John Shirley interviews…award-winning cyberpunk god, RUDY RUCKER!
May 4, 2023
Rucker! We wanted to know if he had any insights into the future of the shopworn world we all live in. This groundbreaking, sky-piercing author of sf and non-fic; this professor and theorist, this visionary, has been deeply influential in science fiction and other fields. He has emanated significant reverberations into the field of computer science. A mathematician with a doctorate from Rutgers, author of the non–fic classics Geometry, Relativity and the Fourth Dimension and Infinity and the Mind, and a former teacher of mathematics at Heidelberg University, Rucker is a scientist as well as a science-fiction author. He is now a full time author and artist, having retired as a professor emeritus at San Jose State University. As a thinker and scientist he’s worked extensively with cellular automata.
Rudy Rucker was one of the founding creators of the cyberpunk movement in science-fiction, with his early collection The Fifty-Seventh Franz Kafka and such novels as his seminal White Light, and his Ware Tetralogy: Software, Wetware, Freeware and Realware. He continued his artistic and theoretical innovation in his eleven Transreal novels which include such mind-bending classics as Spacetime Donuts, The Hacker and the Ants, Master of Space and Time, and Spaceland. His Transrealist Manifesto provided guidelines for a fusion of real life and the fantastic. Transrealism spawned, among other things, Transreal Cyberpunk, a stunning story collection with Bruce Sterling. His novels and short stories (he is the author of seven story collections) seem to fuse a yearning for transcendence with a thirsty rationalism. He’s written memoirs, books of essays like Seek!, and mainstream novels too, As Above, So Below: A Novel of Peter Bruegel. And by the way, he’s the great-great-great-grandson of the philosopher Hegel. I could go on at length touching on Rudy Rucker’s achievements and influences…but then we’d have no room for the Interview:
Q. The future…we never quite get there. Yet we are in a science-fiction future, as projected by some earlier era of SF. Heinleinian investment giants have learned to land spacecraft on their tails, as in old SF. We use phones that resemble early Star Trek devices; we are creating things layer by layer in 3D printers, and some of them are being made to create prototype human organs; energy cannons have been developed and are being tested; animal brains are being blended with human brain matter in lab experiments; some cars can drive themselves; many more can park themselves; some say we’re closing in on fusion energy; more and more advanced AIs (so called) are making people nervous; genetic modification is increasing in capability, also making people nervous; robots are more and more common and my son bought a household robot pal for his stepdaughter and it really is one, too; to some extent, thoughts can be read through special brain scans … Rudy, has anything you predicted, in your science-fiction or in non-fiction, come true?
A. I’ve always wanted someone to ask me about my predictions coming true. I’ll mention two big ones. A first prediction of mine is that the only way to produce really powerful AI programs to use evolution. Because it’s literally impossible to write them from the ground up. I got this insight from the incomparable Kurt Gödel himself. The formal impossibility of writing the code for a human-equivalent mind is a result that drops out of Gödel’s celebrated Incompleteness Theorem of 1931. I worked out the details of robot evolution while I was on a mathematics research grant at the University of Heidelberg in 1979. My method of research? I wrote my proto-cyberpunk novel Software. You might call it a thought experiment gone rogue.
I had a race of robots living on the Moon and reproducing by building new robots and copying variants of their software onto the newborns. By 1993, when I wrote The Hacker and the Ants, I understood that the evolution should be run at very high speeds, using simulated bots in virtual world. And I tweaked the evolutionary process so that the fitness tests are co-evolving with the sims; that is, the tests get harder and harder. What were the tests? Increasingly vicious sim homes inhabited by nasty sims called Perky Pat and Ken Doll.
My second big prediction is what I call a lifebox. This also appears in Software, and it’s a main theme in my nonfiction book, The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul. The idea is that we ought to be able to make a fairly convincing emulation version of a person. The key is to have a very large data base on the person. If the person is a writer, or if they post a lot of messages and email, you have a good leg up on amassing the data. And in our new age of all-pervasive surveillance, it’ll be easy to access untold hours of a non-writing person’s conversation for the lifebox data. Once you have a rich data base, creating a convincing lifebox isn’t especially difficult, and we’re almost there. On the back end you have a the data, thoroughly linked and indexed. On the front end you have a chatbot that assembles its answers from searches run on the data. And you want to have some custom AI that gives the answers a seamless quality, and which remembers the previous conversations that the user has had with the lifebox.
