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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Girl Cooties Menace the Singularity!

stylish-hatA recent entry by Mike Treder at the IEET site (Institute of Ethics and Emerging Technologies) discusses the Singularity in connection with the upcoming Singularity Summit organized by the SIAI (Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence).

I was totally unaware of this event until I visited the IEET site. Given what I know as a scientist about the likelihood of the Singularity, I couldn’t muster much interest. But ever the curious cat, I toddled over and examined the roster of speakers. All are white men. For several, their sole relevant qualification is that they believe in the imminence of the Singularity.

I pointed this out in my comments at the IEET — and a SIAI representative informed me that they had looked really hard for qualified women and, since they found none, “would you rather we picked a token female with nothing to say?” Then one of the speakers chimed in, to let me know that “the gender war was a thing of the eighties”. It got even funnier after that, as more Freudian slips showed underneath the space suit of what passes for original progressive thinking.

How highly qualified are those so carefully chosen for admission to the boys’ treehouse sanctum? Let me give you a whiff. One of the participants is a dotcom millionaire who has concluded that giving the vote to women doomed capitalist democracy. One of the two speakers that sorta kinda qualify as biologists is the originator of the concept of quantum microtubules (the biomolecular equivalent of Intelligent Design). The other stepped down from on high to deliver unto transhumanists the revelation that mitochondrial dysfunction is linked to cellular damage… a radical notion hidden away by those power-hungry biologists in, oh, every Biochemistry 101 textbook since the seventies. Of course, this representation is not surprising, since the participation of a bona-fide biologist in such an event would be the equivalent of an astrophysicist attending an astrologers’ convention.

So I gave this some thought and came up with a solution that will give this event the unquestionable authority and nuanced expertise it deserves: Invite Sarah Palin. She’s as qualified as several of the speakers, her views on the future largely jibe with theirs, she’s all woman (no passé crap like feminism for her) and she’s just become available, so her fee should still be reasonable. Better yet, the SIAI should go for Anne Coulter. She’d fit the agenda and milieu even better, and her Ayn Rand-approved style would only further burnish the occasion.

I’ll be sending the SIAI an invoice for program development consulting.

Image: Aubrey Beardsley, drawing for Aristophanes’ Lysistrata: The Lacedaemonian Ambassadors (detail)

Update 1: After the many discussions sparked by this article, SIAI included a female speaker in the program… a SIAI employee.  This is so telling that comments are superfluous.

Update 2: Many report that women didn’t feel welcome at the SS (appropriate initials, come to think of it) nor comfortable with the ideas presented.  I’m surprised… not.

67 Responses to “Girl Cooties Menace the Singularity!”

  1. Peggy says:

    Wow, so they couldn’t find any women who had enough experience in being a self-promoting pseudoscientist to sit on their panel? Shame that.

    The Singularity phenomenon is interesting in that it seems to have started out as an interesting philosophical idea – will artificial intelligence develop to the point that it surpasses humans? – then developed into a sort of 21st century technology-worshipping religion. And I don’t think it’s any surprise that the main proponents are all white men – they have much more reason than the non-white non-male part of the population to assume that future advances in technology that “transcend biology” will keep them on top of the heap.

    (But if your quantum microtubule dude is the one I assume, he is actually apparently against the singularity. His worldview seems to be more New Age-spiritualism woo than of the technology-will-save-us-from-our-meat-bodies variety.)

  2. Athena says:

    Many people have made the obvious connection and are calling the Singularity The Rapture for Nerds. And now that existential angst is finally touching The Masters of the Universe, they’re reverting to primitive mode (as James Tiptree said so prophetically at the end of The Women Men Don’t See).

    Yes, I think that’s the quantum microtubule dude Himself — Stuart Hameroff. Who, it should be noted, is an anesthesiologist. But if you proclaim yourself a towering genius loudly and often enough, some people will believe you.

  3. caliban says:





    Damn, doesn’t seem to be working. But, man, I sure was laughing hard at all this.

    Getting back to the task at hand: I AM A TOWERING GENIUS…. (is there an iPhone app for this?)

  4. Athena says:

    *falls to her knees* Ah b’lieve!

    See? It worked!

    Just one tick more seriously (but only just!) you should see the rest of the so-called arguments. Hilarious — except they’re used all over the world, with real consequences.

