The Singularity Summit


The Singularity Summit was held earlier this month in San Francisco. Audio of all the sessions is available at no charge. There’s been considerable buzz about this topic ever since Ray Kurzweil wrote his seminal work The Age of Spiritual Machines in 1999 and the follow-up The Singularity is Near in 2005. Kurzweil did not coin the term–that credit goes to Vernor Vinge.

The Technological Singularity is, without exaggeration, likely to be the largest and most significant event in human history. Advances in genetic engineering, nanotechnology and robotics promise to bolster our brains, cure most diseases, and bring about radical life-extension (and life-expansion). Briefly, it is the point in time beyond which we cannot see, because our weak and puny bio-brains don’t have the capacity to extrapolate what they can’t comprehend. If not stopped by war or natural disaster, technology is on a double-exponential curve to produce a hybrid human-machine civilization millions of times smarter than our own by about 2045. The social, political and philosophical implications of this scenario are vast. So it doubtless warrants its own category, which I’ve now created as a subset of the science section (perhaps it should be the other way around).

Predictably, before the Singularity even has had a chance to develop, there are whole host of objections being raised by luddites and arm-draggers; chiefly they whine that it will ‘devalue what it means to be human.’ And ‘death is what gives meaning to life,’ ‘we shouldn’t be playing god,’ and ‘how will we take care of all those geezers,’ among other complaints.

These disparagements are of the classic type coming from technophobes and the tin-foil paranoiac crowd: “It won’t work, and even if it does it’s really not a good idea.” They only see dystopian Blade Runner or Terminator-style doom, corporate/government control, or a society of tank-bred clones reduced to a drone-like collective. Kind of like what hippies thought about computers in the 1960’s–as paraphrased by the Moody Blues “…and now to suit our great computer…we’ve got miles and miles of pretty files…it riles them that we perceive the web they weave.” Or even my fave Rush 2112 where the Priests of Syrinx scream “…our great computers fill the hallowed halls…”

But look what actually happened with computers: they became ubiquitous and empowered individuals beyond their wildest dreams. Your $50 cell phone has more computing power than most university labs had in the 1960’s. I don’t hear many people complaining about that development. In other areas: Life expectancy is soaring. The environment is largely on the mend (if you don’t count CO2 or China). HDI is up globally, hunger is down. Even with the Iraq war, the long term trend for global combat death is way down.

Some opposition to progress and the Singularity breaks down gender lines. Many men seem to have no problem with unlimited enhancement, knowledge and communication. Just as many women, however, see the Singularity as an affront to the trifecta of peak human female competence, intuition, emotional intelligence, and sexuality. They also fear the loss of human creativity. One highly intelligent woman I spoke with recently was deeply worried that unlimited brain enhancement would eliminate the need for people to confront their shadow, do deep psychological process work, and that it would cheapen their hard-won skills and knowledge. She was also very concerned that people would treat these advancements as a shortcut and a promise of a sort of utopia. What she didn’t realize is that an enhanced mind would be far more concerned with self-improvement. A mind pre-loaded with virtuoso skills would go on to develop still more refined ones–which it could then share immediately with others. And since “utopia” refers to Thomas More’s satirical concept of a perfect society, an enhanced mind would be that much less likely to gloss over facts in favor of such fantasies. Such a mind would also inherently recognize the need to check its conclusions with others, and would have the communications ability to do just that, instantly and automatically.

Another friend of a friend half-jokingly proclaimed that he is starting a terrorist group to oppose the singularity and blow up any labs involved in such research. Right. I wrote about the anti-technology impulse merging with radical fundamentalism in 2004. As far as I can see, some kind of pitched battle is inevitable, and this is part of why we scientific humanists must gear up for a long fight.

But the arm-draggers are missing the point. Everything we love about humans will be enhanced, (along with everything we hate). But as knowledge and interconnectedness increase, the good has no choice but to crowd out the bad. As we humanists are so fond of pointing out, our goodness is instinctive. Compassion is based on reciprocal altruism, and thus most of us are hard-wired to be magnanimous once our basic needs are met. Couple that with vastly increased intelligence, which can only increase empathy (the root of all goodness), and total transparency for most activites (privacy advocates should get over themselves), and we have the potential to solve problems which have plagued us for all of human history.

It’s not man vs. machine. This is a false dichotomy. The Singularity will entail the process of humans designing their own replacements. We will merge with the technology, and we will never look back. It will be truly “intelligent design.” It seems natural today for many people to oppose all this out of fear of unintended consequences. But look how fast these same nervous nellies snap up every new development. You can’t pry most people’s Blackberries from their cold dead fingers. So don’t think for a second that people won’t be rushing out in droves to get the latest multi-petabyte memory upgrade, cognitive booster, and full virtual reality immersion wireless web access port implanted in their brains. They will be ga-ga over household robots and cybersex companions. This will all be as common as Lasik in 15-20 years, and far more useful. No matter how skittish, what family of an Alzheimer’s patient would refuse life-extending brain repairs?

