Monday, February 16, 2009

More Thoughts on the Singularity

I have a great interest in the political and ethical impacts of technology. Therefore, the Singularity, which promises everything from super-smart computers to an end to want via nanotechnology to immortality through biotechnolgy, is of keen interest to me. As a reader and amateur writer of science fiction, I have no problem with the probability of the Singularity, but I do wonder and worry about what it might bring about. The thoughts below are the result of two days' worth of journal entries. A bit long and convoluted, perhaps, but necessary to English majors like me, who think in prose, not equations.


"I don't want my pain taken away. I need my pain!"
--Captain James T. Kirk, Star Trek V: The Final Frontier

"That is the exploration that awaits you: not mapping stars or studying nebula, but charting the unknown possbilities of existence."
--Q, Star Trek: The Next Generation, "All Good Things..."

Picard: "It's our mortality that defines us, Soren. It's part of the truth of our existence."
Soren: "What if I told you that I found a new truth?"
--Star Trek: Generations

"I belonged to a new underclass, no longer determined by social status or the color of your skin. No, we now have discrimination down to a science."
--Vincent, GATTACA

And again George Hadley was filled with admiration for the mechanical genius who had conceived this room. A miracle of efficiency selling for an absurdly low price. Every home should have one. Oh, occasionally they frightened you with their clinical accuracy, they startled you, gave you a twinge, but most of the time what fun for everyone, not only your own son and daughter, but for yourself when you felt like a quick jaunt to a foreign land, a quick change of scenery. Well, here it was!
--Ray Bradbury, "The Veldt"

For the last 200 years, strength (political power) has been determined by the ability to incraese material wealth. This is a radical change from previous eras, when leaders derived their powers strictly by agricultural abundance--or scarcity, military power, "divine right of kings," or clerical sanction. The power of money created a new dynamic, as it relied primarily on intellect and fair trade of value rather than sheer violence (or threat thereof).

One inevitable side-effect of this transition is that power shifted from those with weapons to those with money. Marxists criticized the "bourgeois" ethics of hard work and simple material comfort. Nevertheless, capitalism changed many assumptions that had stood for centuries by combining industrial machinery, scientific insight, mass production, and individual liberty. Slavery ended, and standards of living in industrialized countries rose. For the first time in human history, the goods of civilization could be made abundant and cheap enough for the majority of humanity to afford them--if available. Consider, even today, the difference between poverty in America, where individuals still have access to television, cellular telephones, computers, and a social infrastructure that ensures survival or recovery in the event of national disasters; and poverty in the developing world, where mass starvation, disease, and unsanitary conditions are common.

Another of the unsung triumphs of Western Civilization in the last 25 years has been information technology, which has progressed and expanded the extend of human knowledge exponentially every two years. Advanced computers are also allowing for exponential increases in knowledge about human genetics, cognitive psychology, and nanotechnology.

Biotechnology is giving humanity unprecedented insight into the processes of life itself. We are learning now to modify the forms and shapes of life, and even extend it.

Insight into our own psychology could enable us to overcome mental illness and the hostile madness that provokes us to war. We might eventually be able to translate the structure of thought itself from brain impulses to data sets capable of traveling through computer systems like "ghosts in the machine."

Nanotechnology will allow for mass transmutation of the elements, enabling individuals to overcome not just starvation, but powerlessness as well.

And computer technology itself, becoming ever more sophisticated and powerful, could eventually exceed the processing and intellectual ability of the humans that gave it birth. They will be able to generate artificial environments for humans that are indistinguishable from reality.

All these changes, technologists like Ray Kurzweil predict, will culminate in an event called the Singularity, where humanity (or its machines, or a combination thereof) might transcend mortality, scarcity, and ignorance.

It all sounds so grand, so impressive and utopian--what could possibly go wrong? We don't need to think too hard about it to come up with answers. Human nature is what it is: good and evil, truthful and deceitful, conscientious and wasteful, peaceful and violent, cooperative and competitive. All of these traits will be reflected in our technologies.

Take away scarcity, and what new things will human beings find to fight about? What will become of our cultures when everyone can be as rich as middle-class Americans today? Populations are likely to drop, and new problems of overindulgence and sheer materialism are likely. Eliminate sickness and death, and what need will there be for doctors, funeral directors, or priests?

Yet what more could humans beings ask of a utopia? An end to illness, want, ignorance, the sources of war, suffering, and death. But what of the consolations of philosophy? What will become of politics when decisions are made not just by the powerful few, but where every individual and every computer has a voice? Much of human technological and artistic progress has been driven by a desire to overcome limitations. Will that drive exist if we truly achieve an end to striving here on Earth? Why bother exploring other worlds if computers can create alien landscapes as realistic as the most vivid dreams? We need to think seriously about the outcomes of pursuing such a future. Again, for most of our history, the quest to seek beyond our limitations has ruled our lives. What will it mean to be "human" if all of the basic drives and limitations that defined the lives of our ancestors become irrelevant?


Since the late 1930s, we have had a literature that addresses the implications of our technological dreams: science fiction. Star Trek is merely the most popular flavor. You might not like everything you read in SF, but you might be less surprised by the future you find yourself facing.

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