Tuesday, August 27, 2002

Interview with Rudy Rucker

Giulio Prisco
Interview with Rudy Rucker, Transhumanity Magazine, 8/27/2002

This interview with Rudy Rucker was published in August 2002 in the late lamented Transhumanity magazine of the late lamented World Transhumanist Association (now Humanity+).

Q: You have called your literary style "transrealism". How would you define that?

A: Broadly speaking, transrealism is writing about your immediate perceptions in a fantastic way. Working day to day reality into your SFictional constructions. I sometimes call it a “magpie approach.” You snatch up the shiny --- or stinky --- things you see and work them into your nest.

Q: Is the Jena character of Spaceland a former girlfriend?

A: No. In some of my transreal SF novels I do in fact model the characters on people I know. But in Spaceland I invented the characters from whole cloth. I guess they’re inspired of any number of people I’ve casually seen around Silicon Valley. I write a lot in my local coffee shop, the Los Gatos Coffee Roasting, which is good for peoplewatching.

Q: Both the uvvy in the *Ware novels and the mophone in Spaceland work as part of a non-hierarchical, distributed P2P network without central servers. In Spaceland this network approach saves the company even after giving up the "magic" 4D phones. Could you explain the concept in more details, and are you aware of any real-world implementation?

A: Astute of you to notice this. It’s kind of a pet idea of mine. My idea is that instead of going off to some central server antenna, your cell phone signal need go only as far as the next closest cell phone, and that it can then hopscotch onwards from there. It’s a little like the way a packet makes its way across the Internet, but with the smarts pushed all the way down, so that there aren’t even any high -level routers. Each individual unit acts as a router. This would assume a goodly amount of processing power in the individual phones. Unless I’m mistaken, something like this approach was used by the now -defunct Ricochet. Around San Francisco, you can still see Ricochet repeaters mounted on many lampposts and utility poles. As I understand it, the purpose of the repeaters was to pick up the weak signals from any nearby cell phone, and amplify the signals, hoping to hit another Ricochet cell phone nearby. My son Rudy Jr. and I are in fact working on a science fiction story called “Jenna and Me” which involves Jenna Bush and those slightly sinister repeaters.

Q: In the "Spaceland Notes" posted on your website, you mention that one editor rejected Spaceland. So also established writers get rejections sometimes? What would be your advice to a beginning SF writer?

A: Selling a book or story has never become absolutely automatic for me. I’m eternally about one editor away from being unpublishable. Thank God for enlightened minds like David Hartwell of Tor, who bought my last three novels. The hard fact is that not everyone does get published. Advice to beginning SF writers? Write a lot, finish what you write, and when it’s done, keep sending it out for quite awhile. Heinlein had a famous dictum like “Leave your material on the market till it sells,” and there’s a lot to that. I never give up. If all else fails, there’s always print or web zines.

Q: I recommend reading Infinity and the Mind for an explanation of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. But for readers who can't wait, what does it say and mean in one sentence?

A: Suppose that M is a formalized set of axioms incorporating our mathematical knowledge. If (a) M is clearly defined enough so that we can easily tell which sentences A are indeed axioms of M and (b) M doesn’t embody any internal contradictions, then (c) there will be some sentences A which we can’t prove or disprove from the axioms of M and (d) we will in fact be unable to prove the (true) fact that M embodies no contradictions.

Q: In Infinity and the Mind you recall your meetings with Kurt Gödel. Did he ever say anything on the implications of the incompleteness theorem for machine intelligence?

