H-: Millennialism at the Singularity: Reflections on Metaphors, Meanings, and the Limits of Exponential Logic
Imagine billions of nanobots, tiny computerized machines smaller than your red blood cells, travelling through your body, inserted in your brain, all communicating internally with each other and externally with machines outside of your body. These nanobots could repair damaged cells in your body, destroy cancer cells, eliminate pathogens, provide optimum nutrition, eliminate unhealthy chemicals, regulate your hormones on command, and reset the telomeres on your chromosomes so that you might live forever at your optimal “biological” age. Should you swim underwater or climb Mount Everest, these nanobots will provide you with oxygen. All the while these billions of nanobots would be enhancing your mental capacities to that of a super-computer with the content of the entire Internet at your ready access. Your sensory capacities would be similarly enhanced, enabling heightened powers of perception, sensation, and pleasures. All of this would be inside of “you,” even as “you” would be connected outside to a cybernetic utopia. Oh, by the way, these trillions of nanobots will also reproduce and evolve.
If Ray Kurzweil 1 is right, and there is a persuasive argument to suggest he might be, then this blending of super-machines, enhanced brains, and immortal bodies will be achieved by 2045. Thirty-five years is not such a long time, so with some luck and good health most readers alive today will see whether these predictions are true. Kurzweil and his disciples call this “the Singularity,” because it will be a new threshold in evolution, a tipping-point when “trans-biological” and “post-biological” civilization takes off. The good news is that the superhuman “you” can live forever through rejuvenation technologies and computer simulations. The bad news is that there may be some really bad news along the way.
After two days and twenty-six speakers at the Singularity Summit 2009, I am still not sure whether the end is near or whether we are on the cusp of a great new beginning. Eight hundred technophiles2 and a smattering of venture capitalists gathered in New York City in early October for the two days conference organized by the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence (SIAI), whose purpose is to contemplate the trajectory of exponential developments in genomics, nanotechnology, and robotics, with the goal of predicting and shaping our evolutionary future.3 Many in attendance, Kurzweil not the least, hoped to radically extend and enhance their brains and life expectancy, perhaps even “curing death.” All of this will be mediated in part by the exponential growth in computer technology, as witnessed in the last forty years and predicted to dramatically accelerate. Ray Kurzweil’s 2005 book The Singularity is Near lays out the case for what is now being referred to as “the Singularity movement.” He is predicting a probable dramatic “phase transition” in the fields of artificial general intelligence (AGI), genomics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR).
Douglas Hofstadter, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of Goedel, Escher, Bach (1979), says of the Singularity enthusiasts:
If you read Ray Kurzweil’s books and Hans Moravec’s, what I find is that it’s a very bizarre mixture of ideas that are solid and good with ideas that are crazy. It’s as if you took a lot of very good food and some dog excrement and blended it all up so that you can’t possibly figure out what’s good or bad. It’s an intimate mixture of rubbish and good ideas, and it’s very hard to disentangle the two, because these are smart people; they’re not stupid.4
What I propose to do in this essay is to try to create a rudimentary intellectual centrifuge to see if I can separate the probable rubbish from the definitely good food for thought. I will do so first on the level of the science to see whether these predictions are plausible. Along the way, I will discuss the challenges of computational finitude, complexity, the limits of exponential logic, the misuse of metaphors, and the dangers of category mistakes. I will then analyze the “Singularity movement” as a quasi-religious endeavor with its own secular salvation story, torn between pre-millennialist and post-millennialist interpretations of evolution and the human prospect comparable to Jewish and Christian chiliastic movements throughout history.
