Who Is Afraid Of The Singularity? : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture Can we live forever, even if part of a virtual animation inside an ultra-smart computer? Is this the future of humanity, what lies beyond the singularity? Should we be elated or terrified?
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Who Is Afraid Of The Singularity?

Will the future look like us, or something completely different? YOSHIKAZU TSUNO/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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Will the future look like us, or something completely different?


The Singularity Is Near is the title of a documentary directed by Anthony Waller and co-directed by Ray Kurzweil, the famous inventor and author of the homonymous book. Here is the movie's synopsis:

The onset of the 21st Century will be an era in which the very nature of what it means to be human will be both enriched and challenged as our species breaks the shackles of its genetic legacy and achieves inconceivable heights of intelligence, material progress, and longevity. While the social and philosophical ramifications of these changes will be profound, and the threats they pose considerable, celebrated futurist Ray Kurzweil presents a view of the coming age that is both a dramatic culmination of centuries of technological ingenuity and a genuinely inspiring vision of our ultimate destiny.

According to Kurzweil's analysis, the pace with which technology advances, and in particular, computing, memory, and data processing technology, is so amazingly fast (exponentially fast) that we will soon reach a point where machines will be able to emulate and quickly surpass the creative power of the human brain. Humanity will then reach a point of no return, whereby what we mean to be human will be no more: the singularity means the redefinition of our species, the creation of something else, possibly a hybrid of flesh and circuits, possibly simply circuits, dead matter imitating life in virtual animation.

The hope here is that ultra-fast computing speeds plus unlimited access to data processing will emulate a working brain: enough computational complexity will create an emergent ultra-smart machine.

Humans, prepare for thy end is coming.

The date for the big change has been set for 2045.

Kurzweil is no fool, and certainly not a crackpot. He built the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind (Stevie Wonder was his first customer), and invented a series of music synthesizers and speech recognition machines and software that made him wealthy. He has received the National Medal of Technology for his contributions to science and technology. Three years ago, he funded the Singularity University, co-sponsored by Google and housed at NASA's Ames Laboratory headquarters. A new documentary about Kurzweil, The Transcendent Man is just out. Serious people of different walks of life take him very seriously.

Kurzweil is not just bent on redefining intelligence. He also wants to live forever. He believes that we should treat death as an illness that can be cured. How? Through a combination of careful dieting and cellular manipulation at the genetic level. Quite possibly, the form of immortality he is after will transcend our cellular structure altogether: we will become one with the machine, possibly implanting our consciousness into silicon chips and live virtually forever after.

What about happiness? This emotion may need to be revised, as it's contingent on a kind of existence (ours) completely different from what is at stake.

The challenge (the scary part?) is that we cannot predict what will happen beyond the singularity. This is the same with the singularities in physics, such as inside a black hole or at the Big Bang, the event that marked the beginning of time. A "singularity" marks the breakdown of what we know, the breakdown of the laws of physics as we know them. And without the laws, we can't even try to guess; if we could, we would be as smart as the hypothetical machine intelligences and would know physics beyond our wildest dreams.

Now, that doesn't mean that singularities are necessarily bad things; quite the contrary, at least in physics they may usher new knowledge, new ways of thinking about reality. This seems to be the interpretation Kurzweil is going for, that the singularity will mark the transition into a new era of physical, material, and intellectual prosperity: a technological dressed-up vision of Paradise.

There are some very heavy religious undercurrents in Kurzweil's thinking; in a sense, if he is right, the singularity would mark the transition of man into god: immortal, enormously powerful and intelligent. We would all become cyber-angels, and reinvent the universe as we know it.

Should we take all this seriously? Yes. If not for the end result, which, in my opinion, may require more than keeping up with the current pace of technological innovation, for the belief that we can. There are two fundamental assumptions in Kurzweil's thinking that can be criticized:

First, that the exponential growth of technological innovation — which he argues convincingly is remarkably resilient to political and economical upheaval — will be maintained at its historical rate. The fact that we can plot a curve that fits past data doesn't imply at all that the curve is predictive. That would be true only if there were some deterministic mechanism behind this trend, and there isn't one. (In other words, Kurzweil extrapolation is not a Newtonian law of motion!) Corporate greed and public demand may push the need for innovation forward but don't constitute a causal force.

Second, that the second law of thermodynamics, the one that says that disorder grows in isolated systems, can be defeated or at least sidestepped. Although it's true that there is plenty of energy in the Sun, we cannot predict how life will respond to attempts to make it permanent. If we are able to reprogram cell-death at the genetic level, quite possibly novel kinds of immortal diseases will also spring forth. And when gods battle gods things usually get pretty nasty.

However, I don't want to give the impression that I am against the belief in artificial intelligence or the attempts to prolong our longevity. I'd love to be able to remain alive near my loved ones, even if in a state of virtual animation. But it's hard not to wonder if the belief in the singularity isn't just the modern version of the recurrent belief in the final triumph of the human soul.