Part of an Occasional Series on Silicon Valley Buzzwords & Ideas
Fifty years ago during the Summer of Love of 1967, young Americans turned on, tuned in, dropped out, dropped acid, blew their minds, chanted mantras, played Sgt. Pepper’s and followed gurus like Timothy Leary, Ken Kesey and the Maharishi Yogi in an effort to obtain a higher level of consciousness.
The changes wrought during that crazy year and the rest of the tumultuous decade changed America forever, making the nation at once more open and liberal, but also creating a counter revolutionary backlash that gave us Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
Today, the seeds are being sown for another great transformation that will make the great social and political changes of the 1960’s look like a garden party. The center of this transformation is located just south of San Francisco in Silicon Valley.
I’m talking, of course, about the Singularity.
Some of you may have heard of the Singularity, or read news stories about it, or seen a video or two on YouTube. Some of you may have even read (or tried to read) Ray Kurzweil’s seminal book, “The Singularity is Near.”
But, while the Singularity remains popular among a segment of the tech elite that hangs out in places like Palo Alto and Sunnyvale, it remains a rather vague concept to the vast majority of the population.
So, what the hell is the Singularity? What will it do? When will it arrive? Who is promoting it? Who will benefit most? Least? Not at all? And can you explain all this more succinctly than Kurzweil does in his book/door stop? He just drones on and on. Is that guy even human?
All great questions. As for Kurzweil, yes he is human. As for his book, I hear ya. Boy, do I hear ya. Let me see if I can explain the Singularity a bit more succinctly.
What’s in a Name?
For all their genius in inventing computers, programs, apps, search engines, smart phones and other must-stand-in-line-for-hours gadgets, Kurzweil and his fellow true believers didn’t actually come up with the term “singularity.”
Instead, science fiction writer Vernor Vinge borrowed the name from astrophysics. Merriam – Webster defines a singularity as
A point or region of infinite mass density at which space and time are infinitely distorted by gravitational forces and which is held to be the final state of matter falling into a black hole.
Wow! Infinite mass density. Distorted gravity. Black holes.
That’s some pretty scary shit, huh? A space singularity is not something you want to be even remotely close to. Get sucked into one of those and it would be pretty much….
Game over, man! Game over!
Singularitarians simply took that rather scary theory and adopted it to describe the culmination of a series of overlapping revolutions in robotics, genetics and nanotechnology. The main elements that will contribute to the Singularity include:
- super powerful AI infinitely smarter than humans
- brains interfaced with computers and AI
- nanobots running around our bodies keeping us healthy
- the stopping and even reversal of aging
- increasing time spent in virtual reality simulations
- instant access to any and all information.
WhatIs.com provides a succinct definition of what the Singularity will be like when all these advances converge.
The Singularity is the hypothetical future creation of superintelligent machines. Superintelligence is defined as a technologically-created cognitive capacity far beyond that possible for humans. Should the Singularity occur, technology will advance beyond our ability to foresee or control its outcomes and the world will be transformed beyond recognition by the application of superintelligence to humans and/or human problems, including poverty, disease and mortality.
Kurzweil believes the Singularity will arrive in 2045. Well, if it arrives at all; there are a lot of skeptics who believe the Singularity is a bunch of…what’s the scientific term for it?…hooey. Yes, the Singularity is Hooey.
All Hail the Singutopialarity
Kurzweil, who is sort of the Timothy Leary of the movement, is an extreme techno-optimist who thinks all this will be great.
The Singularity will allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains. We will gain power over our fates. Our mortality will be in our hands. We will be able to live as long as we want (a subtly different statement from saying we will live forever). We will fully understand human thinking and will vastly extend and expand its reach. By the end of this century, the nonbiological portion of our intelligence will be trillions of trillions of times more powerful than unaided human intelligence.
So, to sum up. Everyone will be a brainiac living for centuries plugged into AI with nanobots running around in our bodies regrowing lost hair, revitalizing aging limbs and organs without the need for Viagra, and letting us see light in every wavelength with the blink of an eye.
Sounds like paradise, doesn’t it? A Singutopialarity, if you will. Well, maybe. Or maybe not.
The Multilarity is Fear
The last sentence in the WhatIs.com definition is worth examining in greater depth.
