The prophet of Silicon Valley

One of the tech industry's most revered figures is a leading light in the transhumanist movement.
Egil Asprem | Oct 6 2013 | comment  



In many respects Ray Kurzweil -- the subject of the recent documentary Transcendent Man (trailer above) -- is a cookie-cutter American engineering genius. An inventor and entrepreneur, he has founded a dozen companies and has about 50 patents to his name. In the 1970s he developed reading machines for the blind. In the 1980s he developed the Kurzweil synthesizer, which helped form a new sample-based sound for musicians. In the 1990s he developed more text-to-speech recognition programs, medical education programs and financial software. 

But in recent years Kurzweil -- born in 1948 -- has moved on to a slightly more ambitious project, immortality.

In fact, Kurzweil believes we are on the verge of technological breakthroughs that will lead to the complete restructuring of the fabric of reality, transmuting the universe into a vast, thinking being. This event is referred to as “the Singularity”. Kurzweil’s ambitious forecasts about the future of technology have made him a prophet of the so-called transhumanist movement.

What interests me is that transhumanism, as a movement, is currently merging with and mobilizing elements of Western alternative spirituality. Transhumanist milieus appear to be converging with the technophilian, science-oriented wing of what used to be the “New Age movement” and with fashionable “Eastern” religious systems.

What is Transhumanism?

Transhumanism is a radically utopian movement concerned with the development and application of human enhancement technologies. The baseline assumption is that humanity has the power to transcend its biological limitations, and that such transcendence is desirable and may even be necessary for our long-term survival. The tools for overcoming biology and reaching our true potential will be found in a gamut of emerging technologies, from biotechnology and medical research to nanotechnology and artificial intelligence.

The unbounded use of such technologies is considered the road to total freedom; it promises to make us a species of immortal, omniscient, space-travelling demigods.

Although a number of historical precursors could be mentioned, transhumanism came into its own as a movement in the late 1980s. And, while it has contributors and followers in a number of countries, the transhumanist movement’s centre of gravity is undeniably Silicon Valley.

In fact, the ideological, political, and spiritual ideals of transhumanism flourish at the core of the US tech industry. This is understandable, since transhumanist literature typically imbues the technologies of Silicon Valley with messianic significance.

Ray Kurzweil stands at the centre of this milieu. In 2008 he co-founded the Silicon Valley-based Singularity University together with people such as Google CEO Larry Page. It is a private education institute based on Kurzweil’s ideas, aiming to “educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.” Last December, Kurzweil was made director of engineering at Google.

We are not talking about a figure at the fringes of Silicon Valley, but of an influential leader at the heart of one the most powerful industries of our time.

Kurzweil’s grand visions of our imminent technological future have been presented in a number of books. The titles of three of them reveal his increasingly ambitious message.

In 1990, Kurzweil published The Age of Intelligent Machines. He argued that we would soon see computing power explode so that machines would be able to compete with and beat humans in an increasing number of cognitive tasks.

Nine years later, he released The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999). At this point, the best human chess player had already been beaten by a machine (Gary Kasparov vs. IBM’s Deep Blue in 1997), home computers had become commonplace, and the world wide web had fully emerged. The next frontier was to make machines more like humans, and eventually to transform humanity itself. By merging human and machine intelligence, Kurzweil argued, we will become a new species of supermen.

This far more ambitious project was outlined in his 2005 book, The Singularity Is Near. In this book, transhumanism’s millenarian dimensions became more explicit, as Kurzweil described a coming event that will transform not only human life as we know it, but the entire universe: the “Singularity”.

The Coming Singularity: Kurzweil’s millennial predictions

So what is the Singularity? To grasp this concept, we need to understand Kurzweil’s view of history. Transhumanists tend to share a “macro-historical” vision by which all of human and natural history, even the history of the universe itself, can be understood in terms of one single mathematical concept: the exponential function.

