Category Archives: science fiction

Is the Singularity near? Yes, it is

The very last person I interviewed as a full-time staffer at CBC was a good one. The average person may not have heard of Ray Kurzweil, but in nerd circles, he’s pretty much a guru. Literally. People have referred to him as the “high priest of the Singularity.”

Kurzweil is an American inventor, author and “futurist,” which means he’s famous for making predictions about the future. Not too much unlike the sort of thing a science-fiction author might do.

In our interview, which is up on CBC, we talked about one of his latest projects - Blio, which is an e-reading application that you can download for your computer (and Apple & Android devices soon) that preserves the formatting of the original book. That means all those really nice graphical books, like cookbooks, travel books etc., will look the same on your electronic device as they do on paper.

The meat of our conversation, however, centred on the stuff Kurzweil is more known for - namely, his predictions of the Singularity and a coming future that will almost literally blow our minds.

The Singularity isn’t exactly easy to explain, but it essentially refers to a point in the near future where computer intelligence meets and surpasses the level of human intelligence. The two will merge, Kurzweil predicts, to form a super-intelligence that will make us capable of things we can only dream of right now. This will include making many science-fiction ideas real, like immortality and deep-space travel. A big part of this super-intelligence will come from reverse engineering the human brain, including figuring out how emotions work, which he predicts will happen by 2029. Here’s a video of him explaining it:

Not surprisingly, Kurzweil has his share of critics, who believe he’s smoking the crack. Some brain scientists, especially, say he knows nothing about how the brain works and that we will probably never understand it fully. Predictions about being able to replicate our entire personality into a computer file, which could then live on in a robot or virtual world (hello Battlestar Galactica and Caprica!) are way off base, they say.

The thing I like about how Kurzweil approaches his predictions is that he bases them on something he calls the “law of accelerating returns,” which quantifies the exponential growth of technology over time. I think anyone who covers technology eventually comes to this conclusion on his or her own - I certainly did - that the speed at which new technology becomes available is increasing. This is because if someone over here invents Technology A and someone over there invents Technology B, those are both pretty neat inventions. But when you put them together, you obviously get Technology C, and perhaps D and E and F, and so on.

Technology therefore stacks upon itself, which is why it seems like there are more and more new discoveries and gadgets unveiled every day. It’s not an illusion or an accident - there are more and more every day.

Kurzweil brought up an excellent example in our interview. When the Human Genome Project was started in 1990, people weren’t very optimistic that it would ever get done because so little was known. Lo and behold, the project ultimately took only 10 years to complete, surprising everyone. As Kurzweil explains:

People thought [the Human Genome Project] was crazy in 1990 because only 1/10,000 of the genome had been sequenced by that time. But it kept doubling every year. Half way through the project only one per cent had been collected so the skeptics were going strong, but that was actually right on schedule. One per cent is only seven doublings from 100 per cent.

The other observation I’ve come to is that scientists, while often incredibly intelligent (far more so than me), are generally quite myopic and conservative in their views. They’re afraid of or unwilling to make predictions about where their work can lead, which is pretty much why science-fiction authors exists. Someone’s got to do that job, after all.

It’s also one of the ways in which Kurzweil counters his critics: “A scientist may be sophisticated in his own field but he may not have studied technology progression and he may just apply his linear intuition to his own work.”

Ultimately, those two facts - the exponential growth of technology and the often narrow view of scientists - is why I tend to agree with Kurzweil’s predictions. I recommend reading the interview and if you really want to have your mind blown, check out his latest book The Singularity is Near.


Comics & video games teaching safe sex

How do you teach young people to have safe sex? As the Middlesex-London Health Unit here in Ontario understands, it’s with comics and video games!

A co-worker yesterday put me on to the fact that the health clinic has launched an online game called “Adventures in Sex City,” which is absolutely hilarious. Visitors to the site pick from one of four super heroes: Wonder Vag, a virgin whose power is to detect when a person is lying; the four-foot-tall Willy the Kid, who has “massive rock hard strength”; Power Pap, who can use her x-ray vision to spot infections; or Captain Condom, who can stretch to any size and “when used properly is 98% effective.”

In the game, which is basically a quiz about safe sex, the Sex Squad does battle with The Sperminator, who used to be part of the team until he was infected with a sexually transmitted disease. Now, the muscled bad guy has penises for hands and shoots infected sperm at you every time you get a question wrong.

I know, crazy huh? I chose Captain Condom and got only a few questions wrong - unfortunately, my knowledge of pap tests just isn’t what it should be. Captain Condom whips out his rubber shield and reflects the infected sperm back at The Sperminator every time you get a question right. Funny stuff.

On a somewhat related note, I’ll be doing a signing of my book at the new 3rd Quadrant/Hairy Tarantula comic store up in North Toronto on the afternoon of Saturday, March 20. More details on that to come.

Why a comic book store? Well, firstly, the respective owners of 3rd Quadrant and Hairy Tarantula - Daryl and Leon - are long-time home-boys who were big supporters of Realms Magazine, a venture that a couple friends and I tried a looooong time ago. Realms 1.0, of which there is virtually no online record of since we started it back in 1996 or so at the dawn of the web, was a bi-weekly science-fiction magazine (or fanzine, or ‘zine, as some called it). Daryl and Leon basically kept us in business for 52 issues with their ad money before Tom, Antoine and I realized that the whole thing was way more trouble than it was worth and called it quits.

Realms 2.0 was a revamped bi-monthly glossy magazine that my friend Kenny and I started up a few years later. We made it to six issues before going bust, and once again, very little web evidence of that whole effort exists. Daryl and Leon were again there with ads, and man was it a good magazine, if I do say so myself.

In the end, everyone involved in producing the magazines did pretty well for themselves. Antoine is now the managing editor of Toronto Community News and local blog Scene & Heard, Kenny is basically The Man at The Globe and Mail’s website and Tom… well, he sold out for some sort of IT job at Rogers. Some of our contributors did very well too - Pieter van Hiel writes role-playing games, Valentine de Landro draws comics for Marvel and Justin Mohareb is, well, bitter.

Obviously, I’ve got a bit of history with the comic book folks (heck, I still read them and my favourite writer of all time is Neil Gaiman). There also exists a fine line between technology and science-fiction, which is what many comic books basically are. Not surprisingly, there are more than a few sci-fi references in Sex, Bombs and Burgers (my favourite story to tell is how Google could create Battlestar Galactica‘s killer Cylon robots), so there is a natural comic-book crossover.

Not to worry, nerd haters: the geekiness has been kept to a minimum, so you too will be able to enjoy the book!

UPDATE: I have been thoroughly chastised by Justin Mohareb, who is one of the organizers of Fan Expo, which is kinda like Canada’s version of San Diego’s Comic Con.

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Posted by on February 18, 2010 in books, comics, science fiction, sex


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