Kurzweil proposes a Law of Accelerating Returns woven into the fabric of the universe, the evolution of biological complexity, the development of human culture, and the trajectory of technological innovation. What this means is that we are surfing a wave of exponential growth, although our minds and cultures are oriented towards linear processes and gradual changes. The “magic” of exponentiality is that innovations begin slowly at first and then “take-off” on a steep, accelerating curve. In his book and in his lectures, Kurzweil discusses a number of logarithmic plots of technological innovation (i.e., linear representations of exponential trends):
- The Countdown to the Singularity (Life to PCs) (p.17);
- Paradigm Shifts (p.19);
- Canonical Milestones (p. 20);
- Growth in US Phone Industry by revenues and phone calls per day (p. 48);
- Growth in Cell Phone Subscribers (p.49);
- Mass Use of Inventions (p. 50);
- Dynamic RAM in computers (p. 57);
- Dynamic RAM price (p. 58);
- Average Transistor Price (p. 59);
- Microprocessor Clock Speed (p. 61);
- Microprocessor Cost (p. 62);
- Transistors per Microprocessor (p. 63);
- Processor Performance (MIPS) (p. 64);
- DNA Sequencing Cost (p. 73);
- Growth in Genebank (p. 74);
- Magnetic Data Storage (p.76);
- Price-Performance of Wireless Devices (p. 77);
- Internet Hosts (p. 78);
- Internet Data Traffic (p.80);
- Internet Backbone Bandwidth (p.81);
- Decreasing Size of Mechanical Devices (p. 82);
- Nano-related Patents (p. 84);
- Real Gross Domestic Product (p. 98);
- Per-Capita GDP (p. 99);
- Noninvasive Brain Scanning (p. 159);
- Brain Scanning Reconstruction Time (p. 160)
Taken separately and together, these trends are very impressive. If these trajectories continue, as Kurzweil argues they will, then humanity is riding a very big wave of technological innovation in multiple and interrelated fields of science and engineering (GNR plus AGI). Within ten to twenty years time, we should have a pretty good assessment of whether this really is an evolutionary tsunami. And if we make it to 2045 without crashing, the world will certainly be significantly, perhaps singularly different.
Critic Jaron Lanier referred to this fixation on the exponentials as “the fetishizing of Moore’s Law” and argues that the difficulty of writing software will thwart these hyperbolic predictions.5 Sun Microsystem founder Bill Joy wrote an impassioned plea for restraint in a now infamous WIRED cover story entitled “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us?”6 Far from a utopia, Joy worried that the GNR revolution was a misanthropic nightmare leading to the extinction of our species, not to mention his own children’s lives. Others wonder whether the supersession of our species by immortal and super intelligent post-biological entities would be such a bad thing?7 Kurzweil knows his critics and address each of their points to varying degrees of satisfaction in his lectures and in his book.8 Let’s review some of the most salient arguments presented by Singularity skeptics.
The first problem in these Singularity predictions lies with the very nature of computation. There are known limits to computation. Computer scientists know that sometimes even very simple problems cannot be solved by the very nature of the problem. As David Harel at the Weizmann Institute of Science explains in his book Computers Ltd.: What They Really Can’t Do (2000):
… we shall see interesting and important problems for which there simply are no algorithms, and it doesn’t matter how smart we are, or how sophisticated and powerful our computers, our software, our programming languages and our algorithmic methods…
These facts have deep philosophical implications, not only on the limits of machines like computers, but also on our own limits as beings with finite mass. Even if we were given unlimited amounts of pencil and paper, and unlimited lifespan, there would be well defined problems we could not solve. It is also important to stress that this is not just about computing, by brain or by machine. It is a fact about knowing. In a strong sense, what we can compute is what we are able to figure out by careful step-by-step processes from what we already know. The limits of computation are the limits of knowledge.9
This is a very technical discussion in computer science, but the short of it is that many problems simply don’t compute.10 There are also other theoretical and practical limits to computation. These are called intractable problems because they “require hopelessly large amounts of time even for relatively small inputs…”11 Computer encryption depends on this second fact. It may be that the genome, in dynamic relationship with proteins and its environment, is in some sense “encrypted.” It may be that the mind-brain is similarly “encrypted.” In which case, we will never be able to fully understand, let alone reliably control life and mind no matter how exponentially our scientific knowledge grows nor how fast technological know-how accelerates.12
The second problem that could scuttle the hopes and fears of the Singularity prophets is the nature of chaos and complexity.13 This is both a computational problem as well as a biological and engineering problem. When you design a program or model a complex natural phenomena with too many feedback loops and too many input variables and parameters, you quickly meet the proverbial “butterfly effect” in which minor variations in initial conditions can ripple through the system with widely variable, unpredictable, and unintended results. Complex distributed systems can be incredibly resilient, true, but they can also be incredibly fragile. It is hard to know in advance. While some complex systems can be represented mathematically with simple reiterative formula, it is a big leap of faith to think that all chaotic and complex systems can be thus represented, understood, and controlled.14
This then is the “useless arithmetic” problem, for instance as detailed by Orrin Pilky and Linda Pilkey-Jarvis in their book Useless Arithmetic: Why Environmental Scientists Can’t Predict the Future (2007).15 For better or worse, the same principles apply to other complex distributed systems.16 The genome (which requires also proteomics, developmental biology, and a whole lot more) and the mind-brain (which requires bodies, nature, cultures, and a whole lot more) strike me as likely candidates for irreducible complexity. Instead of an exponential explosion, we should more likely anticipate asymptotic limits to many sciences in the twenty-first century, limits set by chaos, complexity, and computational finitude as determined by the real complexity of natural entities that we hope to understand.17
The third problem has to do with the challenges of writing software. Jaron Lanier lays out this argument in his essay “One Half of a Manifesto” with the subtitle “Why stupid software will save the future from neo-Darwinian machines.” Lanier writes:
This breathtaking vista (the Singularity) must be starkly contrasted with the Great Shame of computer science, which is that we don’t seem to be able to write software much better as computers get much faster… If anything, there’s a reverse Moore’s law observable in software.18
Lanier discusses software “brittleness,” “legacy code,” “lock-in,” and “other perversions” that work counter to the logic of Kurzweil’s exponential vision. It turns out there is also an exponential growth curve in programming and IT support jobs, as more and more talent and hours are drawn into managing, debugging, translating incompatible databases, and protecting our exponentially better, cheaper, and more connected computers. This exponential countertrend suggests that humanity will become “a planet of help desks” long before the Singularity.