  5. Carlos says:

    Invite Sarah Palin! LOL

    Outside of the entire conversation being controlled by them, I don’t like how they only work on ways to make the singularity come about even faster. All of them say sure there’s risk involved but you have to take chances.

    The whole thing is just not balanced! Also the dang “summit” is $500 dollars for 2 days! I want to go simply to provide an alternative view to their prophecies but just can’t afford it 🙁

  6. Athena says:

    I wouldn’t worry too much or waste time over this if I were you. To paraphrase a well-known maxim, The Singularity is an event of the future, and always will be.

  7. And besides Sarah Palin is such a good speaker, and she would get them so much media attention, and besides, she can see the Singularity from her house. What more do they want?

  8. Athena says:

    You have made additional excellent points for inviting her, Ophelia! It’s clear this is the rare perfect fit.

  9. Bill Poser says:

    To be charitable, it seems that Athena is disqualified not merely by being penis-challenged but by being a qualified biologist.

  10. Athena says:

    Bill, as far as I can tell, the entire transhumanist movement has no truly qualified biologist as a member [sic], nor does it want to — it cramps their style! In my case, I got involved through an acquaintance who’s prominent in the movement, not aware at the time of the political ramifications or, more crucially, the willful ignorance of science. Whenever I try to explain why something is intrinsically impossible in terms of biology (for example, why humans will never be able to change genders “at will” or that humans are almost entirely insensitive to “oxytocin-induced cuddling”), the responses are variations of:

    1. “You’re a Luddite!”
    2. “That’s just your opinion.”
    3. “After the Singularity, the Chosen Ones will have no limits.”

  11. David Grinspoon says:

    Live long enough to be a white male forever.

  12. Athena says:

    Or, as an (aptly named) Sad Children cartoon said: “After the Singularity, being rich and white will be even more awesome.”

  13. caliban says:

    Even simpler than the biological problems with the Singularity is that it seems to be based upon an incredibly naive faith in extrapolation.

    Well, after the first 4 Harry Potter books, I found there was a clear geometric increase in the size of each book. From those I computed the final Harry Potter book would be between 10,000 and 13,000 pages in length…

  14. Athena says:

    As naive as you can be — probably because most transhumanists who aren’t “theorists” work in some aspect of computer systems. They base their extrapolations on two very flimsy assumptions: that Moore’s Law 1) will apply indefinitely and 2) is valid for biology.

  15. Peggy says:

    Oh yes Moore’s Law. I had an annoying online discussion with someone who couldn’t be persuaded that Moore’s Law wasn’t really a “law” in the scientific sense. The infinite improvement of integrated circuits based on the principles of handwavium or similar.

  16. Athena says:

    I know exactly what you mean, Peggy. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. So is finding a concept that seems to justify one’s preconceived notions. And, of course, on the Internet everyone can hear you scream, so some people tend to scream loudly in lieu of real thinking.

    Moore Lawyers tend to forget or ignore its corollary: not only does it apply solely to a subset of integrated circuits — the costs of the chips go up exponentially as well and they don’t necessarily translate to faster CPU processing.

    But that won’t be a barrier to Silicon Immortals: the Singularitarians prophesy the eventual transmutation of the entire universe to computronium, giving them semi-infinite material and time to “play” (but play what?).

  17. Brian M says:

    Perhaps, given their politics, they will play endless war games, secure in their knowledge that the supply of computronium-equivalent cheetoes will never diminish and their ever growing butts will never be risked in any way. The Singularity is the NeoCon Nirvana!

  18. Athena says:

    Ah, but the Singularity is heavenly in infinite ways, Brian! Butts will remain (or, better yet, become) svelte and scrumptious, since all this is meant to happen in VR, à la Matrix. This is the vision of cubicleers who dream of becoming Neo. NeoCon Nirvana indeed… which may also explain the odd fusion of Millennarianism and Buddhism that you find in the same circles.

  19. JoshS says:

    With all this talk of Computronium and Handwavium, there seems to be little room here for the serious study of Feminum. This element has been demonstrated by Scientists to be the primary ingredient in Wonder Woman’s Magical Deflecting Bracelets (TM). I demand equal time for the study of Feminum. I also demand a costume designer who can make me look good in a Star-Spangled bathing suit.

    Is that so wrong?

