Friday, February 26, 2010
Singularity: A Conclusion
It's funny, as I prepared to 'publish' this series a part of me was a little afraid to call Gates and Ray Kurzweil Slope-Shouldered Code-Geek Capitalist Gods. I suppose my subconscious wants to hedge - just in case the singularity does actually happen - it is better not to offend the most likely Early-Adopter-Deities. But for the parts of my mind that I am fully aware of, it is the hubris of imagining ourselves as a future Godhead that I find most worrying.
Stewart Brand & Kevin Kelly’s Long Now seminars regularly end up coming around to the topic of the singularity (hilariously so in the case of Francis Fukuyama who when asked to weigh in on the subject, after a long pause just said "No."). Brand revised his motto from his 1969 book The Whole Earth Catalog: "We are as gods and might as well get good at it" and updated it last year for his new book Whole Earth Discipline: “We are as gods and HAVE to get good at it.” Bu my father is a priest, and as I reminded one of my cousins who recently teased that my dad might attempt to turn water into wine: that while my father will flirt with heresy, he has no truck with blasphemy - and neither does his son.
A lot of people tell me they are "spiritual but not religious." I understand what they mean, but do not share their feelings. I like to say that I am religious, but not spiritual. Which is to say, you don't need to believe in God, to believe in blasphemy. Like my father, I want no truck with blasphemy, and there is something blasphemous about the singularity. In the Bible the first thing God does with us is watch to see what we would call things:
2:19 And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought [them] unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that [was] the name thereof.
This gets as close to a statement of purpose I’ve ever found for why we are here (religious text or otherwise), and it is a good one. Vernor Vinge, who named and defined the singularity, said in a recent talk, that he believes the singularity is the most likely non-catastrophic future he can imagine. I am not so sure the singularity is not a catastrophic idea already. The belief that we will become “as gods” contains the premise that we will be able to clean up the mess we are making now; that we will have god-like powers of perception and understanding (strong AI) matched with God-like powers for action (nano-tech), and we will rebuild the natural habitats we are destroying and species we are busy driving to extinction. These ideas seem harmless when they are rolled around by academics and futurists, but they start getting scary when captains of industry start mouthing them.
I was very glad that Bill Gates announced climate change as one of his main philanthropic concern going forward, and continue to be heartened by Stewart Brand's evolving engagement with the issue of climate change. I really like the ethic of what Brand calls ecopragmatism - I am not any kind of hippy, I do not believe the way forward is in anyway a return to something from before. I believe the geeks are the best ones to get us out of the mess we are in.
But Ray Kurzweil's mission for personal immortality and Craig Venter's mission to map his own genome is the other direction the singularity squirts, towards a destination that I find troubling. It not only smacks of blasphemy, it has a whiff of the pharaonic about it. If in fact all the world is information as Stephen Wolfram believes and we are going to transform the entire Universe into a giant computer as Ray Kurzweil believes, the singularity might very well produce a God ruling over a wasteland of hopelessly corrupted information. It would be a shame if we destroyed what is bound to be the most interesting subject of contemplation for post-humans: the information rich world that produced the Naming Apes.