Dialog: Author Rick Moss and Michael Anissimov on the “Social Singularity”

This is a dialog between Michael Anissimov, co-editor of H+ magazine, and Rick Moss, author of the recent book Ebocloud, which explores futuristic social networks combined with brain-computer interface technology. Republished here courtesy H+ magazine.

Rick Moss:


Photo: Jason Iskandar

Michael, here’s our question: Could a Social Singularity occur? You’re thinking, without a respectable definition of the term, what’s the point of asking? Granted, the usage of Social Singularity found out there is rather arbitrary. Mostly, it seems bloggers are tossing it around in an attempt to sex-up concepts like crowdsourcing and the “hive mind” without any sense of responsibility.

So I’d like to (humbly) offer up a reasonable definition based on ideas I stumbled into when writing my recently published novel, Ebocloud. I think it’s worth going through the exercise, and here’s why: a Social Singularity might very well be a heck of a lot more favorable to the human race than a plain old Singularity. Stay tuned to learn why.

As we all know, a Singularity is a technological mash-up that results in smarter-than-human intelligence. Unfortunately, the physical limitations of human gray matter tends to be the spoiler for Singularity theories that count on making people part of that smarter-than-thou equation. Neurons can only transmit electrochemical signals so quickly and they can’t multiply geometrically in the brain like computing power (as per Moore’s Law). That makes it more likely that the self-learning computers will win the ultimate Singularity Jeopardy match. Kind of scary.

In my Social Singularity theory, corporeal limitations don’t go away. In fact, they’re embraced. Let’s get into it.

For a Social Singularity to occur, I see certain conditions that will need to be met. The first: human minds—and a lot of them—will need to be networked to a very powerful computer network (let’s call it a cloud, since that’s the configuration of choice these days), presumably by way of brain computer interfaces, or BCIs. (This is the way it’s done in Ebocloud, details to come.) The objective of the human-cloud collective is to facilitate a feedback loop whereby human sensory data and biometrics are uploaded to the cloud to be aggregated, analyzed and used in various applications, then redistributed back to the human participants.

No, human nervous systems are not geared for data-intensive, multi-media input and output, so in my scenario, the cloud applications must be content with collecting small amounts of data from the humans (wirelessly transmitted to the cloud). And whatever information is sent back to the people must be in small, relatively modest packages.

Michael, we’ll get back to the big Social Singularity question, but based on what I’ve told you so far, can you imagine applications hosted on a cloud network that could be used by thousands of wirelessly networked human participants? Given their physical limitations, what if any potential do you see?

Michael Anissimov: What resolution? The resolution of sensory data and biometrics really matters. In a certain sense the internet already exchanges sensory data and biometrics so you’re being too vague here for me to say anything.

Ever heard of Quantified Self? They are doing this now. It’s written about in one of the most popular books on Amazon, “The Four-Hour Body” by Tim Ferriss. So in its mild form it already exists, not really futuristic because it’s already here…. but you probably mean something else.

Moss: Yes, definitely something else. The Quantified Self movement is self-centered, whereas the applications I’d like to explore here would be for the general benefit of the species. Yes, Mr. Ferriss is selling a lot of books promising to “prevent fat gain while bingeing” and “produce 15-minute female orgasms” (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Ebocloud offers a glimpse of a possible evolutionary step for humankind. (How could it possibly compete in book sales?)

But to answer your question, Mr. Ferriss recommends such self-biometrics as weighing your own feces. You’re the scientist; I’m just the crackpot sci-fi author, but I’d say we’re looking to go lower res than that. Let me fill in some more details.

In Ebocloud, the massive humanitarian social network of the title is distinguished from rivals (i.e., Facebook) by its emphasis on physical-world interaction. And so the founding scientists want to augment the experience with a wearable interface that will allow users to sense the presence of their fellow members and work with them in close coordination. What they come up with is a BCI called a dToo (digital tattoo). Laser-bonded in substrate layers to the skin on the inner wrist, the device incorporates wireless technology to connect with “the cloud” and integrated circuitry bonded to the nervous system by way of nanotubes that seek out nerve endings. (It’s sci-fi…just go with it.)

After the dToo is applied, a map is made of the subject’s nervous system and two-way communication, at a rudimentary level, is established. And yet it’s quickly proven that when accurately administered, simple impulses sent to the minds of participants in a group can be used to great affect. Minor sensory stimulation coupled with neurotransmitter (e.g. dopamine) triggers indicates the presence and relative position of others in the network. Apps are developed to coordinate group movement so that work relief activities and arts projects take on super-human grace and efficiency. Essentially now an extension of the cloud network, the users begin to experience occurrences of spontaneous orchestrated movement analogous to herd behavior. (Picture schools of fish shifting in undulating rhythms.)