We are on the brink of unprecedented change and human enhancement–the only choices are: embrace it with gusto, or prepare for a very lonely, disconnected, and unfulfilling obsolescence.

Comments (9 comments)

Peter / September 24th, 2007, 11:10 pm / #1

But the arm-draggers are missing the point. Everything we love about humans will be enhanced, (along with everything we hate). But as knowledge and interconnectedness increase, the good has no choice but to crowd out the bad

Based on several thousand years of human suffering, the organization of present societies and the distribution of wealth/power, I see a dystopia rather more likely than not.
Enjoy your optimism while it lasts, but understand why I cannot share it. After all – I come from a country that once was considered a pinnacle of culture in europe: music, literature, science, the visual arts, cinema….and then came the KZ’s, the thist for knowledge by “scientists” like mengele, organizers like eichmann, visionaries like hitler.

Sorry, being almost sixty years and remembering that so far any technology was used to increase misery …I only can envy you your exuberance, based on nothing but hope with all the evidence against you.

BlackSun / September 24th, 2007, 11:42 pm / #2

Based on several thousand years of human suffering,

During which time humanity lacked the most basic technology and services. Today the HDI is strongly up, even with a tripling of the population in the past 72 years.

“scientists” like mengele, organizers like eichmann, visionaries like hitler.

Do you really think they represented science? That’s clearly a deliberate red herring on your part. Watch out.

based on nothing but hope with all the evidence against you.

Read Kurzweil’s book. Just ’cause you haven’t seen the evidence doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. But that’s disingenuous anyway, because the evidence is all around you. Would you give up 5 years of technology? [No affordable flat screens, Blackberry, or digital cameras] How about 10? [No Broadband, no hybrid cars] How about 20? [No usable internet–oops, don’t answer.] How about 30? [No personal computers–oops, turn off that screen.] How about going back to before they developed polio vaccine? Or to the year 1800 when life expectancy was 37? [guess that would make you dead, me too]…Oh, but European culture was flourishing–between bouts of the plague, dysentery and consumption.

It’s too bad you can’t just go back in time. I guess you’ll have no choice but to wait and see how things turn out. I hope you have a long life. But I’m floored every time I hear from a person like you–how can anyone be so ungrateful in the face of such overflowing tools of prosperity and unprecedented gifts of knowledge? It’s practically…dare I say it…blasphemous.

Peter / September 25th, 2007, 1:32 am / #3

The red herrings are planted by you, not me. You seem to put the “luddites”, who actaually are fighting – with sometimes justification – against the “machine” with those that through historical precedence are simply sceptical about an uncritical belief in the salvation through technology.

I don’t give a hoot about this or that gizmo, I just see that technology is very prone to fail when most needed, that it winds up usually as a tool for prosperity for those who already wield economic power (ever heard of the vanishing middle class in america and the increasing gap between rich and poor in almost any industrialized country?
Funny enough – your espousing a non existing wealth creation got another kick in the pants today by stats canada, when it revealed that the top five percentile of the wealthy doubled their income in the last ten years, while the 95 % left over just stayed the course or fell back, when inflation is put into consideration. The gap is presumably even greater in the US.

Your uncritical belief smacks very much of so many utopian beliefs that wound up being catastrophies – christianity with the promise of a golden jerusalem, communism with the promise of industrial democrcy, democracy with the promise of universal suffrage, fashism with the promise of the thousand year reich, the IT bubble with the promise that this bubble would be completely different.

If mankind can fuck things up – it will, this is my promise to you – notwithstanding any utopian promise. And your uncritical acceptance of those utopian promises of the man/machine or whatever convergence smaks so much of a “new religiosity” that I, as a very deeply rooted atheists, who despises any belief in anything without sufficient evidence to justify such belief, can only shudder at the naivete you put to display.

And as to the mengele red herring – science can be science even if deeply unethical. See the use of the ueber nazi wernher von braun by nasa, the utilization of nazi scientists results regarding hypothermia studie by the us army etc.

BlackSun / September 25th, 2007, 1:57 am / #4

Look, Peter, I’m not going to take this much further. You’re bordering on total illogic. I never claimed anything would be perfect in the Singularity. Nor did I say anything about any guarantees of equality.

