My friend and colleague Tom Georgoulias let me run this interview in my book, Follow for Now.
Rudy Rucker has a lot of things on his mind. Although his day job has him teaching computer science and mathematics at San Jose State University, Rucker is a writer. He has written twenty nonfiction and science-fiction books covering such topics as higher dimensions, artificial life, and biotechnology. Called the original cyberpunk author by many, his self-described “transreal” writing style is akin to Kerouac’s On the Road (Viking, 1959) and an issue of Scientific American after a run through the mince cycle on a blender. I recently had the chance to catch up with Rucker and discuss two of his most recent books, Seek! (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1999) and Saucer Wisdom (Forge Books, 1999).
Tom Georgoulias: I’ve been reading your new nonfiction collection Seek!, and I’d like to start with some computer-science questions for you. You write about simulated evolution to develop machines that are as intelligent as their creators, yet today’s AI research seems farther from reaching the goal of intelligent machines than ever. What do you see as the missing link necessary to bring AI research up to speed with your visions of intelligent machines?
Rudy Rucker: There’s a tendency to think that maybe if we can just throw enough hardware at the AI problem, then evolution can take care of the rest. Certainly that’s how God went about making us. We evolved inside a planetary-sized round-the-clock simulation over maybe a billion years.
The catch is that there is such a great disparity between a desktop computer and a billion-year planetary analog computation. Even with the biggest imaginable kinds of increases in our computing power, our machines will remain very tiny playpens.
So rather than relying on blind evolution to build our intelligent programs, we get into trying to tweak the process. That’s what traditional AI is all about, trying to find little top-down tricks to make a program behave more intelligently. But even in this kind of context, there are scads of program parameters that you don’t really know the best values for, and this is where simulated evolution can help you.
Another point worth mentioning is that the stuff we are made of has been evolving all along as well. New kinds of organic molecules emerged, for instance. This is analogous to the fact that we are still feeling around for the best kinds of computer architectures, operating systems, and evolution frameworks. The evolution of robots is really happening at a number of levels. And it’s not clear that we’ve really found the best kind of system to try and evolve a mind on top of. Neural nets, cellular automata, a soup of LISP strings — we don’t know. We just have to keep trying.
One final, encouraging, thought is that, as our machines become networked into a planetary web, the collective power of our machines can experience some synergetic increases. Evolution takes a lot of machine cycles, and when we can distribute this kind of search to lots of users, we get a terrific speed-up. The trick here is getting people to run your simulation code. In my novel The Hacker and the Ants (Avon Books, 1999), the evolution code was a kind of virus that took over the chips in everyone’s TV sets. What if every time users hit a particularly juicy porno site, their machine became co-opted into working on evolving intelligent software?
TG: In your writings about cellular automata (CA), you mention how parallel processing hardware is best suited for running CA simulations. There are many supercomputers designed with parallel architectures, but for the most part engineers keep cranking out more powerful computers based on the von Neumann architecture. What are the final challenges left in designing parallel systems and how can they be overcome so that CA programs can advance even further?
RR: Well, I too wonder what ever happened to the dream of parallel computing. About twenty years ago, the Connection Machine was supposed to be the big new paradigm, but before long they bagged it and got into making standard architecture workstations. I’ve never had a chance to do anything with parallel hardware. I have, of course, written a lot of CA code; usually the first thing you do is to set up a dual buffer system so that you can simulate the parallel updates of the arrays. And when you think about a CA rule itself, you are indeed thinking in terms of a parallel computation. If CAs ever found a really killer app, then the industry would be motivated to make parallel hardware to run them. Not that there isn’t any such hardware at all, Xilinx of San Jose, for instance, makes some field-programmable gate arrays (FPGA) that are supposed to be good for running CAs. I recently read that a man named Hugo de Garis at Advanced Telecommunications Research (ATR) in Kyoto is trying to use them to evolve an intelligent robot cat called Robokoneko. We’ll see what happens. A lot of times projects like this run into the wall of how much run-time it would take to actually evolve something truly interesting. The search spaces are just so superexponentially big. In any case, I’ve never tried using a FPGA myself. There’s kind of a limit to how many new operating systems and hardware configurations you’re willing to learn in one lifetime, and I’m getting awfully close to maxed out.
TG: The use of computers and programs like Mathematica have rapidly advanced the field of mathematics over the last twenty years, bringing topics such as complexity, chaos, and CA to the front lines. What are some of the newer areas of research in math that have sparked your interest?
RR: My favorites are chaos, fractals, cellular automata, artificial life, and higher dimensions. Anything gnarly. I love that computer science has made mathematics into something like an experimental science. I was never all that good at proving things, but I love doing computer experiments. Makes me feel competent. These days I’m wasting most of my time writing a book with the working title Live Windows: Games and Graphics with Visual C++ and MFC. I’d sort of like to just call it How to Write Cool Windows Programs, but Bill Gates has sort of uncooled the word “cool,” hasn’t he? In fact, whenever I write a novel, I do a search on the text when I’m done to make sure I didn’t slip up and use the world “cool” in it anywhere. But here I am putting down Gates, and I’m writing a book using the Microsoft Foundation Classes (MFC)? Well, you gotta live in the real world. I want to see gnarly math things on my screen, and hopefully on lots of other people’s screens, and the best way to get the things out there is with MFC. After awhile you even get to like it: kind of a Patty Hearst/Stockholm Syndrome thing, where prisoners get to be fond of their jailers. MFC is where it’s at. I just hope to God it doesn’t fucking disappear before I finish my book.
TG: Now tell me something about your other new book, Saucer Wisdom. Is it a novel?
RR: Saucer Wisdom is a cross between a transreal novel and a popular science book of speculations about the future. It’s my personal contribution to millennium madness.
Saucer Wisdom arose from three interests of mine. First of all, I have a lot of ideas about the course of future technology, and wanted to write a book about that. Secondly, I’m very dissatisfied with people’s current ways of thinking about UFOs, and I thought it would be worthwhile to write a novel which treats them in a more interesting and amusing fashion. Thirdly, I like to write somewhat autobiographical books that give transreal representations of various periods of my life.
So Saucer Wisdom features a main character named “Rudy Rucker.” Rudy is approached by a man named Frank Shook who’s been frequently abducted by flying saucers, but rather than giving Frank Shook medical exams and lecturing him on world peace, the aliens have been showing Frank all sorts of things about our future. Frank gets Rudy to help work his notes up into a book, a book named Saucer Wisdom.
The main areas of future technology described in the book are communication, biotechnology, femtotechnology, and transhumanity. The material is presented in terms of stories about things that Frank and the aliens looked at. And I enhanced the text with fifty-seven line drawings (supposedly by Frank Shook.)
You might well wonder what “femtotechnology” is. This will be the science of transforming one kind of matter into another; for instance, of making air into gold or chicken soup. One of my motivations in writing any kind of science book is always to develop new things to use in my science fiction, so you can expect to see femtotechnology turning up in my forthcoming SF novel Realware (Avon Books, 2000).
Frank’s stories are a grab bag of sketches and vignettes of little episodes from our future. And overarching these tales is the story of Frank and Rudy’s interactions, which are none too serene. At one point Frank breaks into Rudy’s house and disappears for two years. Frank and Rudy have their final meeting at — where else — the same Devil’s Tower made famous by Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And after this meeting, Rudy has a dream in which he finally gains true “Saucer Wisdom.” Check it out.