This is pretty much what ChatGPT is starting to do. By now the lifebox is such a staple of SF films and novels that people think the notion of a lifebox has always been around. It wasn’t. Someone had to dream it up. And that was me, with Software. It wasn’t at all easy to come up with the idea. It looks simple and obvious now, but in the Seventies it wasn’t.
One of the killer lifebox apps will be to help the bereaved to talk with their dead relatives, as described in my Saucer Wisdom. I know Hallmark Cards is researching this, and a couple of years ago, Microsoft took the trouble of patenting my lifebox notion. Somehow they forgot to offer me a senior consultant job.
Q. What do you think of the “science fiction future”, in re the fiction out there?
A. It seems about the same as ever, although way more diverse. And there’s more emphasis on social issues and the environment. Not as much wild science as I’d like to see, but that stuff is hard to invent. As ever, a good procedure is to glom onto some standard SF trope and work it into a transreal novel about your own life. Transreal? That’s a word I invented in 1983 to describe my process of writing SF novels in which characters are based either on me or on people I know. See my “Transrealist Manifesto.”
Transrealism is kind of a beatnik thing, writing novels about your own life. And of course Phil Dick and Kurt Vonnegut and Kim Stanley Robinson did it too. In a meta sense, the growing popularity of transreal SF is another of my predictions that’s coming true. These days, with any luck, a transreal SF writer can get their book marketed as mainstream lit. “Visionary, breath-taking speculations!” I myself was never able to manage the escape-from-the-ghetto move. I’m too punk, too hard SF. In the other direction, you see lots of mainstream writers dipping into SF. I’m thinking, for instance, of George Saunders and Kate Folk, both of whom publish high-lit SF stories in the New Yorker. I got to know a lot of younger (than me) writers when I was publishing my online zine, Flurb, from 2006 to 2012. You can check them out online. I also want to mention Robert Penner’ excellent edgy ezine Big Echo, now defunct as well.
Q. Any highlights in your mind for what might be coming in the next fifty years? Perhaps a big, defining trend you expect?
A. I’d like to see some new physics. We’ve only been doing what we call “real science” for two centuries. Obviously there’s still a lot to learn. I can’t help thinking that some heavy SF-made-real moves might still resolve the terrible energy vs. climate problem. And maybe the horrible gun problem as well. I actually have some ideas for SF stories about this.
In terms of new wonders, I’m very fond of the subdimensions, that is, the scales below the Planck length. I’d like to get rid of the stingy size-scale limitations prescribed by quantum mechanics. And on another front, it would be great to bring Cantor’s transfinite cardinals into physics; I wrote about this in the latest intro to my nonfiction classic, Infinity and the Mind.
Recognizing the ubiquity of consciousness is yet another trend I see as important. Not just in a dreamy way, but in a lurid, literal sense. Stephen Wolfram has pretty well established that natural phenomena have the same computational complexity as human minds. Now we just need to learn how to talk to rocks. I wrote a novel about this, called Hylozoic.
By the way, “Hylozoism” is an actual dictionary word meaning “the doctrine that all matter is alive.” You don’t even need to make this stuff up. It’s all out there, ready for the taking.
Q. Do you believe “the technological singularity” will come true, this century? Or has it crept up on us already?
A. That’s a complicated question. Some say the singularity happened when we got the web working. Others say it’s more like daybreak—not a sudden flash, but a gradual dawning of the light. Or, yet again, if you see the Cosmos as having a mind, then a maximal, singular intelligence has been in place since the dawn of time. No big deal. It’s what is.
The SF writer and computer scientist Vernor Vinge brought the technological singularity into discussion in the early 1990s. His idea was tidy: as our AI programs get smarter, they’ll design still smarter AIs, and we’ll get an exponential explosion of simulated minds. A self-building tower of Babel. But it probably won’t happen like that. If our new AIs are smart, they might not want to design better AIs. After all, there’s more to life than intelligence.
Around 2000, Ray Kurzweil wrote a few books popularizing the singularity, and I was envious of his success. I wrote my novel Postsingular as a kind of rebuke—a reaction to the rampant singularity buzz. The singularity isn’t the end SF.
