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Reflections on The Singularity

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The Singularity. Earlier this year, I read Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. Among other things, it’s a critique of web 2.0 and the tech industry’s high-level obsession with The Singularity. Actually, the book was my first meaningful encounter with this specific concept, in the computer science sense (as opposed to the astrophysics sense). The Singularity is a hoped-for smarter-than-human intelligence that many technorati hope we will create soon, either through artificial intelligence or the morphing of the internet into a kind of hive mind.

The Singularity. It’s a sexy concept filled with hope and terror. We might imagine Richard Brautigan’s pastoral world tended by “machines of loving grace” or we might imagine the Hollywood dystopias of The Matrix or Terminator.

There’s no doubt, however, that a lot of smart people believe in the potential and possibility of The Singularity. One of my favorite websites is The Singularity Hub. There’s a nonprofit research organization called The Singularity Institute. There’s also a Singularity University. And there are big names and big money behind these efforts. The Singularity is serious business. It’s powerful and important, moreover, and I believe it is contributing to the construction of our future.

But, of course, with anything this big, there are concerns. Some of the criticisms of our technological trajectories (which seem to terminate teleologically in the Singularity) are related to the possible dehumanization of the world, a dumbing-down of the population, and the social separation of a small techocratic elite from the masses. Furthermore, there exist many negative (along with possible positive, to be fair) consequences that emerge. I believe that, given our current economic and political momentum, there may be a great bifurcation of society regardless, and the Singularity may hasten the division of the planet into “cloud lords” and “crowd serfs.”

Further, the Singularity also seems to some a mystical endeavor, an attempt to build a deity. There is no mistaking the theological overtones of many of the discussions of it. Read this if you don’t believe me: Facing the Singularity.

So, viewed from a certain perspective, the techies and scientists (like most rational people) cannot believe in the ancient mythology of a supreme being, so they are building one. [We are building one—because we are contributing to its development by feeding the monster that is the web]. They [we] hope it will love us and solve all our problems, but who knows? Again, science fiction is filled with cases of this very enterprise blowing up in our faces.

But here’s the kicker — it seems the Singularists are okay with either outcome. In fact, at times, the whole thing feels apocalyptic. There’s also this idea that humans might be able to transfer their identities into the Singularity and live forever. It’s like going to heaven to be with god. It’s moreover like the Rapture. The elite chosen people will be swept up into the Singularity at the time of the apocalypse and the rest of the homo sapien rabble will be screwed. Like the Christians, Jews and Muslims, the Singularists are eagerly anticipating the apocalypse, perhaps even doing things that will bring it on (or not doing things that will prevent it).

So what to make of it all? It’s freaking amazing to me, and I would dare say that you cannot help but “face the Singularity” if you’re interested in the future. But you don’t have to worship it. It doesn’t have to be god.

A major debate may lie ahead of us: what will the sentient machine mean to us, and what will we do with it? If I were to vote for an application today, I would choose a pastoral future of “machines of loving grace” operating in wisdom, peace and prosperity—perhaps somewhere in space! But I’m a utopian, not an apocalyptic.

Author: Eric Kingsbury

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