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Singularity: The Sum of All Fears

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The Singularity is a concept first discussed by Vernor Vinge in the 1980s. Later, Ray Kurzweil became one of its chief proponents, culminating in his 2005 book The Singularity is Near. Briefly, it concerns the exponential and double-exponential growth of technology in three areas: information, genetics, and robotics. Extrapolating these accelerating trends out to 2045, we reach a point beyond which is impossible to determine or extrapolate human events. Hence “singularity,” a word chosen because of its use to describe the gravitational singularity, the point at which the traditional laws of physics break down near a black hole. It’s a point which has theoretically infinite mass concentrated in a space of infinitely small dimension. Surrounding the theoretical black hole is an event horizon beyond which it’s impossible for information to pass.

Kurzweil has two films coming out this year, which should finally make the Singularity a household word:

Transcendent Man

 

The Singularity is Near website, no trailer yet.

The very idea of the Singularity scares the hell out of some people. So much so that rational discussion of its potentiality has become all but impossible in many circles. There, it’s gone beyond fear to overt hostility. Two camps seem to be most offended by the concept: the first is a scientific and political establishment accustomed to thinking in the “linear-intuitive” model of discovery, the second is a sort of misanthropic “hubris police,” finger-wagging at past human technological missteps and warning of the inevitable future disasters.  So what we from these two groups is a raft of scorn and mockery directed against Singularity caricatures and straw men.

In human terms, the Singularity holds the promise of radical life extension and expansion, and a growing hybridization of humans and machines. Some of what might be possible would be full-immersion virtual reality indistinguishable from first-person experience, the gradual uploading of human consciousness into artificial (machine) substrates, and the elimination of disease and postponement of death (through constant repair of biological breakdown). In addition, brains and machines would be able to communicate quickly and deeply, connecting everyone together into a giant and far more complex version of the internet. For some people, this sounds like heaven. To others, it sounds like the end of the human race and a techno-hell.

Feelings run very high on both sides of the debate. Long before Kurzweil or Vinge, mythology acquainted us with the most enduring meme in all fiction, the folly of human technological hubris. From Icarus, to Gilgamesh, to the Garden of Eden, the Tower of Babel, and the Frankenstein series, it seems humans have long resisted the idea of anyone becoming too powerful, learning too much about what makes us tick, or messing with or redefining what it means to be human. Cries of “playing God” immediately erupt, as the specter of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice or the Terminator are invoked. This despite the fact that the Singularity holds the promise to permanently defeat the most intractable of all enemies–ignorance–and potentially death itself. Instead of being enthused by this promise, and holding what I would consider to be a healthy sense of anticipation or curiosity about how it might occur, many people become either enraged or paralyzed with fear by the prospect. Then they curl their lip and snarl at the mere mention of the name Kurzweil or the word Singularity. In defiance of all reason, they spew the most vitriolic forms of ridicule. Why?

Atheists and scientists are supposed to be more objective than others. Clearly they aren’t always. It’s just that when scientists get it wrong, it’s more shocking than when the rest of us do. An example of the juxtaposition of brilliance and blindness would be Nobel Prize winner Kary Mullis, whose brilliance in discovering the polymerase chain reaction has been eclipsed by his blindness in denying the climate crisis, and famously claiming to have seen a glowing racoon. So it does happen, even to scientists. We are all fallible.

And the journalists get it even more wrong. John Horgan has written a series of articles and books denouncing the idea of accelerating technological progress–instead claiming we are seeing a law of diminishing returns (!). Horgan’s most famous book is called The End of Science. Most recently he mocked Kurzweil in an article called Science Cult in Newsweek.

