Awaiting the Rupture

Author Richard Dooling on his latest book.

Richard Dooling’s website describes him as “Part man, part beast, part novelist, part screenwriter, part lawyer and law school professor, part computer programming hobbyist, part word, book, and film lover.” Outside of his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska, Dooling is known as a novelist and essayist who writes about cutting-edge issues with a clear head and acid pen. His second novel White Man’s Grave was a finalist for the National Book Award, and his third, Brain Storm, was praised as “a hilarious novel about hate” by columnist George F. Will.

Dooling has said that he wasn’t “educated by the Jesuits as much as I was raised by them. If they discover a Jesuit DNA someday, they will be able to just draw my blood and marvel at the 11 years of indoctrination I had and wonder if I can still hum a tune without considering man’s place in the universe.”

He says that he sets out to write every book “with the vow that I will not write about technology, Catholicism, or hell” and then, inevitably, breaks that vow. In between books, Dooling has practiced medicine and law, taught law courses, and written movie scripts for Stephen King, whose latest film is due out this year. The author spoke with CWR in late January about Richard Dawkins, “development hell,” and his latest book, Rapture for the Geeks: When AI Outsmarts IQ.

Try to explain this to us non-geeks: What is this “Singularity” that you write about in your latest book?

Richard Dooling: I don’t like the word “Singularity” because it is almost a synonym for “the Unknowable,” which means your question would be translated as, “What is the Unknowable?” However, the two most popular ways of answering your question would be as follows.

Sci-fi writer and tech futurist Vernor Vinge would probably say, “The Singularity is the technological creation of smarter-than-human intelligence.” What will happen when our machines are “smarter” than us?

However, someone like inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil would probably have a broader definition. Kurzweil wouldn’t get hung up on trying to define “smarter” or guess when any specific Artificial Intelligence would achieve the computational capacity of a human brain (though he does just that in his book, The Singularity is Near). He would say that “the Singularity is technological change so rapid and so profound that it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. Some would say that we cannot comprehend the Singularity, at least with our current level of understanding, and that it is impossible, therefore, to look past its ‘event horizon’ and make sense of what lies beyond.”

In my book, Rapture for The Geeks, I summarize both Vinge and Kurzweil. As a novelist myself, I like Vinge’s description: you and me looking ahead and trying to apprehend what technology will bring in the near future is like a flat worm speculating about what an opera would be like.

Give people a snapshot of where we’re at now. How much information does one human brain store? And how much would it cost to purchase that much space at current rates?

Dooling: Well, you probably don’t mean to ask about “storage.” Storage is dirt cheap. That’s why Google and Yahoo give it away.

Three or four hard drives would probably equal the storage capacity of your neocortex. You probably mean to ask about the computational capacity of a human brain. If a human brain is like a computer, how powerful is it and how long before computers catch up?

Kurzweil deals with this at length. His conservative estimate (after surveying the AI experts) is that we are running at about 10 petaflops. IBM’s Blue Gene P (in its June 2007 configuration) runs at about one petaflop. Go ahead, find temporary solace in knowing that we are temporarily 10 times smarter than the most powerful computer on earth. Then worry when you realize that Moore’s Law runs everything in the tech world. Meaning the IBM computer will get twice as “smart” and twice as powerful every two years. So by 2013-2015, it will surpass you in raw computing power. According to Kurzweil, by 2020 a computer with the computational capacity of a human brain will cost $1,000 and will be sitting on your desk.

One question that you don’t settle in Rapture for the Geeks is whether there is an unbridgeable gap between, say, storage space and processing speed on one side and intelligence and consciousness on the other. Do you suspect that there is such a gap?

Dooling: Yes, I do. But I may be just whistling past the proverbial graveyard. I’m hoping that we humans have something that machines will never have. Call it faith, instinct, I don’t know.

You take shots at several famous scientists in Rapture for the Geeks, including Richard Dawkins. What did Dawkins do to earn your poison pen-salute?

Dooling: Read Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens back-to-back. Hitchens has scorn plus wit; Dawkins has scorn minus wit. Plus Dawkins is a scientist. A damn good, interesting scientist, but when he attacks religion, he’s about as interesting to me as a creationist attacking science. I found him tendentious and predictable and rude. As I point out in Rapture for the Geeks, many other scientists who are also unbelievers have a lot more respect for the human
religious instinct. I’m not mad at him. Just disappointed.