A: I discuss this matter in some detail in Infinity and the Mind. As I understood him, Gödel said that his theorems prove that you can’t in fact specify a formal system whose power is equal to your mind. [Because, if you “know” your mind to be consistent, then when you write down a system M to represent your mind, you “know” that, being like your presumably consistent mind, M embodies no contradictions, but this fact is, by (d) above, something that M can’t prove, which then means that you therefore “know” something M can’t prove, which in turn implies that system M is weaker than you, so M isn’t equivalent to you after all.] But, added Gödel, there was no reason why we couldn’t set up an environment in which robotic minds as good as ours might evolve. This teaching was in fact one of the main and immediate inspirations for my novel Software which, as well as being an early example of cyberpunk, was a thought-experiment in the philosophy of mathematics. “Y’all ever ate any live brains?” My detailed thoughts all this can be found in the seldom-read “A Technical Note on Man-Machine Equivalence” at the end of Infinity and the Mind. It’s worth mentioning that in his posthumously published papers, Gödel seems to take a slightly different slant on what I’d thought he said. I’m in fact planning to reconsider the matter this fall, working with some philosophers at the University of Leuwen near Brussels.

Q: What do you think of the notion that that consciousness might require quantum effects?

A: My physicist friend Nick Herbert has developed a highly original theory which he describes in his essay, “Holistic Physics --- or -- - An Introduction to Quantum Tantra,” online at http://www.southerncrossreview.org/16/herbert.essay.htm Nick feels that the brain has a quantum system within it, and this system is the locus of our consciousness. Quantum systems can evolve in two fashions: (I) in a series of discrete Newtonian-style wave -collapses brought on by repeated observations or (II) in a smooth many-universesstyle evolution of state according to Schrödinger’s Wave Equation. The communicable, standard conscious content is all of type I, and this is the kind of thing we try and mimic with our neural nets that hopefully can be trained or evolved to display emergent intelligence. But Nick points out that type II is closer to how much of our inner mental experience feels. That is, upon introspection, one’s consciousness feels smooth and analog, like the evolution of wave upon a drumhead or a lake, let us say. Nick says that it will require a “new physics” (or perhaps it would be better to say “new psychology”) to specify the details of the correspondence between mental phenomena and quantum states. As a confirmed hylozoist (believer in the thesis that objects are alive), Nick also proposes that the type II consciousness can be found in every physical system, insofar as every system in fact has its own wave state. He also proposes that one should be able to couple one’s own state to the state of another person (or even to the state of another object), and thus attain a unique relationship that he terms “rapprochement.” A caveat here is that the link between the two systems should not be of a kind that can leave memory traces, otherwise the link is functioning as an observation that collapses the quantum states of the systems, reducing the consciousness to type I. He speaks of a non-collapsing connection as an “oblivious link.” If you don’t remember anything about your rapprochement with someone or something, can it be said to have affected you at all? Oh yes. Your wave state will indeed have changed from the interaction, and when you later go and “observe” your mental state (e.g. by asking yourself questions about what you believe), you will obtain a different probability spectrum of outputs than you would have before the rapprochement. I love this idea, and it may well find its way into one or more of my works.

Q: As the co-author of the popular Cellular Automata (CA) software simulator Cell Lab: what do you think of Wolfram's recent book A New Kind of Science? Do you agree the bottom layer of reality might be something like a CA?

 A: The notion of “a world made of simple computations” has been around for awhile. It could be that misses something essential that Nick expresses in his notion of type II consciousness. Being conscious and alive in the real world certainly doesn’t feel like being an emergent will-o-the-wisp ball of marsh gas dancing upon a sea of churning neural net computations. What of the One, what of God Consciousness, what of the great Undivided Divinity within all of us? In any case, A New Kind of Science is a wonderful book, and I’m still absorbing its teachings. The newer idea in the book that I find truly fascinating is Wolfram’s Principle of Computational Equivalence, which seems to posit, loosely speaking, that a leaf shaking in the wind has all the same richness of inner experience as you or me. I’m going to spending a lot of time this fall trying to really understand this new idea.

Q: Please give us a comment on the recent case involving the freezing of the corpse of baseball player Ted Williams. What do you think of cryonics in general?