Fourth, when computer programs are designed to simulate natural processes, for instance the human brain, you get layers of abstraction from the real thing. Science works best by simplifying and isolating processes, but that does not mean that reality is actually simple, isolatable, or adequately represented in this manner. In addition to the “useless arithmetic” problem, we have a problem of representation, which in this case may be too simplistic and too abstracted from reality. A.N. Whitehead warns of “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness,” on the one hand, and the imperative to “seek simplicity and distrust it.”19 The map is not the terrain and the details that matter depends on the context and cannot always be known in advance. It seems to me that the Singularity prophets have underestimated both of these problems.
The fifth problem is the fallacy of exponential logic. It is hard to imagine any Earth bound natural process including humans and human technologies that can grow exponentially forever. Whether it is a pair of aphids on potted plants in my office or the rapid growth in the Chinese economy, nothing can grow exponentially for all that long on the relevant time scale without running into some stark limitations. We have lived through an extraordinary century of exponential growth – population, economic growth, energy consumption, water usage, mining, manufacturing, domesticated plants and animals, technological and scientific advance, publishing and media. How long can this continue? Instead of an exponential explosion into the new age of spiritual machines, we are more likely to have an economic and environmental implosion.20 The actual history of civilizations and the evolution of life involve periods of collapse disrupting the overall trend toward complexification. I will revisit this question below, because that fear is very much part of the Singularity movement’s self-understanding, as it should be for all of us today.
One rough measure of complexity is energy density flow. Astronomer Eric Chaisson has estimated the comparative energy density flow of different entities in the Universe, measured as the amount of free energy flowing through a system in respect to its mass over time, in this case measured as erg per seconds per grams (erg s-1 g -1). The Earth’s climasphere, which consists of the atmosphere and oceans, has roughly a hundred times the energy density flow of a typical star or galaxy. Through photosynthesis, plants achieve an energy density flow roughly a thousand times more than that of a star. The human body is sustained by a daily food intake resulting in an energy density flow about 20,000 times more than that of a typical star. Remembering that we are comparing the ratio of energy consumed to mass of the objects. So here is another way to think of this. If a human body could be scaled up to the mass of our sun, it would be 20,000 times more luminous (assuming it could obtain enough food energy!). The human brain, which consumes about twenty percent of our energy intake while constituting about two percent of our body weight, has an energy density flow 150,000 times that of a typical star. And finally, modern human civilization has an energy density ratio some 500,000 times that of a typical star.21 Energy density flows turn out to be a useful way to think about emergent complexity, but also the exponential trajectory of energy consumption in Kurzweil’s nanobot post-biological, trans-human complexity.22
There is an important caveat to the fallacy of exponential logic, because disembodied information, if such a thing exists, can conceivably grow exponentially forever. Information, in this view, would not be subject to the Second Law of Thermodynamics and the limitations of space-time and matter-energy. We do not, however, have an adequate definition of information (or complexity) across different scientific disciplines. We do not really know what disembodied information would really mean except as some Platonic mystification. It may be that computer scientists, mathematicians, and theoretical physicists are prone to such disembodied mystifications, more so than say chemists, geologists, and physicians, which leads to the next point.
