||Singularities and Nightmares
Options for a coming singularity include self-destruction of civilization, a positive singularity, a negative singularity (machines take over), and retreat into tradition. Our urgent goal: find (and avoid) failure modes, using anticipation (thought experiments) and resiliency -- establishing robust systems that can deal with almost any problem as it arises.
Originally published in Nanotechnology
Perceptions: A Review of Ultraprecision Engineering and Nanotechnology,
Volume 2, No. 1, March 27 2006.1
Reprinted with permission on KurzweilAI.net March 28, 2006.
In order to give you pleasant dreams tonight, let me offer a few
possibilities about the days that lie ahead—changes that may
occur within the next twenty or so years, roughly a single human
generation. Possibilities that are taken seriously by some of today's
best minds. Potential transformations of human life on Earth and,
perhaps, even what it means to be human.
For example, what if biologists and organic chemists manage to
do to their laboratories the same thing that cyberneticists
did to computers? Shrinking their vast biochemical labs from building-sized
behemoths down to units that are utterly compact, making them smaller,
cheaper, and more powerful than anyone imagined. Isn't that what
happened to those gigantic computers of yesteryear? Until, today,
your pocket cell phone contains as much processing power and sophistication
as NASA owned during the moon shots. People who foresaw this change
were able to ride this technological wave. Some of them made a lot
Biologists have come a long way already toward achieving a similar
transformation. Take, for example, the Human Genome Project, which
sped up the sequencing of DNA by so many orders of magnitude that
much of it is now automated and miniaturized. Speed has skyrocketed,
while prices plummet, promising that each of us may soon be able
to have our own genetic mappings done, while-U-wait, for the same
price as a simple EKG. Imagine extending this trend, by simple extrapolation,
compressing a complete biochemical laboratory the size of a house
down to something that fits cheaply on your desktop. A MolecuMac,
if you will. The possibilities are both marvelous and frightening.
When designer drugs and therapies are swiftly modifiable by skilled
medical workers, we all should benefit.
But then, won't there also be the biochemical equivalent of "hackers"?
What are we going to do when kids all over the world can analyze
and synthesize any organic compound, at will? In that event, we
had better hope for accompanying advances in artificial intelligence
and robotics... at least to serve our fast food burgers. I'm
not about to eat at any restaurant that hires resentful human adolescents,
who swap fancy recipes for their home molecular synthesizers over
the Internet. Would you?
Now don't get me wrong. If we ever do have MolecuMacs on our desktops,
I'll wager that 99 percent of the products will be neutral or profoundly
positive, just like most of the software creativity flowing
from young innovators today. But if we're already worried about
a malicious one percent in the world of bits and bytes—hackers
and cyber-saboteurs—then what happens when this kind of 'creativity'
moves to the very stuff of life itself? Nor have we mentioned the
possibility of intentional abuse by larger entities—terror
cabals, scheming dictatorships, or rogue corporations.
These fears start to get even more worrisome when we ponder the
next stage, beyond biotech. Deep concerns are already circulating
about what will happen when nanotechnology—ultra-small
machines building products atom-by-atom to precise specifications—finally
hits its stride. Molecular manufacturing could result in super-efficient
factories that create wealth at staggering rates of efficiency.
Nano-maintenance systems may enter your bloodstream to cure disease
or fine-tune bodily functions. Visionaries foresee this technology
helping to save the planet from earlier human errors, for instance
by catalyzing the recycling of obstinate pollutants. Those desktop
units eventually may become universal fabricators that turn almost
any raw material into almost any product you might desire...
... or else (some worry), nanomachines might break loose to become
the ultimate pollution. A self-replicating disease, gobbling
everything in sight, conceivably turning the world's surface into
Others have raised this issue before, some of them in very colorful
ways. Take the sensationalist novel Prey, by Michael Crichton,
which portrays a secretive agency hubristically pushing an arrogant
new technology, heedless of possible drawbacks or consequences.
Crichton's typical worried scenario about nanotechnology follows
a pattern nearly identical to his earlier thrillers about unleashed
dinosaurs, robots, and dozens of other techie perils, all of them
viewed with reflexive suspicious loathing. (Of course, in every
situation, the perilous excess happens to result from secrecy,
a topic that we will return to, later.) A much earlier and better
novel, Blood Music, by Greg Bear, presented the up and downside
possibilities of nanotech with profound vividness. Especially the
possibility that most worries even optimists within the nanotechnology
community—that the pace of innovation may outstrip our ability
Now, at one level, this is an ancient fear. If you want to pick
a single cliché that is nearly universally held, across all
our surface boundaries of ideology and belief—e.g. left-versus-right,
or even religious-vs-secular—the most common of all would probably
"Isn't it a shame that our wisdom has not kept pace with technology?"
While this cliché is clearly true at the level of solitary
human beings, and even mass-entities like corporations, agencies
or political parties, I could argue that things aren't anywhere
near as clear at the higher level of human civilization.
Elsewhere I have suggested that "wisdom" needs to be defined according
to outcomes and processes, not the perception or sagacity of any
particular individual guru or sage. Take the outcome of the
Cold War… the first known example of humanity acquiring a means
of massive violence, and then mostly turning away from that precipice.
Yes, that means of self-destruction is still with us. But two generations
of unprecedented restraint suggest that we have made a little progress
in at least one kind of "wisdom." That is, when the means of destruction
are controlled by a few narrowly selected elite officials on both
sides of a simple divide.
But are we ready for a new era, when the dilemmas are nowhere near
as simple? In times to come, the worst dangers to civilization may
not come from clearly identifiable and accountable adversaries—who
want to win an explicit, set-piece competition—as much as from
a general democratization of the means to do harm. New technologies,
distributed by the Internet and effectuated by cheaply affordable
tools, will offer increasing numbers of angry people access to modalities
of destructive power--means that will be used because of justified
grievance, avarice, indignant anger, or simply because they are
THE RETRO PRESCRIPTION—RENUNCIATION
Faced with onrushing technologies in biotech, nanotech, artificial
intelligence, and so on, some bright people—like Bill Joy,
former chief scientist of Sun Computers—see little hope for
survival of a vigorously open society. You may have read Joy's unhappy
manifesto in Wired Magazine3,
in which he quoted the Unabomber (of all people), in support of
a proposal that is both ancient and new—that our sole hope
for survival may be to renounce, squelch, or relinquish several
classes of technological progress.
This notion of renunciation has gained credence all across
the political and philosophical map, especially at the farther wings
of both right and left. Take the novels and pronouncements of Margaret
Atwood, whose fundamental plot premises seem almost identical to
those of Michael Crichton, despite their differences over superficial
politics. Both authors routinely express worry that often spills
into outright loathing for the overweening arrogance of hubristic
technological innovators who just cannot leave nature well enough
At the other end of the left-right spectrum stands Francis Fukuyama,
who is Bernard L. Schwartz Professor of International Political
Economy at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies
of Johns Hopkins University. Dr. Fukuyama's best-known book, The
End of History and the Last Man (1992) triumphally viewed the
collapse of communism as likely to be the final stirring event worthy
of major chronicling by historians. From that point on, we would
see liberal democracy bloom as the sole path for human societies,
without significant competition or incident. No more "interesting
But this sanguine view did not last, as Fukuyama began to see potentially
calamitous "history" in the disruptive effects of new technology.
As a Bush Administration court intellectual and a member of the
President's Council on Bioethics, he now condemns a wide range of
biological science as disruptive and even immoral. People cannot,
according to Fukuyama, be trusted to make good decisions about the
use of—for example—genetic therapy. Human "improvability"
is so perilous a concept that it should be dismissed, almost across-the-board.
In Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution
(2002), Fukuyama prescribes paternalistic government industry panels
to control or ban whole avenues of scientific investigation, doling
out those advances that are deemed suitable.
You may surmise that I am dubious. For one thing, shall we enforce
this research ban worldwide? Can such tools be squelched forever?
From elites, as well as the masses? If so, how?
Although some of the failure modes mentioned by Bill Joy, Ralph
Peters, Francis Fukuyama, and the brightest renunciators seem plausible
and worth investigating, it's hard to grasp how we can accomplish
anything by becoming neo-Luddites. Laws that seek to limit technological
advancement will certainly be disobeyed by groups that simmer at
the social extreme, where the worst dangers lie. Even if ferocious
repression is enacted—perhaps augmented with near-omniscient
and universal surveillance—this will not prevent exploration
and exploitation of such technologies by social elites. (Corporate,
governmental, aristocratic, criminal, foreign… choose your
own favorite bogeymen of unaccountable power.) For years, I have
defied renunciators to cite one example, amid all of human history,
when the mighty allowed such a thing to happen. Especially when
they plausibly stood to benefit from something new.
While unable to answer that challenge, some renunciators have countered
that all of the new mega-technologies—including biotech and
nanotechnology—may be best utilized and advanced if
control is restricted to knowing elites, even in secret. With so
much at stake, should not the best and brightest make decisions
for the good of all? Indeed, in fairness, I should concede that
the one historical example I gave earlier—that of nuclear weaponry—lends
a little support to this notion. Certainly, in that case, one thing
that helped to save us was the limited number of decision-makers
who could launch calamitous war.
Still, weren't the political processes constantly under
public scrutiny, during that era? Weren't those leaders supervised
by the public, at least on one side? Moreover, decisions about atom
bombs were not corrupted very much by matters of self-interest.
(Howard Hughes did not seek to own and use a private nuclear arsenal.)
But self-interest will certainly influence controlling elites when
they weigh the vast benefits and potential costs of biotech and
Besides, isn't elitist secrecy precisely the error-generating
mode that Crichton, Atwood and so many others portray so vividly,
time and again, while preaching against technological hubris? History
is rife with examples of delusional cabals of self-assured gentry,
telling each other just-so stories while evading any criticism that
might reveal flaws in The Plan. By prescribing a return to paternalism—control
by elites who remain aloof and unaccountable—aren't renunciators
ultimately proposing the very scenario that everybody—rightfully—fears
Perhaps this is one reason why the renunciators—while wordy
and specific about possible failure modes—are seldom very clear
on which controlling entities should do the dirty work of squelching
technological progress. Or how this relinquishment could be enforced,
across the board. Indeed, supporters can point to no historical
examples when knowledge-suppression led to anything but greater
human suffering. No proposal that's been offered so far even addresses
the core issue of how to prevent some group of elites from cheating.
Perhaps all elites.