I say let it come down, and then write about what happens next. Charles Stross and I both take this approach. We’ll still be humans, living our lives, and we’ll still be as venal and lusty as the characters in Peter Bruegel paintings. Laughing and crying and eating and having sex—and artificial intelligence isn’t going to change any of that.
Q. Is fear of the new AI revolution misplaced or valid?
A. Fear of what? That there will be hoaxes and scams on the web? Hello? Fear that bots will start doing people’s jobs? Tricky. If a bot can do part of your job, then let the bot do that, and that’s probably the part of the job that you don’t enjoy. You’ll do the other part. What’s the other part? Talking to people. Relating. Being human. The clerk gets paid for hanging around the with the customers. Gets paid for being a host.
I’m indeed fascinated by the rapid progress of the ChatGPT-type wares. Stephen Wolfram interestingly suggests that “intelligent thought” might be a very common process which complex systems naturally do.
As an example of such a process, think about Zhabotinsky scrolls, which are moving patterns generated, for instance, by cellular automata, by reaction-diffusion chemical reactions, and by fluid dynamics. When you swirl milk into coffee, the paired vortices are Zhabotinsky scrolls. Mushroom caps and smoke rings are Zhabotinsky scrolls. Fetuses and germinating seeds are Zhabotinsky scrolls.
There are particular kinds of shapes and processes that nature likes to create—some are familiar, and some not. We’re talking about forms that recur over and over again, in all sorts of contexts. Ellipsoids, ferns, puddles, clouds, scrolls, and … minds? It could well be that mind-like behavior emerges very widely and naturally, with no effort at all—like whirlpools in a flowing stream.
Q. If AIs do a lot of the creative work for us, will it be genuinely creative?
A. Right now writers and artists are sweating it. Most intelligent and creative people suffer from imposter syndrome. Like, I have no talent. I’ve been faking it for my whole life. I can’t write and I can’t paint. They’re going wise up to me any day. A cheap-ass program in the cloud can do whatever I do. But meanwhile, what the hell, I might as well keep going. Maybe I can sell my stuff if I tell people that a bot made it.
But for now it seems like the prose and art by ChatGPT is obvious, cheesy, and even lamentable. Generally you wouldn’t mistake these results for real writing and real art. Especially if you’re a writer or an artist. But the big question still looms. How soon will ChatGPT-style programs outstrip us? Maybe I’m foolish and vain, but I think it’ll be a long time. We underestimate ourselves. You’re an analog computation updated at max flop rates for decades. And boosted by being embedded in human society. A node in a millennia-old planet-spanning hive-mind. Can bot fiction be as good as mine? Not happening soon.
Q. I personally don’t think AI can be conscious. I think there is much misunderstanding about what consciousness is. But what do you think? Can an AI be conscious?
A. Yes. Here’s how to emulate a simple version of consciousness, using a technique originally described by neurologist Antonio Damasio in the 1990s. The AI constructs an ongoing mental movie that includes an iconic image of itself plus images of some objects in the world. It notes its interactions with the objects, and it rates these interactions. These ratings are feelings. And now suppose the AI has a second-order image of itself having these feelings. This is consciousness—the process of watching yourself have feelings about the world around you.
Some researchers feel that AIs need to have bodies in order to achieve true consciousness. Theological analogy: God can’t understand humanity until manifesting self as a human avatar. Sounds familiar…
I delved into the issue of bodies for AIs in my recent novel Juicy Ghosts. In my novel, people achieve software immortality by having emulations of them stored in the cloud. As I mentioned before, I call these emulations lifeboxes. And the idea now is, as I say, that a lifebox should be linked to a physical meat body. Your personality comes not only from your software, but from your full body: the sense organs, the emotional flows, the lusts and hungers and fears. And from whatever mysterious quantum-computational processes are found in a meat body. You might use a pre-grown clone of your dead self, or you might parasitize or possess another person or even an animal. Main thing is that you need the analog, quantum-jiggling meat. Once you’ve got that, you’re not just a ghost—you’re a juicy ghost.
Q. Can you fold in a happy memory of our early cyberpunk days together, Rudy?
A. My favorite is when we went to a 1985 SF con in Austin as described in the “Cyberpunk” chapter of my autobio, Nested Scrolls. You and I stayed at Bruce Sterling’s apartment, John, maybe with Charles Platt and Lew Shiner. We were in town for a Cyberpunk panel including Pat Cadigan and Greg Bear. Gibson couldn’t make it. I’d somehow rented a Cadillac—Hunter Thompson style—and one evening we were slow-rolling along an Austin main drag and—although you continue to deny this, John—you were sitting shotgun, and you leaned out of the window and repeatedly scream-drawled this phrase at the local burghers: “Y’all ever ate any liiive brains?” The good old days. Even if they never happened.
