A Singular Enlightenment

A Singular EnlightenmentI’m a reformed Singularitarian. In high school, my dad gave me my brick-like copy of Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity Is Near, a spiritual successor to his speculative books on the future of artificial intelligence, The Age of Intelligent Machines, followed by The Age of  Spiritual Machines. Already a long-time fan of science fiction and imagined futures, I opened The Singularity Is Near and read it cover to cover.

And I was converted. Kurzweil’s calm, rational explanations of how we would meld our bodies and minds with machinery and become immortal made perfect sense. His charts tracking technology’s exponential growth, Moore’s Law predicting the doubling of computing power every 18 months, seemed to have history on their side. It would only be a matter of time before we attained enough computing power to model a human brain, then many human brains; inevitably leading to computing power equivalent to every human brain on Earth. It didn’t hurt that I was reading a lot of science fiction by hard SF writers like Greg Egan and Charles Stross that basically stated the same thing. If anything though, Kurzweil was more ambitious than science fiction: published in 2005, The Singularity Is Near claims we will have the computational chops to simulate a human brain by about 2025.

I no longer believe this. In some ways, I think it was my own fervor that did me in. In university and as a graduate student I started finding and reading more books on science and technology, denser theoretical works that explore many of the same themes as The Singularity Is Near. I was able to design my own syllabus in my program, so I loaded it with works on artificial intelligence, cybernetics, virtual worlds, and the history and social impact of technology. To quote Tennessee Williams, I guess you might call it the catastrophe of success: Kurzweil’s book had gotten me interested in the future of science and technology in the first place; yet as I read deeper and sought mastery on the subject, I realized how many assumptions his thesis of the Singularity rests on.

For instance, he claims the human brain is basically just a very complex computer, and if we just had enough computing power and could compress that data like shrinking an mp3 file, we could effectively simulate the brain. However, the more I read the more I could see the buried contradictions and gaps in this idea. The brain is no more a computer than a car is actually a horse (even though its motive power may be rated in horsepower). On the one hand, you have a highly complex biological organ that has taken billions of years (counting the whole evolutionary age of the Earth) to evolve, embedded in an equally complex organic body that is interfaced with it in ways we still don’t fully understand. In turn, the brain-body system is embedded in a very specific environmental context that has evolved right along with it. To think we could somehow reduce this level of complexity into a linear series of bytes, no matter how large, is naive if not arrogant. Even more so the prediction that this task could be done in the next twenty years.

Once the cracks formed in my conviction that the Singularity was Inevitable with a capital I, I saw how deeply the tendrils of early modern Enlightenment thought have penetrated the Singularitarian movement. The Singularity is the inevitable, historically predetermined moment (via the exponential advance of technology) in which our technological (read: rational, industrial) advancements will master nature (in this case, extended into our own bodies), and free us from the messy “wetware” of the lifeworld into a perfectly abstract (indeed virtual) world shaped totally by human will and rationality. The dream of modernity before Nietzsche brought down the nihilistic hammer lives on in the Singularitarian movement.

And it’s still strong. Not long after I finished the science studies course, I volunteered at an annual conference put on by the World Future Society. As you might imagine, these guys’ business is coordinating professionals—academics, writers, economists, scientists and others—under the loose umbrella of trying to extrapolate future trends and developments, mostly in technology. Futurism covers everything from conservative, data-driven economic predictions reaching just a few months into the future, to far-fetched discussions of space colonization and time travel. Of course, the Singularitarians were well-represented. I talked to a few of them, neither disagreeing nor agreeing with their claims. Just listening. Trying to get a bead on how they really felt, under their rational minds, about the whole project of the Singularity.

Because the Singularity is a project. Enlightenment thinkers cast modernization in terms of an inevitable process, ordained by nature, history, or the underlying structure of human society. But Singularitarians are intensely aware that none of this historically inevitable technological advance can happen naturally. It’s one of the contradictions of the Singularity that parallels early modernism: the Singularity is both historically inevitable and utterly dependent on our actions for its realization. What’s changed, I think, is the level of conscious direction involved. No one trusts anymore that the process will arise out of some universal structure underpinning human patterns of technological development. There’s a considerable if sublimated current of anxiety running through the Singularitarian movement. Maybe the collapse of meaning represented in Nietzsche’s famous “God is Dead” still has us running scared after all. The Singularitarians’ answer, I think, is there can still be a God—but we have to build Him.

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