Metaphors matter in science. An apt metaphor can lead to interesting insights, as well as major category mistakes. Certainly the real revolution in science in the last thirty years has been the advent of ever more powerful and cheaper computer technology. We can now collect and analyze large datasets, create new models and simulations, build new tools, and conduct research and collaboration over the Internet. This has been a Kuhnian revolution in science, a paradigm shift not just in one discipline, but in all of the sciences, as well as practically every other aspect of human life. The metaphors of computer science have now been adopted in diverse disciplines from psychology to economics, from cell biology to cosmology. A metaphor is a comparison of two unlike entities. Metaphors can be symbolically profound, but are not literally true. Metaphors enrich language and thought, but if we become literal fundamentalists, we are sadly and sometimes tragically mistaken.
So my sixth point is to deconstruct the metaphors upon which artificial intelligence, life extension technology, nanotechnology, robotics, and genomics are all based – the idea that life and mind are machines that can be reverse engineered. Human engineering is pretty fantastic stuff, but I doubt whether anything that humans have ever designed approaches the biochemical complexity of a single cell. Let me quote Bill Bryson’s description of a simple prokaryotic cell from his book A Short History of Nearly Everything (2003, 2005):
Blown up to a scale at which atoms were about the size of peas, a cell would be a sphere roughly half a mile across, and supported by a complex framework of girders called the cytoskelton. Within it, millions upon millions of objects – some the size of basketballs, others the size of cars – would whiz about like bullets. There wouldn’t be a place you could stand without being pummeled and ripped thousands of times every second from every direction. Even for its full-time occupants the inside of a cell is a hazardous place. Each strand of DNA is on average attacked or damaged once every 8.4 seconds – ten thousand times in a day – by chemicals and other agents that whack into or carelessly slice through it, and each of these wounds must be swiftly stitched up if the cell is not to perish.
The proteins are especially lively, spinning, pulsating and flying into each other up to a billion times a second. Enzymes, themselves a type of protein, dash everywhere, performing up to a thousand tasks a second. Like greatly speeded-up worker ants, they busily build and rebuild molecules, hauling a piece off this one, adding a piece to that one. Some monitor passing proteins and mark with a chemical those that are irreparably damaged or flawed. Once so selected, the doomed proteins proceed to a structure called a proteasome, where they are stripped down and their components used to build new proteins. Some types of protein exist for less than half an hour; others survive for weeks. But all lead existences that are inconceivably frenzied.23
Bryson’s vivid trope for describing the trillions of biochemical reactions per second in a simple prokaryotic cell do not even begin to approach the real nanotech-level, informational, and developmental complexity of this smallest unit of life. A typical such cell contains 20,000 different types of proteins, each with capacities to fold and unfold in specific context to accomplish specific tasks. A small cell contains perhaps 100 million protein molecules. The adult human body contains some 10 trillion (1013) large Eukaryotic cells. All of these cells began as a single fertilized egg in your mother’s womb, a single cell with 23 chromosomes, some 70,000 genes, and 3 billion base pairs, a single cell which replicated, initially exponentially, and along the way differentiated into 210 tissue types in their proper organs performing their proper function.
Can a computer model the complexity inside of a single cell, let alone the complexity of the entire brain of some hundred billion neurons (1011) connected together in a tangled web of over one hundred trillion synaptic connections (1014). What details are we going to necessarily exclude from these models? If we follows Bryson’s lead and blow an entire human brain up to a scale where each atom would be the size of a pea, then suddenly the only the human creation that might compare to the informational complexity of the brain would be the entire global economy shrunk to the size of a brain. Nobody designed and nobody controls the global economy, even though we try to influence it as best we can as differentially empowered participants with different interests, motivations, and expectations.
But wait, a disembodied brain is a useless mush of grey matter. For a human brain to realize its extraordinary abilities – for instance in the extraordinary intelligence, creativity, and concern manifested by the speakers and conferees at the Singularity Summit – requires in its ontogeny and phylogeny an entire body and an evolved history. A brain requires a network of nerves and a metabolism. It requires vocal chords and oppositional thumbs. The brain must evolve and develop in natural environments rich in semiotic and semantic meanings. It requires the nurture of families, communities, and civilizations from which it acquires language, tools, and purpose. The brain, much like the genome, does absolutely nothing by itself. When separated from this messy matrix of embodied relationships – top-down, bottom-up, side-to-side – the brain really has no capacities at all, computational or otherwise.
In a profound ontological sense, the human body-brain-mind-spirit is an emergent phenomenon in which the whole is “exponentially” more than the sum of its parts. Different levels of analysis are necessary for different kinds of scientific and philosophical questions that we might ask about body-brain-mind-spirit. Reductionistic approaches to the neurosciences and artificial intelligence can quickly become category mistakes, as silly as trying to use particle physics to interpret a novel, evolutionary psychology to ascertain the truth-value of physics, or life extension technology to realize the meaning of life. Metaphors matter. It is time to jettison the machine metaphor.
