Humans have always been fascinated about the future. This fascination coupled together with limitless imagination led to the development of the science fiction genre, both in print and on the screen. The industrialisation period that began in the 1900s inspired a new form of science fiction that mainly dealt with man’s own destruction through his own creations (machines). Over the years, science has struggled to catch up with scientific fiction and many intellectuals believe that the next stage of evolution will be the amalgamation of biological and technological matter. In Accelerando, Stross focuses on the subject of Technological Singularity, and its impact on humanity.
The term Singularity, coined by Vernor Vinge, describes a hypothetical event whereby the fast-paced advances in technology will result in a situation where artificial intelligence will surpass the intellectual capacity of humans, thus changing the very nature of humanity (Stross 116). In his book, Stross covers three generations of a human family, spanning three different periods surrounding a singularity: pre-singularity, during the singularity and post-singularity. Stross derives most of his materials from the current world and extrapolates about what the future may hold for the modern world. Considering the accelerating growth in computer technology in the present, it may seem that Stross’s fiction may be a harbinger for what humanity may face.
On the cusp of Post-Humanism
One of the main points that come across in Accelerando is that the current world is on the verge of a technological singularity. Stross views the change, brought by rapid changes in communication, in four phases. First, he notes that there was a period where skilled labour was required to operate and develop machinery and technology. His main protagonist, Manfred, is depicted as belonging to a generation that followed parents who outsourced all the important jobs, as well as destroying the public education system, leading to a society composed mainly of workers hitting the retirement age (Stross 8). Manfred’s parents belong to the current generation, which is composed of outsourcing as well as complaints about poor education systems. Before the turn of the twentieth century, computer specialists and skilled operators were in high demand in many information technology and manufacturing jobs.
The next phase, according to Stross, is whereby technology becomes helpful to man. In this phase, man uses technology to solve several important problems. The modern world is heavily reliant on information technology and computerisation. Computers are increasingly handling day-to-day tasks such as farming, manufacturing, design and even art. Most communication and traffic systems are computerised and require minimal human input. Trains, airplanes and fighter jets can now operate unmanned as they are highly computerised.
The third phase involves over-reliance on information technology and computer systems. In this phase, man is heavily dependent on machinery and computers in order to function. Stross introduces Manfred, whose whole life is dependent on the amount of bandwidth he can access (Stross 8). Manfred mainly lives his life in cyberspace, where he gathers and analyses information that would enable him to develop better patents. Although Manfred’s life is an exaggeration of how the modern human lives, we can however note some similarities.
In the current world, it is inconceivable for one to lack a mobile phone or internet access. According to some scientists, internet access is one of the basic human needs, and as such, should be available to everyone on earth (Dougherty 27). Reliance on the internet has pervaded every sector of our daily lives and is increasingly becoming the most important aspect for any developing society. Stross’s depiction of Manfred, while outrageous, seems to be the best estimation of how human beings will live in the near future.
The final phase, according to Stross, is the subjugation of humans by machines and computerised entities. The current world has not yet achieved this phase, and many scientists have argued that this is impossible. According to Stross, there will come a time in our future when the manufacture of artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence (Stross 49). At this point, humanity will cease to have any economic value and computers will take over all basic day-to-day activities. In the present, computerisation has resulted in the loss of many jobs, especially in the manufacturing industry.
Looking at Accelerando, we note that this is the first stage in creating a self-replicating factory, giving machines autonomy on how they operate and reproduce (Stross 18). Over the next years, machines will also be able to program other machines, improve these programs, and finally perfect these programs in order to capture the most information to optimise efficiency.
One of the biggest question arising from Accelerando is whether human society can change at the fast pace envisioned by Stross. Good argues that when a machine that could surpass human intelligence is created, we can expect an “intelligence explosion” since this machine has the ability to create better machines at a far faster pace (52). He argues that once artificial intelligence surpasses human intelligence, man becomes obsolete in this world.
While modern machines have vast computational powers, they are however non-sentient. One of the main concerns about the singularity is that machines will consciously enslave humanity. This is however very unlikely, as no one has been able to explain how the human brain works, and its connection to our consciousness.
While the computational power of computers is increasing at a very fast pace, artificial intelligence still lags behind. Machines can only operate according to the limits of their programming and have a very low capacity to extrapolate. Creating an artificial conscious entity is far beyond the current human capabilities, and as neither machines nor humans understand how the human brain works, creating a truly artificial intelligent entity is unlikely to happen.
Another reason why the human society is incapable of such a drastic change is the human capacity to survive. In order to reach Singularity, many humans will be casualties of technology. People will lose jobs thereby reducing demand, and in the process, reducing the motivation to invest in technologies whose sole purpose is to make humans obsolete (Tainter 102).
Finally, all technologies created in the world are part of a process that involves information sharing, and utilisation of currently existing technologies. Although the telephone was invented in the nineteenth century, it was only in the 21st century that mobile phones were developed and released to the public. The current unprecedented growth in information technology is not an accurate indicator on how fast the singularity is likely to occur.
In Accelerando, it only takes three generations for the world to reshape itself. Each shows a huge shift in technological prowess and capabilities culminating in the total subjugation of the original human nature. The modern world is still quite far from reaching singularity (assuming it is possible), mainly due to human nature, the definition of intelligence and limitations based on the structures of human society (consumerism and capitalism over communism).
Stross presents a story that covers the events surrounding a technological singularity. In the story, Stross’s characters strive to perfect themselves by increasing their intelligence through external memories, and continue this process until they are able to shed their “meat body”. At the end of the novel, humans have been able to upload their consciousness into technological constructs and gain virtual immortality.
Stross gives us a glimpse of a post-human world, in which information is the main currency and human beings are obsolete, and are impediment to further growth. By the end of the book, it is evident that the destruction of human race is eminent so that the “vile offspring” can gain access to more resources. Stross prompts various questions: what makes up the human consciousness and is it possible for humans to perfect themselves? The exponential growth experienced in information technology hints at the ability of man to change human nature. Difficulty in quantifying human nature is however the biggest impediment at creating an external consciousness as envisioned by Stross. Accelerando aims at creating awareness on the manner our society is progressing. However, it is evident that man still has a long way to go before we start worrying about the occurrence of a technological singularity.
Dougherty, Stephen. “Culture in the Disk Drive: Computationalism, Memetics, and the Rise of Posthumanism.” Diacritics 31.4 (2001): 12- 46. Print.
Good, Irving. “Speculations Concerning the First Ultra-intelligent Machine.” Advances in Computers. Ed. Franz Alt and Morris Rubinoff. New York: Academic Press, 1965. 31-88. Print.
Stross, Charles. Accelerando. London: Penguin Books, 2005. Print.
Tainter, Joseph. The Collapse of Complex Societies. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 1988. Print.