In effect, only the vast pool of normal people would be excluded,
eliminating their myriad eyes, ears and prefrontal lobes from civilization's
Above all, renunciation seems a rather desperate measure, completely
out of character with this optimistic, pragmatic, can-do culture.
THE SELDOM-MENTIONED ALTERNATIVE—RECIPROCAL ACCOUNTABILITY
And yet, despite all this criticism, I am actually much more approving
of Joy, Atwood, Fukuyama, et al, than some might expect. In The
Transparent Society, I speak well of social critics who shout
when they see potential danger along the road.
In a world of rapid change, we can only maximize the benefits of
scientific advancement—and minimize inevitable harm—by
using the great tools of openness and accountability. Above all,
acknowledging that vigorous criticism is the only known antidote
to error. This collective version of "wisdom" is what almost
surely has saved us so far. It bears little or no resemblance to
the kind of individual sagacity that we are used to associating
with priests, gurus, and grandmothers… but it is also less
dependent upon perfection. Less prone to catastrophe when the anointed
Center of Wisdom makes some inevitable blunder.
Hence, in fact, I find fretful worry-mongers invigorating! Their
very presence helps progress along by challenging the gung-ho enthusiasts.
It's a process called reciprocal accountability. Without bright
grouches, eager to point at potential failure modes, we might really
be in the kind of danger that they claim we are. Ironically,
it is an open society—where the sourpuss Cassandras are well
heard—that is unlikely to need renunciation, or the draconian
styles of paternalism they prescribe.
Oh, I see the renunciators' general point. If society remains as
stupid as some people think it is—or even if it is as smart
as I think it is, but gets no smarter—then nothing that folks
do or plan at a thousand well-intentioned futurist conferences will
achieve very much. No more than delaying the inevitable.
In that case, we'll finally have the answer to an ongoing mystery
of science—why there's been no genuine sign of extraterrestrial
civilization amid the stars.5
The answer will be simple. Whenever technological culture is tried,
it always destroys itself. That possibility lurks, forever, in the
corner of our eye, reminding us what's at stake.
On the other hand, I see every reason to believe we have a chance
to disprove that dour worry. As members of an open and questioning
civilization—one that uses reciprocal accountability to find
and probe every possible failure-mode—we may be uniquely equipped
to handle the challenges ahead.
Anyway, believing that is a lot more fun.
THE UPSIDE SCENARIO—THE SINGULARITY
We've heard from the gloomy renunciators. Let's look at another
future. The scenario of those who—literally—believe the
sky's the limit. Among many of our greatest thinkers, there is a
thought going around—a new 'meme' if you will—that says
we're poised for take-off. The idea I'm referring to is that of
a coming Technological Singularity.
Science fiction author Vernor Vinge has been touted as a chief
popularizer of this notion, though it has been around, in many forms,
for generations. More recently, Ray Kurzweil's book The Singularity
is Near argues that our scientific competence and technologically-empowered
creativity will soon skyrocket, propelling humanity into an entirely
Call it a modern, high-tech version of Teilhard De Chardin's noosphere
apotheosis—an approaching time when humanity may move,
dramatically and decisively, to a higher state of awareness or being.
Only, instead of achieving this transcendence through meditation,
good works or nobility of spirit, the idea this time is that we
may use an accelerating cycle of education, creativity and computer-mediated
knowledge to achieve intelligent mastery over both the environment
and our own primitive drives.
In other words, first taking control over Brahma's "wheel of life,"
then learning to steer it wherever we choose.
What else would you call it…
- When we start using nanotechnology to repair bodies at the cellular
- When catching up on the latest research is a mere matter of
desiring information, whereupon autonomous software agents
deliver it to you, as quickly and easily as your arm now moves
wherever you wish it to?
- When on-demand production becomes so trivial that wealth and
poverty become almost meaningless terms?
- When the virtual reality experience—say visiting a faraway
planet—gets hard to distinguish from the real thing?
- When each of us can have as many "servants"—either robotic
or software-based—as we like, as loyal as your own right
- When augmented human intelligence will soar and—trading
insights with one another at light speed—helping us attain
entirely new levels of thought?
Of course, it is worth pondering how this 'singularity' notion
compares to the long tradition of contemplations about human
transcendence. Indeed, the idea of rising to another plane of
existence is hardly new! It makes up one of the most consistent
themes in cultural history, as though arising from our basic natures.
Indeed, many opponents of science and technology clutch
their own images of messianic transformation, images that—if
truth be told—share many emotional currents with the tech-heavy
version, even if they disagree over the means to achieve transformation.
Throughout history, most of these musings dwelled upon the spiritual
path, that human beings might achieve a higher state through prayer,
moral behavior, mental discipline, or by reciting correct incantations.
Perhaps because prayer and incantations were the only means available.
In the last century, an intellectual tradition that might be called
'techno-transcendentalism' added a fifth track. The notion that
a new level of existence, or a more appealing state of being, might
be achieved by means of knowledge and skill.
But which kinds of knowledge and skill?
Depending on the era you happen to live in, techno-transcendentalism
has shifted from one fad to another, pinning fervent hopes upon
the scientific flavor of the week. For example, a hundred years
ago, Marxists and Freudians wove complex models of
human society—or mind—predicting that rational application
of these models and rules would result in far higher levels of general
Subsequently, with popular news about advances in agriculture and
evolutionary biology, some groups grew captivated by eugenics—the
allure of improving the human animal. On occasion, this resulted
in misguided and even horrendous consequences. Yet, this recurring
dream has lately revived in new forms, with the promise of genetic
engineering and neurotechnology.
Enthusiasts for nuclear power in the 1950s promised energy
too cheap to meter. Some of the same passion was seen in a widespread
enthusiasm for space colonies, in the 1970s and 80s, and
in today's ongoing cyber-transcendentalism, which promises
ultimate freedom and privacy for everyone, if only we just start
encrypting every Internet message, using anonymity online to perfectly
mask the frail beings who are actually typing at a real keyboard.
Over the long run, some hold out hope that human minds will be able
to download into computers or the vast new frontier of mid-21st
Century cyberspace, freeing individuals of any remaining slavery
to our crude and fallible organic bodies.
This long tradition—of bright people pouring faith and enthusiasm
into transcendental dreams—tells us a lot about one aspect
of our nature, a trait that crosses all cultures and all centuries.
Quite often, this zealotry is accompanied by disdain for contemporary
society—a belief that some kind of salvation can only be achieved
outside of the normal cultural network…a network that is often
unkind to bright philosophers—and nerds. Seldom is it ever
discussed how much these enthusiasts have in common—at least
emotionally—with believers in older, more traditional styles
of apotheosis, styles that emphasize methods that are more purely
mental or spiritual.
We need to keep this long history in mind, as we discuss the latest
phase: a belief in the ultimately favorable effects of an exponential
increase in the ability of our calculating engines. That their accelerating
power of computation will offer commensurately profound magnifications
of our knowledge and power. Our wisdom and happiness.
The challenge that I have repeatedly laid down is this: "Name one
example, in all of history, when these beliefs actually bore fruit.
In light of all the other generations who felt sure of their
own transforming notion, should you not approach your newfangled
variety with some caution… and maybe a little doubt?"
IT MAY BE JUST A DREAM
Are both the singularity believers and the renunciators
getting a bit carried away? Let's take that notion of doubt
and give it some steam. Maybe all this talk of dramatic transformation,
within our lifetimes, is just like those earlier episodes: based
more on wishful (or fearful) thinking than upon anything provable
Take Jonathan Huebner, a physicist who works at the Pentagon's
Naval Air Warfare Center in China Lake, California. Questioning
the whole notion of accelerating technical progress, he studied
the rate of "significant innovations per person." Using as his sourcebook
The History of Science and Technology, Huebner concluded
that the rate of innovation peaked in 1873 and has been declining
ever since. In fact, our current rate of innovation—which Huebner
puts at seven important technological developments per billion people
per year—is about the same as it was in 1600. By 2024, it will
have slumped to the same level as it was in the Dark Ages, around
800 AD. "The number of advances wasn't increasing exponentially,
I hadn't seen as many as I had expected."
Huebner offers two possible explanations: economics and the size
of the human brain. Either it's just not worth pursuing certain
innovations since they won't pay off—one reason why space exploration
has all but ground to a halt—or we already know most of what
we can know, and so discovering new things is becoming increasingly
Ben Jones, of Northwestern University in Illinois, agrees with
Huebner's overall findings, comparing the problem to that of the
Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass: we have to run faster
and faster just to stay in the same place. Jones differs, however,
as to why this happened. His first theory is that early innovators
plucked the easiest-to-reach ideas, or "low-hanging fruit,"
so later ones have to struggle to crack the harder problems. Or
it may be that the massive accumulation of knowledge means that
innovators have to stay in education longer to learn enough to invent
something new and, as a result, less of their active life is spent
innovating. "I've noticed that Nobel Prize winners are getting
older," he says.
In fact, it is easy to pick away at these four arguments by Huebner
For example, it is only natural for innovations and breakthroughs
to seem less obvious or apparent to the naked eye, as we have zoomed
many of our research efforts down to the level of the quantum and
out to the edges of the cosmos. In biology, only a few steps—like
completion of the Human Genome Project—get explicit attention
as "breakthroughs." Such milestones are hard to track in a field
that is fundamentally so complex and murky. But that does not mean
biological advances aren't either rapid or, overall, truly substantial.
Moreover, while many researchers seem to gain their honors at an
older age, is that not partly a reflection of the fact that lifespans
have improved, and fewer die off before getting consideration for
Oh, there is something to be said for the singularity-doubters.
Indeed, even in the 1930s, there were some famous science fiction
stories that prophesied a slowdown in progress, following
a simple chain of logic. Because progress would seem to be
its own worst enemy. As more becomes known, specialists in each
field would have to absorb more and more about less and less—or
about ever narrowing fields of endeavor—in order to advance
knowledge by the tiniest increments. When I was a student at Caltech,
in the 1960s, we undergraduates discussed this problem at worried
length. For example, every year the sheer size, on library shelves,
of "Chemical Abstracts" grew dauntingly larger and more
difficult for any individual to scan for relevant papers.
And yet, over subsequent decades, this trend never seemed to become
the calamity we expected. In part, because Chemical Abstracts and
its cousins have—in fact—vanished from library
shelves, altogether! The library space problem was solved by simply
putting every abstract on the Web. Certainly, literature searches—for
relevant work in even distantly related fields—now take place
faster and more efficiently than ever before, especially with the
use of software agents and assistants that should grow even more
effective in years to come.