I have nothing in principle against scientists pushing the envelope up to and if possible beyond the asymptotes, trying to reduce complex problems into more manageable levels, building all kinds of models and simulations, trying to enhance and extend human health and wellbeing, as well as that of other species and our environments, building ever more intelligent, efficient, and useful prosthetic devices, machines that change what we know, how we live, and in a profound sense also who we are. By all means, push the envelope! I think society should spend more resources, not less on these issues, including educating children and adults alike about this remarkable cosmic, chemical, geological, biological, cultural, and technological evolutionary adventure in which we are now so consequentially participating. My hope, however, is that by doing so our species and science itself will become less hyperbolic and more humble, more appreciative in a religious sense that nature, including our own embodied human nature, turns out to be fantastically super.
In the critical analyses above we are “saved” from the Singularity by the bite of complexity and the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. This, however, is not something we should necessarily be celebrating with a sigh of relief, because as several of the speakers pointed out, without technological innovation our economy is in big trouble. We have become addicted to exponential growth measured in annual returns on our investments and annual growth in GNP. Most of the people in the world will do just fine in the short-term implementing off-the-shelf twentieth century technologies and in the process realizing huge economic gains. In the United States and Western Europe, however, we face an innovation crisis, because technology turns out to be the source of our most important economic growth in the last fifty years, even as manufacturing has moved to cheaper labor markets and less regulated environmental protections.
All forms of credit – treasuries, bonds, mortgages, student loans, credit cards – involve claims on the future. If our economies stop growing, then the credit markets will collapse. The ability to repay creditors depends on things get better every year or making exponential sacrifices at some future date. If you don’t have future growth, then the claims of the future can’t be painlessly met. When credit markets collapse, value collapses, and with it the stock market, production, commerce, exchange, employment, and the tax base also all collapse. Modern global capitalism is based on a series of positive self-reinforcing feedback loops, which as we learned in 2008 can quickly turn into negative self-reinforcing feedback loops. Such a future economic collapse is likely to bring out the worst in our human nature, including fascist, collectivist, xenophobic, totalitarian and chauvinist political movements, which ideological extremes will be amplified by our global media and empowered with incredibly destructive weapons. If the world is suddenly filled with magnitudes more desperately impoverished humans, then you can be sure that it will also be bad for the environment. The message is “without the Singularity we are doomed.”
At the Summit, entrepreneur and venture capitalist Peter Thiel explored seven different catastrophic scenarios for the future and argued that “the Singularity not happening quickly enough” is the most worrisome, because of the way that an economic downturn will reverberate through the political economy.24 Of course, at a certain point, sooner or later, this view of infinite exponential economic growth is really just a giant Ponzi scheme on a global scale. If the Pied Piper is not eventually paid, we will lose our children or children’s children. Perhaps information, innovation, and creativity can somehow break free of resource limitations and the Second Law of Thermodynamics, in which case we can dematerialize economic growth and innovate ourselves incrementally or exponentially into a better world. That is the 60 trillion dollar economic, evolutionary, and metaphysical question on which the future hinges. I find myself torn between the Singularity movers and shakers and the Environmentalists wailers and moaners. The optimists always seem to win, but may be tragically wrong. It is a question most people living today will confront in a dramatic and extremely personal fashion in the short-term horizon before 2045. Fortunately my predictions tend to be wrong and in this case I would be happy to be proven wrong.
The Singulitarians, however, have a lot more than these mundane economic worries to contemplate. As genomic techniques become more widely available, it will be increasingly easy to synthesize new diseases. A graduate student might decide on a lark to cross the flu virus with AIDS, foolishly creating a highly contagious, stealthy, and deadly epidemic. Bioterrorists might concoct even more dangerous designer pathogens. The world could be visited by out-of-control pandemics killing billions in a matter of weeks or months. In response to these existential threats, governments will invade privacy and create surveillance and control mechanism to preemptively defend themselves, techniques that will then also help totalitarian governments consolidate power. Self-replicating nanobots might get out of control like an invasive weed species turning our rich, green planet into “gray goo.” Super-intelligent AGIs might just decide to be done with those pesky humans, perhaps keeping a few biological specimens of our species in their zoos along with the databases of our DNA for future confabulations.
