards Gomorrah

Dag Hammarskjold, in his personal diary, wrote:

Respect for the word – to employ it with scrupulous care and an incorruptible heartfelt love of truth – is essential if there is to be any growth in a society or in the human race.To misuse the word is to show contempt for man. It undermines the bridges and poisons the wells.

It’s been a favorite of mine for 20 years, and I’ve studied the topic for much of my life. In this post, I’ll share some quotes from two fictional portrayals of well-poisoning; one by C.S. Lewis, and the other by Charles Williams.

That Hideous Strength

The C.S. Lewis novel, “That Hideous Strength“, paints a picture of what happens when people disrespect the language and twist words to their own ends. The title is taken from a David Lyndsay poem, and refers to the tower of Babel.

In the story, young university professor Mark Studdock is invited into a secretive inner circle known as “the progressive element”, who help him advance his career. Eventually they draft him to write propaganda pieces in the newspaper for a powerful but evil foundation bent on taking control of society. His talent for twisting words serves him well at first, and the conspiracy seems unstoppable, but it all starts to unravel at the end:

It was well that both men had some knowledge of poetry. The doubling, splitting, and recombining of thoughts which now went on in them would have been unendurable for one whom that art had not already instructed, in the counterpoint of the mind, the mastery of doubled and trebled vision.

The turning point for Mark Studdock is at a dinner for the foundation, when the director, Jules, gets up to give a speech, and the curse of Babel is placed on everyone in the room. Tell me this doesn’t sound like an emergent conversation, complete with the people rebutting nonsense with more nonsense:

“The madrigore of verjuice must be talthibianised.”

He thought, indeed, that Jules was sailing very near the wind, that a very small false step would deprive both the speaker and the audience of the power even to pretend that he was saying anything in particular.

“Come! That’s going too far. Even they must see that you can’t talk about accepting the challenge of the past by throwing down the gauntlet of the future.”

He noticed that everyone except himself had begun to attend.

“Tidies and fugleman—I sheel foor that we all—er—most steeply rebut the defensible, though, I trust, lavatory. Aspasia which gleams to have selected our redeemed inspector this deceiving. It would—ah—be shark, very shark, from anyone’s debenture …”

Then all hell breaks loose. Someone murders the director, and someone lets the foundation’s wild animals go free to slaughter guests:

the smell of the shooting mixed with the sticky compound smell of blood and port and Madeira.
He had only caught a gleam of black and tawny. Those who had seen it clearly could not tell the others: they could only point and scream meaningless syllables. But Mark had recognized it. It was a tiger.

Then, a voice proclaims judgment:

“Qui Verbum Dei contempserunt, ei, eis auferetur etiam verbum hominis.”

They that have despised the word of God, from them shall the word of man also be taken away.

He had passed from Hegel into Hume, thence through Pragmatism, and thence through Logical Positivism, and out at last into the complete void. The indicative mood now corresponded to no thought that his mind could entertain.

The novel is tremendous, and a few quotes can’t do it justice. If you want a literary illustration of the dangers of twisting words, this is one of the best.

Descent Into Hell

Remonstrans once asked, “The children of postmodernism could not be respected citizens in either Jerusalem or Athens. What would their culture look like if they had their own city?”

Charles Williams symbolized this descent into meaninglessness as the city Gomorrah in his novel “Descent Into Hell“.

In this novel, Lawrence Wentworth is a frustrated old historian, someone who should know a thing or two about being honest with words. Wentworth is infatuated with a young lady named Adela, who is not interested in him. He finds reality increasingly unsatisfying, and much as the Emergents do with Christ, Wentworth decides to create an imaginary Adela who will do what he wants. His delight in tyrannizing over this fantasy is described thus:

“Image without incarnation, it was the delight of his incarnation, for it was without any of the things that troubled him about the incarnation of the beloved. He could exercise upon it all arts but one; he could not ever discover by it or practice towards it the freedom of love. A man cannot love himself, he can only idolize it, and over the idol delightfuly tyrannize — without purpose. The great gift which this simple idolatry of self gives is lack of further purpose; it is, the saints tell us, a somewhat similar thing that exists in those wholly possesed by their End; it is, human experience shows, the most exquisite delight in the interchanges of romantic love. But in all loves but one there are counterpointing times of purposes; in this only there are none.”

Better yet is this description of the Postmodern mind:

“He was approached, appeased, flattered, entreated. There flowed into him from the creature by his side the sensation of his absolute power to satisfy her. It was what he had vehemently and in secret desired — to have his own way under the pretext of giving her hers.”


“It had been an ape of love’s vitality, and a parody also of its mortality. It posessed a semblance of initiative, and had appeased, as all lovers’ duty, the fantasies of his heart; it had fawned on him and provoked him.”

