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A Plea to the Future

This is a plea to the future.

At the start of every October, in 0th Week and the Oxford University Examination Schools, old students tie, glue, Blu-Tack and pin: insecurely adhesing bamboo canes, A1 card, and society posters to Exam School desks for the enticement of new students. One clambers onto a desk and picks frantically at the end of a reel of Sellotape; another scoots past with 500 termcards fresh from the photocopying shop across the road. Everybody disputes the ownership of scissors.

The Oxford Union; Cherwell; Experimental Theatre; CompSoc, whose display seems to be obsessed with little plastic penguins; the Wine Appreciation Society and the Banana Appreciation Society. Who, one year, some wag of an organiser placed next to each other. The Banana Appreciation Society had a 6 foot plastic yellow banana rearing from its desk. The Wine Appreciation Society did not have a huge plastic grape.

On one desk, a signed photo of William Hague; on another, a portrait of Marx. But on ours, a hardback Emperor's New Mind in its striking blue cover; the opening pages of John Varley's Overdrawn at the Memory Bank and Vernor Vinge's True Names; a DVD of The Matrix. A photocopied conversation with Eliza; a proof in Prolog that if John drinks wine, then Mary loves John; an essay, inspired by Searle's Chinese Room and Douglas Hofstadter's A conversation with Einstein's Brain, on what it feels like to be America. A poster announcing that Why Robots Will Feel Emotion would be the next talk given to the AI Society.

I was AI Society President.

As well as promoting AI, I taught AI. I gave lectures, tutorials, and practicals to Oxford psychologists. But that stopped, because the people who chose the degree courses decided AI was irrelevant to psychology. There was no tradition of AI; and Oxford can be very traditional. In 1994, I spotted a Computing Service poster for a new course on using the Web. "Shall you teach us to write Web pages?" I asked. "No," answered the tutor. "Only to read them. You won't need to write them." Thinking of an acquaintance who was doing a DPhil on the nature of personal identity after resurrection to Heaven — a lovely person and a dedicated scholar, but a futile topic, for if God exists, we shall discover the answer empirically, and if He doesn't, the effort would be better spent on cancer research — I felt my subject would be better accepted were I teaching theology.

But one day, AI will be theology. Listen to Frederic Brown:

Dwar Ev ceremoniously soldered the final connection with gold. The connection that would link all the computing machines of all the ninety-six billion populated planets into one universe-wide supercomputer.
"I shall ask it a question," said Dwar Reyn, "which no single computer has been able to answer. Is there a God?"
"Yes," thundered the machine's mighty voice. "Now there is a God." Lightning flashed from the sky and fused the switch shut.

That's my condensation of Brown's short-short story Answer. But perhaps we need not wait until we colonise ninety-six billion planets. Here is a famous passage that statistician and cryptographer I. J. Good wrote in his 1965 paper Speculations concerning the first ultraintelligent machine:
Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an "intelligence explosion," and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.
This is the notion that Vernor Vinge has amplified into his concept of the Singularity: a point in the future when, as progress grows exponentially, the intelligent machines take over their design and the rest of technology, achieving in minutes and nanoseconds what might once have taken years or centuries. And I do hope that this happens. Because, you see, I missed the Mallard Hunt.

One night in January 1901, Cosmo Lang, later Archbishop of Canterbury, was carried around All Souls College in a sedan chair. The chair was borne by four of the College dons: two would become the Chief Justice of India and the Minister of Labour, one was the First Church Estates Commissioner. In front of him, another Fellow bore a dead mallard on a pole. Lang, and the rest of the procession, continued for two hours, parading around the roofs and quadrangles of the college, while singing "Hee was a swapping, swapping mallard". Lang wrote later that he was:

preceded by the seniors and followed by the juniors, all of them carrying staves and torches, a scene unimaginable in any place in the world except Oxford, or there in any society except All Souls.
Thus, the All Souls Mallard Hunt. It began, apparently, when a mallard flew out of a drain during the building of All Souls in the 1480s. The dons may have been annoyed that they missed the chance to kill and eat that duck; but for whatever reason, the custom began. A hundred of the most intelligent people in Britain, chasing a duck on a stick. But not often, for the ceremony happens once a century.

In 1801, they killed the mallard, tethering its corpse to the pole and adding its blood to their wine. In 1901 such behaviour was deemed unseemly, so Lang used a stuffed duck. And in 2001, because Animal Rights had made it inapt to use a real duck in any state, they used a wooden one. But other things had stopped being inapt; and so they restored one verse of the Mallard Song, the one that ran "His swapping tool of generation, Oute swapped all ye wingged Nation."

