The Singularity is near

The recent blockbuster, Terminator Salvation, has a few lessons for us about the future of humanity.
Michael Cook | Jun 10 2009 | comment  



Without Arnold Schwarzenegger, the fourth film in the series, Terminator Salvation, is a bit limp, in the opinion of most critics – notwithstanding the car chases, explosions, and high-tech shoot-outs. But, believe it or not, obscured by billowing clouds of smoke and spurts of flame, there is a significant question. Is it better to be a man or a machine?

Without revealing the absurdly convoluted plot, our saviour is Marcus Wright, a prisoner executed in 2004. He wakes up in 2018 as a cybernetically-enhanced participant in a war between us and Skynet, an artificial intelligence system which has become conscious and turned on its creators. Most of humanity has already been obliterated in a nuclear holocaust. The ragged remnant spend their time plotting to win back the planet and screaming at each other over the noise of colliding machines and exploding gas tanks.

Where do the loyalties of half-human, half-machine Marcus lie in this crisis? Well, this is Hollywood and you can guess the answer. T4’s muscles are titanium, but he still has a heart and sacrifices himself to save humanity.

For most viewers, Terminator Salvation is as realistic as Grimm’s Fairytales. At least it has a sensible outcome: humanity wins.

But there are a number of computer experts who sympathise with Skynet rather than with humanity. They look forward eagerly to a time in which homo sapiens will perfect itself and become more and more like super-intelligent machines. And they are already planning for its coming. They call it "the Singularity".

Ray Kurzweil, a legend in the IT world, a pioneer in optical character recognition, speech recognition and text-to-speech, has become the apostle of "the Singularity". A documentary about him will be released later this year, Transcendent Man. In summary, the visionary Kurzweil argues that artificial intelligence is improving exponentially, and eventually – the latest ETA is 2045 – it will become self-conscious and "alive". Here’s how Kurzweil explains it:

"What, then, is the Singularity? It's a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed. Although neither utopian or dystopian, this epoch will transform the concepts that we rely on to give meaning to our lives, from our business models to the cycle of human life, including death itself. Understanding the Singularity will alter our perspective on the significance of our past and the ramifications for our future. To truly understand it inherently changes one's view of life in general and one's own particular life. I regard someone who understands the Singularity and who has reflected on its implications for his or her own life as a 'singularitarian'."

Kurzweil assumes that human intelligence and emotions are just a highly complex biological computer. If this is true, the rapid advance of science guarantees that we will be able to reverse-engineer our brain and create incredibly powerful computers which will usher in the Singularity.

And that’s not all. Ultimately this new life form will expand throughout the whole universe; all inanimate matter will be converted into substrates for computation and intelligence; and a universal super-intelligence will emerge. Most people would call this God, and, indeed, the more of Kurzweil you read, the more it sounds like theology for materialists. Technology becomes God and offers salvation from the pain of human existence.

What happens to Humanity 1.0 after 2045?

Well, the singularitarians do discuss troubling issues like that at their summits. Perhaps we will be in charge of the machines. In that case, humans will have become a hybrid of biological and non-biological intelligence. Nanotechnology will allow us to live indefinitely. We will be able to upload our personalities onto computers and achieve a kind of disembodied cyber-immortality. All of humanity’s great problems will be solved – poverty, hunger, disease, climate change and so on.

On the other hand, perhaps super-intelligent computers will exterminate us, à la Skynet.

To many people, this vision of the future sounds nutty – "the Rapture of the geeks" is one unkind description -- but the amazing thing is that many intelligent and well-heeled Silicon Valley residents, are enthusiastic supporters of the Singularity. These include Peter Thiel, the co-founder of PayPal. The giant internet corporation Google is the major financial backer of a project called Singularity University. This will educate leaders who understand the exponential growth of technology and will use it to solve humanity’s grand challenges.

So the question provoked by Terminator Salvation is this: is being plain old Humanity 1.0 worthwhile -- in spite of our messy emotions, cloudy intelligence, imperfect bodies and unavoidable death? Or should we aspire to move forward to Humanity 2.0?

In fact, we are moving in the direction of Humanity 2.0, or "transhumanism", right now. We are far away from the fantasy of immortality uploads but more realistic scientists are working on creating "better humans" through genetic engineering. It is not yet possible – or legal – to created genetically enhanced children yet, but the time is not far off. Many IVF clinics already offer parents the possibility of sifting embryos for children who will not carry genes for certain genetic diseases. The next step is premier IVF to produce offspring with higher IQs or the bodies of super-athletes. Or both, if you can afford it.

As many bioethicists have noted, the notion of Humanity 2.0 opens a Pandora’s box. If it becomes possible, society could end up divided between the gene-rich and the gene-poor. Mankind might eventually split into two distinct species, Übermenschen with an enhanced genome which confers longer life, freedom from disease, and freedom from violence -- and the rest of us Untermenschen.

This would spell an end to democracy and equality. That’s why the well-known American political scientist Francis Fukuyama has called transhumanism "the world’s most dangerous idea". "It is very possible, he writes, "that we will nibble at biotechnology's tempting offerings without realizing that they come at a frightful moral cost."

The point is that the dilemma faced by the saviour cyborg is one that we will face in real life in the not-too-distant future. Should we seek to become better humans by modifying ourselves with technology or in the old-fashioned way, with politics and moral codes? Terminator Salvation may offer mindless violence, but it is not altogether brainless.

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.

This article is published by Michael Cook and MercatorNet.com under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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