That counter-force certainly has been impressive. Still, my own
bias leans toward another trend that seems to have helped forestall
a productivity collapse in science. This one (I will admit) is totally
subjective. And yet, in my experience, it has seemed even more important
than advances in online search technology. For it has seemed to
me that the best and brightest scientists are getting smarter,
even as the problems they address become more complex.
I cannot back this up with statistics or analyses. Only with my
observation that many of the professors and investigators that I
have known during my life now seem much livelier, more open-minded
and more interested in fields outside their own—even as they
advance in years—than they were when I first met them. In some
cases, decades ago. Physicists seem to be more interested in biology,
biologists in astronomy, engineers in cybernetics, and so on, than
used to be the case. This seems in stark contrast to what you would
expect, if specialties were steadily narrowing. But it is compatible
with the notion that culture may heavily influence our ability
to be creative. And a culture that loosens hoary old assumptions
and guild boundaries may be one that's in the process of freeing-up
mental resources, rather than shutting them down.
In fact, this trend—toward overcoming standard categories
of discipline—is being fostered deliberately in many places.
For example, the new Sixth College of the University of California
at San Diego, whose official institutional mission is to "bridge
the arts and sciences," drives a nail in the coffin of C.P.
Snow's old concept that the "two cultures" can never meet.
Never before have there been so many collaborative efforts between
tech-savvy artists and technologists who appreciate the aesthetic
and creative sides of life.8
What Huebner and Jones appear to miss is that complex obstacles
tend best to be overcome by complex entities. Even if Einstein and
others picked all the low hanging fruit within reach to individuals,
that does not prevent groups—institutions and teams and entrepreneurial
startups—from forming collaborative human pyramids to go after
goodies that are higher in the tree. Especially when those pyramids
and teams include new kinds of members, software agents and search
methodologies, worldwide associative networks and even open-source
participation by interested amateurs. Or when a myriad fields of
endeavor see their loci of creativity get dispersed onto a multitude
of inexpensive desktops, the way software has been.9
Dutch-American economic historian Joel Mokyr, in The Lever of
Riches and The Gifts of Athena, supports this progressive
view that we are indeed doing something right, something that makes
our liberal-democratic civilization uniquely able to generate continuous
progress. Mokyr believes that, since the 18th-century Enlightenment,
a new factor has entered the human equation: the accumulation of
and a free market in knowledge. As Mokyr puts it, we no longer behead
people for saying the wrong thing—we listen to them. This "social
knowledge" is progressive because it allows ideas to be tested
and the most effective to survive. This knowledge is embodied in
institutions, which, unlike individuals, can rise above our animal
But Mokyr does worry that, though a society may progress, human
nature does not. "Our aggressive, tribal nature is hard-wired,
unreformed and unreformable. Individually we are animals and, as
animals, incapable of progress." The trick is to cage these
animal natures in effective institutions: education, the law, government.
But these can go wrong. "The thing that scares me," he
says, "is that these institutions can misfire."
While I do not use words such as "caged," I must agree
that Mokyr captures the essential point of our recent, brief experiment
with the Enlightenment: John Locke's rejection of romantic oversimplification
in favor of pragmatic institutions that work flexibly to maximize
the effectiveness of our better efforts—the angels of our nature—enabling
our creative forces to mutually reinforce. Meanwhile, those same
institutions and processes would thwart our "devils"—the always-present
human tendency towards self-delusion and cheating. Of course, human
nature strives against these constraints. Self-deluders and cheaters
are constantly trying to make up excuses to bypass the Enlightenment
covenant and benefit by making these institutions less effective.
Nothing is more likely to ensure the failure of any singularity
than if we allow this to happen.
But then, swiveling the other way, what if it soon becomes possible
not only to preserve and advance those creative enlightenment institutions,
but also to do what Mokyr calls impossible? What if we actually
can improve human nature?
Suppose the human components of societies and institutions
can also be made better, even by a little bit? I have contended
that this is already happening, on a modest scale. Imagine the effects
of even a small upward-ratcheting in general human intelligence,
whether inherent or just functional, by means of anything from education
to "smart drugs" to technologically-assisted senses to new methods
It might not take much of an increase in effective human intelligence
for markets and science and democracy, etc., to start working much
better than they already do. Certainly, this is one of the factors
that singularity aficionados are counting on.
What we are left with is an image that belies the simple and pure
notion of a "singularity" curve… one that rises inexorably
skyward, as a simple mathematical function, with knowledge and skill
perpetually leveraging against itself, as if ordained by natural
law. Even the most widely touted example of this kind of curve,
Moore's Law—which successfully modeled the rapid increase of
computational power available at plummeting cost—has never
been anything like a smooth phenomenon. Crucial and timely decisions—some
of them pure happenstance—saved Moore's Law on many occasions
from collision with either technological barriers or cruel market
True, we seem to have been lucky, so far. Cybernetics and education
and a myriad other factors have helped to overcome the "specialization
trap." But as we have seen in this section, past success is
no guarantee of future behavior. Those who foresee upward curves
continuing ad infinitum, almost as a matter of faith, are no better
grounded than other transcendentalists, who confidently predicted
other rapturist fulfillments, in their own times.
THE DAUNTING TASK OF CROSSING A MINEFIELD
Having said all of the above, let me hasten to add that I believe
in the high likelihood of a coming singularity!
I believe in it because the alternatives are too awful to accept.
Because, as we discussed before, the means of mass destruction,
from A-bombs to germ warfare, are 'democratizing'—spreading
so rapidly among nations, groups, and individuals—that we had
better see a rapid expansion in sanity and wisdom, or else we're
Indeed, bucking the utterly prevalent cliché of cynicism,
I suggest that strong evidence does indicate some cause for tentative
optimism. An upward trend is already well in place. Overall levels
of education, knowledge and sagacity in Western Civilization—and
its constituent citizenry—have never been higher, and these
levels may continue to improve, rapidly, in the coming century.
Possibly enough to rule out some of the most prevalent images of
failure that we have grown up with. For example, we will not see
a future that resembles Blade Runner, or any other cyberpunk
dystopia. Such worlds—where massive technology is unmatched
by improved wisdom or accountability—will simply not be able
to sustain themselves.
The options before us appear to fall into four broad categories:
1. Self-destruction. Immolation or desolation or mass-death.
Or ecological suicide. Or social collapse. Name your favorite poison.
Followed by a long era when our few successors (if any) look back
upon us with envy. For a wonderfully depressing and informative
look at this option, see Jared Diamond's Collapse: How Societies
Choose to Fail or Succeed. (Note that Diamond restricts himself
to ecological disasters that resonate with civilization-failures
of the past; thus he only touches on the range of possible catastrophe
modes.) We are used to imagining self-destruction happening as a
result of mistakes by ruling elites. But in this article we have
explored how it also could happen if society enters an age of universal
democratization of the means of destruction—or, as Thomas Friedman
puts it, "the super-empowerment of the angry young man"—without
accompanying advances in social maturity and general wisdom.
2. Achieve some form of 'Positive Singularity'—or at
least a phase shift to a higher and more knowledgeable society (one
that may have problems of its own that we can't imagine.) Positive
singularities would, in general, offer normal human beings every
opportunity to participate in spectacular advances, experiencing
voluntary, dramatic self-improvement, without anything being compulsory…
or too much of a betrayal to the core values of decency we share.
3. Then there is the 'Negative Singularity'—a version
of self-destruction in which a skyrocket of technological progress
does occur, but in ways that members of our generation would
find unpalatable. Specific scenarios that fall into this category
might include being abused by new, super-intelligent successors
(as in Terminator or The Matrix), or simply being
"left behind" by super entities that pat us on the head and move
on to great things that we can never understand. Even the softest
and most benign version of such a 'Negative Singularity' is perceived
as loathsome by some perceptive renunciators, like Bill Joy, who
take a dour view of the prospect that humans may become a less-than-pinnacle
form of life on Planet Earth.10
4. Finally, there is the ultimate outcome that is implicit in every
renunciation scenario: Retreat into some more traditional
form of human society, like those that maintained static sameness
under pyramidal hierarchies of control for at least four millennia.
One that quashes the technologies that might lead to results 1 or
2 or 3. With four thousand years of experience at this process,
hyper-conservative hierarchies could probably manage this agreeable
task, if we give them the power. That is, they could do it for a
When the various paths11
are laid out in this way, it seems to be a daunting future that
we face. Perhaps an era when all of human destiny will be decided.
Certainly not one that's devoid of "history." For a somewhat similar,
though more detailed, examination of these paths, the reader might
pick up Joel Garreau's fine book, Radical Evolution. It takes
a good look at two extreme scenarios for the future—"Heaven"
and Hell"—then posits a third—"Prevail"—as
the one that rings most true.
So, which of these outcomes seem plausible?
First off, despite the fact that it may look admirable and tempting
to many, I have to express doubt that outcome #4 could succeed over
an extended period. Yes, it resonates with the lurking tone that
each of us feels inside, inherited from countless millennia of feudalism
and unquestioning fealty to hierarchies, a tone that today is reflected
in many popular fantasy stories and films. Even though we have been
raised to hold some elites in suspicion, there is a remarkable tendency
for each of us to turn a blind eye to other elites—or favorites—and
to rationalize that those would rule wisely.
Certainly, the quasi-Confucian social pattern that is being pursued
by the formerly Communist rulers of China seems to be an assertive,
bold and innovative approach to updating authoritarian rule, incorporating
many of the efficiencies of both capitalism and meritocracy.12
This determined effort suggests that an updated and modernized version
of hierarchism might succeed at suppressing whatever is worrisome,
while allowing progress that's been properly vetted. It is also,
manifestly, a rejection of the Enlightenment and everything that
it stands for, including John Locke's wager that processes of
regulated but mostly free human interaction can solve problems
better than elite decision-making castes.
In fact, we have already seen, in just this one article, more than
enough reasons to understand why retreat simply cannot work over
the long run. Human nature ensures that there can never be successful
rule by serene and dispassionately wise "philosopher kings." That
approach had its fair trial—at least forty centuries—and
by almost any metric, it failed.
As for the other three roads, well, there is simply no way that
anyone—from the most enthusiastic, "extropian" utopian-transcendentalists
to the most skeptical and pessimistic doomsayers—can prove
that one path is more likely than the others. (How can models, created
within an earlier, cruder system, properly simulate and predict
the behavior of a later and vastly more complex system?) All we
can do is try to understand which processes may increase our odds
of achieving better outcomes. More robust outcomes. These
processes will almost certainly be as much social as technological.
