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Stanisaw Lem's Summa Technologiae portrays a grim and sober singularity

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Stanislaw Lem's Summa Technologiae was first published in 1964 in Poland. Now, some 50 years later, the publication of the English translation by Joanna Zylinska is finally making Lem's thoughts about science, technology, and the future accessible to Western readers.

Lem, who passed away in 2006, is known and loved by science fiction readers worldwide. With more than 25 millions books sold, he may be the most widely read science fiction writer ever, which shows that there has always been a demand for mature, complex science fiction literature.


A common theme in Lem's fiction is the strangeness, fundamental incomprehensibility of alien intelligences out there (see "Lem's strange aliens, revisited"). The lesson is that alien intelligences may be so different from us, their consciousness so alien, with textures and flavors so different from our own consciousness, that communication may prove impossible. Lem warns not to anthropomorphize – the universe is probably stranger than we imagine, perhaps stranger than we can imagine.


A common message emphasized in Lem's science fiction, especially in his works of the '60s, when Summa was published (for example in Solaris, The Invincible, and His Master's Voice), is that our human intelligence, consciousness, our particular human way to inhabit the universe, may be overrated – other life forms may be more efficient and more powerful than us without being sentient in any sense that we can understand, and natural phenomena (not even life forms, just mindless matter and energy following natural laws) may exhibit behaviors similar to conscious intelligence. With this persistent uncertainty between sentience and automation, life and non-life, Lem warns that reality may be stranger than our current models.

In Summa Technologiae, Lem shows the science and possible future technologies behind his fiction. The title of this sprawling book, which means "Sum of Technology" in Latin, alludes to Summa Theologiae, the title of the 13th century compendia of theology written by Thomas Aquinas and Albertus Magnus. Lem's Summa Technologiae, surprisingly actual despite its age, explores themes found in later science and fiction, including virtual reality, synthetic biology, nanotechnology, artificial life, artificial intelligence, life in the universe, evolution, the future of humanity and technology, transhumanism, and Lem's own grim, sober concept of technological singularity.

I think if Summa had been translated to English immediately after publication, some of the neologisms coined by Lem for technologies that didn't exist at the time would be still used today. So Google would do "ariadnology" (a guide to the labyrinth of the already assembled knowledge), virtual reality would be "phantomatics," neuroscience would be "cerebromatics," and artificial intelligence would be "Intelectronics." In all cases, Lem imagines developments more advanced than today's technology – for example phantomatics and cerebromatics provide full stimulation of all senses via direct neural interfaces with instant feedback loops, influencing mental processes while bypassing afferent neural pathways, and intelectronics achieves consciousness and intelligence amplification in machines.

The overall scope of the book can be categorized as cybernetics, a term very much in vogue in the '60s but not used much these days, defined by Norbert Wiener as "the study of control and communication in machines and living beings." In other words, "cybernetics examines structure and stability in groups of organisms: how they evolve in order to establish homeostasis, and what communication methods the organisms use to maintain homeostasis," writes David Auerbach in his review of Summa. " Loosely speaking, cybernetics is an abstracted, unified conception of evolution and artificial intelligence." Homeostasis, the process of constant adaptation of a system to its environment, with feedback loops that regulate both system and environment, is a central concept in cybernetics. Some homeostats have a "'second-order regulator,' that is, the brain, which – depending on the situation – is capable of changing the 'action plan' ('self-programming via learning')."


I recommend to read also Peter Swirski's A Stanislaw Lem Reader (1997), with more recent interviews and Lem's reflections on Summa Technologiae 30 years after its first publication. "I regard Summa Technologiae as a remarkably successful book, in the sense that so much of what I wrote there has in the meantime come true," says Lem in 1992. "Today I am able to discern the reason for the rather considerable accuracy of my predictions," says Lem in the essay 'Thirty Years Later' (in Swirski's book). "Quite simply, my general assumption was a conviction that life and the processes examined by the biological sciences will become an inspirational gold mine for future constructors in all phenomena amenable to the engineering approach." Summa is full of references to the blind efficiency of biological evolution, which often finds optimal solutions. "When it comes to their capacity, throughput, degree of miniaturization," says Lem in the conclusion of Summa, "economy of material, independence, efficacy, stability, speed, and last but not least, universality, chromosomal systems manifest superiority over brain ones."