As his relationship with his fantasy Adela blossoms, he increasingly loses touch with reality. Wentworth becomes terrified of the real Adela, because she would smash his illusion.

Likewise, Adela begins her own lonely journey to Gommorah:

“She would neither revolt nor obey nor compromise. She would deceive. Her admission to the citizenship of Gommorah depended on that moment at which, of those four only possible alternatives for the human soul, she refused to know which she had chosen. ‘Tell me it’s for yourself, only yourself…’ No, no, it’s not for myself. It’s for the good of others, her good, his good, everybody’s good. Is it my fault if they don’t see it? Manage them, manage them, manage her, manage him, manage them.”

In a final scene, we see Wentworth confusedly wandering around a train station, having lost all capacity for language. Unable to hear or speak, only muttering incoherently.

Again, I’ve pulled only one theme from the book, to make a singular point. The book is one of the best I’ve ever read, and well worth your time. If you want a vivid literary portrayal of the postmodern mind, give “Descent” a try.

Derrida, An Egyptian

I just finished reading Peter Sloterdjik’s tribute to Derrida, titled “Derrida, An Egyptian”. Postmodern deconstructionists are generally clowns, but the book was fantastic. Sloterdjik does a beautiful job. Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book:

A sharp-witted hetero-Egyptian brought into Egypt through a second distortion could indeed have the ability to understand the homo-Egyptians better than they understood themselves. This hermeneutical superiority would be a gift bestowed by his specific marginality — and would in fact transpire to be the key to Joseph’s success in Egypt.

‘Egyptian’ is the term for all constructs that can be subject to deconstruction — except for the pyramid, that most Egyptian of edifices. It stands in its place, unshakable for all time, because its form is nothing other than the undeconstructible remainder of a construction that, following the plan of its architect, is built to look as it would after its own collapse.

Hehe, honesty is great:

Whoever chooses exposes himself to the risk of identification, which is precisely what Derrida was always most concerned to avoid.

Speaking of the Exodus:

All of a sudden, the divine changes hands: is passed from the architects to the archivists. From a monument, it becomes a document.

So close to Barfield, yet so far away:

Every sign, according to Hegel, is ‘the pyramid into which a foreign soul has been conveyed … and is preserved’

This is the dream of reductionism:

If he is to bring his theory of the spirit to its goal, he cannot waste any time with the weight of the pyramids or the enigmatic nature of the hieroglyphs; both must be overcome, until the spirit can clothe itself in a shell of language whose lightness and translucence allow it to forget that it needs any external addition.

I speak Chinese, and he’s wrong about this next quote (the ugly old Saphir-Whorf fallacy). But it’s pretty anyhow:

In this sense, the Egyptians remain eternal prisoners of externality to Hegel, like the Chinese, whose language and writing form one giant system of barriers and disturbances that render impossible the fulfilled moment in which the spirit, distancelessly attendant on itself, hears itself speak.

This final one brings to mind Scruton’s “Beauty”:

The pyramid’s chamber is thus likewise an object that can be sent on a journey — it especially likes to land in those areas of the modern world in which people are obsessed with the notion that artistic and cultural objects should be conserved at any cost. …where selected objects are mortified, defunctionalized, removed from all profane uses, and offered up for reverent viewing.

Slartibartfast Was Here

The claim is sometimes made that, “evidence for an intelligent designer should be readily available in the graffiti of DNA”. Perhaps something like “Designed by Yaweh” embedded in the sequences of DNA. Similar suggestions have been made about the number pi. Alex Tbarrok has dubbed this the “Slartibartfast Principle“, after the planetary designer in Douglas Adam’s “Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy”. As a planetary designer, Slartibartfast liked to leave his signature on his creations.

This “principle” makes no sense to me. DNA is sort of like a compression algorithm, from which an entire organism is constructed. Compression algorithms are efficient to the extent that they factor out redundancy, so a sufficiently advanced compression algorithm creates output that is virtually indistinguishable from random data.

Imagine that you’ve written an epic story for you grandchildren, and you ZIP up the file to save space. Your grandkids grow up, and are perfectly able to unzip the file and read the story. One day, one of the grandkids gets the idea to analyze the raw bytes of the ZIP file, and concludes that “the bytes are essentially random — the story has no author”. Huh?

When DNA is uncompressed, it has given us the Psalms of David, the works of Shakespeare, and countless other treasures. It’s even given us what we need to decode our own DNA. If Slartibartfast were truly a brilliant designer, he would’ve created planets which would support creatures who would eventually write comedies about a designer who says “Slartibartfast was here”. And he would create creatures who could understand how funny and absurd the idea is. That would be a signature!