This “grand narrative” is unmistakably shaped by the experiences of the tech industry over the past half century. It may indeed be seen as a generalization of the famous “Moore’s Law”, originally formulated in 1965 by the co-founder of Intel, Gordon E. Moore. Moore’s Law originally predicted that the number of transistors on integrated circuits would increase exponentially by doubling every 18 months.

Kurzweil defends a much more radical version of the exponential view, which he has dubbed the “Law of Accelerating Returns”.

It is more radical in three ways. First, it is recursive: the results of change accelerate the future speed at which change happens. This contrasts with Moore’s law, which has doubling-times fixed at 18 months. Connected with this, exponential growth is seen as practically unrestrained. New technological abilities tend to find new and previously unforeseen ways to sidestep limitations. Reaching a “limit” only means that the exponential process starts over again on a higher level.

Third, these overlapping exponential processes are universalized. Exponential growth is not confined to computing power alone, but applies to all of technology, as well as to all of evolution – including non-biological evolution. The exponential function thus expresses the ultimate purpose of the entire universe – from the big bang to the end of times.

The concept of the Singularity results quite naturally from understanding historical and cosmological development as an exponential function. It delineates the final exponential turning-point, where change will accelerate so fast as to practically transform everything in the blink of an eye.

In Kurzweil’s view, the Singularity will be triggered in the near future when artificial intelligence outmatches the human brain, and continues to expand exponentially beyond human capacity. This “explosion of intelligence” will be the exponential tipping-point. Kurzweil sets a date for this prediction: 2045.

But the super-intelligent AI will not be some lonely computer, like HAL9000, locked away in the deep vaults of a secret research facility. It will be created in a distributed network of intelligent nano-robots, that will be infused in the human organism, and connect our individual brains with everyone and everything else.

The intelligence explosion will not happen separate from us – it will be us, radically transformed and fully merged with our machines and with each other. We will not only have telepathic abilities, but the ability to completely merge our personalities and memories with each other if we so wish.

Once this happens, we will change the world for ever.

Kurzweil imagines that this conscious cloud of machines that we will have become will transform and rearrange the matter that makes up our planet. Eventually, all the matter and energy of the solar system will be made part of the expanding network of intelligence. We will transform our surroundings into a massive brain. Matter will become intelligent and conscious -- “infused with spirit”, as Kurzweil puts it.

Expanding exponentially, this process will eventually ripple through the galaxy until, he says, “the universe wakes up”. Intelligence and consciousness is the destiny of the universe – and humanity’s role is to bring about its release.

Transhumanism as a new “New Age” esoteric discourse

It is not hard to draw analogies between transhumanist thought and concepts that may be familiar from New Age and esoteric thought. We can, for example, discern an “alchemical” ideal, concerning the transmutation of the body, the soul, and the world itself, and the attainment of immortality as a stage towards spiritual perfection.

We find a concern with “higher knowledge” -- a vast extension of reason beyond present limitations, requiring the complete transformation of our minds. Combined with both these is an ambition of apotheosis – of becoming divine, eternal, perfect beings. There is even the notion of a coming eschatological event, where the “dead” matter of the universe comes alive and wakes up at the end of history.”

In fact, this apocalyptic vision, and the combined views on history, evolution, and human potential, is perhaps its most intriguing feature. At first sight, it may seem as if the transhumanists are simply another group attempting to “immanentize the eschaton”, to use Eric Voegelin’s famous words. They are seeking “transcendental fulfilment” within history.

But this reading does not carry all the way: the Singularity is imagined to lead to a genuinely transcendent eschatological event. In fact, it combines eschatology and theology in ways that resonate with the progressive millennarian visions that have been strongly influential on modern esotericism, from the Theosophical Society to the New Age. Singularitarian transhumanism belongs in this same theological neighbourhood.