In every case, argued Kurzweil and the others at the Singularity Summit, the appropriate response to the threat is to accelerate developing the very technology that might do us in. We need to develop DNA interference and new anti-viral techniques to deal with new designer pathogen and bioterrorism. We need to develop “blue goo” nanobots that will control bad “gray goo” nanobots in the environment and in our bodies, much like the T cells in our immune system. We need to decentralize the new technologies and energy systems in order to protect our civil liberties. We need to try to program our best human values into these GNR devices such that when the day comes, they will embody the best of human civilization and human values. The Singularity, we are told, is an inevitability; so all we can do is try to speed it up and bend it more to our liking.25
What does it mean to “program” our best human values? What are those values? Who decides? How do humans typically do such “value programs” in our children, in our civilizations, in our machines? What does it mean to say that machines have values? There is a lot more going on with the Singularity movement than just science and technology. The Singularity Institute’s website describes their “Core Values” with these words: “Set a high standard of integrity and honesty, preserve rationalist values, and maintain strict ethics.” It then lists the following “Commitments”:
- SIAI will not enter any partnership that compromises our values.
- Technology developed by SIAI will not be used to harm human life.
- The challenge, opportunity and risk of artificial intelligence is the common concern of all humanity. SIAI will not show ethnic, national, political, or religious favoritism in the discharge of our mission.26
These are philosophically naÔve statements. Please define “rationalist values” and “strict ethics.” If so much of this work is pursued and funded by the U.S. military, is not the technology necessarily used to “harm human life”? What does it mean to “not show ethnic, national, political, or religious favoritism,” when many, perhaps most of these identities and differences will be wiped out in pursuit of the Singularity?
So let’s imagine some human values that we would try to program into the Singularity. It is pretty much universally the case that people everywhere prefer health over sickness, freedom over slavery, prosperity over poverty, education over ignorance, empowerment over powerlessness, pleasure over pain, justice over injustice, and living over dying. Missing from the list are three other universal preferences. Humans prefer belonging over isolation, meaning over meaninglessness, and certainty over uncertainty. We might well expand this list, for instance, easy over hard. We may disagree about the degree and interpretation of these abstract terms, but not about the basic principles. How much is enough? When is enough too much? And critically how do we decide between these universal preferences when they conflict with each other as they necessarily do in actual life? We cannot simultaneously maximize all goods. In economic terminology, we can refer to these values as “utility functions,” but I can’t wrap my head around what it would mean to “program” them into our technology. We do not know how to “program” these into our political system, though I believe the best attempts to do so are through some form of limited government, with checks and balances, something on a continum between libertarianism and democratic socialism.
Historically these values have been “encoded” within civilization by a multivariable, multilevel phenomenon, which we label “religion,” lots of different religions. There is a tragic disconnect between the worlds of religion and the domains of science, so the Singularity is not off to a good start because the vast majority of valuing humans know very little about modern science and the existential threats that we have just discussed.
Of course, anytime we talk about the future, our hopes or our fears, we are in the realm of religions. You can dress it up with science and mathematics, technology and innovation, but it is still faith of a sort that can no more be proven than a belief in God or an after life. Projecting a utopic or dystopic future is a kind of religious activity that changes how we think and act in the world today. Science fiction, in this view, is a genre of theological anthropology and has contemporary political consequences. Humans are profoundly teleological creatures. Broadly defined, our big hopes and big fears about the future are necessarily “religious” in nature.27
The Singularity movement is a kind of secular religion promoting its own apocalyptic and messianic vision of the end times. In this analysis, whether or not the Singularity is plausible or realistic is no longer the point. The Singularity inevitably plays into an old trope in our culture and it will function psychologically, politically, and culturally much like any other chiliastic faith. On this cultural level, the Singularity movement is continuous with other Messianic movements throughout human history.
In the Judeo-Christian idiom, there is a debate between pre-millennialists and post-millennialists revolving around whether the Messiah will come at the beginning of the Messianic Age or at the end of the Messianic Age. A modern “dispensationalist” interpretation of this Messianism is found in the wildly successful Left Behind books, movies, and now also computer game.28 These “dispensationalist premillennialists” sees the Messianic Age preceded by a “rapture,” followed by a period of tribulation, and ending in the utopic Kingdom of God followed by the Eschaton.
Will the Singularity lead to the supersession of humanity by spiritual machines? Or will the Singularity lead to the transfiguration of humanity into superhumans who live forever in a hedonistic, rationalist paradise? Will the Singularity be preceded by a period of tribulation? Will there be an elect few who know the secrets of the Singularity, a vanguard, perhaps a remnant who make it to the Promised Land. These religious themes are all present in the rhetoric and rationalities of the Singularitarians, even if the pre- and post-millennialist interpretations aren’t consistently developed, as is certainly the case with pre-scientific Messianic movements.
