Sunday, October 05, 2014

Why Stanislaw Lem’s Futurism Deserves Attention

In this article, Lee Billings riffs on Stanislaw Lem's relatively unknown book of philosophical essays, Summa Technologiae (Electronic Mediations), written in 1964 but not fully translated into English until 2013. Lem is known primarily for his science fiction writing, especially the 1961 novel Solaris, adapted into a meditative film by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1972.

In the Summa, however, Lem meditates on topics that were still fully "fantastic" in 1964, but now are topics of conversation within the realm of the possible, such as virtual reality, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and the technological singularity.

The Book No One Read

Why Stanislaw Lem’s futurism deserves attention

I remember well the first time my certainty of a bright future evaporated, when my confidence in the panacea of technological progress was shaken. It was in 2007, on a warm September evening in San Francisco, where I was relaxing in a cheap motel room after two days covering The Singularity Summit, an annual gathering of scientists, technologists, and entrepreneurs discussing the future obsolescence of human beings.
In math, a “singularity” is a function that takes on an infinite value, usually to the detriment of an equation’s sense and sensibility. In physics, the term usually refers to a region of infinite density and infinitely curved space, something thought to exist inside black holes and at the very beginning of the Big Bang. In the rather different parlance of Silicon Valley, “The Singularity” is an inexorably-approaching event in which humans ride an accelerating wave of technological progress to somehow create superior artificial intellects—intellects which with predictable unpredictability then explosively make further disruptive innovations so powerful and profound that our civilization, our species, and perhaps even our entire planet are rapidly transformed into some scarcely imaginable state. Not long after The Singularity’s arrival, argue its proponents, humanity’s dominion over the Earth will come to an end.

I had encountered a wide spectrum of thought in and around the conference. Some attendees overflowed with exuberance, awaiting the arrival of machines of loving grace to watch over them in a paradisiacal post-scarcity utopia, while others, more mindful of history, dreaded the possible demons new technologies could unleash. Even the self-professed skeptics in attendance sensed the world was poised on the cusp of some massive technology-driven transition. A typical conversation at the conference would refer at least once to some exotic concept like whole-brain emulation, cognitive enhancement, artificial life, virtual reality, or molecular nanotechnology, and many carried a cynical sheen of eschatological hucksterism: Climb aboard, don’t delay, invest right now, and you, too, may be among the chosen who rise to power from the ashes of the former world!

Over vegetarian hors d’oeuvres and red wine at a Bay Area villa, I had chatted with the billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who planned to adopt an “aggressive” strategy for investing in a “positive” Singularity, which would be “the biggest boom ever,” if it doesn’t first “blow up the whole world.” I had talked with the autodidactic artificial-intelligence researcher Eliezer Yudkowsky about his fears that artificial minds might, once created, rapidly destroy the planet. At one point, the inventor-turned-proselytizer
 Ray Kurzweil teleconferenced in to discuss,
among other things, his plans for becoming transhuman, transcending his own biology to 
achieve some sort of
 eternal life. Kurzweil
 believes this is possible, 
even probable, provided he can just live to see
 The Singularity’s dawn, 
which he has pegged at 
sometime in the middle of the 21st century. To this end, he reportedly consumes some 150 vitamin supplements a day.

Returning to my motel room exhausted each night, I unwound by reading excerpts from an old book, Summa Technologiae. The late Polish author Stanislaw Lem had written it in the early 1960s, setting himself the lofty goal of forging a secular counterpart to the 13th-century Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas’s landmark compendium exploring the foundations and limits of Christian theology. Where Aquinas argued for the certainty of a Creator, an immortal soul, and eternal salvation as based on scripture, Lem concerned himself with the uncertain future of intelligence and technology throughout the universe, guided by the tenets of modern science.

To paraphrase Lem himself, the book was an investigation of the thorns of technological roses that had yet to bloom. And yet, despite Lem’s later observation that “nothing ages as fast as the future,” to my surprise most of the book’s nearly half-century-old prognostications concerned the very same topics I had encountered during my days at the conference, and felt just as fresh. Most surprising of all, in subsequent conversations I confirmed my suspicions that among the masters of our technological universe gathered there in San Francisco to forge a transhuman future, very few were familiar with the book or, for that matter, with Lem. I felt like a passenger in a car who discovers a blindspot in the central focus of the driver’s view.

Such blindness was, perhaps, understandable. In 2007, only fragments of Summa Technologiae had appeared in English, via partial translations undertaken independently by the literary scholar Peter Swirski and a German software developer named Frank Prengel. These fragments were what I read in the motel. The first complete English translation, by the media researcher Joanna Zylinska, only appeared in 2013. By Lem’s own admission, from the start the book was a commercial and a critical failure that “sank without a trace” upon its first appearance in print. Lem’s terminology and dense, baroque style is partially to blame—many of his finest points were made in digressive parables, allegories, and footnotes, and he coined his own neologisms for what were, at the time, distinctly over-the-horizon fields. In Lem’s lexicon, virtual reality was “phantomatics,” molecular nanotechnology was “molectronics,” cognitive enhancement was “cerebromatics,” and biomimicry and the creation of artificial life was “imitology.” He had even coined a term for search-engine optimization, a la Google: “ariadnology.” The path to advanced artificial intelligence he called the “technoevolution” of “intellectronics.”

Even now, if Lem is known at all to the vast majority of the English-speaking world, it is chiefly for his authorship of Solaris, a popular 1961 science-fiction novel that spawned two critically acclaimed film adaptations, one by Andrei Tarkovsky and another by Steven Soderbergh. Yet to say the prolific author only wrote science fiction would be foolishly dismissive. That so much of his output can be classified as such is because so many of his intellectual wanderings took him to the outer frontiers of knowledge.

Lem was a polymath, a voracious reader who devoured not only the classic literary canon, but also a plethora of research journals, scientific periodicals, and popular books by leading researchers. His genius was in standing on the shoulders of scientific giants to distill the essence of their work, flavored with bittersweet insights and thought experiments that linked their mathematical abstractions to deep existential mysteries and the nature of the human condition. For this reason alone, reading Lem is an education, wherein one may learn the deep ramifications of breakthroughs such as Claude Shannon’s development of information theory, Alan Turing’s work on computation, and John von Neumann’s exploration of game theory. Much of his best work entailed constructing analyses based on logic with which anyone would agree, then showing how these eminently reasonable premises lead to astonishing conclusions. And the fundamental urtext for all of it, the wellspring from which the remainder of his output flowed, is Summa Technologiae.

The core of the book is a heady mix of evolutionary biology, thermodynamics—the study of energy flowing through a system—and cybernetics, a diffuse field pioneered in the 1940s by Norbert Wiener studying how feedback loops can automatically regulate the behavior of machines and organisms. Considering a planetary civilization this way, Lem posits a set of feedbacks between the stability of a society and its degree of technological development. In its early stages, Lem writes, the development of technology is a self-reinforcing process that promotes homeostasis, the ability to maintain stability in the face of continual change and increasing disorder. That is, incremental advances in technology tend to progressively increase a society’s resilience against disruptive environmental forces such as pandemics, famines, earthquakes, and asteroid strikes. More advances lead to more protection, which promotes more advances still.

And yet, Lem argues, that same technology-driven positive feedback loop is also an Achilles heel for planetary civilizations, at least for ours here on Earth…

The full article appears in the Fall 2014 Nautilus Quarterly. Subscribe today!

Freelance writer Lee Billings is the author of Five Billion Years of Solitude: The Search for Life Among the Stars.

Photograph by Forum/UIG/Getty Images
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