  20. Athena says:

    You should ask (politely!) that tiny tyrannical dynamo that designed the costumes of The Incredibles, Josh: Edna Mode

  21. JoshS says:

    Oh, I’ll ask her, Athena, so long as she agrees to alter my costume to my best advantage. If not, harumph.

  22. r0ck3tsci3ntist says:

    Sarah Palin! Jesus Christ I laughed out loud!

    This was right after I finished laughing at your jpg there. AB, gotta love ‘im.

    Daring much, I’m going to say this about the singularity thing; it has the same draw on the nonscientific mainstream populace that the logic of Thomas Aquinas had on the more easily impressionable magnates of the early Catholic church. They can make it work for what they want it to do.

    Which, of course, should be the first warning sign.

  23. Athena says:

    I couldn’t have found a better artist than Beardsley for this particular topic. And you’re right — this stuff clouds the mind while pretending to be hard extrapolation. Talk about blinding them with science… except that it’s snake oil.

  24. AnneC says:

    Athena wrote: In my case, I got involved through an acquaintance who’s prominent in the movement, not aware at the time of the political ramifications or, more crucially, the willful ignorance of science. Whenever I try to explain why something is intrinsically impossible in terms of biology (for example, why humans will never be able to change genders “at will” or that humans are almost entirely insensitive to “oxytocin-induced cuddling”), the responses are variations of:

    1. “You’re a Luddite!”
    2. “That’s just your opinion.”
    3. “After the Singularity, the Chosen Ones will have no limits.”

    Wow, eerie, that sounds uncannily like my experience (I used to be an IEET intern and a WTA board member but quit both when I realized neither seemed to be a good use of my time, among other things). I’ve been much happier since as more of a “free agent”.

  25. Athena says:

    Well, Anne, most utopian movements primarily want conformity, especially if striving to become mainstream. As far as their leaders and fervent followers are concerned, you’re either with them or against them. Thus do religions and dictatorships start.

  26. AnneC says:

    Yeah, and it turned out I wasn’t very good at the whole conformity thing. I don’t regret the experience as it was very educational but it was educational in a very “well now I know not to do THAT again!” sense. Nowadays I am VERY leery about “joining” anything, and I prefer projects that have concrete goals in mind and can tolerate internal criticism, rather than just working toward keeping the group ego elevated.

  27. intrigued_scribe says:

    I couldn’t agree more, particularly on the points of mind-clouding rambling masquerading as legitimate conclusions and devoting one’s attention to projects that place concrete goals over ego. And all amusement aside–I also laughed out loud over the image and the Sarah Palin reference–this sparked thoughts of the establishment of cults even as it brought to mind religion and dictatorships.

  28. OMG — call me, ok? This is just an appalling state of affairs….

  29. Carlos says:

    3. “After the Singularity, the Chosen Ones will have no limits.” (lol)
    First you have to drink some of the brain uploading lemonade.

    I think the beast is becoming self aware, as Mike is now openly talking about transhumanism in the terms of a religion.

    This “cult”ure is so self loathing, as being a mortal human being was so late 22 century in their eyes.

    Yet fear not, like all reliable computers their plans will soon crash 😉

  30. Athena says:

    Yes, a crashing computer would be the ultimate ironic end to uploading… ah, well. We each have our fond fantasies.

  31. Walden2 says:

    Athena, all I want to be is a godlike being (see, I don’t want to BE God, that’s just too egotistical) ruling over the galaxy and playing with its inhabitants like a preadolescent boy (girls would never do this) with a colony of ants. Is that so wrong?

    What I do want from the Singularity is that we literally can transcend all these issues that have plagued biological humans since we were living in the trees in Africa. But if these groups are representative of who is running the movement, then we probably are doomed to remain talking monkeys with car keys for generations to come.

    Thanks a lot, Athena. All I wanted was to meet one Matrioshka Brain in my lifetime and have it utterly ignore me as it thought deep deep thoughts in the outer regions of the Milky Way, but now my dream will never be realized.

  32. Walden2 says:

    Actually, Athena, if women are allowed into the Singularity, this is exactly what I think will happen:

    Pretty awesome, huh?

  33. Athena says:

    Well, Larry, the Singularitarians will be happy to supply you with super-Nintendos that will make you believe you’re playing with galaxies and their inhabitants. And you’ll also get to look like (insert your choice here) while you’re at it. Plus you’ll have access to endless mead, cheetos and virgins, as in all other Valhallas.

