Re: Gregory Rawlins on the future

Hal Finney (
Sat, 16 Aug 1997 22:33:45 -0700

Damien Broderick writes:
> Gregory J. E. Rawlins, of the Indiana University Computer Science dept, has
> published two books relevant to the singularity (or so I gather, having
> fully read neither as yet). MOTHS TO THE FLAME: The Seductions of Computer
> Technology (MIT Press, 1996) can be read on-line, and a salient sample is at

Wow - this is beautiful writing. The last section is tremendously moving
and awe-inspiring. I should warn people that I have some brief excerpts
from the web pages here. If you want the full impact you should first
read the few pages starting from the URL above, which constitute the
conclusion to the book.

In "Let There be Light", Rawlins first describes the accretion of
dust grains, gradually, slowly, falling together, becoming more dense,
finally bursting into nuclear flame as the heart of a star. I really
didn't know where he was going with this. I was stunned when he turned
it into a metaphor for our own future:

> We seem headed for our own starbirth, drawn to it just as
> inexorably as those grains merge, accelerating toward it
> just as surely as the merging accelerates. The attraction is
> massive, relentless, unstoppable. When our starbirth
> comes, some of us will no longer be truly human; and things
> we now call machines will no longer truly be machines.

One thing that seems wrong to me is the title: "moths to the flame"
sounds too much like one of the anti-computer screeds by the likes of
Cliff Stoll. Actually, Rawlins' book seems to cover many good and bad
aspects of the changes which computers will bring.

He is cautionary in the concluding chapter when he describes what
he means by this image:

> What's special today is that
> because of the computer, an undifferentiated intelligence
> amplifier, our technology has nearly reached critical mass
> and is now juggernauting us around the dance floor at such
> a pace that we may never again be able to stop and catch
> our breath. Now prisoners of the dance, we're moths
> irresistibly attracted to the flame of technology.
> Prometheus, disguised as a scientist, has given us that
> flame. But fire also burns.

The changes ahead will be hard for some people. But Rawlins emphasizes
that change is necessary, that stasis would be far worse. His conclusion
is so good that I can't resist quoting it:

> A strange new world is coming, and coming fast, partly
> brought into being by a strange new machine. For various
> short-term and inescapable reasons of our own we're
> rapidly creating an empire of the mind, and now we must
> find some way to dwell in it. Our future is filled with
> enormous danger, yes, but it's also filled with unimaginably
> exciting possibility. Everywhere, life seems to be gathering
> itself for a great leap forward. After millions of years of
> slow germination, we're rapidly beginning to flower.
> We, all of us, are part of the most thrilling adventure ever
> unleashed on planet earth. Instead of looking backward in
> anger and fear, let's look forward to the next dance step in
> the adventure we're crafting for ourselves. A century or so
> from now, the earth may simply be the home world of a
> species rich and strange, a fiercely new and amazingly
> interesting species---transhumanity. The human
> adventure is just beginning.
> Let's dance.