This post is a set of musings occasioned by a dissenting review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s new novel AURORA.
I have mixed feelings about this review. I think that it ends in magic: “uploading” minds as the solution to space exploration. For me this is a meaningless techno-scientific phantasm. But it raises the problem of what happens if we discover life in another star system? Would it necessarily be inimical? I see no reason to believe so, it could just as easily be beneficial, improve our digestion or cure our pimples (to take some trivial, non-apocalyptic examples).
I also have mixed feelings about the novel. Somehow it stops short, with a “magic moment”, where some alternative political vision would be needed. Nor is magical thinking entirely absent from the book. Uploading minds is magic, but so is the conscious quantum computer of the story, “Ship”, despite KSR’s attempts to give it scientific credence. If a conscious quantum computer is possible, then so are wormholes or quantum teleportation or whatever. Politically, the computer seems to provide an answer to the problem of how to have a democracy or self-management without also having a strong police force. The computer solves this embarrasing problem like a deus ex machina. Similarly, the Earthfirst beachers symbolise a marginal politics of incremental progress, where something more is needed. KSR indicates the problems, but his solutions here are rather sketchy.
There is an incoherence between being very hard-headed about interstellar travel, and soft-headed about self-aware quantum computers. A quantum computer is something that we are only beginning to construct, a “self-aware” quantum computer is something else entirely. This is the “double-standard” model. KSR is hard-headed about space travel, applying basically classical mechanics to the problem. He is soft-headed about self-awareness in computers. This makes for a good story. He uses biology and ecology in a hard-headed approach too. (But I think the inimity of all alien-based life to our own biology is undemonstrated).
I see the book as containing a critique of scientism and of its fantasms of transcendance. If a scientist, or a science fan, can take at face value, with no analysis and no proof, that progress in quantum computing is a “first step” to self-awareness then this is more of the same ilk as those who in the book assert that it is our “destiny” to spread out into the stars. The whole thrust of the novel is deconstructive and demystificatory, to turn a scientistic fantasm into a real programme, and see what the conditions, the costs and the consequences are.
One may object that real progress has been made in the domain of quantum computing. But this is to miss that incremental progress is not paradigm change. There is no proof of even the possible existence of self-aware computers. The researchers in artificial intelligence by means of quantum computing do not have a paradigm, they are content to just muddle along and believe that one day a computer will “wake up”. Maybe so, but this is just magical thinking for the moment.
I do not deny that there really exist tiny first steps to quantum computing. But this does not entitle the believer in artificial intelligence to say “and suddenly it wakes up”. It is important not to take very recent studies, whose results and significance are still controversial, as if they were a hard foundation for a putative realistic goal. KSR warns against the engineer mentality and its obsession with technological prowess, and contrasts it with a more ecological approach. One of the interesting points in the novel is that the self-awareness of the AI is not a product of engineering, but of conversation and trust.
In a novel, as in any other context, it’s important to see where people are passing from complexity to waffle, and in AURORA the explanation of the self-aware computer is a little more on the pleasant waffle side of things, a useful plot device. KSR seems to acknowledge this, as Freya at the end does not become a post-humanist prophet but a beach engineer.
Personally I am more optimistic than KSR as to the possibility of interstellar travel in the far future, and I would criticise his pessimistic vision as itself based on direct extrapolation without allowing for paradigm change. Paradoxically, he is himself guilty of the very sort of “imprisoned” thinking that he shows up as problematic in the story. My feeling is that these questions are empirical, but that “empirical” means also new paradigms and not just doing better what we already know how to do. I agree that there is no Manifest Destiny for human life to go out and conquer the stars, but there is no manifest destiny of enclosure within the limits of the solar system.
Specific arguments of AURORA are empirical (and so falsifiable), and we must distinguish between their degrees of plausibility. On the question of the dissuasive amounts of time involved, the stellar distance argument is not the same as the difficulty of terraforming argument. The long duration involved in voyaging between the stars is solved in the novel itself by the new hibernation technique. The time for terraforming is relative to our technology, and could conceivably be accelerated. There is also the argument of acceptable risk or mortality rate. This is separate from the questions of duration (trip, terraforming). A fourth argument is very doubtful: other life is either absent or deadly. There is no reason to believe that life on other planets will automatically kill us, it could be neutral, or even enhance us.
Note: this blog post benefited from an interesting facebook discussion with David Parker.