You are having a different conversation. I specifically stated that any human enhancement would amplify both the good and the bad tendencies. I also distinctly noted that “Utopias” were unrealistic. Then you turn around and accuse me of believing in them. Can you read?

To accuse me of some sort of uncritical “belief in technology” when I’ve got a years-long reputation as a critical thinker and atheist is outrageous. I am also extensively on the record as opposing any dictatorships, state-religions, or other monolithic governments. You’re putting words in my mouth left and right.

If you want to dispute this, read Kurzweil’s books and dispute the facts he compiles. Or just read this summary. Your issue is with him, not me.

I’m talking about technology, you’re talking about politics. I’m discussing trends supported by reams of evidence. I can’t tell the future any more than you can. But if it’s anything like the past century, it’s one of uninterrupted double-exponential progress. Your dystopian nightmare prediction flails around with a bunch of pessimistic, pissed-off rhetoric about bad governments, bad leadership, and social inequities, and then lays it all at the feet of science as some sort of overarching disproof. What a crock!

Kanaio / September 30th, 2007, 10:34 am / #5


In the Aug. 28, 2007 issue of the Harvard University Gazette Online there is this article: Brain Implants Relieve Alzheimer’s Damage.
It is still a carbon-based technology, but the research cautiously indicates some promise for future treatment.

After reading The New Singularity I couldn’t help wishing that one of Kurzweil’s alter egos had been an ecologist. What happens to plants and animals in the new singularity? Nature is my religion. I like being part of it and through it living forever. The strategy, if I may call it that, of the longest lived organism on the planet, the giant redwoods, is pretty low tech in comparison to the new singularity. I won’t be around to see if Kurzweil’s plan will outwit death, but the book makes for fascinating reading. The devil is in the details as they say.

The optimistic view that humans will become more intelligent through their technology was uplifting for me as I hold a pessimistic view that we have a 50/50 chance of going into a cultural and technological dark age because of global warming. A good book on global warming is The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery. He also has a follow up book for young people and educators called We Are The Weather Makers. Immediate carbon sequestering and retroactive carbon cleanup are key, as well as naturally getting off grid. Sorry, I’m off topic and on my soap box, but global warming may obliterate the new singularity.


BlackSun / September 30th, 2007, 10:58 am / #6


I, too share your concern about global warming, and consider myself an environmentalist. I do think that the technologies of the singularity (GNR) will allow unprecedented preservation and remediation of the existing damage to the environment. Humans will, out of necessity, take on the role of planetary engineers. It’s not optional, as you said, unchecked warming could destroy human civilization.

Challenge Religion - Today’s Top Blog Posts on Atheism - Powered by SocialRank / October 1st, 2007, 3:05 am / #7

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Infidel753 / October 12th, 2007, 7:33 am / #8

It’s interesting how often the cheapening-of-effort argument comes up — that enhanced mental abilities will turn us into a lot of contented bovines because everything will come easily to us.

I could imagine one of our chimpanzee-like ancestors six million years ago learning that our modern civilization has supermarkets, and mourning the loss of the food-finding skills which his kind acquired and passed from generation to generation so painstakingly. The whole edifice of science, literature, art, entertainment, philosophy, and other endeavors which we’ve built up since we no longer had to be preoccupied with finding food would be totally beyond his imagination. The post-Singularity mind will occupy itself with challenges and achievements we today can’t even think of.

I once had a discussion with someone who was vociferous with such objections. I ended up saying, “If people really don’t want any technological enhancements, they won’t be forced to accept them. Right now, if you wanted to travel from here in Portland to New York, no one would make you go by plane or car. You could just walk there if you preferred. Same principle.” The Amish are left alone with their way of life in the midst of the modern world. The people who object to the Singularity should be free to opt out. They just shouldn’t be allowed to hold everyone else back.

Humans have an astonishing ability to convince themselves that life is getting worse and worse even as in fact it gets better and better.

Finally, I’m completely baffled by the idea that the Singularity is somehow going to be an affront to sexuality. Kurzweil’s book has some interesting things to say about that subject.

Parker Bohn / October 31st, 2007, 4:25 am / #9

I find all this debate on the results of the singularity fascinating, but I think sometimes the point is missed: It is called the singularity for a reason.

If, using human intelligence, you can accurately predict or even understand what comes after it, then it is not the singularity.

It seems to me, that many people think the idea of the singularity is all a bunch of hooey, while others expect it to happen the Thursday after next.

I believe that barring our unfortunate self-destruction, the singularity is inevitable. However, I find it doubtful that this would occur in the near future.

I believe that the world in 2050 may be as different from our current world as ours is from the world in 1900. This would be a staggering acceleration in the rate of change, but it would not be the singularity.

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