Q. That certainly did happen. Speaking of cyberpunk, more and more brain implants are being tried. As I age, I wonder if they’ll come up with a safe reliable one that could reconnect parts of the brain that sort of recede from one another in the aging process. Would you have a brain implant put in, having done due diligence on its safety? Like if it would let you instantly speak Mandarin, for example?
A. Never ever ever implant a hardware device into your brain. Come on. You know that all of that shit malfunctions, and a lot sooner than you’d expect. Plus, if the thing’s inside your head, you’re not going to be able to turn it off, even if they claim that you can. You’re gonna have ads in your dreams, all night long, for the rest of your life.
In my novels, I want people to have a type of brain aid that’s a little like a cell phone. But you just think at it, you don’t have to speak or to tap keys. Instead of being implants, these devices, which I call uvvies, are are soft, crawly piezoplastic, and they perch on the back of your neck like leeches. But they don’t bite into you. They interface with you via brain waves. It’s easy to peel off your uvvy when you want privacy. And upgrades are a snap. Just buy a new one.
Q. How about a biotech singularity? Is it going to happen? Would you say “grow new organs for me and shove em in there, doc”?
A. Best way to do it is to tank-grow a full clone of your body, and swap in the parts as needed. To be humane, you never wake the clone up.
Q. In Freeware (1997) you propose that aliens could travel as radio signals coding up the software for both their minds and their bodies. Is this more than a cool idea? Could humans eventually travel as radio signals?
A. In Charles Stross’s epochal Accelerando, a crew flies to a distant star inside a beer-can-sized ship that carries their minds as lifebox sims inside the can. Traveling as a wavetrain inside a high-energy cosmic ray might be even better. The tricky bit is finding a receiver that can decrypt you. It’ll extract your DNA and your lifebox from your compressed file, if you will.
In Freeware, I have some jive-ass explanation of how they do this, but I forget what it was. SF is easier than real science. You grab whatever loose scraps are lying on your workbench, and solder them together, and the new device always works.
Q. The rockin’, profoundly predictive Juicy Ghosts is the most recent book I’ve read by you. What are you working on now?
A. I’m not writing much these days. I’d be okay with stopping after Juicy Ghosts, which was one the very best books I ever wrote. It has amazing near-future tech, great characters, a wiggly plot, and some heavy revolutionary content. If you’re curious, you can take a look at my Juicy Ghosts writing notes online. Another piece of the Rudy lifebox.
I feel like I’m morphing into a painter. I took up painting in 1999 while writing my historical novel As Above, So Below about the Flemish master Peter Bruegel the Elder. I wanted to see how painting felt, and I quickly came to love it. I enjoy the exploratory and non-digital nature of painting, and the luscious mixing of the colors. Sometimes I have a specific scenario in mind. Other times I don’t think very much about what I’m doing. I just paint and see what comes out.
Working on a painting has a mindless quality that I like. The words go away, and my head is empty. And I can finish a painting in less than a week. I’ve done about 250 paintings by now, and I’m steadily getting better. I like making them, and I’m doing okay with selling them online. So, who knows, maybe that’s my new career.
Q. You’re a direct descendant of the philosopher Georg Hegel. Do you have an overall philosophy? I have a sense from many of your writings that you do, especially in the later books of the Ware Tetralogy.
A. I see the universe as being a single, living being. Gnarly and synchronistic. Like a giant dream, or like the ultimate novel. All is One. The meaning of it all? Life, beauty and love. For details, check out the last section of my tome, The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul.
Thanks for the interview, John. These were good questions. Y’all ever ate any liiive brains?
A painting by Rudy Rucker:
enjoyed this. in the case of the lifebox this made me think about the most heavily surveilled groups of people, like detainees perhaps, alongside groups most trusting in populating their own datasets –influencers, heavy social media users. fascinating potential combination prototype.
Glad you enjoyed, Kendra. I personally would like to see influencers put in lifeboxes and left there. A locked lifebox. But maybe that is an expression of an unfortunate lack of patience on my part. JS