This afternoon I was catching up on the blogs I subscribe to. One is the Live Journal kept by sci-fi author Joe Haldeman. After conveying a rather amusing joke he learned from Ben Bova, he segued into mentioning an interview he read in a recent issue of New Scientist with futurist Ray Kurzweil. It seems that Kirzweil has actually come up with a year when the “singularity” will happen. Around 2045.
For those out of the loop, the “singularity” is a popular science-fiction motif (which is also embraced as an inevitable occurrence by a growing number of forward-thinking tech-heads). In a simple sentence, the singularity is that point in time when our technology has advanced so far and with such increasing rapidity that we can no longer control or anticipate where these advances will take us. Computer science, artificial intelligence, and nanotechnology will converge to transform everything we know. Could be some sweet paradise … or it could a dystopian dead end (like the Matrix) or some apocalyptic scenario such as Sky-Net from the Terminator films. At the heart of this unfocused paradigm-shift is the concept of transhumanism, that point when humans and machines merge.
I love this sort of stuff. But I also love Frank Tipler’s Omega Point bullshit … and the Philadelphia Experiment and tales of the hollow earth and on and on.
Toss Kurzweil into the above company, it’s little wonder that he has more detractors in the scientific community than he has champions.
P. Z. Myers has chewed some on Kurzweil in his blog Pharyngula (a science site heavy on biology and evolution which often offers entertaining harangues against the Intelligent Design folks as well as militant theists). It’s not so much the claims of how technology might advance with which Myers has concerns, it’s the new-agey zeal that Kurzweil uses to proselytize this brave new transhumanistic world. Myers sees little science and rationality in Kurzweil’s writings and pronouncements.
Myers is especially critical of a graph Kurzweil uses to show how human technological ingenuity is progressing at an exponential rate. This acceleration of technology is at the core of his transhumanist thesis. It is an extension of Moore’s Law, which is concerned with the apparent exponential growth of computational power in computer technology. Robert Anton Wilson (was it in the Illuminatus Trilogy?) put forth his lampoon of Moore’s Law into something he called the Jumping Jesus Phenomenon — this concerned how long it took to double the accumulation of information since the time of Christ. Wilson postulated 1500 years. This brought us to “two Jesuses.” The doubling increases exponentially. Wilson claimed that by the year 1978 (when he came up with this playful notion) we had reached 256 Jesuses. And three years later that number would double again. I could be wrong, but I think that he extrapolated so that by the year 2012 information would be doubling every second.
But Bob Wilson was a trickster, a psychedelic stand-up comedian. Prescient? Sometimes. A provocative troublemaker? All the time. His Jumping Jesus scenario wasn’t supposed to do much more than amuse and maybe inspire. But the difference with Ray Kurzweil is he’s absolutely serious. In fact he’s been instrumental in creating a Singularity University. From what I can tell, this is a for-profit business.
Seems a bit creepy. But maybe I’m wrong. It could that Ray Kurzweil is gonna save our bacon from the evil and genocidal intentions of our future cybernetic overlords.
What I like about people such as Ray Kurzweil is that they are giving us a possible taste of our near future.
Personally, I have no doubt that the next 40 years will bring about changes we can’t fathom. Artificial Intelligence will be able to pass the Turning Test much sooner than we expect. And 40 years from now (probably much earlier) many people will be having their most intimate personal relationships with computer programs. And once that hurdle has been crossed, any popular movement opposing respect and rights for artificial intelligence will drop away. At that point we will seriously begin our experiment with transhumanism.
The reason I don’t see an apocalyptic war between humans and robots (such as the Terminator series) is because as machines and computer programs become more human, humans will be becoming more machine-like. This will happen in the next seven years as the hunger for novelty in our ability to interface with our hand-held computational devices will move towards miniaturization of hardware so that we are always wired in. Tiny processors will be implanted on our bodies. Audio implants in out ears. Visual implants might be a bit harder to do in such a short time. Perhaps they will be glasses. These implants won’t be some sci-fi device that connects with the brain. But give us 25 years. It could happen. If, as I suspect, the interface between the human brain and the digital world of computers is simply an engineering problem, things will get weird real fast when (if??) we find how to merge these two disparate computational devices.
And at that point, I’ll give you the singularity.
Oh, yeah. I was actually planning to write about my new experience with SKYPE. It’s not quite Sky-Net, and it’s not yet Dick Tracy’s wristwatch video phone. But, damn, it’s still pretty cool.
Some technologies have to wait for a ubiquity of users. The Skype model is an internet interface that allows people to use the world-wide web for voice communication. In short, free phone calls for those with an internet connection. And soon was added a video component. Free video phone calls or people with internet connections.
When I first heard about Skype I didn’t have a web camera. So, all I had to get excited about was free phone calls. I already had that in the US with my cell phone service. Just call after nine pm. But now that I have a laptop with a camera built in, it seemed like a technology I should revisit.
My sister had bought a laptop recently. I though she might humor me in a Skype experiment.
First I downloaded the Skype program. Set it up. And then I called my sister on my cell phone. She was game. I walked her through the download and installation. Once complete, I called her over my computer. She answered the call. Cool. We were on a video phone call. And it was free.
It’s super cool. Everyone needs to get in on this.
My Skype name is:
Until I get the hang of things, I might not have my Skype program open all the time. You wanna Skype me, feel free to let me know in advance via email (email@example.com) or my cell phone (210.482.0273).
A free fucking video phone! That’s just crazy. Remember that scene in 2001 where one of the astronauts is talking to his family via a video phone? It’s just like that. Better. I mean you can conference-call. You can transfer files.
And all I can say is I can’t wait until all this will be done with brain power alone, once they place that lozenge-sized processor in my frontal lobe.
I fucking embrace it! Dammit, let’s all be early adopters. I’ll see all you guys on the other side!