Should the Singularity occur, technology will advance beyond our ability to foresee or control its outcomes and the world will be transformed beyond recognition by the application of superintelligence to humans and/or human problems, including poverty, disease and mortality.
This neatly sums up the dichotomy that lies at the heart of the Singularity: the ability to address long-standing human problems exists side by side with an inability to know, much less control, the various potential outcomes of rapidly evolving technology.
And this gets to the heart of several truisms about radical transformations. Not all change is beneficial. At least not uniformly so. And there are often pernicious side effects no one can anticipate.
Here’s the other problem: rapid, out-of-control change scares the shit out of a lot of people. During the tumultuous 1960’s, it sometimes felt as if the United States was spinning out of control with large-scale protests, violence, assassinations and rapidly changing political and social norms.
Even if the future created by super-intelligent AI is largely positive, what’s it going to be like to live in a world that is changing so fast that we literally can’t keep up with it? Where the pace of change is 100 or 1,000 times faster than it is today? What sort of push back will there be against such disruptive change?
In terms of potential disruption, the Singularity is well named. It appears it could be every bit as chaotic in its own way as the space singularity with its infinite mass, distorted gravitational forces and black holes.
Paradoxically, this is also where the Singularity is a master stroke of branding. A much more accurate description for the transformation would be the Multilarity, the Multipolarity, or the Whatthehellsgoingonity.
Those names would not poll very well. But, the Singularity suggests that all these disparate and complex elements will come together seamlessly in one nice neat package. Sort of like an app that can sync the contacts and other content from your cell phone, tablet and laptop without losing anything.
So, in terms of branding this whole idea, one can only say: well played, Singularitarians. Well played.
The Terminator Meets Grey Goo
So, what could happen when people start become transhuman, i.e., when there is no longer a clear line between humans and machines? And AI becomes uber intelligent?
A lot, actually. And, contrary to Kurzweil’s unblinking optimism, not all of it good.
The Singularity could be every nightmare of the future ever envisioned that has been put down on the page or adapted for the screen, any number of which have starred Arnold Schwarzeneggar or Keanu Reeves. (But never together. That’s…interesting.)
You’ve got your runaway AI that enslaves humanity, treats it as a pet, or decides it’s got no right to live. (Paging Dr. Baltar!) Or human-looking, time traveling cyborgs out to change the past. (Paging the Terminator!)
You’ve got the nanobots running around in your body being reprogrammed with a virus you accidentally downloaded from the cloud that will give you a sudden heart attack, force you to do something truly terrible, or infect you with a terminal disease that will kill you in 24 hours unless you pay $1 million in BitCoins.
And then there’s grey goo. Not to be confused with Grey Poupon, grey goo is what results with out of control, self-replicating nanobots begin to devour everything on the planet — land, houses, your cat, that new Tesla in your driveway. And you’ve got only 72 hours to stop them before they destroy the world!
And then there’s the issue of who actually benefits the most. Will a relative handful of people seize control over this new technology and become enormously wealthy and powerful while the rest of the population gets left behind? Or will the benefits be widely dispersed?
Kurzweil is by no means blind to all the possible risks. He acknowledges many of the things that could go wrong with the Singularity.
Kurzweil is a techno-optimist’s optimist who is confident that for whatever nefarious purposes the bad guys can dream up for these new technologies, the good guys can devise up an effective defense that will prevent disaster or, at the very least, minimize the damage. The question is whose imagination is greater.
Others are not so optimistic. Human super brain Stephen Hawking seems scared to death of AI. “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race,” he told the BBC.
Elon Musk has created a company that will create a way to link humans to AI so that the former doesn’t get left behind by the latter’s exponentially evolving intelligence. Whether his efforts will save us from the Matrix, or inadvertently accelerate its arrival and our enslavement, remains to be seen.
Are We Waiting for Nothing?
There are a lot of skeptics out there who believe the Singularity is nothing but a cleverly marketed concept that will never actually arrive. I heard one skeptic imagine a pair of early humans having a conversation around a campfire and one of them suddenly remarking,”Hey, we’re in a singularity!”
Let’s face it: people are messy. Technology is messy. Plug the technology into the people, exponentially accelerate the rate of technological change, the odds are you’re simply going to have one big mess on your hands that will be exponentially worse than it is today.
But, in the meantime, people can continue to give lectures and write books and blog posts about a theoretical future that might or might not ever happen. I guess that’s something.
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