P.Z. Myers, proprietor of the famous Pharyngula blog, is both an atheist and a scientist. He was quoted in yet another hatchet-job Newsweek article by Daniel Lyons called I, Robot, and he’s gotten himself all worked up about Kurzweil, with a series of derogatory posts over the past several months. Among other things, Lyons accuses Kurzweil of being too sure of himself, or “speaking in a monotone.” Wow. Straight-up unabashed ad hominem attack–get ready for demagoguery. It’s the easiest content-free way to slam someone. They’re “boring,” they’re overconfident–the surest bullshit alert I know. But then he lays out the “terrifying” future according to Kurzweil. Which is it? Terrifying or wrong? If he’s a kook, what’s there to worry about? This is the secret horror of Kurzweil’s detractors–they’re afraid he might be right, and they want to shoot the messenger with a volley of sarcasm. 

Listen closely, though, and you may be slightly terrified. Kurzweil believes computer intelligence is advancing so rapidly that in a couple of decades, machines will be as intelligent as humans. Soon after that they will surpass humans and start creating even smarter technology. By the middle of this century, the only way for us to keep up will be to merge with the machines so that their superior intelligence can boost our weak little brains and beef up our pitiful, illness-prone bodies. Some of Kurzweil’s fellow futurists believe these superhuman computers will want nothing to do with us—that we will become either their pets or, worse yet, their food. Always an optimist, Kurzweil takes a more upbeat view. He swears these superhuman computers will love us, and honor us, since we’ll be their ancestors. He also thinks we’ll be able to embed our consciousness into silicon, which means we can live on, inside machines, forever and ever, amen.

And this from Myers: 

…this techno-mystical crap is just kookery, plain and simple, and the rationale is disgracefully bad. One thing I will say for Kurzweil, though, is that he seems to be a first-rate bullshit artist. 

It seems to me that the correct approach would be to offer some kind of competing but dispassionate analysis, which Myers sort of does, but then reverts to the smear tactics:

I think we will develop amazing new technologies, and they will affect human evolution, but it will be nothing like what Kurzweil imagines. We have already experienced a ‘singularity’ — the combination of agriculture, urbanization, and literacy transformed our species, but did not result in a speciation event, nor did it have quite the abrupt change an Iron Age Kurzweil might have predicted. Probably the most radical evolutionary changes would be found in our immune systems as we adapted to new diets and pathogens, but people are still people, and we can find cultures living a neolithic life style and an information age lifestyle, and they can still communicate and even interbreed. Maybe this information age will have as dramatic and as important an effect on humanity as the invention of writing, but even if it does, don’t expect a nerd rapture to come of it. Just more cool stuff, and a bigger, shinier, fancier playground for humanity to gambol about in.

This is more or less what Kurzweil is claiming! It’s the detractors who have applied the label “nerd rapture.” They want to make the Singluarity appear as outlandish and ridiculous as possible–an easy target which they then knock down. But Kurzweil is well aware that he has taken a great deal of dramatic license, which it seems deliberately and speculatively embellishes some of the potentials of the technology which will affect us all. That’s what makes Kurzweil so interesting and readable. 

I fail to see what is so offensive about this kind of futurism. Everyone understands how quaint it can seem in retrospect: “They promised us Jetpacks and we got Blogs” is a typical rejoinder. So Kurzweil is almost certainly wrong about the details of the Singularity. So what? What he’s dead right about is the incredible pace of change in the short-term. Compounding that change in an exponential manner will lead to disruptive technologies and a radical shift in the direction of governments, companies and humanity itself. Who cares about the details? At the very least, people planning on 30-year timeframes need to prepare themselves for some serious discontinuities. Kurzweil’s speculation and extrapolation helps people do just that.

Here’s an undeniable, if mundane, example of just a small slice on the way to the Singularity: I just got an iPhone, which is a revolutionary device the size of a pack of cigarettes which gives me the computing power of a high-end desktop workstation (600 MHz processor) from 1999. Its 8 GB of RAM is greater than the average hard drive of 10 years ago. In addition, its battery and wireless capability actually gives me more utility than if I was to walk around with that ancient desktop strapped to my back, which had no ability to connect while unplugged.  The old workstation would have also needed several car batteries to operate and a heavy CRT display.