So Michael, given that we’re in the realm of speculative fiction, this is all highly … well, speculative, but yes… the challenge is working with low res information but administered to hundreds of thousands of participants. Do you begin to see possibilities?

Anissimov: The Quantified Self movement is not at all based just around the individual, the whole point of recording the data is so that people can share it, compare their progress, and notice high-level generalities that would have been obscured if it weren’t for the recording. Also, I’m not a scientist, just a science writer.

The idea of a “digital tattoo” connected to brain-stimulating and brain-computer interfacing nanotubes is interesting, but wouldn’t it be easier to just have the tattoo on the head instead of the wrist? Anyway, sure, I see possibilities in this area — probably more scary ones than positive ones, because people already seem socially conformist enough, but I’m not sure. The first obvious beneficial application that comes to mind is the military.

Why would this work better with the military than in more a popular culture context? A couple reasons; 1) the military lives and works together exclusively, while civilians wander around between schools, work, yoga class, cycling club, etc. The idea of a select group of people binding together at the exclusion of all other people, like a cult, would be too socially shocking to take off very easily at first, 2) the military has more of a need for social cohesion and organization than civilians. Civilians do things casually, and generally are forgiven for small mental mistakes at work, whereas in the military, accurate coordination and communication is a matter of life or death.

Another fundamental limitation is the family unit. People are genetically programmed to place their family above other forms of social organization, in almost all cases. Non-familial, non-traditional forms of societal organization are often viewed with suspicion. That’s not to say that they don’t exist. Certainly there is the counterculture. This leads me to think that this system would be more likely to be adopted by countercultural groups, possibly with extremist goals. Why? Not because the technology is inherently sinister, but just because extremist groups have the desire to cooperate and communicate more effectively with a group, and most everyday folks do not. Many people already feel overbearing control at work — a digital tattoo that magnified that, in a work context, would clearly be unwelcome.

In a more positive context, I can certainly see artistic or cultural collectives using the technology to augment traditional activities such as theater and dance.

RM: Yes, I agree you need a terrifically strong social construct for the Social Singularity to occur and also that traditional groups aren’t at all idea. We might look to tap the power of online social networking but, unlike Facebook and such, there needs to be a driving sense of purpose. That’s what the ebocloud.com invention is all about. The ebocloud adherents are highly motivated to a) help themselves and their families, b) help their fellow members in the network and, c) improve the world (most likely but not necessarily in that order).

Ebocloud.com is based on an extended family concept first floated by Kurt Vonnegut back in the early ‘70s when he was inspired by the Ebo tribal culture of Nigeria. New ebocloud members are profiled and assigned to tribes, or “ebos”, each providing a mutual support system for “ebo cousins.” The sprawling cloud network is set on an open source app platform so members can organize ebo activities, running the gamut from neighborhood work parties, arts programs and pot-luck dinners to disaster relief efforts.

Ebocloud.com is a democratic, bottom-up organization, awarding “Kar-merits” to members for their altruistic efforts­—merit points they can draw on when they are themselves in need. The member devotion to ebocloud becomes cult-like, yes, but the founders build in checks and balances against individuals assuming power over the general will of the membership.

The ebos (each named for a different wildflower) are spread across the globe but work face-to-face within communities. At a point, the “cousins” take to tattooing their wrists with their wildflower insignias so they can recognize each other in public. Acknowledging “ebo-ink” becomes an important ritual. That’s why the ebocloud scientists go for a digital tattoo on the wrist, to mimic the social convention that has been adopted by the cousins.

It’s a fictional scenario, of course, in which all the pieces fall into place, resulting in a Social Singularity. I’m not asking if it would happen this way in reality, but if it perhaps suggests a formula by which one might occur.

MA: I’d agree more broadly that something like this could occur in the 2020s or 2030s if people formed groups around topics they thought were most compelling. Religious groups, like Christian, Jewish, or Islamic groupings, come to mind.

The most important thing about the Singularity is creating a transhuman intelligence. You can only go so far with combinations of humans, whatever superficial flourishes you put on them, be it a digital tattoo, karma points, or whatever. In retrospect a “Social Singularity” would more likely be seen as an ambient dynamic contributing to some specialist actually doing the neuroengineering or AI research necessary to launch a real Singularity. In retrospect, it will be the neuroengineering or AI that was seen as being the most crucial feature, not the social nature of the group that that spawned it.

I think the idea is interesting, but more like a pre-Singularity social phenomena, a “hyper-Facebook”, than anything else. It seems like the general human desire for socialization stays about the same, distributed in a bell curve, and isn’t heavily impacted by technology. The existence of Facebook did not necessarily make everyone hyper-social. Highly social people use it to socialize extensively, and those who aren’t very social to begin with don’t use it for that purpose.