They will, to a large degree, depend upon improving our powers of
My contention—running contrary to many prescriptions from
both left and right—is that we should trust Locke a while longer.
This civilization already has in place a number of unique methods
for dealing with rapid change. If we pay close attention to how
these methods work, they might be improved dramatically, perhaps
enough to let us cope, and even thrive. Moreover, the least
helpful modification would appear to be the one thing that the Professional
Castes tell us we need—an increase in paternalistic control.13
In fact, when you look at our present culture from an historical
perspective, it is already profoundly anomalous in its emphasis
upon individualism, progress, and above all, suspicion of authority
(SOA). These themes were actively and vigorously repressed in a
vast majority of human cultures, because they threatened the stable
equilibrium upon which ruling classes always depended. In Western
Civilization—by way of contrast—it would seem that every
mass-media work of popular culture, from movies to novels to songs,
promotes SOA as a central human value.14
This may, indeed, be the most unique thing about our culture, even
more than our wealth and technological prowess.
Although we are proud of the resulting society—one that encourages
eccentricity, appreciation of diversity, social mobility, and scientific
progress—we have no right, as yet, to claim that this new way
of doing things is especially sane or obvious. Many in other parts
of the world consider Westerners to be quite mad! And with some
reason. Indeed, only time will tell who is right about that. For
example, if we take the suspicion of authority ethos to its extreme,
and start paranoically mistrusting even our best institutions—as
was the case with Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh—then
it is quite possible that Western Civilization may fly apart before
ever achieving its vaunted aims, and lead rapidly to some of the
many ways that we might achieve outcome #1.
Certainly, a positive singularity (outcome #2) cannot happen if
only centrifugal forces operate and there are no compensating centripetal
virtues to keep us together as a society of mutually respectful
Above all (as I point out in The Transparent Society), our
greatest innovations, the accountability arenas15
wherein issues of importance get decided—science, justice,
democracy and free markets—are not arbitrary, nor are they
based on whim or ideology. They all depend upon adversaries competing
on specially designed playing fields, with hard-learned arrangements
put in place to prevent the kinds of cheating that normally prevail
whenever human beings are involved. Above all, science, justice,
democracy, and free markets depend on the mutual accountability
that comes from open flows of information.
Secrecy is the enemy that destroys each of them, and it could easily
spread like an infection to spoil our frail renaissance.
THE BEST METHODS OF ERROR-AVOIDANCE
Clearly, our urgent goal is to find (and then avoid) a wide range
of quicksand pits—potential failure modes—as we charge
headlong into the future. At risk of repeating an oversimplification,
we do this in two ways. One method is anticipation. The other
The first of these uses the famous prefrontal lobes—our most
recent, and most spooky, neural organs—to peer ahead, perform
gedankenexperiments, forecast problems, make models and devise
countermeasures in advance. Anticipation can either be a lifesaver…
or one of our most colorful paths to self-deception and delusion.16
The other approach—resiliency—involves establishing robust
systems, reaction sets, tools and distributed strengths that can
deal with almost any problem as it arises—even surprising problems
the vaunted prefrontal lobes never imagined.
Now, of course, these two methods are compatible, even complementary.
We have a better computer industry, overall, because part of it
is centered in Boston and part in California, where different corporate
cultures reign. Companies acculturated with a "northeast mentality"
try to make perfect products. Employees stay in the same company,
perhaps for decades. They feel responsible. They get the bugs out
before releasing and shipping. These are people you want designing
a banking program, or a defense radar, because we can't afford a
lot of errors in even the beta version, let alone the nation's ATM
machines! On the other hand, people who work in Silicon Valley seem
to think almost like another species. They cry, "Let's get it out
the door! Innovate first and catch the glitches later! Our customers
will tell us what parts of the product to fix on the fly. They want
the latest thing and to hell with perfection." Today's Internet
arose from that kind of creative ferment, adapting quickly to emergent
properties of a system that turned out to be far more complex and
fertile than its original designers anticipated. Indeed, their greatest
claim to fame comes from having anticipated that unknown opportunities
Sometimes the best kind of planning involves leaving room for the
This can be hard, especially when your duty is to prepare against
potential failure modes that could harm or destroy a great nation.
Government and military culture have always been anticipatory, seeking
to analyze potential near-term threats and coming up with detailed
plans to stymie them. This resulted in incremental approaches to
thinking about the future. One classic cliché holds that
generals are always planning to fight a modified version of the
last war. History shows that underdogs—those who lost the last
campaign or who bear a bitter grudge—often turn to innovative
or resilient new strategies, while those who were recently successful
are in grave danger of getting mired in irrelevant solutions from
the past, often with disastrous consequences.17
At the opposite extreme is the genre of science fiction, whose
attempts to anticipate the future are—when done well—part
of a dance of resiliency. Whenever a future seems to gather a consensus
around it, as happened to "cyberpunk" in the late eighties, the
brightest SF authors become bored with such a trope and start exploring
alternatives. Indeed, boredom could be considered one of the driving
forces of ingenious invention, not only in science fiction, but
in our rambunctious civilization as a whole.
Speaking as an author of speculative novels, I can tell you that
it is wrong to think that science fiction authors try to predict
the future. With our emphasis more on resiliency than anticipation,
we are more interested in discovering possible failure modes and
quicksand pits along the road ahead, than we are in providing a
detailed and prophetic travel guide for the future.
Indeed, one could argue that the most powerful kind of science
fiction tale is the self-preventing prophecy—any story
or novel or film that portrays a dark future so vivid, frightening
and plausible that millions are stirred to act against the scenario
ever coming true. Examples in this noble (if terrifying) genre—which
also can encompass visionary works of non-fiction—include Fail-Safe,
Brave New World, Soylent Green, Silent Spring, The China Syndrome,
Das Kapital, The Hot Zone, and greatest of all, George Orwell's
Nineteen Eighty-Four, now celebrating 60 years of scaring
readers half to death. Orwell showed us the pit awaiting any civilization
that combines panic with technology and the dark, cynical tradition
of tyranny. In so doing, he armed us against that horrible fate.
By exploring the shadowy territory of the future with our minds
and hearts, we can sometimes uncover failure-modes in time to evade
Summing up, this process of gedanken or thought experimentation
is applicable to both anticipation and resiliency. But it is only
most effective when it is engendered en masse, in markets and other
arenas where open competition among countless well-informed minds
can foster the unique synergy that has made our civilization so
different from hierarchy-led cultures that came before. A synergy
that withers the bad notions under criticism, while allowing
good ones to combine and multiply.
I cannot guarantee that this scenario will work over the dangerous
ground ahead. An open civilization filled with vastly educated,
empowered, and fully-knowledgeable citizens may be able to apply
the cleansing light of reciprocal accountability so thoroughly that
onrushing technologies cannot be horribly abused by either
secretive elites or disgruntled AYMs (angry young men).
Or else… perhaps… that solution, which brought us so
far in the 20th Century, will not suffice in the accelerating
21st. Perhaps nothing can work. Maybe this explains the
Great Silence, out there among the stars.
What I do know is this. No other prescription has even a
snowball's chance of working. Open knowledge and reciprocal accountability
seem, at least, to be worth betting on. They are the tricks that
got us this far, in contrast to 4,000 years of near utter failure
by systems of hierarchical command.
Anyone who says that we should suddenly veer back in that direction,
down discredited and failure-riven paths of secrecy and hierarchy,
should bear a steep burden of proof.
VARIETIES OF SINGULARITY EXPERIENCE
All right, what if we do stay on course, and achieve something
like the Positive Singularity?
There is plenty of room to argue over what type would be beneficial
or even desirable. For example, might we trade in our bodies—and
brains—for successively better models, while retaining a core
of humanity… of soul?
If organic humans seem destined to be replaced by artificial beings
who are vastly more capable than we souped-up apes, can we design
those successors to at least think of themselves as human?
(This unusual notion is one that I've explored in a few short stories.)
In that case, are you so prejudiced that you would begrudge your
great-grandchild a body made of silicon, so long as she visits you
regularly, tells good jokes, exhibits kindness, and is good to her
Or will they simply move on, sparing a moment to help us come to
terms with our genteel obsolescence?
Some people remain big fans of Teilhard de Chardin's apotheosis—the
notion that we will all combine into a single macro-entity, almost
literally godlike in its knowledge and perception. Physicist Frank
Tipler speaks of such a destiny in his book, The Physics of Immortality,
and Isaac Asimov offered a similar prescription as mankind's long-range
goal in Foundation's Edge. I have never found this notion
particularly appealing—at least in its standard presentation,
by which some macro-being simply subsumes all lesser individuals
within it, and then proceeds to think deep thoughts. In Earth,
I talk about a variation on this theme that might be far more palatable,
in which we all remain individuals, while at the same time contributing
to a new of planetary consciousness. In other words, we could possibly
get to have our cake and eat it too.
At the opposite extreme, in Foundation's Triumph, my sequel
to Asimov's famous universe, I make more explicit something that
Isaac had been alluding to all along—the possibility that conservative
robots might dread human transcendence, and for that reason
actively work to prevent a human singularity. Fearing that it could
bring us harm. Or enable us to compete with them. Or empower us
to leave them behind.
In any event, the singularity is a fascinating variation on all
those other transcendental notions that seem to have bubbled, naturally
and spontaneously, out of human nature since before records were
kept. Even more than all the others, this one can be rather frustrating
at times. After all, a good parent wants the best for his or her
children—for them to do and be better. And yet, it can be poignant
to imagine them (or perhaps their grandchildren) living almost
like gods, with nearly omniscient knowledge and perception—and
near immortality—taken for granted.
It's tempting to grumble, "Why not me? Why can't I be a
But then, when has human existence been anything but poignant?
Anyway, what is more impressive? To be godlike?
Or to be natural creatures, products of grunt evolution, who are
barely risen from the caves… who nevertheless manage to learn
nature's rules, revere them, and then use them to create good things,
good descendants, good destinies? Even godlike ones.
All of our speculations and musings (including this one) may eventually
seem amusing and naive to those dazzling descendants. But I hope
they will also experience moments of respect, when they look back
They may even pause and realize that we were really pretty good...
for souped-up cavemen. After all, what miracle could be more impressive
than for such flawed creatures as us to design and sire gods?
There may be no higher goal. Or any that better typifies arrogant
Or else… perhaps… the fulfillment of our purpose and
the reason for all that pain.
To have learned the compassion and wisdom that we'll need, more
than anything else, when bright apprentices take over the Master's
workroom. Hopefully winning merit and approval, at last, as we resume
the process of creation.
