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.