Nowhere is this religious dimension of the Singularity movement more readily apparent than in their uncritical enthusiasm for life extension research, as if this was an obvious good. Ray Kurzweil, Aubrey de Grey, and Gregory Benford all spoke at the Summit about life extension and life enhancement technology, holding out the promise of reaching “life escape velocity” anticipating incremental improvements that lead ultimately to functional immortality. Kurzweil has written three books on nutrition, health, and immortality. A new book was just release with the title Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever (2009).29 Audbrey de Grey now runs SENS Foundation. Gregory Benford has launched a new company Genescient. Each has the goal of extending human life, curing death, and presumably making some money along the way.
The science of life enhancement and extension is fascinating, perhaps revolutionary, but the talks dealt very little with the actual science and instead focused on “mythinformation.”30 Life extension medicine is the revenge of the Baby Boomers, who will not go softly into that dark night, who will not confront their own existential terror, who will not contemplate ancient spiritual wisdom in their “materialist” worldview. I fear that life-extension technology in a materialist culture will be the ultimate “killer app.”
Again, I challenge the scientists to push the envelope as far as possible. We have an obligation to help and heal, to minimize suffering, to be all we can be as individuals, as a species, and as an interdependent community of many species on a planet. We could do, however, with less hype, more critical realism, more straightforward science, and certainly more humility.
Most Christians and Jews are and have long been “a-millennialists,” which is to say that they interpret the Messianic Age as symbolic and continuous with history – past, present, and future. The lesson that most Christians and Jews derive from their own some times unfortunate histories is to be wary of literal Messianism, apocalyptic rationalities, and utopic dreamers. Avoid “irrational exuberance” and “cynical caution.” Cultivate “considered optimism” with an appreciation of the sanctity of the mundane and a transcendent trust in the future, come what may. This seems like a wise and wholesome “algorithm” to me. Of course, these dynamics and perspectives play out in other religious idioms as well. A-millennialism is thus a kind of “realized eschatology.” In the Christian idiom, this is the “Kingdom of God” today so get use to it. In the Singularity idiom, we are already transhumans and post-biological. We crossed the cyborg threshold long ago. The New Age came and went; tragedy and ambiguity continue apace.31
As already alluded to, science fiction functions as a commentary on contemporary society, as much as about any imagined future. The Singularity movement is science fiction as social movement, but it is as much about today, as anything that is going to happen in the future. In the last century, human life expectancy doubled in most parts of the world and consequently there are now 6.7 billion of us sharing this planet. Humans are already enhanced beyond the wildest imaginations of our ancestors even a hundred year back. The Singularity has come and gone. It continues. We are imperfect transhumans in an imperfect world. Our irrational expectation that the world should be better than it is, and that we should be better people than we are, is a window on the Transcendent in the transhuman condition as it was in the merely human condition.
This is the end-time. This is the only time. This is time enough. “Time enough for love” is how Robert Heinlein put it in his 1972 science fiction classic. The book is written as a chronicle in the year 4272, part history, part fable, about the adventures of the longest living human. Lazarus Long was born in 1916 (in the old Gregorian Terran calendar) before the Great Diaspora in the 23rdcentury (which marks the beginning of the new Standard Galactic calendar). Through rejuvenation technology, humans have “cured” natural death. Homo sapiens have multiplied exponentially and now populate the galaxy. What kind of “world” is it in which humans no longer need to die? Heinlein explores this question in the fanciful story of the life and the eventual death of the “Senior.” Lazarus Long turns out to be a rogue and barbarian, who discovered rather late in life, that the opportunity presented in living is merely to have “time enough for love.” For all his ingenuity and prowess, he was an exceptionally slow learner. 32
Love your work and share that love with others. Love your families and share that love with your communities. Love humanity and this rich, green planet. Love God and Universe by whatever name. And trust that if life is truly good and worthy of enhancement and extension, then so too must our ultimate suffering and death somehow be an essential and necessary part of that Good, even as we try to make it better. Be thankful for the food we are about to receive.
These spiritual verities with a better understanding of our evolutionary history and contemporary science will go a long way to preventing and mitigating existential threats in the twenty-first century. Science literacy for religions and religious literacy for science would help a lot in creating a world friendly to scientific, ecological, and humanistic values. We need to build transcending and transformational networks between the old-time religions and the new kinds of sciences, connections that will limit but also enrich the domains of each and humanity.