Ten years from now, a similar device will fit in a thimble-sized package–which will do me no good whatsoever if I don’t have some kind of bio-available audio and visual interface. Initially this might be VR goggles. Sometime late in the next decade, early adopters will have the opportunity to have surgery to implant such a device into their body. It will derive its electric power from the breakdown of sugars in the bloodstream, and offer audio and visual connections either to the retina and ear canal or through direct neural interface to the brain, as well as a full suite of medical monitoring and diagnostics (which will call paramedics automatically if it detects a life-threatening condition). For some people, the implant could be paired with drug delivery pumps, and also control the dispensing of insulin or antidepressants. Vast numbers of people will jump at the chance to be connected in this way. That’s 2019, and it just gets more interesting after that. Ten years later in 2029 such computing power will shrink to the size of a blood cell. You figure out the implications. It doesn’t take Kurzweil to spell it out.

Yet P.Z. Myers still thinks it’s appropriate to label Kurzweil a kook for stating the obvious. I just don’t get it.

Perhaps it’s because Kurzweil speaks with the confidence of someone used to aiming at and hitting higher targets. “If you want to go to the moon,” the old saying says, “shoot for the stars.” Kurzweil has always shot for the stars, and it’s given the world OCR, text-to-speech, speech-to-text and ultra-realistic electronic musical instruments. His latest innovation is a camera for use by the blind to read text and identify objects in their environment. Hardly the works of a kook.

What’s gotten P.Z.’s goat, among other things, is Kurzweil’s expressed desire to live forever, and create a functional facsimile of his dead father’s mind. But I don’t see how either of those goals are bad in any way. Audacious, perhaps. But I would jump at the chance to be able to interact with an artificial mind-clone of my dead parents. Who wouldn’t? I’d also gladly take an extra 50 or 100 years of life–if not immortality.

There’s something about the dreamer that’s always infuriated the pragmatists. But in this case it goes deeper than that. It’s a herd mentality that seeks to punish anyone who would dare propose a plausible escape from the human condition. It’s like the inmates dragging back the guy climbing the prison-camp walls. Kurzweil correctly points out that we already have essentially escaped many artificial limits. At 45, for example, I’m far past the life-expectancy of 150 years ago, which was 37 years. Most of us will live double that and more. Yet Singularity detractors literally freak out when Kurzweil says we might double lifespans yet again in the next 30-40 years.

The idea of mind-enhancement also seems to offend many, primarily dogmatic egalitarians. All they see is potential for increased dominance of the many by the few. Politics aside, we have already enhanced our minds, and it’s been empowering and democratizing. Those of us with a web connection realize we don’t have to remember facts as well as we used to. We just look them up. Once that “universal communication implant” (just an improved miniature cell phone)  is in place, arguably a certainty for most humans within 20 years, we will be as functionally different from year 2000 homo sapiens as they were from Neanderthals. Sorry, P.Z., it’s true.

Effectively, every human will have instant access to all the world’s knowledge. It doesn’t mean our brains will have been completely rewired, but it does mean they will have rewired somewhat to function entirely differently in a manner to take advantage of the “always on” web connection and co-location capability. It will become a sixth sense and more. Surrogates (telerobots) will give us arms and legs in far away places–even the surface of the Moon or Mars or whereever we can send a robotic probe. (Cue the Hollywood blockbuster already being produced about this ‘nightmare.’) You’d be crazy to pretend these real-world developments won’t have implications far beyond the narrow field of computer science. They will impact every detail of life–from business, to warfare, to food and energy prodution, to the fabric of social interaction. Hence the concept of the Singularity–the inability to predict events beyond a time of such vast and momentous change.

The naysayers will always be with us. But I’m ashamed that supposed “rationalists” are among them. P.Z. Myers should be more enlightened than to feel justfied in recklessly bashing a fellow scientist. We can see it’s not just the fundies we have to worry about. We all need enlightenment. We all need to become more objective, and I include myself in that category. Seeing the ignorant response of people like Myers gives me still another reason to hope for the universal increase in knowledge and clear thinking the Singularity will bring.


Comments (25 comments)

ClintJCL / May 25th, 2009, 4:22 pm / #1

I have been eagerly awaiting the singularity for quite some time.