1. Parts of this essay were transcribed from a speech before
the conference Accelerating Change 2004: "Horizons of Perception
in an Era of Change" November 2004 at Stanford University.
Copyright 2005, by David Brin.
2. In his article, "Molecular Manufacturing: Too Dangerous to
Allow?" Robert A. Freitas Jr. describes this scenario. One
common argument against pursuing a molecular assembler or nanofactory
design effort is that the end results are too dangerous. According
to this argument, any research into molecular manufacturing (MM)
should be blocked because this technology might be used to build
systems that could cause extraordinary damage. The kinds of concerns
that nanoweapons systems might create have been discussed elsewhere,
in both the nonfictional and fictional literature. Perhaps the
earliest-recognized and best-known danger of molecular nanotechnology
is the risk that self replicating nanorobots capable of functioning
autonomously in the natural environment could quickly convert
that natural environment (e.g., "biomass") into replicas
of themselves (e.g., "nanomass") on a global basis,
a scenario often referred to as the "gray goo problem"
but more accurately termed global ecophagy". In explaining
this scenario, Freitas does not endorse it.
3. "Why the future doesn't need us." Wired
Magazine, Issue 8.04, April 2000.
4. While my description of The End of History oversimplifies a bit, one can wish that predictions
in social science were as well tracked for credibility as they
are in physics. Back in 1986, at the height of Reagan-era confrontations,
I forecast an approaching fall of the Berlin Wall, to be followed
by several decades of tense confrontation with "one or another
branch of macho culture, probably Islamic."
5. For more on this quandary and its implications, see: http://www.davidbrin.com/sciencearticles.html
6. And more quasi-religious
social-political mythologies followed, from the incantations of
Ayn Rand to MaoZedong. All of them crafting "logical chains
of cause and effect that forecast utter human transformation,
by political (as opposed to spiritual or technical) means.
7. For a detailed response
to Huebner's anti-innovation argument, see Review of "A
Possible Declining Trend for Worldwide Innovation" by Jonathan
Huebner, published by John Smart in the September 2005 issue
of Technological Forecasting and Social Change http://accelerating.org/articles/huebnerinnovation.html
8. The Exorarium Project proposes to achieve all this
and more, by inviting both museum visitors and online participants
to enter a unique learning environment. Combining state-of-the-art
simulation and visualization systems, plus the very best ideas
from astronomy, physics, chemistry, and ecology, the Exorarium
will empower users to create vividly plausible extraterrestrials
and then test them in realistic first contact scenarios. http://www.exorarium.com/
9. For a rather intense look at how "truth" is determined
in science, democracy, courts and markets, see the lead article
in the American Bar Association's Journal on Dispute Resolution
(Ohio State University), v.15, N.3, pp 597-618, Aug. 2000, "Disputation
Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competition for Society's Benefit"
or at: http://www.davidbrin.com/disputationarticle1.html
10.In other places, I discuss various proposed ways to deal
with the Problem of Loyalty, in some future age when machine intelligences
might excel vastly beyond the capabilities of mere organic brains.
Older proposals (e.g. Asimov's "laws of robotics") almost surely
cannot work. It remains completely unknown whether humans can
"go along for the ride" by using cyborg enhancements or "linking"
with external processors. In the long run, I suggest that we might
deal with this in the same way that all prior generations created
new (and sometimes superior) beings without much shame or fear.
By raising them to think of themselves as human beings, with our
same values and goals. In other words, as our children. (See:
11. Of course, there are other possibilities, indeed many others,
or I would not be worth my salt as a science fiction author or
futurist. Among the more sophomorically entertaining possibilities
is the one positing that we all live in a simulation, in some
already post-singularity "context" such as a vast computer. The
range is limitless. But these four categories seem to lay down
the starkness of our challenge: to become wise, or see everything
fail within a single lifespan.
12. This endeavor has
been based upon earlier Asian success stories, in Japan and in Singapore,
extrapolating from their mistakes. Most notable has been an apparent
willingness to learn pragmatic lessons, to incorporate limited levels
of criticism and democracy, accepting their value as error-correction
mechanisms—while limiting their effectiveness as threats to
hierarchical rule. One might imagine that this tightrope act must
fail, once universal education rises beyond a certain point. But
that is only a hypothesis. Certainly the neo-confucians can point
to the sweep of history, supporting their wager.
13. See my essay on "Beleaguered Professionals vs. Disempowered
Citizens" about a looming 21st Century power struggle
between average people and the sincere, skilled professionals
who are paid to protect us: http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000BY2PRQ/002-1071896-8741633
In a related context, a 'futurist essay' points out a rather unnoticed
aspect of the tragedy of 9/11/01—that citizens themselves
were most effective in our civilization's defense. The only actions
that actually saved lives and thwarted terrorism on that awful
day were taken amid rapid, ad hoc decisions made by private individuals,
reacting with both resiliency and initiative—our finest traits—and
armed with the very same new technologies that dour pundits say
will enslave us. Could this point to a trend for the 21st
Century, reversing what we've seen throughout the 20th...
the ever-growing dependency on professionals to protect and guide
and watch over us? See: http://www.futurist.com/portal/future_trends/david_brin_empowerment.htm
14. Take the essential difference between moderate members of
the two major American political parties. This difference boils
down to which elites you accuse of seeking to accumulate too much authority.
A decent Republican fears snooty academics, ideologues, and faceless
bureaucrats seeking to become paternalistic Big Brothers. A decent
Democrat looks with worried eyes toward conspiratorial power grabs
by conniving aristocrats, faceless corporations, and religious
fanatics. (A decent Libertarian picks two from Column A and two
from Column B!) I have my own opinions about which of these elites
are presently most dangerous. (Hint: it is the same one that dominated
most other urban cultures, for four thousand years.) But the startling
irony, that is never discussed, is how much in common these fears
really share. And the fact that—indeed—every one of
them is right to worry. In fact, only universal SOA makes any
sense. Instead of an ideologically blinkered focus on just one
patch of horizon, should we not agree to watch all directions
where tyranny or rationalized stupidity might arise? Again, reciprocal
accountability appears to be the only possible solution.
15. For a rather intense look at how "truth" is determined
in science, democracy, courts and markets, see the lead article
in the American Bar Association's Journal on Dispute Resolution
(Ohio State University), v.15, N.3, pp 597-618, Aug. 2000, "Disputation
Arenas: Harnessing Conflict and Competition for Society's Benefit."
or at: http://www.davidbrin.com/disputationarticle1.html
16. I say this as a prime practitioner of the art of anticipation,
both in nonfiction and in fiction. Every futurist and novelist
deals in creating convincing illusions of prescience' though at
times these illusions can be helpful.
17. It is worth noting that the present US military Officer
Corps has tried strenuously to avoid this trap, endeavoring to
institute processes of re-evaluation, by which a victorious and
superior force actually thinks like one that has been defeated.
In other words, with a perpetual eye open to innovation. And yet,
despite this new and intelligent spirit of openness, military
thinking remains rife with unwarranted assumptions. Almost as
many as swarm through practitioners of politics.
18. Of course, there are some Singularitarians—true believers
in a looming singularity—who expect it to rush upon us so rapidly
that even fellows my age (in my fifties) will get to ride the immortality
wave. Yeah, right. And they call me a dreamer.
© 2006 David Brin
Mind·X Discussion About This Article:
Re: I have states this a few times on forums as well
Regarding poor bums in central Africa, etc.
What possible difference could all the technology in the world make to the sorry state of the third world?
We already HAVE incredibly advanced technology, but peolpe are starving in the third world.
The reason is trivially simple - because of politics.
Anything other than capitalism results in mass death. Mao and Stalin killed off the odd 50 to 100 million souls between them; currently in the third world (no capitalism, all anarchy) we have horrific conditions and endless Death.
If the US and Japan invetned immortality, HAL, matter transporters and alen radios this afternoon ... what possible difference would it make to the third world?
The third world would still be an utter shambles.
For that matter, FRANCE, say, would still be suffering a much lower standard of living than the US - because of the unfortunately high levels of socialism, in France.
It wouldn't make a carrot of difference if cars were replaced with floating antigravity cars, and computers were 1 billion times faster. So what? Socialism == poverty & death
Re: I have states this a few times on forums as well
Amen, brother. The reason? Capitalism is voluntary exchange. All other forms of government statism (socialism, collectivism, progressivism, communism, fascism, tribalism, conservatism, democracy, "Republicanism", totalitarianism, oligarchy, monarchy, etc...) are one group of people attempting to ride herd over another -and failing even when they win, by having less wealth, fewer services, and more violence...
If you want to make freedom happen within 5-10 years, give me an email, assuming a singularity type of change doesn't make that less likely than it is now...
Re: I have states this a few times on forums as well
"For that matter, FRANCE, say, would still be suffering a much lower standard of living than the US - because of the unfortunately high levels of socialism, in France."
Before ya jump to conclusions here I believe you should consider the fact that your view is compleatly biased. As a proud member of a socialist country, Canada, I would like to point out that in meny respects our standard of living is much higher then yours. Free health care and socal assistance makes it much easier for every level of our society to gain access to the latest in technology as applied to many sectors of buisness and life. Jeremy Rifkin(American)'s book The European Dream points out that while you may use GDP( Gross Domestic Product) to show that America has a higher standard of living you are not taking into account the actual life choices of people in France or Canada. while the average American makes 29% more then someone in France, Frence workes on average choose to only work 35 hours a week, while this lowers the GDP it also lowers stress and the related diseases-stroke heart attack and cancer,working to live rather than living to work! These lifestyle choices can only be adopted in countries whoose governements will stand up for the people's well being instead of the corperate bottom line. While Jake says that the only way to go is capitalism I strongly disagree. "Capitalism is voluntary exchange." Capitalism is not a form of government comparable to socialism or any of the others Jake lists, it is an economic policy which stipulates that the only rule is no government involment or interaction is allowed.while Canada or France might not have a "free" economie, there is certanly no limits on the free exchange of science and technology.
Now bringing this back to the singularity, the whole point is that capitalism is great for the corperate bottom line and in theory should never run into any problems because if a product is dangerous or defective it will make the company look bad and suffer on the books so it will never be sold in the first place. Without any checks or balances this modus operatus can be incredably short sighted and has proven so in the past. While capitalism may be free exchange in the market it by no means guaranties a free exchange of ideas which is exactly what we will need to steer us clear of danger in the future. if the singularity can increase productivity to the point where you can get a whole days work done in only 2 hours, there is still no way the corperate heads will allow a 2 hour work day, they will instead opt for quadrupling their profits and their own salaries. It is a proactive and highly scutinized methedology towards buisness and the sciences that will have to be used because with such large threats and possibly global concequnces it would only take one ceo trying to earn an extra buck by jumping ahead of the competition to ruin it for the rest of us.