  34. Walden2 says:

    That might be the other thing to happen with humanity: We all end up living in our own virtual realities doing whatever we want and that is as far as Singularity technology ever gets – plus it explains why technological ETI aren’t contacting us.

    Maybe that is the real “secret” of the Singularity: Its proponents don’t want to really transform, they just want to develop the tech that will make their fantasy lives seem real enough and drop the rest, plus the heck with everyone else. Thus the lack of real female biologists in their midst. Non-VR women can be scary, ya know, having their own independent thoughts and desires and all.

    Maybe the other fear of Singularians is similar to the fear many have about superior intelligences in the Universe – and note a number of prominent Singularians like Kurzweil do not think their are advanced ETI in the galaxy, despite my trying to convince him otherwise. I mean, if we are thinking about creating advanced minds why couldn’t other beings do the same, right?

    Their fear is that a superior intellect (which Hugo de Garis calls an Artilect) will appear from the Singularity and take over, destroy, or abandon humanity altogether. Same with ETI coming to Earth.

    So perhaps they want the whole Singularity to remain a fantasy world, one they can control and that never becomes a real threat.

    Maybe it isn’t even that elaborate and it is just a bunch of white nerdy males who are too afraid to deal with real women, but I had to throw this idea out there.

  35. Walden2 says:

    One more possibility: As with UFOs, the Singularity is considered too fringe for most mainstream scientists, male or female, to be associated with, thus the lack of real professionals at the event and those who are involved with this would rather not admit that.

    But I still think the overall winner here is a male nerd fantasy club.

  36. Athena says:

    You got it in one, Larry: male nerd fantasy club, which explains all the associated characteristics, from views on women and society to their positions on ETI and Fermi’s Paradox. At least the Creative Anachronists get some exercise!

  37. Walden2 says:

    Hmmm… I always figured if nothing else that white male nerds
    would at least support and believe in aliens and smart computers!

  38. Athena says:

    White male nerds, like all humans, are critters of their era (although WMNs are reluctant to acknowledge this, many preferring to call themselves futurists). So when the social mood is upbeat, they believe in friendly aliens and smart AI. When it’s downbeat they still believe in them, except now they’ve turned unfriendly. Just look at the movie trends.

  39. AnneC says:

    Another thing that gets me is….well, I have always been a nerd, and an unabashed one at that. I get, and encourage, the sincere appreciation for cool science-fictiony topics and such. But I’ve been somewhat disconcerted lately to realize that in at least some bastions of nerdish subculture, I would have to sit there going on about how “tests show women are worse at math and anyone who says otherwise is just being PC”, and in doing so distance myself both from any attempt at reasonable critique of said tests, and from others of the female persuasion. I love nerdishness. I am a nerd. My boyfriend is a nerd. But I don’t think nerdism has to go along with the “boys’ treehouse” attitude you’ve described, and it’s disappointing that it ever is. :/

  40. Athena says:

    Yep. Me, too — I always loved SF and always was a crackerjack at math. I’ve heard much worse — for example that men have “rape genes” and therefore “can’t help it”, whereas women’s brains are “wired for coyness.” This from well-known SF authors and “futurists”. Enough to turn you into a separatist lesbian.

    Have you been following the controversy over the Mammoth Anthology of Mindblowing SF Stories? The entire anthology consists of white men. Those defending the choices used the exact same arguments as the SIAI representative. Here’s the link. Read it and weep… we might as well be in the fifties.

  41. Tera says:

    “Whenever I try to explain why something is intrinsically impossible in terms of biology (for example, why humans will never be able to change genders “at will” or that humans are almost entirely insensitive to “oxytocin-induced cuddling”), the responses are variations of:”

    Hi I just started reading your blog, lots of interesting posts on here! 🙂

    I really think it’s bizarre these guys are so excited about changing gender ‘at will’. It’s like hey guys it’s already possible to change gender…of course none of them would actually do it because guess what guys it’s not about groping your own boobs! Transsexuals feel an intense internal conflict that can only be resolved by gender transition. I’m sure if the typical transhumanist singularity worshipper actually took hormone replacement medications that transsexual women do, they’d kill themselves within a week. If a man switches to female hormones he’s going to create the same intense internal conflict that transsexual men and women suffer from until they are treated…and there’s the biological reason why no one will ever switch gender ‘at will’

    The reality isn’t like rolling a female toon in WoW and looking at your avatar’s ass all day…but I suppose these guys were never interested in reality to begin with.