If you’re talking about something with direct connections to the pleasure center of the brain, I would certainly call that neuroengineering, but unless the device is actually improving the quality of the information being processed, you still have the same old stupid humans. Hooking humans up to each other and hooking them up to drugs has already been done, but the scenario you describe does make it deeper. Maybe something like an ebocloud will herald a repeat of the 1970s. I think whether or not such a technology catches on will depend on the vibe of the era. The 1980s, for instance, were highly individualistic while the 1970s were communal.

RM: As the hypothesis is presented in Ebocloud, there is a distinct opportunity to, as you say, “improve the quality of the information being processed.” The transhuman superintelligence is achieved as “the cloud” network gains access to the sensory input of millions of dToo-bearing people. Imagine the network of supercomputers gathering stimuli from the sight, hearing and physical sensations of the tens of thousands attending a stadium event, aggregating it along with third party data, “stitching” it all together into a “vision” of the event, then feeding that unimaginably rich sensory experience back to the audience. And then, imagine these augmented human perceptions uploaded again to the cloud. It is in this feedback loop that I see the possibility of a singularity spontaneously occurring, but of course, only if the software designers are up to the task of channeling the resulting confluence of human/computer intelligence into something constructive or artistic. Otherwise, it’ll be noise multiplied geometrically.

In the Ebocloud scenario, I see social networking as integral to the achievement of a singularity, not as some precursor to such. Although I agree with your thinking that the technology’s adoption may depend on the “vibe of the era,” I see market forces being  equally influential. I expect that commercial social media firms will be flush with extra cash for R&D in the next ten years, as will the developers of personal digital devices and BCIs. The likes of Apple, Google and Facebook, with their billions to burn on wild-eyed notions, could very likely spur technological leaps in these areas. It would be nice if these developers were at least aware of the possibility of a social singularity so that they don’t stumble into the phenomenon blindly. That could be tragic.

Of Ebos, Egypt and the Crackpot Utopian Imperative

You can always tell when you’ve got a bona fide crackpot idea. You’ll hear one or more of the following responses: A) They’ll never let you do that. B) That’ll never work. C) They’ll put you in jail. D) You’re gonna get us all killed.

Please indulge me: I’m elaborating on the classic definition of crackpot. To me, while eccentric, a crackpot idea must also make sense. It has to feel right on a sub-logical level. It will characteristically evoke the secondary response, “But you know, that’s just crazy enough that it might work.”

Now, my stated criteria, A-through-D, are not exactly of the nature scientists use when chasing down a promising hypothesis. I would venture to guess that most, if not all, of the “technoprogressive ideas” showcased in this forum come to light at the end of a fairly disciplined scientific review process. But what of the truly crackpot ideas? What does the scientific community do with these when they come along? Is there an ethical imperative to review them seriously? Before answering, I would first ask that you note my inclusion of the word “Egypt” in the title of this piece.

Yes, I am implying that using Twitter and Facebook to organize a downtrodden, intimidated people in the non-violent overthrow of a dictator was a particularly audacious, crackpot notion. These events were analyzed, often brilliantly, on this website once the process was underway, but had the scheme been proposed to social scientists in advance, would they have given it the time of day? (Very possibly in this forum, but this is an open-minded group.)

There’s too much 20/20 hindsight going on with the Egypt situation right now. We need some other crackpot examples. Suppose someone came to the IEET with a formula for a new kind of social networking platform that would make us all better humanitarians? Or a one-sentence solution for ending war for all time simple enough for a third grader to comprehend?

As it happens, I’m not just supposing. These two crackpot ideas are published in my new novel, Ebocloud. And there’s a story behind how they sprang to life—lucky you.

*  *  *

It’s funny how things come together. Oftentimes, funny is good. When scattered thoughts vie for our attention, it’s natural to do a kind of mental shake, using your skull like an eight ball game, to force an idea to the top. But incongruous mash-ups can be beneficial too sometimes and I put this method to use as I took my regular lunchtime stroll one spring day back in 2007. Freewheeling in my mind was the recent passing of Kurt Vonnegut along with passages from many of his stories and essays I’d recently re-read. Also, we were at that time hot and heavy into the 2008 presidential campaign, so in my thoughts were dreamy visions of hope radiating from this new Obama guy. They were setting up a holy crusade against all the Bush-era Iraq War frustration still eating away at my gut. And I had just heard about more newly-won Haliburton contracts and, although Cheney’s approval rating was in the 20 percent range, his options in that company were in the stratosphere and I just said to myself, “Damn. This war profiteering has got to end. How in the hell can we ever dissuade leaders from making war when there’s this kind of a profit motive?”

And then I answered myself.

