Sunday, July 19, 2009

John W Campbell, Jr's "The Last Evolution" (short story, singularity, free)

Quote from short story titled The Last Evolution by John W Campbell, JrWhile the story itself is unremarkable, there is one thing here that makes it noteworthy: it's probably among the earliest stories about singularity, decades before the term was coined. At least it's the earliest I've read.

Story summary.

Story is narrated by a ... robot or AI or something. Humans have built machines that can build better versions of themselves. But they still serve man.

That's when earth gets attacked by a huge alien armada - but aliens without self-improving machines. So these machines go into superfast evolution as defense. In the end, all humans will be dead before the machines can build something way beyond aliens' capability & throw them out.

So now these machines have inherited earth.

Fact sheet.

First published: Amazing Stories, August 1932.
Rating: C.
Download full text from Project Gutenberg or Manybooks; or MP3 from LibriVox. [via QuasarDragon]
Related: Stories of John Campbell.


Jordan179 said...

I reviewed "The Last Evolution" on my blog, Fantastic Worlds, at and what I found most powerful about the tale was how inevitable the sequence of events seemed, given human nature (in all senses of the word). It so happened that the invasion of the Outsiders directly killed off the last remnants of humanity, and forced the robots to make the energy-AI's faster than might have otherwise been the case, but even had the Outsiders never appeared, humanity was already dying, and the energy-AI's were implicit in the gradual self-improvement of the robots.

John W. Campbell wrote several stories in his career about humanity going extinct and leaving behind as heirs sapient machines: you can see this as strong themes in "Twilight" and "Night" (two of the stories that he wrote as "Don A. Stuart"). It was exceptional for his day that he generally assumed the sapient machines to be "benign" AI -- at a time when other writers were constantly assuming robot revolts, John W. Campbell was assuming that AI's would be designed and built as servants, helpers and allies and that this nature would persist even as humanity declined. This inspired in particular Isaac Asimov to write his own tales of freindly robotic AI's.

The inevitable decline and fall of humanity was rather obviously one of Campbell's preoccupations, because he also wrote a lot of stories in which humans were capable of doing things that neither aliens nor robots could do. There are hints of this even in "The Last Evolution" -- note that the top human scientists Roal and Trest were described as being more imaginative (and hence creative) than was F-2 the top robot scientist -- and many of his other stories featured the inventions of either very dubious technologies or the evolution of psionic powers (think "Forgetfulness") beyond the abilities of mere machines.

The beauty of "The Last Evolution" is that Campbell anticipated The Singularity at a time when nobody else in the field was imagining any such transcendence coming through machines, or coming so rapidly (compare with Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men, 1930; or Star-Maker, 1937). Its irony is that Campbell so early in his writing career came up with such a powerful argument for machine transcendence -- and then spent much of his long career as an editor promoting stories which argued that Humans Are Special.