The Singularity was first discussed by Vernor Vinge in the 1980s.Later, Ray Kurzweil became one of its chief proponents, culminating in his 2005 book The Singularity is Near. It concerns the exponential and double-exponential growth of technology in three areas: information, genetics, and robotics. Extrapolating these accelerating trends out to 2045, we reach a point beyond which is impossible to extrapolate their impact on humanity. Hence “singularity,” a word chosen because of its use to describe the gravitational singularity, the point at which the traditional laws of physics break down near a black hole. It’s a point which has theoretically infinite mass concentrated in a space of infinitely small dimension. Surrounding the theoretical black hole is an event horizon beyond which it’s impossible for information to pass.
Kurzweil has two films coming out in the near future, Transcendent Man, and The Singularity Is Near, which should finally make the Singularity a household word:
Transcendent Man trailer:
Update: The Singularity is Near trailer (2012)
The prospect of the Singularity scares the hell out of some people. So much so that rational discussion of its potential has become all but impossible in many circles. There, it’s gone beyond fear to overt hostility. Two camps seem to be most offended by the concept: the first is a scientific and political establishment accustomed to thinking in the “linear-intuitive” model of discovery, the second is a misanthropic “hubris police,” finger-wagging at past human technological missteps and warning of the inevitable future disasters. So what we get from these two groups, is a raft of scorn and mockery directed against Singularity caricatures and straw men.
The Singularity holds the promise of radical life extension and expansion, and a growing hybridization of humans and machines. Some of what might be possible would be full-immersion virtual reality indistinguishable from first-person experience, the gradual uploading of human consciousness into artificial (machine) substrates, and the elimination of disease and postponement of death (through constant repair of biological breakdown). In addition, brains and machines will be able to communicate quickly and deeply, connecting everyone together into a giant and far more complex version of the internet. To some people, this sounds like heaven. To others, it sounds like the end of the human race and a techno-hell.
Feelings run strong on both sides of the question. Long before Kurzweil or Vinge, mythology acquainted us with the most enduring meme in all fiction, the folly of hubris. From Icarus, to Gilgamesh, to the Garden of Eden, the Tower of Babel, and the Frankenstein series, it seems humans have long resisted the idea of anyone gaining too much knowledge and power, or redefining what it means to be human. The naysayers erupt with cries of “playing God,” as they invoke the specter of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice or the Terminator. Even so, the Singularity holds the promise to permanently defeat the most intractable of all enemies–ignorance–and potentially death. Instead of being enthused by these wonderful prospects, many people become enraged or paralyzed with fear. I would consider a healthy response to be optimism or measured skepticism about how it might come to pass. Instead, they curl their lip and snarl, at the mere mention of the name Kurzweil or the word Singularity. In defiance of all reason, they spew the most vitriolic forms of ridicule, as if we were discussing intentional genocide. Why?
Atheists and scientists are supposed to be more objective than most. This isn’t always true, outside their given field. When scientists get things wildly wrong, it’s more shocking than when the rest of us do. An example of this juxtaposition of brilliance and wackiness would be Nobel Prize winner Kary Mullis, who discovered the polymerase chain reaction. This brilliant scientist is also a climate denier, a fierce critic of sociology, psychology, and the Federal Reserve. He also famously claimed in his book to have seen a “glowing racoon.” Well, he also has a reputation for really liking psychedelic drugs. So who knows what he saw?
We are all fallible. Even Nobel Prize winners.
Journalists get the Singularity even more wrong. John Horgan has written a series of articles and books denouncing the idea of accelerating technological progress–instead claiming we are reaching a point of diminishing technological returns. Horgan’s most famous book is called The End of Science. Most recently he mocked Kurzweil in an article called Science Cult in Newsweek.
P.Z. Myers, proprietor of the famous Pharyngula blog, is both an atheist and a scientist. He was quoted in yet another hatchet-job Newsweek article by Daniel Lyons called I, Robot, and he’s gotten himself all worked up about Kurzweil, with a series of derogatory posts over the past several months. Among other things, Lyons accuses Kurzweil of being too sure of himself, or “speaking in a monotone.” Wow. Straight-up unabashed ad hominem attack–get ready for demagoguery. It’s the easiest content-free way to slam someone. They’re “boring,” they’re overconfident–the surest bullshit alert I know. But then he lays out the “terrifying” future according to Kurzweil. Which is it? Terrifying or wrong? If he’s a kook, what’s there to worry about? This is the secret horror of Kurzweil’s detractors–they’re afraid he might be right, and they want to shoot the messenger.