In 30 seconds, while I'm asleep, I often download more than the entire
size of my harddrive 20 years ago. And I have 273,084 times the storage
space that I had 20 years ago as well. I also connect to the world at
1,310 times the speed I did 100 yrs ago (multiply that by 8X for the 300bps
Commodore 64 BBSes I called, but I was at 2400bps).

The tide is hard to ignore.

Olly / May 25th, 2009, 5:18 pm / #2

Sean,

Having not read a ton of Kurzweil’s work, was wondering if you could point me towards where he discusses the moral and ethical implications of the technology implied in the Singularity? I’m not some raving fundy anti-technologist, however I do think that some of the most significant moral questions in human history will surround the meshing of humans and tech, and would hope that Kurzweil has addressed some of them. Thanks for any direction since I know he’s written a lot!

BlackSun / May 26th, 2009, 12:46 am / #3

Olly, discussion of ethics permeates Kurzweil's work. Particularly in The Singularity is Near. Like other revolutions, while initially disruptive, it should lead to greater equality in the long run. Most of the ethical violations in the industrial age have to do with unrestrained resource exploitation. Nanotechnology along with genetic engineering should facilitate cradle-to-cradle processes in all areas of society. Arguably, it's the poor who will benefit the most since they provide the bulk of the cheap labor and suffer from the bulk of toxic pollution in today's economy. They will essentially leapfrog and skip our mistakes: from no phones to wireless. From no energy to renewable. From no education to full connectivity. That's about all I can say. As far as social ethics? Let's just say there's a shit load to be worked out! I'll leave you with one humorous question it might raise: Is having extramarital virtual sex with someone else's surrogate wife still cheating?

Allnightloveparty / May 26th, 2009, 4:43 am / #4

re: question raised; whether or not it's cheathing would be for the married couple to decide.

BlackSun / May 26th, 2009, 3:30 pm / #5

It's actually sort of come up already, related to the game Second Life. And I agree, it is up to the couple. But it raises interesting issues because often times people decide such questions based on what their friends would think rather than how they feel personally. Social expectations will continue to play a role, but hopefully the increased connectivity and knowledge will give people a broader understanding and sense of what's acceptable.

Myriam Koepcke / June 14th, 2009, 10:47 pm / #6

Do you _, take _, to be your lawfully wedded (wife/husband), to have and to hold from this day forward, for better or for worse, for richer, for poorer, in health, in sickness, to love and to cherish; to be faithfully yours, until death do you part?”

…outmoded, archaic, sophmoric, clichéd, banal…?

BlackSun / June 14th, 2009, 11:14 pm / #7

Let's not hijack the thread into a discussion that I originally mentioned humorously and somewhat parenthetically. First off, let me just say I do take marriage very seriously, having just gotten married in March. But marriage is about trust above all else.

So in discussions about marital fidelity, it is up to the couple to define as they see fit. Humans are not biologically monogamous, and the assumption that they are has led to no end of marital difficulties. Reports of cheating go as high as 75%. So in the face of that evidence, why do people continue to maintain an unrealistic expectation?

A truly sustainable marriage has to take this into account. There are many ways to deal with the question without a breach of trust. Trust and honesty between the couple is the only meaningful definition of "fidelity."

Getting back to the Singularity, human experience will broaden across the board, increasing the pressure even further for some sort of accommodation for wider experiences to be had within marriages.

Olly / May 26th, 2009, 4:39 pm / #8

Thanks Sean, much appreciated — I'll probably just start with The Singularity is Near. For me, one of the biggest ethical/moral questions it raises is that of freedom/control. How two-way will the theoretical surgical information link to our brains be? How does the flow of information, on such a direct never before seen level, get controlled? Who does the controlling? It's like Media Spin at a whole new level.

It's like the questions of the internet but taken to a steroidal level. The media/government/etc already have such a strong control over what the average person sees as 'truth'. The more free the society, the more that the average person has control over their ability to be skeptical, in other words alternatives do exist, and if they aren't censored then the reasoned individual can look at a story from any given angle. In societies such as China, a much larger majority will believe government propaganda because alternative sources of info are suppressed.

