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An approaching Singularity?

When Ray Kurzweil published his bestseller, The Singularity is Near, in 2005, the skeptical response reverberated widely, but his track record when it comes to having made accurate predictions has been uncanny.  In the late 1980’s it was Kurzweil who anticipated that soon a computer could be programmed to defeat a human opponent in chess; by 1997 Big Blue was beating Garry Kasparov.  His prediction that within several decades humans will regularly assimilate machines to the body seemed, as Michael Skapinker recently put it, “crazy,” “except that we are already introducing machines into our bodies.  Think of pacemakers – or the procedure for Parkinson’s disease that involves inserting wires into the brain and placing a battery pack in the chest to send electric impulses through them.”

Kurzweil obviously has something more dramatic in mind than pacemakers.  The term singularity both describes the center of a black hole where the universe’s laws don’t hold and that turning point in human history where the forward momentum of machine development (evolution?) will have so quickly accelerated as to outpace human brainpower and arguably human controls.  For Kurzweil the potential implications are socially and scientifically transformational:  as Skapinker catalogs them, “We will be able to live far longer – long enough to be around for the technological revolution that will enable us to live forever.  We will be able to resist many of the diseases, such as cancer, that plague us now, and ally ourselves with digital versions of ourselves that will become increasingly more intelligent than we are.”

Kurzweil’s positions have attracted admirers and detractors.  Bill Gates seems to be an admirer (Kurzweil is “the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence”).  Others have criticized the claims as hopelessly exaggerated; Douglas Hofstadter admires elements of the work but has also said it presents something like a mix of fine food and “the craziest sort of dog excrement.”  A particular criticism is how much of Kurzweil’s claim rests on what critics call the “exponential growth fallacy.”  As Paul Davies put it in a review of The Singularity is Near:  “The key point about exponential growth is that it never lasts.  The conditions for runaway expansion are always peculiar and temporary.”  Kurzweil responds that the conditions for a computational explosion are essentially unique; as he put it in an interview:  “what we see actually in these information technologies is that the exponential growth associated with a particular paradigm… may come to an end, but that doesn’t stop the ongoing exponential progression of information technology – it just yields to another paradigm.”  Kurzweil’s projection of the trend lines has him predicting that by 2027, computers will surpass human intelligence, and by 2045 “strictly biological humans won’t be able to keep up” (qtd. in O’Keefe, pg. 62).

Now Kurzweil has been named chancellor of a new Singularity University, coordinated by a partnership between NASA and Google.  The idea is simultaneously bizarre and compelling.  The institute is roughly modeled on the International Space Unversity in Strasbourg, where the idea is to bring together Big Thinkers who can, by their interdisciplinary conversations and collaboration, tackle the impossible questions.  One wonders at whether the main outcome will be real research or wannabe armchair metaphysical speculation – time will tell, of course.  NASA’s role seems to be simply that they have agreed to let the “university” rent space at their Moffett Field Ames Research Center facility in California.  The money comes from Peter Diamandis (X Prize Foundation chair), Google co-founder Larry Page, Moses Znaimer (the media impresario), and tuition revenue (the nine week program is charging $25,000, scholarships available).  With respect to the latter the odds seem promising – in only two days 600 potential students applied.

The conceptual issues surrounding talk of a Singularity go right to the heart of the humanistic disciplines, starting with the manner in which it complicates anew and at the outset what one means by the very term human.  The Kurzweil proposition forces the issue by postulating that the exponential rate of information growth and processing capacity will finally result in a transformational break.  When one considers the capacity of human beings to stay abreast of all human knowledge that characterized, say, the 13th century, when Europe’s largest library (housed at the Sorbonne) held only 1,338 volumes, and contrasts that with the difficulty one would encounter today in simply keeping up with, say, research on William Shakespeare or Abraham Lincoln, the age-old humanistic effort to induce practices of close reading and thoughtful contemplation can seem anachronistically naive.

