Tuesday, March 24, 2009

When over-used science fiction themes intersect with spirituality

It is an over-used science fiction theme in which humanity creates artificial intelligence, and centuries later, through enhancement and evolution, the robots/cyborgs attack humanity to claim their own destiny. Think Terminator, Matrix, I Robot, Battle Star Galactica. I am sure we could name more; those are just off the top of my head.

Reader Katie passed on this article in which this over-used theme, sans the apocalyptic hostility between robots and human, has turned into a mathematical and technological spirituality. Premised upon the exponential rate of the acceleration of technological advancement, some day a singularity will arrive, upon which nifty things, like immortality (via the downloading of our memories into robots), will be possible. Money quote:
[Inventor and Singularity Prophet Ray Kurzweil] is attempting to travel across a frontier in time, to pass through the border between our era and a future so different as to be unrecognizable. He calls this border the singularity. Kurzweil is 60, but he intends to be no more than 40 when the singularity arrives.

Kurzweil's notion of a singularity is taken from cosmology, in which it signifies a border in spacetime beyond which normal rules of measurement do not apply (the edge of a black hole, for example). The word was first used to describe a crucial moment in the evolution of humanity by the great mathematician John von Neumann. One day... von Neumann began discussing the ever-accelerating pace of technological change, which, he said, "gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs as we know them could not continue."
He argues that while artificial intelligence will render biological humans obsolete, it will not make human consciousness irrelevant. The first AIs will be created, he says, as add-ons to human intelligence, modeled on our actual brains and used to extend our human reach. AIs will help us see and hear better. They will give us better memories and help us fight disease. Eventually, AIs will allow us to conquer death itself. The singularity won't destroy us, Kurzweil says. Instead, it will immortalize us.
I have nothing to offer. I tuned out at the part where the guy was 60 going on 40. Okay, I didn't for the sake of this post, but you should have.


Katie said...

So, does this mean that when the Singularity comes and we all get fabulous new robo-bodies, I can finally look like the Angelina Jolie/Kiera Knightley hybrid I've been working towards?

Because that would be... awesome. In a scary, Gene-Roddenberry-on-acid kind of way.

Chris Sanner said...

so this guy appears to be a nut, but the concept of "the technological singularity" isn't so crazy - it's just not what he described. Here's the deal - the "Technological Singularity" isn't a particular breakthrough anyone can really reasonably be expected to predict. It's simple some threshold we're increasingly likely to cross that will be a "game changer" for human society to such a degree that we can't see beyond it. like an event horizon on a black hole - or singularity. We can't predict that we'll all suddenly be shiny robots or live forever - or even if maybe we'll all suddenly become extinct because of it. All that we "know" is that at some point in the future - and the point is looking to be closer and closer - we'll do something or achieve something that will render all current expectations about the future beyond that point completely moot.

Drew said...

Thanks, Chris for stopping by and explaining that. Still a little tough to wrap my small mind around, but that was immensely helpful. Are there other types of singularities, like, hypothetically speaking, an environmental singularity where the effects of global warming drastically and rapidly change climate conditions and humanity suffers? Or a meteor?

And what does the technological singularity look like in a positive, non-whacko light? No robo-bodies or immortality. Or is it the kinda thing where one says, "Its a singularity, we can't predict it, we can't know before hand. Some big threshold event will occur and our lives will not be as we know them. We will know it when we see it, but we can't provide examples before hand."

Thanks again for clearing it all up. If you like religion and political talk, stick around.

Chris Sanner said...

I've not heard any other type of singularity discussed...primarily because the technological singularity is seen as an inevitable if we keep going the direction we're going, whereas other game-changing events would occur mostly outside our control.
As far as what people expect it to be...well, that's a subject of intense speculation - and most of the more interesting discussions do start from a "look, we have no idea" premise. A lot of the current theories revolve around nano-tech, but it's beginning to be "cool" to reject that as a cop-out.

And I'll likely be around...what I've read so far has been interesting.

Chris Sanner said...

aha. Here's an excellent resource:

Drew said...

Thanks, Chris. That was helpful, from what I can understand of it. Still very skeptical about the possibility that AI will eclipse humanity, but I don't know enough of the pace of current technological advancement to really know.

Appreciate the link. Anybody who wants to look more into "singularity" stuff should follow the link Chris provides.