With a more direct interface with our brain, this seems to be even more of an issue. If we are augmenting not just our sources of information (the 'wireless link' surgically implanted), but in fact our STORAGE of information (sort of extended virtual drive for our brains), then that storage is open to corruption by external sources.

Right now, my memories aren't terribly suspect (beyond the obvious limits and distortions that my own perceptions place upon them) — but if I'm using some sort of external database to augment my memories, and that database is hacked, all of a sudden my memories themselves becomes suspect. As memory is one of the main foundations for knowledge, this has some very dicey implications. In other words, if my own brain is fucking up my memory, that's one thing, but if someone else is, that's an entirely different matter.

Right now if I read a history book, there are primers that have been ingrained into me through critical thinking training, my parents, etc, to be suspect of what I'm reading — as it should be ("history" is obviously just one perspective on any given event). However, if that history is something that is simply downloaded into my brain, then it becomes much harder to be suspicious of that information, and subsequently much easier to control people's viewpoints. Not to bust out Godwin's law here, but imagine if a regime like Nazi Germany had direct access to people's memory banks. I don't mean this to sound like one of your doom and gloom naysayers, but simply to point out that (like any technology) there ARE some scary implications here.

At any rate, interesting stuff. I can say fairly categorically that I'm not personally interested in surgical augmentation of my brain, for a variety of reasons, but I have no opposition to it in others, as long as the moral and ethical paradigms are thoroughly (and on an ongoing basis) discussed and re-visited.

-olly

Myriam Koepcke / June 14th, 2009, 10:26 pm / #9

Yes!!

OzAtheist / May 26th, 2009, 1:35 am / #10

Brave New World indeed. Can't help thinking that no matter how much technology improves there will still be
millions who miss out on it. People will still be people; knowing more, living longer, greater technology won't
necessarily change anything, or make some people enlightened.

Personally I think Kurzweil's wanting an electronic Dad clone is a bit morbid, can't he just let him go?

BlackSun / May 26th, 2009, 1:55 am / #11

Well, it's true, as Hume said, reason will always be the slave of passions. But maybe techno-enlightenment will help us have more reasonable passions? Hard to say.

We have to separate the question of *should* something be done from *can* something be done. What might be creepy to one person, dialoguing with a dead parent, for example, might be just what someone else might need to resolve their psychology, and find forgiveness and happiness.

We internalize a lot from our parents. But if we could construct a mind-file of them, we could ask it questions and debate with it. I find the possibility intriguing, and I'm lucky enough to have parents with voluminous writings and publicly expressed opinions. So building their mind-clones should be fairly easy. I could also add my own personal experiences with them to make them even more accurate. Then put them up on a website for example–maybe even this one.

I don't know, it's all speculation of course… But I find it exciting and not the least bit creepy.

links for 2009-05-26 « Clint’s Test Blog / May 26th, 2009, 6:36 am / #12

[…] TECHNOLOGY: The Singularity: The Sum of All Fears My half-uncle talks about how stupid it is to deny the Singularity. I have been eagerly awaiting the singularity for quite some time. […]

Danny Boy, FCD / May 26th, 2009, 11:17 am / #13

While PZ does go over the top in blasting Ray Kurzweil, you have yet to engage his more pointed criticisms of RK, such as this one: Singularity, silly singularity. I'm sorry but I'm with PZ on this one, Kurzweil sounds like a pseudoscientist.

BlackSun / May 26th, 2009, 3:26 pm / #14

It would be one thing if Kurzweil's graphs were the only calculations pointing to the Singularity. But they're not. You have all the recent developments which are tracking, year-on-year almost exactly as Kurzweil has claimed. It's not like a little wiggle in a line going back millions of years is going to affect what's happening in the next 40. Kurzweil is showing trends. PZ's argument seems to be chiefly argument from personal incredulity. Because you can always change the way data are interpreted or placed on a graph to change the result. Kurzweil would in no way be the first or only person to "curve fit" data.