“Well, actually, that would be damn simple. For every dollar Congress allocates for war, make them spend two for peace.”

Yes, Haliburton would still get the contracts, but instead of supporting war efforts and ostensibly rebuilding war-ravaged nations, they’d be building roads, schools, water treatment plants and improving energy resources in unstable regions for the purpose of establishing good will and preventing war. And military contractors might retrofit their factories in order to chase the new funding dollars—swords into plowshares, amen.

Makes perfect sense. And yet: A) They’ll never let you do that. B) That’ll never work. C) Pursue this long enough and you’ll probably wind up in jail.

Now as I’m recounting this for you, it’s all spinning out in nice, linear fashion but it was hardly so because I was, meanwhile, still very much occupied with ol’ Kurt and thinking, “You know, this is just the sort of crackpot idea he would have had. And you can bet Kurt wouldn’t have shrunk from it. Man up.”

Now, of course, Vonnegut was no idiot. He knew crackpot ideas could get you locked up or killed. That’s what he had his fiction for. Whenever he wanted to let loose with a lunatic idea, he put one of his characters to use as a mouthpiece. Perhaps he’d let his alter ego Kilgore Trout—a semi-derelict pulp sci-fi writer—spin out the notion as part of some lewd, pan-galactic tale.

But that’s not to say Vonnegut wouldn’t stand up boldly for a crackpot idea himself when called for, which is why I immediately thought of the Ebo.

You see Vonnegut had visited Biafra, that short-lived nation, back in the early ‘70s as part of a humanitarian mission while the region was torn by its war of secession with Nigeria. In the midst of mass strife and starvation, Vonnegut was absolutely floored by the resolve of the predominant tribe of the country, the Ebo. As a people, the Ebo highly valued human rights and education. He saw how the tribal support structure picked up where individual families left off, offering aid and continuity from village to village.

Vonnegut figured if we had extended families in the U.S., it could solve a lot of problems.

“Huge families take care of their own sick and old,” he told Playboy in a 1973 interview. “They do it right away and at no cost to the government. So the President of the United States … announces that the trouble with the country is that nobody has enough relatives within shouting distance. Everybody has to fill out forms. So the President is going to have the computers of the Social Security Administration assign everybody thousands of relatives.”

Say it with me now. A) They’ll never let you do that. B) That’ll never work. C) They’ll put you in jail. D) You’re gonna get us all killed.

Right, I figured that was a crackpot notion firing on all four cylinders. But then the “just crazy enough to work” moment hit me and I thought, “You know, today, if a smart enough computer scientist used Kurt’s idea as the core of a social networking platform and people could join without any need for government intervention …”

And that’s where the ebocloud.com idea originated, arguably more crackpot than the one from which it was spawned. In my novel, an ingenious billionaire internet entrepreneur—heck, they’re a dime a dozen these days—works out a fabulous algorithmic method for placing new members into appropriate extended families, or “Ebos”, based on psycho/demographic profiling. Key to the effort’s success, he and his team create a “Kar-merit” system that rewards altruistic behavior.

“Ebo cousins” build up their Kar-merits by putting in service hours and can then draw on their points when in need of services themselves. Projects range from caring for an elderly neighbor to manning sandbag lines when floodwaters rise. All projects are authorized by committee with voting weighted based on Kar-merit ranking. It’s made up of thousands of localized, grassroots efforts but all organized on and analyzed by the cloud network. Ebocloud.com quickly blossoms and changes the world. And then the organization’s neuroscientists release a personal interface device that allows all the ebo cousins to interface with the cloud and …

Well, I don’t want to spoil everything.

And then there was that whole ending-war-for-all-time thing. I thought that might be worth exploring too. So within the Ebocloud story, I wrote a pulp sci-fi novel-within-a-novel, called The Venaries of Planet Flounce, and gave an idealistic world leader the job of coming up with that crackpot idea.

*  *  *

So there you have it; two crackpot notions for consideration. If you want a third, the book gets into the idea of human enhancement leading to a form of collective consciousness and what is being loosely thrown around as “The Social Singularity.”

I promised myself, once published, I would put the book in front of some real scientists and take my lumps, if deserved, because I think there’s a chance there may be something worth pursuing—or desperately avoiding—in the crackpot notions I illustrate. There is some evidence the ebocloud.com extended family idea could be taken more seriously than I had any reason to expect. In a Feb. 8 blog post, Stephen Gordon, writes, “This is a powerful enough idea that I think it’s nearly inevitable. At some point, it will be tried.”

And last week, when the news was swirling out of Tahrir Square, I got an email from an old friend. “Wow, I just was reading the brief on Ebocloud,” he wrote. “Sounds like it could relate to Egyptcloud.”


*  *  *

This piece was originally written for The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies website.