Is it fair to say that in this latest book and in your novels, you characterize science as essentially soulless work?

Dooling: No way. I love science and technology. Many scientists see wall-towall miracles when they study the universe. The Watch the Watchmaker made and all of that. I don’t think science is soulless. Perhaps you detect my terror of those scientists who have no souls and run off to make nuclear weapons because it’s such excellent physics.

You do give readers some characters who see the miraculous, or near miraculous, in what they do. But in Critical Care and in Brain Storm, particularly, you also show doctors and lawyers and scientists who are oblivious to the spiritual reality that surrounds them. One of the questions posed by Brain Storm is, “Does the study of the brain eliminate the possibility of a soul?”

Dooling: I had discussions like this with both my editor and with [movie director] Alan Pakula. My sentiments and my instincts are that I, indeed, have a soul and that we live and breathe spiritual reality. However, my protagonist loses every argument he has with the witty and sarcastic (and beautiful) neuroscientist in Brain Storm. You seem almost to be reading my novel Brain Storm as a work of nonfiction. The fun thing in fiction is that there are no answers, just really provocative questions. If you want to send a message, use Western Union, as they used to say in Hollywood.

Who are the favorite characters that you’ve created?

Dooling: Judge Stang (the federal district judge in Brain Storm). Dr. Butz (the alcoholic doctor emeritus in Critical Care). Randall Killigan (the hypochondriac bankruptcy lawyer in White Man’s Grave). I like comedy and satire. They are rich satirical creatures, I hope.

You received a medical degree, practiced for a bit, and then decided to go to law school. Why did you decide to do that?

Dooling: I was a registered respiratory therapist working in intensive care units when I wrote most of Critical Care (my first published novel). I went to law school because I was tired of not getting published and I wanted to make more money. I was already a practicing lawyer when my first novel was published, so it was too late to turn back. Did I like practicing law? Yes. It was mostly writing. Just a slightly different kind of writing.

Interesting. Critical Care was your “first published novel.” Are there other manuscripts sitting around?

Dooling: I have a crumbly old manuscript called Vulgar Humours about my times working as a psych attendant in mental hospital. I have pillaged it on occasion for precious passages but it could never stand alone.

A few of your books carry the famous abbreviation of the Jesuit order’s motto: A.M.D.G., Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, “For the greater glory of God.” Was that a practice that you picked up when you were writing papers at the Jesuit St. Louis University?

Dooling: No, [but] my favorite teacher was a benevolent tyrant of a Latin teacher. A Jesuit, Father Michael Hindelang, S.J. He taught me to keep a careful record of all words I look up in any dictionary (the famous “Vocabulary Notebook” which, if you forgot it, was punishable by pain of death). I still keep such a notebook, though of course it’s all on computer now

Your previous book of essays, Blue Streak, and your novel Brain Storm, dwell at some length on the idea of hate crimes. Our new Congress and president are promising to pass new hate crimes statutes. What do you think of that idea?

Dooling: It happens like clockwork. “All those against hate raise your hand! See, America? We are hard at work protecting you from hate!” At least they could try something different this time around. How about next session, instead of Congress passing laws against hate and having the Supreme Court strike them down, why not pass some laws requiring everybody to love each other? Then the Supreme Court will strike those down for the same reason.

Over the last five years, you’ve taken up scriptwriting for television and movies. How did you get into that?

Dooling: Director Alan Pakula optioned Brain Storm in 1998 and helped me write my first script. From there, Stephen King asked me to help with Kingdom Hospital for ABC. Various people have optioned White Man’s Grave. And so on.

Has it been frustrating to have your first movie made into a pretty good Sidney Lumet film starring James Spader, Albert Brooks, Anne Bancroft, et al, only to watch the rest of your books get stuck in development hell?

Dooling: That’s pretty normal. It takes a long time, unless you write obvious movies. A really interesting director, Cyrus Nowrasteh (The Path To 9/11) just optioned Brain Storm, so who knows?

You have a movie coming out this year, right?

Dooling: Yes. Dolan’s Cadillac is a short story from Stephen King’s Nightmares and Dreamscapes. Great, simple revenge story modeled on Poe’s The Cask of the Amontillado. It stands alone as the second half of a great movie. The hard part is adding a first half that does it justice. I’ll soon find out.


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