Lem begins with a comparative analysis of the evolution of biological and technological systems, focusing more on the similarities than the differences. Both biological and technological systems are homeostats constantly engaged in feedback loops with their environment, which for technological systems includes their creators, and for some biological systems (e.g. humans) includes technology. I think if Lem wrote Summa today he might use the evolution of mobile phones as an example: the shape and features of mobile phones evolve under environmental pressure (performance of chips and screens, consumer reactions) and influence us in turn (just look at teens). At this moment the result is the typical smartphone running iOS, Android or Windows Phone (which also invaded the niche of other technologies such as consumer cameras and camcorders), but mobile technology is still evolving fast and I guess it will reach equilibrium when phones/computers will be directly implanted in the brain (Cerebromatics!), which may happen by the end of next decade.


"Perhaps we will eventually gain a kind of longevity that will practically amount to immortality, but to do this, we will have to give up on the bodily form that nature gave us," says Lem. Discussing the future of humanity, he often plays with the concepts and ideas of transhumanism, and formulates his own sober, grim concept of technological singularity:

"The point is not to construct synthetic humanity but rather to open up a new chapter in the Book of Technology: one containing systems of any degree of complexity. As man himself, his body and brain, all belong to such a class of systems, such a new technology will mean a completely new type of control man will gain over himself."


Such powers, however, are not likely to be achieved with simple extensions of today's technologies. "Even if we ourselves choose the end point, our way of getting there is chosen by Nature. We can fly, but not by flapping our arms… [Machine] personality will be as different from human personality as a human body is different from a microfusion cell. We can expect some surprises, problems, and dangers that we cannot even imagine today." This is similar to Vinge's concept of technological singularity as a point in history after which things become impossible for us to imagine. Lem talks of highly imaginative super technologies, including "cosmogonic engineering," the creation of artificial worlds inhabited by sentient creatures:

"[Imagine] a large, complex system the size of ten Moons that is a homeostatic pyramid consisting of closed, descending feedback systems. It resembles a digital machine that is self-repairing, autonomous, and self-organizing… [The processes] are capable of producing an intelligent personality and sentient senses."


Lem is not a transhumanist or a singularity enthusiast ante-litteram. If anything, he suspects that future generations may lose interest, like we lost interest in the transmutation of elements envisaged by alchemists, which could be done with today's technology but is not considered worth doing. At the same time, Lem thinks that almost everything is possible, with one important exception: our descendants will never decide to "let things be the way they are now; let them remain like this forever."

A very interesting chapter is dedicated to the search for other civilizations in the universe, and why we don't see evidence of "miracles" built by advanced civilizations, which according to Dyson and Kardashev should be able to build marvels of astro-engineering that can be detected across the Galaxy. Lem formulates a possible explanation: perhaps the paths of different civilizations diverge wildly after a certain point, and only a few civilizations remain interested in space exploration and astro-engineering. Lem thinks, however, that the universe is probably full of alien civilizations.


What forms of consciousness shall our descendants find out there? More generally, what forms of thinking life are possible, including sentient artificial life that could be created in the future? Here, like in his science fiction, Lem warns not to anthropomorphize – sentient life may be more similar to the living ocean in Solaris, or the self-organizing swarms of micro-robots in The Invincible, than to our intuitive anthropomorphic models. Lem thinks that "we are inclined to overestimate the role of intelligence as a value in itself," and we should "refrain from turning the 'gravitation toward intelligence' into a structural tendency of evolutionary processes." In the chapter on constructing consciousness, he writes:

"If the fact that x is conscious is only determined by the behavior of this x, then the material from which it is made does not matter at all. It is therefore not just a humanoid robot or an electronic brain but also a hypothetical gaseous–magnetic system, with which we can have a chat, that belongs to a class of systems endowed with consciousness… [The] brain surely is not the only possible solution to the problem of 'how to construct an intelligent and sentient system'… As long as only birds or insects could fly, 'flying' was equivalent to 'living.' Yet we know too well that devices that are completely 'dead' are also able to fly today. It is the same thing with the problem of intelligence and sentience."


In conclusion, I highly recommend this classic of scientific imagination, enjoyable and thought-provoking, sometimes outdated but surprisingly actual nonetheless.

This article originally appeared at Skefia and is republished here with permission.


Image: Diversepixel/Shutterstock.