One interesting approach for navigating these issues is suggested in a 2007 essay by Mikhail Epstein.  Epstein suggests that the main issue for the humanities lies less in the sheer quantity of information and its potentially infinite trajectory (where, as Kurzweil has implied, an ever-expanding computational mind finally brings order to the Universe) than in the already evident mismatch between the finite human mind and the accumulated informational inheritance of humanity.  Human beings live for a short period of time, and within the limited timeline of even a well-lived life, the amount of information one can absorb and put to good use will always be easily swamped by the accumulated knowledge of the centuries.  And this is a problem, moreover, that worsens with each generation.  Epstein argues that this results in an ongoing collective trauma, first explained by Marxist theory as inducing both vertigo and alienation, then by the existentialists as an inevitability of the human condition, and now by poststructuralists who (and Epstein concedes this is an oversimplification) who take reality itself “as delusional, fabricated, or infinitely deferred” (19).  Epstein sees all this as evidencing the traumatizing incapacity of humans to comprehend in any detailed way their own collective history or thought.  The postmodern sensibility revealed in such aesthetic traditions as Russian conceptualism, “which from the 1970s to the 1990s was occupied with cliches of totalitarian ideology,” and which “surfaced in the poetry and visual art of Russian postmodernism” in ways “insistently mechanical, distant, and insensitive” (21).  There and elsewhere, “the senses are overwhelmed with signs and images, but the intellect no longer admits and processes them” (22).

The problem to which Epstein calls attention – the growing gap between a given human and the total of humanity – is not necessarily solved by the now well-established traditions that have problematized the Enlightenment sense of a sovereign human.  In Epstein’s estimation, the now-pluralized sense of the human condition brought into being by multiculturalism has only accentuated the wider social trends to particularization and hyper-specialization:  the problem is that “individuals will continue to diversify and specialize:  they will narrow their scope until the words humans and humanity have almost nothing in common” (27).

The wider work on transhumanism and cyborg bodies reflects a longer tradition of engagement with the challenge posed by technological transformation and the possibilities it presents for physical reinvention.  At its best, and in contrast to the more culturally salient cyborg fantasies enacted by Star Trek and the Terminator movies, this work refuses the utopian insistence in some of the popular accounts that technology will fully eradicate disease, environmental risk, war, and death itself.  This can be accomplished by a range of strategies, one of which is to call attention to the essentially religious impulses in the work, all in line with long-standing traditions of intellectual utopianism that imagine wholesale transformation as an object to be greatly desired.  James Carey used to refer to America’s “secular religiosity,” and in doing so followed Lewis Mumford’s critique of the nation’s “machano-idolatry” (qtd. in Dinerstein, pg. 569).  Among the cautionary lessons of such historical contextualization is the reminder of how often thinkers like Kurzweil present their liberatory and also monstrous fantasies as inevitabilities simply to be managed in the name of human betterment.

SOURCES:  Michael Skapinker, “Humanity 2.0:  Downsides of the Upgrade,” Financial Times, 10 February 2009, pg. 11; Mikhail Epstein, “Between Humanity and Human Beings:  Information Trauma and the Evolution of the Species,” Common Knowledge 13.1 (2007), pgs. 18-32; Paul Davies, “When Computers Take Over:  What If the Current Exponential Increase in Information-Processing Power Could Continue Unabated,” Nature 440 (23 March 2006); Brian O’Keefe, “Check One:  __ The Smartest, or __ The Nuttiest Futurist on Earth,” Fortune, 14 May 2007, pgs. 60-69; Myra Seaman, “Becoming More (Than) Human:  Affective Posthumanisms, Past and Future,” Journal of Narrative Theory 37.2 (Summer 2007), pgs. 246-275; Joel Dinerstein, “Technology and Its Discontents:  On the Verge of the Posthuman,” American Quarterly (2006), pgs. 569-595.


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