Saturday, January 19, 2008
Japanese Gods Pray for a Positive Singularity
In September 2007 I went on a two week business/science trip to China (Wuhan and Beijing) and Japan (Tokyo). In between some very interesting and productive meetings, I had a bit of free time, and so among other things I wound up formally submitting a prayer to the Japanese gods for a rapid, beneficial technological Singularity. Let's hope they were listening!
I wrote this blog post on the flight home but wasn't in a silly enough mood to post it till now.
(Scroll to the bottom if you're in a hurry; after all the irrelevant rambling beforehand, there's a sort of punchline there, involving the mysterious inscription in the above picture.)
My trip started in Wuhan, where I gave two talks at an AI conference and visited with Hugo de Garis and his students (his apprentice "brain builders"). Their near-term goal is to use genetic algorithms running on field-programmable gate arrays to control a funky little robot.
China was probably the most fascinating place I've ever visited (and I've visited and lived a lot of places), though in this brief trip I hardly got to know it at all. Society there is Westernizing fast (I've never seen anywhere more capitalist than modern China), but, there are still incredibly deep and dramatic differences between the Chinese and Western ways of thinking and living. As soon as I stepped into the airport, I was struck by the collectivist nature of their culture ...
... so very different from my own upbringing in which individuality was always held out as one of the highest values (I remember a book my mother got me as a young child, entitled Dare to Be Different -- a sort of history of famous nonconformists). There are of course many Chinese nonconformists (there are so many Chinese, there are many Chinese everything!), but in so many ways their whole society and culture is based on placing the group above the individual. (Which leads, among other things, to their enthusiasm for importing individualist Western scientists like Hugo de Garis.... But this is a topic for another blog post, some other day ... let me get on with my little story....)
Wuhan was a fascinating slice of "old China", with folks sitting out on the streets cooking weird food in woks, strange old men looking like they lived in 500 BC, and everywhere people, people, people. Alas I forgot to take pictures during my walks through the streets there.
Beijing by comparison was not too interesting -- too much like a modern Western city, but with terrible, yellow, reeking air. But the Great Wall, a bit north of Beijing, was really an amazing place. Too bad you aren't allowed to hike its full distance.
While hiking along the Great Wall, I asked for a sign from the Chinese gods that a positive Singularity was truly near. As if in some kind of response, a sudden gust of wind came up at that point...
I thought maybe the local gods would look more favorably on me if I ate some of the local cuisine, so I filled up on donkey, whole bullfrog, sea cucumber, duck's blood and pig foot fur and so forth. Not so bad as it sounds, but I still preferred the kung pao chicken.
(As well as consuming various recondite foodstuff items, in Beijing I visited the offices of HiPiHi.com, a very exciting Chinese virtual-worlds company ... but that's another story for another time....)
Next, I moved on to Tokyo (after some inordinately unpleasant logistical experiences in Beijing Capital airport, which I'd rather not revisit even in memory). The company I was visiting there was based in Shibuya, a suitably colorful and hypermodern Tokyo neighborhood:
Based on years of looking over my sons' shoulders as they watch anime', I expected all the Japanese people to look like these statues near Shibuya station:
In fact, some of the people I saw weren't so far off:
But more of them looked like this:
The Japanese love robots and cyborgs, and many of them seem to exhibit this love via making their own human selves as robotic as possible -- which is fascinating but odd, from my aging-American-hippy perspective. (I badly want to go beyond the human forms of body and mind, but I suppose that once this becomes possible, the result won't be much like contemporary machines -- rather it'll be something more fluid and flexible and creative than rigid old humanity.)
Toward the end of my stay, I got fed up with the hypermodernity, and I visited an old-time shrine in a beautiful park...
where I happened upon an intriguing site where Japanese go to submit prayers to the gods.
Each prayer is written down on a little piece of wood (which you buy for five dollars), then placed on a special prayer rack with all the others. The gods then presumably sort through them all (maybe with secretarial help from demigods or some such -- I didn't ask for the details), and decide which ones are worth granting, based on whatever godly criteria they utilize.
At first, the very concept caused the sea cucumber, duck's blood and twice-cooked donkey I'd eaten a few days before, much of which was still lingering in my stomach enjoying itself, to surge up through my gastrointestinal tract in a kind of disturbingly pleasing psychedelic can-can dance....
My next reaction was curiosity regarding what everyone else had prayed for. Sure, I could sorta guess, but it would have been nice to know in detail. But as the prayers were nearly all in Japanese, I couldn't really tell what they were all about, though a few gave small clues:
In the end, not wanting to be left out, I plunked down some yen to buy a little piece of wood and submitted my own prayer to the Japanese gods, to be considered along with the multitude of other human wants and needs. Hopefully the Japanese gods were in a generous mood that day -- for all our sakes!