Arts & Pop Culture

The Future’s Not So Bad: Iain M. Banks and the Technological Singularity

By GINA CARGAS

At the 2012 Singularity Summit, an annual conference begun in 2006 at Stanford University, one researcher claimed that there is an 80% probability that the technological singularity will occur between 2017 and 2112. The singularity—the notion of a point in time at which artificial intelligence exceeds human intelligence—has long been of interest to scientists, science fiction writers, and enthusiastic geeks alike. And now, researchers’ predictions and evidence of accelerating technological change point to the very real possibility that it will occur in the next century. It’s natural to approach the singularity with something between trepidation and terror; between The Matrix and I, Robot, Hollywood has conditioned us to associate the singularity with a massive, violent robot uprising. But our inevitable post-human future doesn’t have to be so bad. While the film industry prefers sleek, aggressive robot overlords, science fiction literature has historically explored the possibility of harmonious humanoid-computer coexistence. Science fiction writers as diverse as Isaac Asimov and Douglas Adams have written famous works with intelligent robot characters. But the most developed and insanely sprawling version of the post-singularity universe is surely the work produced by Scottish author Iain M. Banks.

Banks, who died in June at the age of 59, is best known as the creator of the Culture, a vast interstellar civilization that has long since progressed beyond the technological singularity and into a post-human and post-scarcity utopia. Before his death, Banks published ten novels set in the Culture universe, rarely featuring the same characters or time periods. Banks is often lauded as one of the last holdouts of “optimistic” science fiction—that is to say, his version of advanced society is more Shangri-La than Ingsoc. The Culture is widely praised as one of the most appealing versions of humanity’s future. (Technically, the Culture exists concurrently with Earth civilizations, with some novels of the series taking place as early as 1300 AD.) So what is it about Banks’ post-singularity utopia that makes it so attractive?

Kristina Lovaas / Kitsch Artist

Kristina Lovaas / Kitsch Artist

Perhaps most prominent is the fact that this computer-run universe has eliminated the need for biological species to, well, produce anything. The majority of Banks’ starships, orbitals, and planets are run by sentient supercomputers called Minds. These Minds are Banks’ most direct reference to the technological singularity; though originally built by humans (or at least humanoids), Minds evolved, surpassed their creators’ intelligence, and began a constant cycle of self-improvement and redesign. As supercomputers manufacture all possible products (including more supercomputers), the living are free to focus on what Banks calls the important stuff: history, literature, and, you know, scaling mountains. It’s hardly difficult to see the appeal in this vision of the post-human existence. Banks’ idealism values human achievement for the sake of human achievement, rather than the commodification of what it manufactures. It’s the validation of human existence as remarkable regardless of its material production, rather than because of it.

Most notable, however, is the fact this utopia is far from perfect. In the Culture series, there are no heroes and villains, no good and wicked, no righteous struggle against an ultimate evil. Instead, we find complex characters with multiple motivations, machine-driven destruction, and high-stakes anarchy. In 2008, Banks told The Independent that the Culture is “driven by the urge to do good” rather than the capitalistic “urge to exploit.” In this egalitarian society free from regulation, people die, wars rage on, and genocide is committed. But in the midst of all this chaos, Banks repeatedly emphasizes the triumph of human persistence and good’s ability to rise above—or even out of—chaos. Banks is called an optimist not for depicting an ideal society, but for his faith in human achievement, perseverance, and, ultimately, survival.

The singularity will be the end of civilization as we know it, but it doesn’t have to be the end of civilization. If Banks is to be believed, accelerating artificial intelligence does not necessarily indicate the eradication or enslavement of the human race—just an unforeseeable change to the way we live. While the idea of our current foundations crumbling is frightening, the endless possibilities can be thrilling. And as Banks told Orbit Books in 2012, “you’d have to have the head of a cabbage not to be interested in civilizations meeting their ends.”

 

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