Moreover, the macro-historical outlook of transhumanist spirituality implies an evolutionary “theology of emergence”. This is neatly illustrated in one of the many dialogue-sections of The Singularity Is Near, where Kurzweil has himself discussing religion with his good friend, Bill Gates. After discussing the need for a new, essentially leaderless, religion that can come to grips with the concept of the singularity, Gates asks: “So is there a God in this religion?” To which Kurzweil answers:

“Not yet, but there will be. Once we saturate the matter and energy in the universe with intelligence, it will ‘wake up’, be conscious, and sublimely intelligent. That’s about as close to God as I can imagine.”

The divine, then, emerges from matter. There is no Creator God, existing independently of the world. Instead, a divine intelligence is created by and inside of the universe, in a sort of emergent pantheism. Essentially, Kurzweil has the monotheistic creation story in reverse. Not only that: since it is humans who will create God, Kurzweil’s version comes across as the ultimate idolatry. This is Kurzweil as the “hermetic”, god-making magus.

Dmitry Itskov and the Russia 2045 initiative 

Kurzweil defines a Singularitarian as “someone who understands the Singularity and has reflected on its meaning for his or her life”.

One person who has most certainly done this is the young Russian multimillionaire and online media tycoon, Dmitry Itskov (b. 1980). Itskov has realized that the Singularity is coming in 2045 and has decided to take a proactive approach by investing his fortune in a project for physical immortality through avatars.

The first prototypes will be remote-controlled through a brain-computer interface, but later, brain transplantation and even consciousness-upload will be available. By the time of the singularity, the avatars will have become “holographic” – a code word for bodies made up of polymorphing nanobots. Irrespective of whether or not this is a feasible science project, there is little doubt about Mr Itskov’s favourite movie.

But Itskov’s vision is much broader than this. He believes that the coming Singularity will force us to reform our spiritual and political outlook. To this end he has established the Russia 2045 initiative, which will facilitate a transhumanist revolution in the five spheres of technology, politics, culture, ethics, and spirituality.

What is interesting about the 2045 initiative is that it takes concrete steps towards synthesising transhumanist ideology with spirituality. In practice, this means lobbying the support of established spiritual positions. Itskov has for example been able to get the support of the Dalai Lama.

Transhumanist spirituality and the future

The Russia 2045 movement is only a recent, high-profile example of a more pervasive trend: the transhumanist gospel is merging with parts of Western “alternative spirituality”. I think we should expect to see this trend become much more visible in the years ahead.

There are particularly two reasons why further convergence seems likely. The first concerns the persuasiveness of transhumanist spirituality in a world that is, after all, really becoming more deeply infused with new technologies.

Considering that those who create (and profit from) the new technologies and those who develop transhumanist ideology are sometimes the exact same people, we should only expect this rhetorical force to intensify.

Transhumanist spirituality can already be seen as the religious “superstructure” of a social class that is becoming increasingly powerful. If their cultural influence continues to increase, it means that tech-savvy esotericists who are able to tap into the symbolic capital of Silicon Valley are going to be more successful.  

The second aspect has to do with the date of the impending apocalypse. With the Singularity now starting to become fixed at the date 2045, singularitarian transhumanism can supply a new eschatological scenario for post-2012 millennialists. The 2012 phenomenon connected the psychedelic prophesies of Terence McKenna with Maya calendar speculations, UFO-logy, conspiracy theory, and much besides, to create a modern apocalyptic narrative that resounded broadly in New Age circles.

Now that Itskov’s movement is targeting the 2045 Singularity directly at Western spiritual communities, we should not be surprised to see this become the next date for the final “transformation of consciousness”.

This time it is not meditation or psychoactive substances alone that are going to expand our minds and transform the world, but rather the infusion of nanobots in our brains. The rest, as usual, will be the end of history.

Egil Asprem teaches at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. His research focuses on the relationship between science and esotericism since the Enlightenment, particularly in the first decades of the 20th century. He blogs at Heterodoxology. A longer version of this article was presented at the annual conference of the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism in June. 



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