Listen closely, though, and you may be slightly terrified. Kurzweil believes computer intelligence is advancing so rapidly that in a couple of decades, machines will be as intelligent as humans. Soon after that they will surpass humans and start creating even smarter technology. By the middle of this century, the only way for us to keep up will be to merge with the machines so that their superior intelligence can boost our weak little brains and beef up our pitiful, illness-prone bodies. Some of Kurzweil’s fellow futurists believe these superhuman computers will want nothing to do with us. That we will become either their pets or, worse yet, their food. Always an optimist, Kurzweil takes a more upbeat view. He swears these superhuman computers will love us, and honor us, since we’ll be their ancestors. He also thinks we’ll be able to embed our consciousness into silicon, which means we can live on, inside machines, forever and ever, amen.
And this from Myers:
…this techno-mystical crap is just kookery, plain and simple, and the rationale is disgracefully bad. One thing I will say for Kurzweil, though, is that he seems to be a first-rate bullshit artist.
It seems to me that the correct approach would be to offer some kind of competing but dispassionate analysis, which Myers sort of does, but then reverts to the smear tactics:
I think we will develop amazing new technologies, and they will affect human evolution, but it will be nothing like what Kurzweil imagines. We have already experienced a ‘singularity,’ the combination of agriculture, urbanization, and literacy transformed our species, but did not result in a speciation event, nor did it have quite the abrupt change an Iron Age Kurzweil might have predicted. Probably the most radical evolutionary changes would be found in our immune systems as we adapted to new diets and pathogens, but people are still people, and we can find cultures living a neolithic life style and an information age lifestyle, and they can still communicate and even interbreed. Maybe this information age will have as dramatic and as important an effect on humanity as the invention of writing, but even if it does, don’t expect a nerd rapture to come of it. Just more cool stuff, and a bigger, shinier, fancier playground for humanity to gambol about in.
This is more or less what Kurzweil is claiming! It’s the detractors who have applied the label “nerd rapture.” They want to make the Singluarity appear as outlandish and ridiculous as possible–an easy target which they then knock down. But Kurzweil is well aware that he has taken a great deal of dramatic license, which it seems deliberately and speculatively embellishes some of the potentials of the technology which will affect us all. That’s what makes Kurzweil so interesting and readable.
I fail to see what is so offensive about this kind of futurism. Everyone understands how quaint it can seem in retrospect: “They promised us Jetpacks and we got Blogs” is a typical rejoinder. So Kurzweil is almost certainly wrong about the details of the Singularity. So what? He’s dead right about the incredible pace of change in the short-term. Compounding that change in an exponential manner will lead to disruptive technologies and a radical shift in the direction of governments, companies and humanity itself. Who cares about the details? At the very least, people planning on 30-year timeframes need to prepare themselves for some serious discontinuities. Kurzweil’s speculation and extrapolation helps people do just that.
Here’s an undeniable, if mundane, example of just a small slice on the way to the Singularity: I just got an iPhone, which is a revolutionary device the size of a pack of cigarettes which gives me the computing power of a high-end desktop workstation (600 MHz processor) from 1999. Its 8 GB of RAM is greater than the average hard drive of 10 years ago. In addition, its battery and wireless capability actually gives me more utility than if I was to walk around with that ancient desktop strapped to my back, which had no ability to connect while unplugged. The old workstation would have also needed several car batteries to operate and a heavy CRT display.
Ten years from now, a similar device will fit in a thimble-sized package–which will do me no good whatsoever if I don’t have some kind of bio-available audio and visual interface. Initially this might be VR goggles. Sometime late in the next decade, early adopters will have the opportunity to have surgery to implant such a device into their body. It will derive its electric power from the breakdown of sugars in the bloodstream, and offer audio and visual connections either to the retina and ear canal or through direct neural interface to the brain, as well as a full suite of medical monitoring and diagnostics (which will call paramedics automatically if it detects a life-threatening condition). For some people, the implant could be paired with drug delivery pumps, and also control the dispensing of insulin or antidepressants. Vast numbers of people will jump at the chance to be connected in this way. That’s 2019, and it just gets more interesting after that. Ten years later in 2029 such computing power will shrink to the size of a blood cell. You figure out the implications. It doesn’t take Kurzweil to spell it out.
