Man-Machine Merger Arriving Sooner Than You Think

The merging of man and machine has long been a vision explored in science fiction. But Rick Kleffel from member station KUSP reports that integration may arrive sooner than expected.

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Imagine a world where the combination of faster computers, networks, and amplified human intelligence could bring about a change so radical that those who follow will no longer be human. Some futurists and science fiction writers envision that world coming to pass, not hundreds of years from now but in the next generation. And they call this event the Technological Singularity.

From member station KUSP, Rick Kleffel tries to get a glimpse of an un-seeable future.

RICK KLEFFEL reporting:

Moore's Law, which states that computer processing power should double every 18 months, suggests that the next 30 years may be more complex than anyone anticipated. But some people have been thinking about this coming era of change for quite some time.

Professor VERNOR VINGE (Science Fiction Writer): The first time it came up, I was actually talking at an artificial intelligence conference in 1983 at Carnegie Mellon. And I had been invited to that conference really because I was a science fiction writer.

KLEFFEL: Vernor Vinge is a science fiction writer, computer scientist, and mathematician who is credited with first describing the Technological Singularity.

Prof. VINGE: We will very likely be able to, through technology, create beings that intellectually surpass humans in every way that we think of when we think of human creativity and intelligence and insight.

KLEFFEL: Cory Doctorow is a science fiction writer and blogger for boingboing.net.

Mr. CORY DOCTOROW (Science Fiction Writer): There's this notion that human history is kind of linear, and that yesterday we had the telegraph, and then we had the radio, and then we had television, and now we have the Internet. And tomorrow we'll have the videophone and then we'll have the 3D phone and then we'll have the teleporter, and we'll be human all the way through that. And I think that, in fact, history is a lot more disjoint.

I think that, for example, things like literacy are singularities in human history, that a literate human being thinks differently and sees the world differently. So differently, in fact, that he or she has very little to discuss with a pre-literate human being from before the dawn of literacy, and is in some ways a different species.

KLEFFEL: Writers such as Doctorow and Vinge have imagined how we could become a different species with the help of the technology we have created. Science fiction usually sets these stories in the distant future on far away worlds. In Star Trek: The Next Generation humanity encounters the Borg, a post-human hybrid of man and machine capable of assimilating individual humans into its collective intelligence.

(Soundbite of TV show, Star Trek: The Next Generation)

Mr. PATRICK STEWART (Actor): (As Captain Picard/Locutus the Borg): The knowledge and experience of the human, Picard, is part of us now. It has prepared us for all possible courses of action. Your resistance is hopeless, Number One.

KLEFFEL: The science fiction vision of machines that subjugate the human race, or genetically engineered humans who declare themselves superior are the Hollywood clich├ęs. But Vinge imagines more engaging futures.

Prof. VINGE: A third way is that we develop what might be called intelligence amplification, IA, instead of artificial intelligence, AI. For many people, this is the most attractive because that means that people, as they exist now, could themselves be the participants in this new era. And then the fourth path, that the ensemble of man and his networked computers could actually itself become something that was greater than human, sort of a worldwide meta-intelligence.

KLEFFEL: So instead of the menacing Borg, imagine something or someone far more benevolent. Vernor Vinge.

Prof. VINGE: It is interesting, the notion that if you have somebody who really, really liked you, but was a thousand or a million times more competent than you were, they could probably satisfy your wildest dream with one percent or one-tenth percent of their attention. And then they could go off and do their own thing.

KLEFFEL: Vinge's new novel, Rainbow's End, is the story of the birth of the superhuman in a near future maze of computer networks and virtual personas. It is the story of Robert Gu, a man of our time who is brought back from terminal Alzheimer's to a Rip Van Winkle-like resurrection in the 2025.

Unidentified Man: Rainbow's End could be considered to be a story that's happening right at the edge or during a singularity, but sort of unbeknownst to the players.

KLEFFEL: Robert Gu must learn to live in a world where man and machine have become undistinguishable because anything and anyone can present him, her or itself virtually. Vinge's novel shows a world in which humans and their technological offspring interact in a manner that offers hope. And you can see the hints of this interaction in current online collaborations.

Prof. VINGE: One feature of a post-singular world will be that the combination of the ensemble of people and computers, as sort of manifested by Wikipedia, is one that shows that it is the sharing of information, that biological model, more than this idea that we have felt very strongly over the last thousand years and longer where, you know, you're beating up on somebody and you're making sure that they can't survive so that you can survive.

I think the cooperative model is actually probably the one that makes sense, if you're talking about sort of the communications regime that is possible to get into with computers and networks and people.

Mr. KLEFFEL: And cooperation leads to the next step in human evolution. Again, Cory Doctorow.

Mr. DOCTOROW: We become nonhuman at that point. We have a break with traditional history. It's a singularity like the edge of a black hole, beyond which nothing is predictable about the way that the human race will exist.

Mr. KLEFFEL: In the next 30 to 50 years, we may find ourselves regarding post-singularity humans, our descendants, with incomprehension. That may not sound like much of a change from the present. We rarely understand our children, even when they are the same species as us. As the parent of any teenager knows, there is no such thing as planned adolescence, no preparation for the tumultuous years during which children are transformed into adults.

Science and science fiction may provide perspective on the technological singularity, but won't make coping with our offspring any easier to experience or to understand.

For NPR News, I'm Rick Kleffel.

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