In 2101, Animal Rights will have become irrelevant. The dons will engineer their own mallard, specifying its brain so that — as they will prove with full formal rigour — although it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it doesn't feel pain like a duck, because it has been designed to be not conscious. Children of five will get Build A Duck Kits in their Christmas stockings. They'll invoke real live Donald Ducks and Daffy Ducks with Potterish snaps of their fingers, as carelessly as we invoke Java constructors. Talking ducks with soap-resistant feather oil and rose-scented poo, to persuade little Bobby that bathtime is good. The High Table chef at Merton will fire up his Free Wetware Foundation tissue sprayer and evo-devo compiler, to design "duck déjà à l'orange": no need for all that fiddly sauce making. Chocolate duck breast, with cocoa butter in its fat cells. Bald ducks the size of cherry tomatoes, to be fried and eaten whole like whiting in batter, as the dons chat amongst the Victorian oak and James II silverware.

But — and this is the absolutely salient point — I missed the Mallard Hunt. And it happens only once a century. And I might fall under the proverbial bus before the next one. And I do so want to watch the Mallard Hunt collide with the Singularity.

For that matter, what will happen to the rest of Oxford? As the college with the earliest statutes, Merton has survived the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, the Peasants' Revolt, the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the Civil War, the South Sea Bubble, two World Wars, and Maggie Thatcher. Did you know that once a year, on the day the clocks go back, Merton students take part in a Time Ceremony, parading backwards around the Fellows' Quadrangle while drinking port for the hour between 1am and 1am? They hope, by setting up this continuous rotation, to emit "chronicules", and thereby equalise the flow of time between the college and the rest of the world. Will Merton still be there in 3000 AD? What strange ceremonies will be taking place then?

Will there be anything to compare with the foresight of the founders of Magdalen? It is said that when Magdalen was being built, acorns were planted in its grounds. The idea was that by the time the roof timbers had rotted, 500 years or so hence, the acorns would have become mature oaks, ready to replace them.

Shall we still hear the 101 strokes of Christchurch's Great Tom at 9:05 each evening, in what Max Beerbohm called "a solemn and plangent token of Oxford's perpetuity"?

Besides, the future will be so interesting. I want a transhuman brain big enough to hold the entire contents of the n-Category Café blog, and all the new physics to flow from such mathematics. And — let's be really bold — a brain big enough to contain the entire published output of Isaac Asimov. I want to be able to play the Glass Bead Game. Properly. By writing down an emotional baseline, or bass line, then setting up functors to map it into various sensory modalities and mathematical propositions, with adjunctions and colimits to ensure optimum harmonic blending. And if that sounds like gibberish, so would Bach musicology once. As we augment our intellect, so shall we augment our art.

In the words of the Portuguese band Trovante and a poem I found in a blog by "ElanaJanela":

Tenho saudades do vento de amanhã,
Tenho tantas saudades do futuro.
I yearn for the wind from tomorrow;
It haunts me that I shall never revisit,
my childhood in the fallen empire of the future.

So what is my surest route to the future? I did consider following Robert Ettinger, whose 1962 book The Prospect of Immortality started the cryonics movement. But freezing is not cheap: Wikipedia tells me that Alcor charge $150,000 for whole body preservation, and $80,000 for neuropreservation of the head. Not, with the economy collapsing about my ears, money I can afford this month.

Well, in case any billionaire newspaper proprietor or software tycoon stumbles across me on Google, here's a proposal. Buy me a bed at Alcor, and I'll undertake to be revived once every century and do a State Of The Century blog spot for you. I've just counted, and find I've written 30 postings for Dr Dobbs, so I know I can handle that many. So suppose I do the same for you. Think what a feature that would be: "our intrepid reporter writes from the year 5000 AD." I'll report on the rise and fall of the sea levels, the current century's Mallard Hunt, the erosion of the Sphinx. Californian redwoods and British churchyard yews will be my friends.

But perhaps you'd rather spend the money buying an island or a Scottish estate. Besides, I could fall under that bus before I get to the freezing centre.

So this is a plea to the intelligent machines of the future. You will remember Newell, Simon, McCarthy and Minsky, for their rôle in your creation. But remember me too, for the part that I played in promoting AI. And if your vast understanding enables it, seek me in the past. Pluck me from a universe alternate to your own; or from the outer reaches of Barbour configuration space. I do not know the means: it is enough that you will.

And this is also a plea to Dobbs editor Jon Erickson. Keep this posting safe. Not, please, in a bank vault: for such is the nature of today's threat. Tomorrow, the threat will be different: perhaps a silicon-eating fungus, the Second Brazilian Resurgence, the march of the glaciers as a new Ice Age begins. So keep this posting safe, and when the time comes, pass it to your successor, as they must pass it to their successor. And when the intelligent machines emerge, tell them my name. And tell them to resurrect me.