Sep 11, 2007

Singularity Satire From 1971



Unfortunately, one of Lem's best stories was never translated to English. Experimenta Felicitologica, set in a quasi-Swiftean pseudo-medievial steampunk-meets-discworld universe, is a story about genius robot inventor (inventing robots as well as being one) Trurl, who tries to once and for all make the world a happy place. So In fact we have here one of the few existing stories about the problem of Friendly AI, admittedly dealing mainly with Friendliness content, but also a bit with Friendliness structure here and there. In passing, the "inevitable" explosion of intelligence is also being mocked. Lem apparently felt comfortable enough with the concept of the Singularity already in 1971 to make it the subject of satire. Lem apparently came up with the concept independent of Good or Campbell, but then, Lem came up with many, many ideas in the sixties...

The following is a short excerpt from the German edition of the Kyberiade translated by myself. At this point Trurl has, over the last 30 pages or so, been struggling haplessly with his goal of universal beatification, and suddenly realizes he may in fact be too dumb for the task. Consequently, he decides to build an AI smarter than himself in order to solve the problem of universal happiness for him.

No sooner said than done. After twelve days of work a huge machine stood in the midst of the shop, an energetically humming, exceptionally orthogonal beauty, consecrated to a sole task: to attack the problem of problems and to victoriously end this fight. He switched it on, but not even waited for the crystal diodes and triodes to warm up, and instead took a well-earned promenade. On his return the machine was radiating with zealousness, fully engrossed in its work, which couldn't possibly be more complicated: for the machine was busy with building, from whatever was at hand, a second, considerably larger machine. This machine, in turn, spent the night and the following day tearing down the walls and the roof in order to make room for the next machine giant. Trurl pitched his tent in the garden and patiently waited for the heavy labor to end, which however, was not yet foreseeable to happen anytime soon. Across the meadow, up to the woods, cracking trees like matches, a towering scaffold had spread; the original computerium was being pushed closer and closer to the riverbank, until it eventually went under with a bubbling sound. When Trurl finally wanted to get a general idea of the whole complex created so far, a hasty round tour took him a solid half an hour. Instantly he inspected more closely the way the machines were connected among themselves - and froze. This was a case he, until then, had known just from theory; because, as the hypothesis of the great Cerebron Pansophos Omniavidaudit, the legendary grand old man of Elementary and Higher Cybernetics clearly states, a computer which is given a task exceeding the limits of it's own capabilities, will - as long as it just crosses a certain threshold, the so-called Barrier of Wisdom -, instead of struggling with the challenge, build a second computer, which, knowing how the wind blows, will again pass on the work to a third, ad hoc constructed, computer, and so this chain of delegations continues ad infinitum. Indeed the steel beams of the forty-ninth generation of computers already towered on the horizon, and the noise of this enormous intellectual undertaking of passing on the problem could have easily drowned the roaring of a waterfall. Because it is this that is the essence of intelligence: making someone else do the work assigned to you. Blind obedience to programs and electronic regulations is therefore just a thing for dunces and sneaks. Having grasped so clearly the nature of the phenomenon, Trurl sat down on a stump, which, like so many, was a relict of the expansive computer revolution, and sighed deeply.

Following these events, Trurl will try to upload a copy of himself to a powerful computer, to control the runaway intelligence explosion. But like Paul Durham in Egan's Permutation City, he will find his uploaded copy to be somewhat uncooperative.

This is BTW not the first time I happen to stumble upon a striking parallel between Egan and Lem (whom PK Dick believed to be a consortium of Soviet writers.) For example, the concept of different intelligences collapsing the laws of physics into different, possibly conflicting states, which is the main plot device of the second part of Permutation City, can be found in the last chapter of the Lem's Perfect Vacuum.

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