Re: Singularities and Nightmares
from the article: "Science fiction author Vernor Vinge has been touted as a chief popularizer of this notion, though it has been around, in many forms, for generations."
What's this utter nonsense?
(1) Mr. Vinge, solely and only, COINED THE TERM "the singularity."
Assuming you believe in observable reality, Vinge, Vinge alone, and Vinge only coined the term "the singularity."
(2) I'm unaware of anyone "touting" Vinge as a "chief popularizer" of the notion. Vinge seems to have not much interest in the topic and does not in the slightest "popularize" it.
(3) The "chief popularizer" of "the singularity" is without doubt Kurzweil (i.e., observe that he has books with the word in the title, etc etc)....and good on him for doing so.
For that matter...
"though it has been around, in many forms, for generations" What could that mean? It sounds nonsensical. What, millenariaism thinking generally? Or people have been talking about AI for "generations" ? or .. ?
Re: Luck is not a factor.
OK, this is no comment on any of the issues raised by the other threads. I just want to point out that 'Singularities and Nightmares' is the best essay I have read on this topic (I've read hundreds), but it does contain one error...
'Crucial and timely decisions- some of them pure happenstance- saved Moore's Law on many occasions from collisions with either technological barriers or cruel market forces'.
But was it pure luck that the right solution just happened to come along at the right time? No, no more than life's ability to continue through every disaster, from rising levels of poisonous oxygen, to meteor strikes, to climate change was down to pure chance.
Life persists because each offspring is not quite identical to its parent. Should the fitness landscape change, the offspring whose genes happen to code for a body that is better suited to that new environment stands a greater chance of reproducing. Hence, the 'fittest' end up proliferating.
OK, there is a tiny amount of chance in natural selection: Namely, the random errors that accumulate in genes. But, really, Darwin's theory has very little to do with random chance (the mutations are random, but the mechanism that chooses which are best suited is NOT random).
Now, consider this quote from Hans Moravec.
'The engineers directly involved in making ICs (integrated circuits) tend to be pessimistic about future progress, because they can see all the problems with the current approaches, but are too busy to pay much attention to the far-out alternatives in the research labs. But, as soon as progress in conventional techniques falters, radical alternatives jump ahead, and start a new cycle of refinement'.
So, there is a direct connection between Moore's Law and, say, the extinction of the dinosaurs. The dinosaurs (sillicon chips) fit the landscape , and consume the resources (food/money), needed by their competitors (mammals/far out alternatives) if they are to compete.
The fitness landscape then changes (meteor strike/ quantum effects become an increasing nuisance) and this new environment favours the alternative approach (mammals are better suited to the change/ molecular computing actually depends upon the same quantum effects that dooms sillicon chips).
Luck has nothing to do with it. It is just a case of having so many diverse options in the form of imperfect copies of DNA/many alternative approaches waiting in the wings.
Re: Luck is not a factor.
People should try to be a little bit more open minded. Technology is, and always will be, a double-edged sword. It is quite easy to just concentrate on the negative effects of technology, while ignoring the myriad positive effects, and conclude that anyone optimistic about the future must be a mad fool.
I think people are forgetting what the definition of 'singularity' is. It refers to the creation of greater-than-human intelligence. It has nothing to do with cancelling third-world debt, reversing climate change, providing cheap housing for all, preventing all war. The creation of greater-than-human intelligence will have far-ranging consequences, which are commonly discussed in Singularity dialogues. But none of these consequences are themselves definitions of the Singularity.
But, because people mistake the definition of 'Technological Singularity' for 'a new order of paradise-on-Earth' they seem to think that arguing something like 'well Third world Countries can't afford the infrastructure for broadband Internet, nor are likely to in X decades', somehow proves the Singularity is impossible.
But the price of housing, the dominance of millitary funding in technology, the cost of drug design, all have nothing to do with the possibility that a new order of intelligence is on the horizon.
And this new order of intelligence is arising from technological evolution, which is a continuation of biological evolution. Evolution favours some and causes the extinction of others. It is not evil. It is not beneficial. It is mindless to the gratitude of those that cry 'Thank you for my wonderful brain!' as well as those who moan 'I'm being eaten by a tiger because I couldn't run fast enough. Why you give me that dodgy leg?'
Human beings are just as part of this blind process as any lifeform. We simply cannot expect that an evolutionary process like technological development will benefit everyone, everywhere, all of the time.
Re: Utopia is NOT an option!
Patrick totally misrepresents my argument, though I perhaps did not make it clear enough where the comparison with natural selection ends.
Obviously the flow of information that underlies tech inovation is not as blind as the random mutations to genetic sequences that underlies natural selection. To a limited extent, a technology-creating species can make assumptions about the capabilities of future technologies and work to make it so.
But what we cannot do is foresee every possible outcome of every technology, in isolation let alone the complex way it may collaborate with/compete against the milions of other ideas-turned-invention that have poured from humanities collective consciousness.
Here we have a comparison with natural selection. Countless slight varieties of genes winnowed by the environment here, countless varieties of ideas winnowed by the market there. Ultimately combining with a complex web of ideas in ways that human foresight can only dimly percieve. Not blind, yes. But very far from 20/20 vision.
As for the comment, 'the shit is hitting the fan'. The shit has ALWAYS been hitting the fan! That was PRECISELY my point when I talked about winners and losers. We must accept that every choice we make, every strategy we adopt, every idea we relinquish will have positive effects for some and negative effects for others. Case in point: Bio fuels grown from Palm oil. Better than nasty, climate-changing fossil fuels, green power for your car!
Only, the forests of Borneo are being decimated in order to make space to feed our voracious appetite for this crop. The losers here are Orangutans, threatened with extinction (and, I dare say, too many other species to list).
So yes indeedy, for some the shit is hitting the fan, but then for others it's not so much shit, more 'manna from heaven'. I can't run a car on Borneo Forest or Orangutan, but I can run it on bio fuel. So, I'd rather have the Palm olive plantation than the hairy ape.
Is that selfish? Well, it sounds like it doesn't it? Perhaps I will live to regret my selfishness if the shit hits the fan for the entire human race. It's a fairly safe bet that this will happen, since statistically the ultimate fate of most species is that they go extinct.
I don't believe this is an absolutely certain fate for the human race, but there are ways in which we might increase our chances of going extinct. You can read about these in David Brin's article (Patrick's claim that Brin is 'inexplicably stupid' makes me wonder if he even read the article).
One way in which a technology-creating species increase its chances of extinction would be if their technology becomes too complex to manage. Kinda answers the question, 'why do we need to increase intelligence', non?
Re: Singularities and Nightmares
I have a few questions for those that outright support almost all technological "progress". This word progress entails that we are actually making meaningful progress. That somehow technological "evolution" is better than previous states of being. This same sort of logic can justify murder, rape, whatever you wish. I was better than your daughter and killed her, it's just evolution. I was more fit to survive than her. I won't go down the path that we are no "better" than E. Coli simply because they are as evolutionarily fit as we. I have been granted a social and moral conscience, one that allows me to care for myself and others. This is what leads me to a conflict I see in technological progress, atleast in me.
There are many parts of these upcoming technological revolutions that excite me. Eliminating disease and poverty would be amazing accomplishments. But why would we want to create a more intelligent being? Why, when we can simply say no, do we want to force some ill-conceived form of "evolution" in technology? Evolution is not sentient - we are. There is the key difference. Why do we automatically presume "more intelligent" means better? I'm more intelligent than a lot of people. Does that make me better than them? I say no.
I have my own self identity. I don't want to modify this identity because I have come to love who and what I am. Yet in many of these scenarios, I would become inferior, obsolete. I would have less use. My world around me would dissolve into some form of hedonistic circus-land where machines have more intelligence than my man. If we are to believe evolution guides life, then if I want to pass on my own genes, then I shouldn't want a world where my genes become obsolete. I should have a desire for people to be more like me, and within reason, I do (such as not having rapists, murderers, thieves, etc. around). I would say most people want others to be like them and propogate their lifestyle and world-view. Just take a look at how most of the Middle East is Muslim and most of Europe is/was Christian. We generally like to be around those similar to our own self-identities. So why do people want to replace what they are with something they judge to be "superior"? Because "progress" is automatically better/superior? I disagree. I think a lot of others disagree with it too. In fact, most everyone I have ever discussed these issues with disagree. And I would argue this disagreement doesn't stem from any opposition to "scientific advancement", in fact my major is molecular and cellular biology and I love science. But by no means does this mean I want life to drastically change as some believe the singularity will cause it to.
I would like to know why proponents of such things as AI surpassing human intellect do so in the first place. Is it because you do not have a strong self identity and wish to change yourself and the world around you, and unhappiness with how you and fellow man are now? Or is it because you desire to see some sort of life-form to give tribute to or worship? Truly the motives of some perplex me at times, but I'd be interested to hear.
Re: Singularities and Nightmares
Thanks for the reply Bishadi. Unfortunately I was hoping for some answers from proponents of the technology on -why- they hope to see these changes. I have read plenty about what can occur and how it will, but very little on why. I have observed some sort of phenomena, most notably the stance that believes knowledge, technology, and power are the pinnacles of life and existence. I see assertions that there is human meaning and purpose. I have seen many mystical, religious, and at times cult-esque arguments used in favor of unrestrained technological advances, on this very website. The idea that life questions will be answered by a greater form of intelligence that we simply can't fathom in our current state is wishful thinking in my opinion. I believe these answers do not even exist beyond consciousness itself, and thus hold no universal truth or validity. A rock is as purposeful as a human in the whole scheme of things as far as I'm concerned. What then could any higher intelligence discover? It could discover how things work in much greater detail, but not why.
I believe there is no "why?" to be discovered, unless you enter the realm of faith and religion. I cringe when I see the religious arguments applied to technological progress by scientists. What is the point of rational discussion when it becomes based upon faith? Much like mainstream religious beliefs, the mystical argument does not need to answer such objections, because they simply say it is beyond our understanding. This is a way of supporting rapid technological advance without a solid basis or reason. It is essentially dishonest logic. I see no evidence of why we cannot fathom the "why?" questions in our current state, thus believe there is no reason a machine processing at the speed of light could, much like I see no reason to believe I'm going to suddenly be possessed by a spiritual entity as I sit here. I've only seen rhetoric, but no science to back this claim.
