Friday, 21 April 2017

Virtual Omnipotence

How much drama is possible in a narrative with virtually omnipotent characters? Unqualified omnipotence is a theological concept but what is virtual omnipotence?

An sf premise: a technology enabling its owners to do whatever they want within the bounds of physical laws;

a fantasy premise: magical or supernatural powers overriding physical laws.

We will consider Neil Gaiman and Mike Carey for fantasy and Poul Anderson and John C. Wright for sf.

In The Sandman, Gaiman deliberately set out to tell a story about virtually omnipotent supernatural beings. Carey followed him with Lucifer. However, both authors begin their narrative with the central character temporarily weakened and needing to regain much that he has lost. Even when at their most powerful, the characters generate considerable conflict. The issues include a family feud between anthropomorphic personifications of aspects of consciousness - Desire's determination to destroy Dream - and how to govern a universe. Should the Creator be worshipped? Should there be a Hell?

In Anderson's Genesis, the inorganic intelligences:

cannot traverse space faster than light but do spread through and beyond the galaxy at sub-light speeds;
incorporate the memories of extinct human beings;
spend centuries studying organic life where it exists;
protect the Solar System from cosmic threats like radiation fields;
divide and re-merge their consciousnesses;
can create conscious AI "emulations" of human history.

Their moral conflict becomes whether it is right to re-create human life.

In Wright's The Golden Age, human beings are immortal and AI-enhanced. Vast and nanotechnological planetary and solar engineering projects are controlled by a small entrepreneurial class, not by society as a whole. Phaeton did something so shameful that he willingly erased the memory but now wants to know what he did! A dilemma impossible to us but possible then.

Despite nanotech, longevity and brain-augmentation, important decisions are still taken only by a wealthy minority? To say that everything has changed but that nothing fundamental has changed is a contradiction.


  1. Kaor, Paul!

    The conflict in GENESIS arose from the fact the human race voluntarily preferred to die out rather than continued to live a pointless, idle existence as the pampered pets of the AI which had come to hold all the real power. Because, as we know, the all too "maternal" Earth AI would not allow humans to even fight and quarrel. So why bother to continue existing?

    I disagree with your last paragraph, about Wight's THE GOLDEN AGE. I still think HUMAN BEINGS will not change THAT much--no matter how advanced a technology they have. I see no reason not to think some kind of ruling or governing group will continue to make major decisions. What matters to me, as always, is whether those decisions will be made in ways most humans consider LEGITIMATE.


    1. Sean,
      But Wright has described a massive change in human beings with brain augmentation, AI assistance and nanotechnological control of the environment.

    2. Kaor, Paul!

      I agree, I remember that. But I don't think that necessarily means people will be any WISER than most of us are. I think even in the remote future we have to expect people to be wise or foolish.


    3. Sean,
      Yes but I don't think our present decision-makers are wise either! We can imagine means by which lots more people could be involved in decision-making, especially with all the information and communication technology that exists already and that is envisaged for the future.
      Anderson in THE BOAT OF A MILLION YEARS gave us some idea of the lives of the population in his far future society. Wright has not yet done that as far as I have read in THE GOLDEN AGE. It is stated that AI does everything better than human beings so does anyone work?

    4. Kaor, Paul!

      To make a first point, exactly! We have to expect mere human beings to be as likely to be foolish as wise. Which is why I favor LIMITED gov't, under what ever form. That is, a political system where no one has a monopoly of power, where rule by law is accepted, the state accepts limits on its powers, etc.

      And a second point I would make is that the kind of system you seem to advocate, with apparently vast numbers taking part in decision making, would be esp. prone to indecisiveness, factional strife, or liable to make rash, irrational, hasty decisions on the spur of the moment. All of which could and very likely would lead to disaster and ruin.

      You mentioned THE BOAT OF A MILLION YEARS. I would point out that even the vastly advanced society of the far future still had a fairly small governing group of "Ruling Intellects." And a major reason why they agreed to Hanno's petition for his STL starship to be built was from believing that refusing his request would have long term bad social and political consequences.

      Yes, we still see human beings working in Wright's GOLDEN AGE trilogy. If only because some people of that far future wanted to ACHIEVE things.


    5. Sean,
      Two meanings of "work":
      trying to achieve something;
      being paid a wage or salary in return for spending time producing commodities/providing services etc at someone else's behest.
      Of course people will always work in the first sense but not necessarily in the second.

    6. Sean,
      I think you fail to imagine a genuinely different society where everyone is well educated, well informed, has a common purpose, has equal access to communication technology and media etc.

    7. Sean,
      Here is the deal in the Shackley Republic (and it is not called that): everyone is an employee, a shareholder, a director and a recipient of the goods, services and culture produced. Everyone's education has helped him to discover what he is best at, which is more than one thing for everybody. Everyone has freedom of expression. Anyone who works best as a solitary creator has the resources to do that. This has to be a material reality, not rhetoric. With technology and education, we can do it.

    8. Kaor, Paul!

      Thanks for making three replies to my comments. In your first comment you stated that some will still work even in a post scarcity economy in order to ACHIEVE things, such as in the arts and sciences. I agree. I also agree the second is not likely in such an economy due to labor of that kind no longer being necessary. But that in turn brings up the problem of what people of simply ordinary talents, abilities, intellects, etc., can DO if their work is no longer needed. I think it would be very likely we would see the ennui and despair warned of by PA as long ago as his early story "Quixote And The Windmill."

      Your second reply: but I do understand what you mean about everyone being well educated, well informed, has a common purpose, equal access to communications and information, etc. I simply don't believe all mankind WILL act in common, have the same goals in mind, etc. I simply don't believe every single member of the human race will be GOOD. Some will remain at least prone to corruption, foolishness, ambitious of achieving goals at WHATEVER the cost or means it takes (including crime and violence).

      As for the Shackley Republic, State, Empire, or Commonwealth, we both agree that first the material and technological resources provided by a post scarcity economy would be needed. Assuming that, I have my doubts that even the best education, guidance, and advice will make everyone happy and satisfied with his lot. Esp. if a man or woman is simply of ordinary talents and abilities, and is not a genius. Again, the problems of ennui and despair arises.

      Something like this might have happened in the timeline of PA's Technic Civilization if a FTL means of reaching the stars had not been invented. Access to new planets capable of being colonized provided an ESCAPE valve for the human race. People who felt unhappy or dissatisfied on Earth could leave for other worlds where, since the most advanced technology would not be practical or cost efficient for a long time, they could still do useful work.

      To sum up, you are more optimistic about the human race while I am more skeptical. I argue that the evidence provided by actual history and by how people actually BEHAVES gives more backing to my POV than yours.