A: Well, I’ve been friends with the cryonicist Charles Platt for about twenty years so I’ve grown a little jaded about this. So I’ll go ahead and give you a somewhat obnoxious answer along the lines of what I might say to Charles. I’d much rather rot in the ground. What’s the big problem with dying anyway? I mean, what’s so frigging special about my one particular mind? I don’t want to be God, I want to be a human with my spark of God Consciousness. Think of a field of daisies: they bloom, they wither, and in the spring they grow again. Who wants to see the same stupid daisy year after year, especially with a bunch of crappy iron -lung-type equipment bolted to it? In my unhumble opinion, you can never really reach any serenity till you fully accept the fundamental fact of your mortality. It’s the great Koan that life hands you: Hi, here you are, isn’t this great, you’re going to die. Deal with it. This said, can cryonics work? I think dry nanotechnology is probably a dead-end. As I argue in Saucer Wisdom, wet nanotechnology, a.k.a. biotech, is where it’s going to be at. In other words, if you want a new body five hundred years from now, the way to get one will be to have someone grow one from a clone based on a copy of your DNA, not by trying to retrofit your kilos of frozen meat. The hard part, of course, is replicating your mind --- and remember that you have somatic knowledge in your body as well as just in your brain. I have a feeling that copying a mind from one host to the next will require a totally new breakthrough, perhaps along the lines of Quantum Tantra. One final jab at cryonics. We already have too many people, so why would any future society every put any significant energy into bringing back the dead? How much energy will the citizens of Year 3000 care to put into producing a brand new Ted Wiilliams? You can rant all you like about contracts and trust funds you set up, but God know it’s a simple thing for crooks to screw a dead person out of his or her supposedly inviolate trust fund. Enron took down California for billions last spring, even with a seemingly living chief of state.

Q: How do you explain the popularity of Luddite and antiprogress views? Perhaps the pro-progress camp does not make its point well enough?

A: Unfortunately our nation, nay, our world, is run by evil morons. ‘Twas ever thus, if that’s any consolation. I’ve recently taken to reading Boswell’s Life of Johnson in the morning instead of the paper. Why let the politicians’ antics ruin each and every day? I do what I can to change things by thinking my own thoughts and writing my books.

Q: How about distributing your books on the net for free? What if the bad guys scan/OCR them and distribute them on a P2P system? How can you stop them?

A: You can in fact buy one of my books, The Secret of Life, as an electronic book at electricstory.com. At present, however, I don't think the Net is a very good medium for books, books should really be inexpensive lightweight paperbacks you can bang around. Electronic distribution is more of a fall-back strategy for putting out a book that isn't deemed profitable enough to print. You hardly make any money publishing an electronic book. There's a halfway strategy of print on demand (POD), whereby a distributor can quickly make up a paper copy of each book as it's ordered. Although I can imagine having some of my out-of-print books avaialable this way, I'm not doing it a present. It just doesn't seem worth the trouble. My impression is that people don't buy many POD books. I think you do a lot better if your book is sitting on the shelf in a bookstore and customers can just impulsively pick it up. My current strategy for making my books available is just to try and convince publishers to put out standard reprint editions. Four Walls Eight Windows has been very good about getting some of my books back into print; my Silicon Valley classic The Hacker and the Ants will be out from them this fall. Would I ever be willing to make, say, printable Acrobat files out of my books and post them for free download? Well, you know, I've been writing for twenty-five years, and I still have this dream of someday being able to quit my day job. Why would I start giving my books away for free? Aside from the financial considerations, giving away my work would effectively say that my work is junk, without value, not worth a cent. Regarding your other questions, it's hard to believe anyone would go to the trouble of posting pirated editions of my books on the Net. Why? I'm not Microsoft or Metallica, not a monopoly, and not vastly overpaid. I'd like to think that anyone who's that interested in my work would be able to understand that I need to get some money for my writing to be able to continue writing more. Not that it's at all a realistic possibility, if I were to learn of someone systematically pirating copies of my work in a big way, I would certainly want to do something about it. Legal sanctions would be the obvious route, and if that failed, I like to fantasize that some of my cryp, phreak, and hacker-type fans might do a frontier justice number on the pirate's electronic life.