Another poster mentioned humans are shallow and superficial. For many I would say this is true, but not all. I can certainly love an ugly person, maybe they can't. I believe much of the technology Kurzweil and others hope for is also shallow in nature. Often their goal is first to make things easy, second to gain power and knowledge, and third to offer shallow, carnal pleasures to the body and mind. Indeed, look at the hedonist imperative's website and their goals, then come tell me the pursuit of human-altering technology isn't -more- shallow than we currently are. It seems to me many of these men are afraid of their own mortality and will do almost anything to preserve their lives. I at times feel the same way, but I do not share the same desires for transhumanism that some of them harbor. I'd love to live longer as my current self, not live longer as something else entirely. Nor do I have any desire to create something greater than I. And I would say my position is the most "natural" state if you look at it from an evolutionary perspective - why would I wish to create an environment where I become inferior? Evolution favors the propogation of one's genes, so to wish for an environment that promotes your genes' viability is the most "natural" position. Not that I care, but I would like to address that aspect of the argument ahead of any objections. I wouldn't wish for this drastic change, and I see no reason why I ever will. Some may think the world around them doesn't affect everyone, but it does. Why would I want to live in a world where I'm obsolete? I am a social creature, not one that wants to live in a reservation created for me.
Even those most deeply entrenched in science cannot escape their emotional value judgements on science and technology. Believing knowledge, power, and the idea of technological "progress" are all what we should pursue is certainly a value judgement, not an evolutionary inevitability. After all, E. Coli are as evolutionarily fit as us in our current world - if not more so, yet they have no consciousness, no technology, and no knowledge. I believe to extrapolate from human evolution and assert technological advancements are the next "natural" step in evolution is blatantly untrue. Humans are simply one path of evolution, not the pinnacle of it. We can choose which technologies we want to develop, and which ones we do not. Rather than blindly create technology for the sake of it, we should answer why we want to create it in the first place.
If it weren't for Kurzweil's emotions, he wouldn't even care about knowledge, technology, and the singularity. These shallow and human traits some want to see overcome are the very ones that push the movement forward and give the desire to even see the singularity in the first place. Those that critisize humanity because it is focused on survival are the sames ones that will then turn around and wish for immortality - the ultimate survivalist desire. Such people do not see that their own emotions are manifested in the same manner, albeit slightly different approach. Valuing rationalism is an emotional and moral position, yet people try to detach it from this. There is no univeral reason to care for rationalism more than there is to care for a grain of sand, except for our value judgements which are under the influence of our irrational and emotional being.
As I said, I love my self identity and do not want it to change. One of the hopes I have in technology is for it to allow me to live for hundreds, or perhaps thousands of years. Curing diseases, eliminating poverty, and adding on to our lifespan are all goals I deem valuable. There is no truly objective or rational methodology for my conclusions or desires. I simply feel this is what would be good, what would be right. The same goes for Kurzweil's and others' ideas, including every poster that has ever posted on this website. They feel this is what should happen. Why they feel this is the idea I am trying to explore here. Since this topic is riddled with emotional opinion, I assume it will be hard for most proponents to step back and take a look at their own motivations. Certainly it is easier not to. Like I asked previously, is it a desire to change one's self identity? Are some of you simply unhappy with who you are? Is it a religious worship of knowledge, power and technology? If I am more intelligent than someone here, does it make me superior to them? If I have more knowledge, does it make me superior? If I can think quicker, does it make me superior?
There are countless questions I would ask but I am not sure I will get honest answers. That is one of the issues I have with my fellow peers in the field of science, so few will take a step back and ask these kinds of questions to themselves. They seem to have been conditioned, from exposure or their own neurological processes, to believe that increased knowledge, power, and technology is the purpose to life. Says who? Their emotions and desires. This seems to be an assumption people make, one I challenge and ask questions asking why they wish for the changes. Because it feels right? Well I disagree, and it doesn't make me a "deathist" or anti-technology. I devote most of my life to science and have a significant understanding of biochemistry. In fact I would even dispute some of Kurzweil's and Drexler's biological claims, but not the ones on artificial intelligence, which for the most part is what I am concerned with. My sister, untrained in science, has just as valid opinions on science, technology, and the singularity as I do. Yet some here would dishonestly try to paint her as a deathist, having "ape-like" intellect, or being anti-technology if she opposed unrestrained advances. Such attacks at opponents is one of the most dishonest approaches to rational discourse that can be taken. So why do I see it occuring so often within the scientific community? I'd guess it's due to the fact this entire issue of the singularity and the desire to see it come to fruition is an emotional desire, masked under the guise of rationalism and science.
Re: Singularities and Nightmares
It is hard to know whether or not there are benefits to the existence of greater than human-intelligences. The problem with making such statements of the benefits and dangers is that there is no way of knowing how things would be if such intelligences existed. It could be that if I choose to "upgrade" myself, I end up being completely miserable, because I become aware of certain aspects of my existence that I was blissfully unaware of before. Or it could be that with the higher cognitive faculties I could appreciate certain aspects of reality I never perceived or comprehended before. Right now my mind can only think so many thoughts at once. But imagine, if the number of thoughts, doubled, or tripled, or was multiplied by many orders of magnitude. There is the potential for disasterous psychosis, where ideas collide and become cancerous, taking over the consciousness and tearing reality asunder from the inside out. But there is also the potential for a more complex and intricate weave of ideas complementing and constrasting one another to engender new powerful emotions.
You say that emotions are what drives people to want the singularity. But as a human right now I am limited to a set of emotions. These emotions enhances my life and give meaning to an otherwise random and scary world. What if the singularity allowed humans to create much more complicated emotional palettes, and to express those emotions in more creative and ingenious ways? I do not go so far as to say that would be a good thing in itself, because the existence of a more complicated widget does not mean that it is any better than a simple widget that does the job just as well.
I guess this meandering post really boils down to the fact that there is no way of knowing whether or not the singularity and post-human intelligence is really a good thing, or a desirable thing or not. On the other hand, there is also no way of knowing whether or not it is a bad thing. So at this impasse the question of goodness is a value judgement, which must be weighed by each individual for themselves.
I am very honestly divided on this issue. Part of me believes that the singularity is a very good thing, insomuch as the technologies spinning off from it have the potential to do a lot of good and to a lesser extent because the idea of transcending reality, or finding higher meaning, in some way has always intrigued me, but I've never believed that it is actually possible (though the singularity might be the closest thing to transcendence humans can hope for). On the other hand another part of me believes that there is some deeply important meaning in reality in the present tense, and that to constantly wish for some other higher meaning is a fools errand...that maybe I should not search for the unsearchable and embrace the benefits and beauties of existence at this very moment.
Re: Singularities and Nightmares
Sensationalist doomism, attached to the concept of power and superiority.
He, and others, are fools.
Your physical brain -- is power and ability -- to process information and deal with reality. Your muscle is power. Would making humanity weaker be the solution? Really, do retards and people with muscular distorphy live more righteous lives?
You, and the greenpeace, and Jesus Christ, and Mohammed, and Holywood, and the sensationalist news groups, are all -- wrong.
You're all so wrong, that you nolonger can tell how wrong you are, and you will continually push and fuel your wrongness, for as long as your POWER permits. You will be famous in your wrongness, and glory and admiration will come to your false claims. Your confusion is replaced by your fear, then fueled by partial fact.
"Nature" -- only makes progress, slowly and moronically, through random mutations, massive reproduction, and massive death.
Now, you are affraid? Affraid of some sort of supertech killing people, and you want to return to the technological inferiority that was created by this very same sort of death-based-natural-selection?
It's too wrong, all of it... It's just too wrong. This is the opposite of reason and understanding... You've "won". Why? Capitolist media = what is most popular or what makes the most money, is what people like YOU will say. You don't have to be right, you have to be popular, and supported by a majority. You are impossible.
I'm talking to all of you doomist, deathist, anti-progress, fearful everybody!
Terminator and TheMatrix where both *******.
Let me disprove:
Body heat of humans = energy for the matrix?humans -- how did they create this energy? Chemical reactions, digestion of sugar, can be done in a more efficient way, within a blob of genetically engineered digestive cells, then a human body.
next: Inslaved mind? No, brain could have been used as a processing node instead.
Better energy sources:
Would humans create a robot to kill them selves off with completely? No. And why would this robot want to kill everyone? This is anti-logic, cannibalism in society, anti-game-theory.
If robotic devices were equal to or better then human, they would be built onto the human.
Much like the human body creates cells and energy, society creates technology, for and from itself.
If you didn't know: 3/2 human deaths are from suicide, not violance/war. Suicide includes things like abortion and smoking, basically people not taking care of their own bodies.
Far more people die from aging-related problems then from suicide and war.
If anti-aging tech came, death would be reduced in a very large way. All money that goes into taking care of sick people, would be freed. Healthy people will be more happy and productive. Mental ilness will also be cured at that time, meaning less crazey, stupid and harful people.
Would SAI want to reproduce and consume everything the way that stupid wordanimals do, or would SAI want to become more and more intelligent?
Where does knowledge come from? Diversity, interaction, not destruction and war.
Destroying something or someone is an act of overpowering and consuming the other.
Assimilation and alliance works better, but this is an act of understanding and enginuity.
Information and presition technologies of the future = more change ability, more versatility, more adaptability, better survival odds, more changes of life instead of death.
Our body DNA is information, someday this can be upgraded, what's so bad about that? What would be so bad about that? Really, just tell me? What the heck is so bad about unlocking, understanding and improving your own hardware? Would the upgrade of humanity destroy it, or would it only destroy your precious inferiority and fears of change???
So, as usual, about the biggest questions in life, most people are wrong and believe the opposite of truth, because opposition is the fighting, fighting because of the fear, because of the not knowing.
Goodbye to that.
Re: Singularities and Nightmares
I'm always decidedly wary of people who use science fiction to prove some aspect of science fact is impossible/unworkable.
'We can't have genetic engineering! Aldous Huxley showed us what happens if we pursue that!'.
The comment that humans would not create a robot to kill themselves does not take into account the fact that we DID invent the H-bomb, and we DID then build enough H-bombs to trigger our extinction. So far, we have been lucky but whose to say what accident, or destabalizing force might happen tomorrow?
