In the past decade many futurists have embraced the concept that we are approaching a ‘Technological Singularity’ – a point at which technological development reaches a stage where machine intelligence surpasses current human potential, and being able to improve upon itself this intelligence grows exponentially, thus changing civilisation rapidly and irrevocably into a state which we probably cannot even conceive. In the words of mathematician and author Vernor Vinge, “Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly thereafter, the human era will be ended.”
Last week The New York Times ran an article about the new ‘Singularity University’, at which ‘students’ recently gathered for a nine-day, $15,000 course (there is also a separate 10-week ‘graduate’ course for $25,000). One of the more interesting facets of the article – though only touched on briefly – is the ‘techno-Utopianism’ that permeates the thinking of those involved:
Both courses include face time with leading thinkers in the areas of nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, energy, biotech, robotics and computing.
On a more millennialist and provocative note, the Singularity also offers a modern-day, quasi-religious answer to the Fountain of Youth by affirming the notion that, yes indeed, humans — or at least something derived from them — can have it all.
“We will transcend all of the limitations of our biology,” says Raymond Kurzweil, the inventor and businessman who is the Singularity’s most ubiquitous spokesman and boasts that he intends to live for hundreds of years and resurrect the dead, including his own father. “That is what it means to be human — to extend who we are.”
I find the idea of the ‘Singularity’ both intriguing and also frightening – it’s the stuff good science fiction novels are made of, and I think many of the arguments for and against are more a matter of personal moral judgement than objective debate.
The criticism I do have is more reserved for the plausibility of a Singularity. Firstly, I’d have to say that I don’t believe technology is advancing at the rate that the likes of Ray Kurzweil say it is…certainly, while there have been significant advances in the last decade, I don’t think we have seen anywhere near the advance that the Singularity has predicted via Moore’s Law (and it’s worth noting that Kevin Moore is a skeptic of an imminent singularity).
Secondly, there is the tricky question of intelligence vs consciousness. While Ray Kurzweil may think he’ll be downloading his consciousness within a couple of decades to make himself immortal, I’m not sure many consciousness researchers would feel the same. For all the talk about finding neural correlates for various experiences and emotions, the ‘hard problem‘ remains.
Here we can find signs of what I think is the inception of a materialist religion (of sorts), replete with charismatic leaders and transcendence of death. The latter perhaps is a driving force – without the ‘crutch’ of a religious belief in an afterlife, the Singularity becomes the salvation of the materialist facing their own mortality (this certainly seems to be how it is in Kurzweil’s case). An interesting bit of speculation might be to consider the (fringe science) possibility that consciousness lies beyond the brain (a la transmission theory), and that it not only survives death, but is in fact set free from the body by the experience. To borrow an analogy from the mystical literature, could ‘Singulatarians’ in fact be the equivalent of a caterpillar desperately trying not to be become a butterfly?
The religious parallels in the Singularity movement are, however, not going unnoticed. In the wake of the NYT article, respected science writer John Horgan has responded with a scathing attack on ‘Kurzweil’s cult’ in an opinion piece for Scientific American. At Biopolitical Times, Pete Shanks suggests that techno-Utopians revise their history for important lessons, in his article “A Singular Kind of Eugenics“. And our good friend Alan Boyle has commented at Cosmic Log that while “it’s nice to have such optimism in technology, but there’s also something oddly off-putting about all this… It’s the same spidey-sense tingle I get about Nietzschean supermanism and Scientology.”
It’s a fascinating topic, and one that will only become more prominent as the years go by. What do you think – is the Singularity imminent? And is it a good idea? Add a comment below, and/or vote on our new poll on the front page.