As for "sounding" like a pseudoscientist? Well that's a subjective judgment, isn't it? Again, people will interpret the outcome differently. What's important to me is not that he got the details of the Singularity exactly right, but that he's spotted a trend which is definitely representative of a discontinuity in history. We only have a few decades to wait to see if the change is as big as he claims. Something's happening along these lines, there's no doubt.

Danny Boy, FCD / May 29th, 2009, 4:14 am / #15

His trends are, as PZ points out, are shoehorned to fit into his data. Which is a tell-tale sign of pseudoscience. It's funny that your last paragraph sounds creepily like an apocalypticist:

"What's important to me is not that [Tim LaHaye] got the details of the [End of the World] exactly right, but that he's spotted a trend which is definitely representative of a discontinuity in history. We only have a few decades to wait to see if [Jesus will finally return] as he claims. Something's happening along these lines, there's no doubt."

I'm sorry, but I've read too many self-styled prognosticators to take their interpretation of "data" at face value.

BlackSun / May 29th, 2009, 5:02 am / #16

When you get finished with your disingenuous comparison of me to a garden variety religious kook, you still have the factual data of doubling in computing power every 2 years to contend with, which shows no sign of abatement. Following those trends gets you to human level computing. Supercomputer human brain simulation in 2013, performance equivalence of human brain for $1,000 by 2020, full upload capability in 2025.

http://www.singularity.com/charts/page71.html

Tim LaHaye's evidence for the rapture?………..crickets………….

links for 2009-05-26 « Clint’s blog / May 26th, 2009, 11:40 am / #17

[…] TECHNOLOGY: The Singularity: The Sum of All Fears My half-uncle talks about how stupid it is to deny the Singularity. I have been eagerly awaiting the singularity for quite some time. […]

Darkeros / May 26th, 2009, 1:36 pm / #18

Thanks, BlackSun for this piece on Kurzweil. Deeply informing and intelligently discussed. thanks for the links as well. I look forward to the movies!

I would do just about anything to dialog with my father right now. Before he died I didn't know what I now know, and thus didn't ask the questions I would like answered, as well as just get to know this creature that I had descended from beyond what I experienced as someone 'caught' in parent/child dynamics. As someone who has done a fair amount of family history work, I can say that by fleshing out the enigmas of who are parents are/were, we learn of ourselves and our unconscious drives more deeply, thus are more able to make new choices for ourselves, or affirm the old. So it is not surprising that an intelligent man like Kurzweil has this desire. It is surprising that other supposedly intelligent people think its creepy or weird.

oh… and don't we already have bionic parts in our bodies? pacemakers, limb replacements, etc., reflect this pathway we are on already of integrating technologies in our bodies. Of course it is going to evolve! Just wait til the naysayers face their own failing body, and yet have much to live for, they will be first in line to opt for artificial intelligent replacement.

Mojo / May 30th, 2009, 9:48 pm / #19

Interesting indeed. If you haven't I would suggest reading http://www.simulation-argument.com/

BlackSun / June 17th, 2009, 8:45 pm / #20

Finally got around to reading this. I will say he makes a strong argument, but I still have a tough time with it. Why couldn't we just be an organically evolved pre-simulation civilization at this point?

friar_zero / June 11th, 2009, 11:18 am / #21

Reading this my first thought was, have you ever actually read PZ before? ;)

BlackSun / June 13th, 2009, 5:47 pm / #22

Yes, I'm a long time reader of Pharyngula. And I agree with him about 95% of the time. He's very sharp and usually a cogent voice for critical thought. But everyone has a blind spot, no?

Myriam Koepcke / June 14th, 2009, 10:26 pm / #23

It is cheating.

somi, MD / June 17th, 2009, 8:23 pm / #24

Finally, singularity will atleast light up the universe enough that the myth of God will have no more shadows to hide in this universe.

drug rehab Tempe / November 13th, 2010, 9:26 am / #25

An excellent review of the film! I greatly look forward to watching it. I'm sure is very interesting an entertaining documentary.

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