As for Terminator, well if you know the films you will know that SKYNET is really a Seed AI that infests the Internet and causes the disruption of our information infrastructure from what we assume to be a virus. In seeking to use SKYNET to seek and destroy this virus (whixh we assume is manmade, and not the product of a sentient nonlocalized software intelligence), we remove the firewall that protects our millitary software, SKYNET jumps in and...
So it's not a case of deliberately building a killer robot, more a case of relinquishing more and more control over to machines, better able to deal with the increasing complexity of our civilization.
As for Kebooo's remark that he/she has an identity and is comfortable with it, no need to change..well it will take precisely the sort of rampant technological acceleration to ensure that your dream of remaining as you are is achievable. If you relinquish this technology, your body and mind will sucumb to the ravages of time and you won't be the same person you are today.
Some like me will use the curve to go beyond the current limitations imposed on us by our nature, but you can equally use it to stay in one spot.
Re: Singularities and Nightmares
Actually, the Singularity is at the end of the path of least resistance. It is the default result. What actually takes will is searching for self-transcendence inside ourselves. Brin believes that these early, religious attempts were all failures. But to believe that they were complete failures means believing that much of what is said about Christian saints, enlightened Buddhists, mystic Sufis is untrue. Maybe not such a hard thing to do.
But if you do believe there is some truth to the tales of enlightenment than you have to at least pause and think about the difference between becoming enlightened and giving birth to something that is enlightened, and that might enlighten you in return. It's depending on something outside of us to turn us into something greater.
It could be argued that that is exactly what a Christian does: pray to something greater for change. But I think the most enlightened aspect of Christianity has been the quest for self knowledge that would lead to knowledge of God, according to the Christian, Jewish belief that humanity is made in the image of God.
Brin thinks humanity's greatest achievement might be giving birth to something greater than itself. But this is overshadowed by the great achievement that is the potential for individual, to discover within oneself the ability to be selfless instead of waiting until there is enough for everyone to be selfish, to be unafraid of suffering instead of dreaming of erradicating it, to not fear death instead of working toward immortality.
The chance to discover these things will be gone after the Singularity. Transhumans will realize this missing thing and drop themselves into simulations in which they forget themselves and live as mortal beings. But I wonder if they will be able to carry this lesson into a reunion with their actual, transhuman selves. Perhaps not without allowing that self to die and be reborn.
Re: Singularities and Nightmares
the idea of ascending to a higher plane of existence has been around for hundreds if not thousands of years. we see it in hinduism, buddhism, christianity, even the atheist beliefs of Neitzche. though the means of achieving this trancendance differ with varying degrees depending on what philosophy or religion you look at, they always seem to encompass the same thing; becoming more than you already are. people have always been afraid of things that are different from them; admitedly, there is a certain amount of comfort in comformity. it seems that the only ones who can even comfortably concieve of this kind of trancendance are the intellectuals who have the ability to step back and look at the problem objectively. admittedly, these are very few and far between. many people are perpetualy obsessed with their day-to-day material existence to such a degree that they dont bother to think about this sort of thing in great deapth. and when they are forced to, they become frightened at the prospect. this fear is offset by the changes that human personalities undergo every time new imformation is processed (virtualy every second). the idea of taking control of this change is downright scary.
human beings, in short, cannot yet achieve this singularity as of yet. it will require substantial social and psychological evolution and a flood of new ideas in order to get to that point. i'm not saying that it is not achievable; far from it, there is little else to hope for. but we human beings must begin to understand ourselves before we can even begin to comprehend the vast complexity of a machine entity. but i for one intend to get there.
Re: Singularities and Nightmares
"This long tradition'of bright people pouring faith and enthusiasm into transcendental dreams'tells us a lot about one aspect of our nature, a trait that crosses all cultures and all centuries. Quite often, this zealotry is accompanied by disdain for contemporary society'a belief that some kind of salvation can only be achieved outside of the normal cultural network'a network that is often unkind to bright philosophers'and nerds. Seldom is it ever discussed how much these enthusiasts have in common'at least emotionally'with believers in older, more traditional styles of apotheosis, styles that emphasize methods that are more purely mental or spiritual."
This is the most meaningful paragraph. Finally will always someone is honest enough to see how little difference there is in the different kinds of believers. Very little would get done were it not for the bright zealots who have a level of belief and motivation that you could call insane. Every complex society of human animals is essentially the same, it's just hard to emotionally understand it unless you've had certain kinds of bizarre life experiences. Meditate on the story of Animal Farm, that will help.
In the prologue of his Singularity book, Kurzweil quotes Muriel Rukeyser as saying that 'the universe is made of stories, not of atoms.' Creative storytellers have always been thought-leaders, because the narrative or story we have about our own personal lives are so central to our personal identity and the group identity. Our beliefs and the patterns we've recognized in our reality must be woven into a coherent, emotionally-driven story or else the energy that drives our lives and sense of well-being is lost.
I can't answer for you though why it is that way, it just is. I'm particularly interested in the accumulation and specialization of knowledge and I see unprecented changes coming in this century involving how (or if) human beings live and how those of us who survive will define ourselves, I do see an exponential explosion of knowledge and technology. I wouldn't be so quick to conclude that any one of us will acheive immortality or understand the deep secrets of the universe, but nonetheless the whole thing is intellectually fascinating in that nowhere in our verifiable historical record do we have any precedent for intelligent beings gaining control over the forces of the universe.
DouglasHall, this is an interesting warning,
"There is the potential for disasterous psychosis, where ideas collide and become cancerous, taking over the consciousness and tearing reality asunder from the inside out."
You're right, be careful what you wish for. I think our intellectual abilities in themselves could be viewed as a psychosis. We're a bunch of crazy monkeys typing away furiosly at keyboards instead of blissfully swinging in a tree enjoying a nice banana. We personally (as we know ourselves) are here only because our intelligent and power-obsessed forebears killed the more docile and less obsessed homo sapiens in their attempts to create a more perfect world based on the aforementioned transcendental dreams.
Onward, fellow crazy monkeys!
Re: Singularities and Nightmares
David Brin, is exhibiting a "neo-Da Vincian" capability in this essay to coalesce information from seemingly disparate disciplines and bring them to bear on this conversation. I agree with Extropia, it is most impressive and exhilirating.
My favorite line from this article is the quote of the cliche
"Isnt it a shame that our wisdom has not kept pace with our Technology"
In truth, there is little doubt that the 21st Century will be primarily assessed as a "Recovery Century" from the insanity of the 20th Century.
According to Zbigniew Brzezinski 400,000,000 humans lost their lives in armed conflict in the the 20th century. This was (approximately) 4/10ths of the entire population of the planet at the beginning of the 20th Century. (Roughly 1 Billion)
It is true that most of these deaths occured in socialist-communist tyrannies such as Stalinist Russia but... many of them and certainly some of the most horrific took place in societies which emerged from a democratic election into monstrous idealistic technocracies such as Nazi Germany.
I would assume that technology itself will be the driving force of the 21st Century and that the real change will be something called "Informacracy". What will the world be like when everyone knows just about everything about everything, or can in a few moments access to the electronic media. I would say that this is the driving force behind the Gates-Buffet Charitable activities. They do not want to be accused of being the Marie Antoinettes of our time. "Let them eat cake,etc"
This should be the Century where the planet brings the majority of humans out of poverty and into a more "enlightened" state. Billions of humans still live at a level no better than the dark ages a thousand years ago and it is an arguable atrocity that it is so.
The Singularity will emerge no doubt most readily in the wealthiest and most technologically savvy technocracies. China, Japan, North America, Europe
Mostly Running Across the Northern Hemisphere, but it should should be pursued with a careful eye on the parity of distribution of this wonderful stage of human existence. And with a judicious attempt to eliminate armed conflict in these regions. The unseen benefit of this Jihadist craziness in the middle east is that it gives all of those countries a common enemy to focus on and keep their old hatreds and anymosities buried.
Re: Singularities and Nightmares
While I would not go so far as to call David Brin a "corporate shill" or whatever he was called in this forum, I would hasten to add that there is another perspective from the one he noted here;
...George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, now celebrating 60 years of scaring readers half to death. Orwell showed us the pit awaiting any civilization that combines panic with technology and the dark, cynical tradition of tyranny. In so doing, he armed us against that horrible fate. By exploring the shadowy territory of the future with our minds and hearts, we can sometimes uncover failure-modes in time to evade them.
The problem here is that it's equally arguable that 1984 has served as much as a manual for tyranny as a warning; Brin's faith in "reciprocal accountability" is, sadly, unfounded. There is no accountability when the organs of that accountability are owned by the same corporate entitites who would profit from the death spiral into which we're falling. The media are not free to publish the truth as they see fit; science itself is so influenced by corporate sponsorship and a culture of orthodoxy that it has come to resemble the medieval Church more than an enlightened roundtable; and, finally, politics is so entirely bought and sold by corporate interests that the will of the people is a farce, a fantasy.
Despite this state of affairs, however, there is still hope, and it lies in the very unpredictability to which Mr. Brin alludes when he describes the future. Here's a thought to ponder: Instead of reciprocal accountability as the cornerstone of the new age, how about reciprocal altruism? One great emerging truth about human nature is that it is a far nobler thing than we've been led to believe by those in whose interest it lies to let it be known that we are base, selfish, and murderous creatures.
In a (fairly) recent experiment, chimpanzees refused food if it would save other, unrelated chimps from electrical shocks. Dawkins and Blackmore have described how altruism confers evolutionary advantages. If given the choice, far more people would rather attend a barn-raising than a lynching. "Evidence" to the contrary is self-serving propaganda.
The quieter revelation, unheeded in all this talk of technological singularity, is that we possess the ability, right here and now, to change the world in its most fundamental constructs. Instead of economies of scarcity, we could have economies of abundance. (Google this--there's no reason why commodities need cost anything!) Instead of propping up hierarchical economies with senseless consumerism that rapes the earth with wasteful, toxic processes, we could switch from our present hydrocarbon economy to a carbohydrate economy, as we were poised to do in the 1930s, and heal the planet. (Read Dave West's Low, Dishonest Decade to see how that happened.)
The big shift will occur, not when nanotech is a working reality, but when the awareness of these points I've made becomes global. The Singularity is a phenomenon of changing consciousness. Critical mass will be achieved, no matter how many blinders are placed on our eyes, no matter how much capitalist propaganda permeates our (group) mind. (Hint: Mao and Stalin had state capitalist systems, not socialist or communist economies. William Blum's "Killing Hope" will help those confused about this...)
What can you do? Follow these leads, spread the word. Memes replicate, for good or ill.