Why fi ction is a friend of fact
There’s fantasy, there’s pseudoscience – and there’s science fi ction. Fantasy and pseudoscience we’ve talked about a lot in this column. Science fi ction, not so much, although it’s the closest of the three to skepticism. This surprises some people, but science fi ction writers and skeptics have in common an interest in the possible. When it comes to UFOs, alien visitation, and other such phenomena, science fi ction fans and writers tend to be the most skeptical people around. If you really want to raise the ire – or sarcastic contempt – of an SF fan, get your science wrong. I mean, nobody’s asking you to actually invent and build a real, physical method of faster-thanlight travel, but if you send the characters in your novel careening around the exoplanets, it is expected that you at least nod at the fact that today’s science won’t get your characters there in any kind of reasonable time frame. While relatively few science fi ction writers can boast foresight as accurate as Arthur C Clarke’s in predicting communications satellites, a lot of scientists and technologists either read SF or went through an important developmental phase when they did. Vint Cerf, one of the inventors of TCP/IP, the protocols that underpin the workings of the Internet, told me that reading SF didn’t give him specifi c ideas – but that it did give him a sense of possibility . I seem to have spent the summer surrounded by science fi ction, beginning in May, when the writer Vernor Vinge did the wrap-up speech at my favourite conference, Computers, Freedom, and Privacy. Vinge took a lot of depressing current trends – ubiquitous computing, pervasive wireless, the Internet, gaming, moves to secure computing against hostile attacks, increasing government surveillance, medical advances – and managed to turn them into an optimistic future. Then a robot head – a sort of portrait – of Philip K Dick went missing. Since Dick wrote
about existentially challenged robots competing for the right to be human with emotionally challenged humans who are so mentally disturbed that they might as well be robots, this story is an editor’s garden of ironies. In Dick’s novels, reality shifts unpredictably, future selves issue incomprehensible orders to current selves (who follow them fi guring the other guy must know what’s going on), and simulacra of Civil War fi gures consider opening their own legal practices. Finally, just yesterday, I listened to a talk by John McCarthy, one of the inventors of artifi cial intelligence. As such, he contemplates what you might call real science fi ction: how to create machine intelligence that equals or surpasses human intelligence: robots used to be a mainstay of SF. Listening to him, for the fi rst time in my life I had a sense that philosophy might actually have a practical side: you cannot think about how to create artifi cial consciousness without considering philosophical questions about what human consciousness is. However, McCarthy also notes dryly in an article on his Web site that, “AI has to treat these questions in more detail than philosophers customarily consider relevant.” I love this remark. It intrigues me that Vinge’s technology-fi lled future lacks robots. If you read SF from the 1930s to the 1950s, you fi nd robots everywhere – but a world that’s home to only a very few huge computers. It was not obvious even to such luminaries as Isaac Asimov that the inverse would be true (even though it seems obvious now when you think about it.) It turns out – as McCarthy would be the fi rst to say – that creating a machine as smart as a human is just really, really hard (and much harder than the earliest AI researchers had any idea it would be when they began work in 1956). Even so, I don’t think any of us doubts that one day there will be superhuman machine intelligence, because unlike, say, telepathy or psi or homeopathy, such a thing does not contravene science as we know it.
P M T
Wendy M Grossman is founder and former editor (twice) of The Skeptic magazine. Her own Web site (www. pelicancrossing.net) has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music.
Wendy M. Grossman is founder and former editor of The Skeptic. Her Web site is at www.pelicancrossing.net.
The Skeptic magazine is available by sub scrip tion only from The Skeptic , PO Box 475, Man ches ter M60 2TH. A year’s subscription (four issues) costs £10 (UK), £12 (Europe), or £20 (RoW). See www.skeptic.org.uk
The Philosophers' Magazine /4th quarter 2006