Profile of Valentin Turchin
August 4, 2000
The Russian philosopher-scientist Valentin Turchin holds a unique position in the history of the Internet. He was the first of the cyber-gurus: The expansion of computer and communication networks that he foresaw in his 1970 book “The Phenomenon of Science” is now a reality; and the trans-human digital superorganism that he prophesied to emerge from these networks, is rapidly becoming one. But unlike most scientists who turn toward philosophy in mid-life, Turchin was not satisfied to be a grand old theorist. Now in his 70’s, he is playing an active role in making his vision of an Internet superorganism come true, leading an Internet start-up company, Supercompilers LLC, which applies the same cybernetic principles he used to study the future of humanity to create computer programs that rewrite other programs to make them dozens of times more efficient – and even rewrite themselves.
Turchin holds three degrees in theoretical physics, obtained in 1952, 1957, and 1963; and the first decade his career was devoted to neutron and solid state physics. But in the 60’s his attention drifted toward computer science, far before computers became fashionable. He created a programming language, REFAL, which became the dominant language for artificial intelligence in the Soviet bloc. Apart from any of his later achievements, his work on REFAL alone would have earned him a position as one of the leaders of 20’th century computer science.
But it was the political situation in the Soviet Union that drew him out of the domain of pure science. In the 1960's he became politically active, and in 1968 he authored "Inertia of Fear and the Scientific Worldview", a fascinating document combining a scathing critique of totalitarianism and the rudiments of a new cybernetic theory of man and society. Not surprisingly, following the publication of this book in the underground press, Turchin lost his research laboratory.
His classic "The Phenomenon of Science," published two years later, enlarged on the theoretical portions of “Inertia of Fear,” presenting a unified cybernetic meta-theory of universal evolution. The ideas are deep and powerful, centered on the notion of a MetaSystem Transition, a point in the history of evolution of a system where the whole comes to dominate the parts. Examples are the emergence of life from inanimate matter; and the emergence of multicellular life from single-celled components. He used the MetaSystem Transition concept to provide a global theory of evolution and a coherent social systems theory, to develop a complete cybernetic philosophical and ethical system, and to build a new foundation for mathematics. The future of computer and communication technology, he saw, would bring about a MetaSystem transition in which our computational tools would lead to a unified emergent artificial mind, going beyond humanity in its capabilities. The Internet and related technologies would spawn a unified global superorganism, acting as a whole with its own desires and wishes, integrating humans to a degree as yet uncertain.
By 1973 he had founded the Moscow chapter of Amnesty International and was working closely with Andrei Sakharov. The Soviet government made it impossible for him to stay in Russia much longer. In 1977, persecuted by the KGB and threatened with imprisonment, he was expelled from the Soviet Union, taking refuge in the US and joining the Computer Science faculty of the City University of New York, where he continued his philosophical and scientific work. Among other projects, in the mid-1980’s he created the concept of supercompilation, a novel technique that uses the meta-system transition concept to rewrite computer programs and make them more efficient.
Initially the supercompilation technique was only applied to REFAL. The most popular commercial language, C++, is not suitable for supercompilation due to being so closely tied to the specifics of computer hardware. But when Java came on the scene in the mid-90’s, Turchin quickly realized that it was a natural match with his supercompilation idea. It was the first widely commercialized programming language that was supercompilable. He gathered several of his Russian friends, including Andre Klimov, a former student, and Yuri Mostovoy, a seasoned Wall Street professional, and did what so many others were doing at the same time: started his own company.
It wasn’t exactly the typical New York Internet start-up. Instead of a bunch of 20-year-old Webheads starting a design company, you had a bunch of Russian scientists varying in age from 30 to 75, half located in the New York area and half located in Moscow, starting a company based on a profound technological innovation, a Java supercompiler that promises to make Java programs run 100 times their current speed. But this was the beauty of the Internet stock bubble. In times of plenty, anything goes, including a lot of .com nonsense, and some things of true power and beauty as well.
The impact of Turchin’s supercompiler can hardly be exaggerated. Java is rapidly becoming the standard programming language of the Net – so the Java supercompiler, when widely deployed, will make the Net get 100 times smarter, 100 times more sophisticated – using the same exact computer hardware. Fascinatingly, it seems this particular technological advance could only have been developed in Russia, where hardware advances were slow and everyone was always using inefficient, obsolete computers – thus making ingenious methods for speeding up programs extremely important. The supercompiler will make the metasystem transition from the Internet today to the emerging Internet supermind come a heck of a lot faster – maybe even in Turchin’s lifetime. It will be launched on the market sometime in 2001 – an auspicious year for the Internet to begin its dramatic acceleration in efficiency and sophistication.
While Americans tend toward extreme positions about the future of the cyber-world – Bill Joy taking the pessimist’s role; Kurzweil, Moravec and others playing the optimist – Turchin, as he and his team work to advance Net technology, views the situation with a typically Russian philosophical depth. He still wonders, as he did in “The Phenomenon of Science,” whether the human race might be an evolutionary dead-end, like the ant or the kangaroo, unsuitable to lead to new forms of organization and consciousness. As he wrote there, in 1970, “Perhaps life on Earth has followed a false course from the very beginning and the animation and spiritualization of the Cosmos are destined to be realized by some other forms of life.” Digital life, perhaps? Powered by Java, made possible by supercompilation?
“The Phenomenon of Science” closes with the following words: “We have constructed a beautiful and majestic edifice of science. Its fine-laced linguistic constructions soar high into the sky. But direct your gaze to the space between the pillars, arches, and floors, beyond them, off into the void. Look more carefully, and there in the distance, in the black depth, you will see someone's green eyes staring. It is the Secret, looking at you.”
This is the fascination of the Net, and all the other new technologies spreading around us and – now psychologically, soon enough physically – within us. It’s something beyond us, yet in some sense containing us – created by us, yet creating us. By writing books and supercompilers, or just sending e-mails and generally living our tech-infused lives, we unravel the secret bit-by-bit -- but we’ll never reveal it entirely.