Yet P.Z. Myers still thinks it’s appropriate to label Kurzweil a kook for stating the obvious. I just don’t get it.
Perhaps it’s because Kurzweil speaks with the confidence of someone used to aiming at and hitting higher targets. “If you want to go to the moon,” the old saying says, “shoot for the stars.” Kurzweil has always shot for the stars, and it’s given the world OCR, text-to-speech, speech-to-text and ultra-realistic electronic musical instruments. His latest innovation is a camera for use by the blind to read text and identify objects in their environment. Hardly the works of a kook.
What’s gotten P.Z.’s goat, among other things, is Kurzweil’s expressed desire to live forever, and create a functional facsimile of his dead father’s mind. But I don’t see how either of those goals are bad in any way. Audacious, perhaps. But I would jump at the chance to be able to interact with an artificial mind-clone of my dead parents. Who wouldn’t? I’d also gladly take an extra 50 or 100 years of life–if not immortality.
There’s something about the dreamer that’s always infuriated the pragmatists. But in this case it goes deeper than that. It’s a herd mentality that seeks to punish anyone who would dare propose a plausible escape from the human condition. It’s like the inmates dragging back the guy climbing the prison-camp walls. Kurzweil correctly points out that we already have essentially escaped many artificial limits. At 45, for example, I’m far past the life-expectancy of 150 years ago, which was 37 years. Most of us will live double that and more. Yet Singularity detractors literally freak out when Kurzweil says we might double lifespans yet again in the next 30-40 years.
The idea of mind-enhancement also seems to offend many, primarily dogmatic egalitarians. All they see is potential for increased dominance of the many by the few. Politics aside, we have already enhanced our minds, and it’s been empowering and democratizing. Those of us with a web connection realize we don’t have to remember facts as well as we used to. We just look them up. Once that “universal communication implant” (just an improved miniature cell phone) is in place, a high possibility for most humans within 20 years, we will be as functionally different from year 2000 homo sapiens as they were from Neanderthals.
Sorry, P.Z., it’s true.
Effectively, every human will have instant access to all the world’s knowledge. It doesn’t mean our brains will have been completely rewired, but it does mean they will have rewired somewhat to function entirely differently in a manner to take advantage of the “always on” web connection and co-location capability. It will become a sixth sense and more. Surrogates (telerobots) will give us arms and legs in far away places–even the surface of the Moon or Mars or whereever we can send a robotic probe. (Cue the Hollywood blockbuster already being produced about this ‘nightmare.’) You’d be crazy to pretend these real-world developments won’t have implications far beyond the narrow field of computer science. They will impact every detail of life–from business, to warfare, to food and energy production, to the fabric of social interaction. Hence the concept of the Singularity–the inability to predict events beyond a time of such vast and momentous change.
The naysayers will always be with us. But I’m ashamed that supposed “rationalists” are among them. P.Z. Myers should be more enlightened than to feel justified in recklessly bashing a fellow scientist. We can see it’s not just the fundies we have to worry about. We all need enlightenment. We all need to become more objective, and I include myself in that category. Seeing the ignorant response of people like Myers gives me still another reason to hope for the universal increase in knowledge and clear thinking the Singularity will bring.
Update: With the benefit of hindsight, this article appears to have been far too aggressive on the time frame, for some of the advancements Kurzweil predicted. Other things he foresaw have arrived right on schedule. His track record is about 80%, and that’s truly remarkable. In my enthusiasm, I also failed to take into account some of the dangers of the new technology, specifically the high impact of social networks and other interconnections to turbocharge fascist grievance politics and epistemic warfare–which have had a serious negative impact on democratic governance. I stand by my basic evaluation of the prospects for the Singularity from 13 years ago, with the caveat that of course war, fascism and climate change can throw a sizeable wrench in the works. I look forward to discussing these updated implications of the Singularity in future articles. –Sean Prophet, September 2022