  42. Athena says:

    I’m glad you’re enjoying the blog, Tera! You’re right about hormonal effects, they regulate a lot more than libido. Besides the travails of transsexuals, hormones also shift abruptly when women go through the crash of surgical menopause. The experience is horrific and nothing so far in our pharmacopoeia can take care of even a subset of the symptoms.

    From the engineering angle, I think the only workable solution would be to start with a hermaphroditic configuration, like Ursula Le Guin’s Gethenians, and tilt in either direction. This would probably have to be done at the level of the organism, because chromosomal configurations besides XX and XY cause all kinds of problems that have nothing to do with sex determination. But engineering at that level is very complicated, just as somatic cell engineering is far more complex than germline engineering.

  43. Walden2 says:

    I wonder if these Singularitarians are aware of the studies which show that females are actually better suited physiologically for space travel in microgravity than men?

    The group of women known as the Mercury 13 took the exact same tests as their male counterparts to become America’s first astronauts in 1960 (ti was even featured in Life Magazine) and not only passed these very rigorous tests (they only showed a bit of what went on in the 1983 film The Right Stuff), they often surpassed the men.

    But the USA did not get its first woman astronaut in space until 1982 because of a rule at the time that only test pilots could be astronauts – and only men could be test pilots. Catch 22 at its finest.

    Yes, the Soviets had a woman in space in 1963, but that was definitely a propoganda tactic and they didn’t do it again (or very much after that) until 1982 to beat the US (the Cold War was still going on).

    Do you recall a NASA news conference in 1983 where a news reporter asked Sally Ride if she would go crying to a male astronaut if she had a problem during a space mission? 1983, not 1883.

  44. Athena says:

    The sabotage of the Mercury 13 astronauts was a tragedy — a huge, deliberate waste of talent, just to reassure enormous yet fragile egos that only white men had The Right Stuff. On its heels came the spectacle of “visionary” Clarke gleefully informing Newsweek (or was it Time?) after Collins had “testified” on women’s intrinsic unsuitability for space travel that he had “predicted” this, since the jiggling of women’s breasts in zero-g would distract their male colleagues. A short jump from there to forcing women into burqas, since men cannot be expected to control themselves (those pesky rape genes!).

  45. Walden2 says:

    I have a book from 1964 about Mars and in the section on plans to colonize the Red Planet, the author (a white male, shock!) says that a sustained Mars colony may never happen because women won’t want to leave Earth and be able to bring only a few dresses and makeup.

    No, I am not kidding.

    If it helps any, the classic animated Disney film about exploring and colonizing Mars made in December of 1957 shows men and women living and working together in a future colony on the Red Planet. Yes, yes, the first crewed mission there had only white males, but they diversified after that. :^)

  46. Athena says:

    Along those lines, I once read an SF story about a long-generation arcship written by one of the Golden Moldies. In it, I kid you not, ALL the women were housewives and nothing else. Every single one.

  47. Tera says:

    I have an idea!

    Castrate all the men liable to be distracted by bouncing female breasts…much more elegant solution and better use of resources lol!

    Okay I’m not really serious but better than wasting female talent and the exceptional performance of women in extreme endurance situations such as space travel, long distance swimming etc.

  48. Athena says:

    Actually, even if you have an all-male crew on a long-term mission, sooner or later there will be sex, consensual or coerced. You can suppress libido chemically. Many medications do that, including almost all antidepressants. Or you can suppress it by severe caloric restriction. The trouble is that both these methods also affect thinking processes — and you really don’t want to have a fuzzy-headed crew on a starship.

  49. Walden2 says:

    Or we can just send Artilects. :^)

    They are just going to meet other Matrioshka Brains out there anyway.

  50. Athena says:

    I suspect that even an Artilect will get lonesome. It may not need physical cuddles, but it might still need companionship. Shades of V’ger seeking its mommy… but there’s a kernel of truth there: Antonio Damasio’s point that intelligence cannot arise and be sustained without concommitant emotions, and we’re not talking just the four Fs either.