As I watch my 87 year-old mother lose almost all short-term memory and my 90 year-old stepfather slip into the deep forgetfulness of Alzheimer’s, I can only hope that medical science will improve and possibly cure these diseases, such that other families need not suffer in this way. My brother and I installed an iMac in their nursing home upon which we run a continuous stream of family photos to remind them of who they are and where they come from. Dad is too far gone now; but Mom’s favorite activity is to look at the random photos of her remarkable life for hours upon hours on the computer, instead of vegetating in front of the inane television. We have taken away the keyboard and mouse and run her computer remotely, dropping in now and then from afar to video conference with her. Some simple technology, unavailable even a decade ago, has made the end of her life and our involvement in that process so much better. And through the technology, we are able to participate in a different kind of singularity, the generational and generative relationship between aging parents, adult children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Our real hope for the future lies in a better appreciation of these intimate and embodied relationships – relationships that we now understand to also be microcosmic, mesocosmic, and macrocosmic. This is the realized Singularity and you don’t need to wait.
1. “Ray Kurzweil has been described as ‘the restless genius’ by the Wall Street Journal, and ‘the ultimate thinking machine’ by Forbes. Inc. magazine ranked him #8 among entrepreneurs in the United States, calling him the ‘rightful heir to Thomas Edison,’ and PBS included Ray as one of 16 ‘revolutionaries who made America,’ along with other inventors of the past two centuries. As one of the leading inventors of our time, Ray was the principal developer of the first CCD flat-bed scanner, the first omni-font optical character recognition, the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the first text-to-speech synthesizer, the first music synthesizer capable of recreating the grand piano and other orchestral instruments, and the first commercially marketed large-vocabulary speech recognition. Ray’s web site Kurzweil AI.net has over one million readers. Among Ray’s many honors, he is the recipient of the $500,000 MIT-Lemelson Prize, the world’s largest for innovation. In 1999, he received the National Medal of Technology, the nation’s highest honor in technology, from President Clinton in a White House ceremony. And in 2002, he was inducted into the National Inventor’s Hall of Fame, established by the US Patent Office. He has received sixteen honorary Doctorates and honors from three U.S. presidents. Ray has written five books, four of which have been national best sellers. The Age of Spiritual Machines has been translated into 9 languages and was the #1 best selling book on Amazon in science. Ray’s recent book, The Singularity is Near, was a New York Times best seller, and has been the #1 book on Amazon in both science and philosophy. His newest book, TRANSCEND: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever, coauthored with Terry Grossman, M.D., builds on the science behind radical life extension to present a practical plan for achieving optimal health and longer life.“ See http://www.rayandterry.com/transcend/kurzweil.shtml
2. I confess to also being a technophile, albeit with a schizophrenic streak. A child of the Apollo Space Program, I studied astronomy and launched Estes rockets in the backyard. In elementary school, I was indoctrinated with filmstrips courtesy of the Atomic Energy Commission, as well as regular “duck and cover” air raid drills courtesy of civil defense preparedness. In high school, I maxed out on advanced calculus and laser holography in the physics lab. As a freshman at Middlebury College, I took a computer programming course, the only such course offered there in 1975, programming in Basic on a hot, new PDP 11. Along the way, however, I was introduced to the examined life and ethical imperatives. So I wandered away from science and technology to studying politics, philosophy, and religion in search of the good life and the just society in what I increasingly came to understand is a dangerous moment in the natural history of our planet and the cultural evolution of our species. I still love my toys though and love the company and stimulation of other technophiles. The older the boys, the more expensive the toys!
4. Greg Ross and Douglas R. Hofstadter, “An Interview with Douglas Hofstadter,” American Scientists, http://www.americanscientist.org/bookshelf/pub/douglas-r-hofstadter. Douglas R. Hofstadter, Gˆdel, Escher, Back: An Eternal Golden Braid (New York: Vintage Books, 1979).
5. Jaron Lanier, “One-Half of a Manifesto: Why Stupid Software Will Save the Future from Neo-Darwinian Machines,” WIRED 8.12 (1999).
6. Bill Joy, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” WIRED 8.04 (1999).
7. Michel Houellebecq’s dark novel, The Elementary Particle, presents human life as so absurd and pathetic that the Singularity is a welcome end to our species’ self-induced misery and hypocrisy. See Michel Houellebecq, The Elementary Particle, trans. Frank Wynne (New York: Alfred Knopf, 2000).
8. See chapter nine “Response to Critics” Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (New York: Penguin Books, 2005).
9. David Harel, Computers Ltd.: What They Really Can’t Do (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 27-28.
10. On the question of limits to science, see also John D. Barrow, Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).
11. Harel, Computers Ltd.: What They Really Can’t Do, 79.
12. For an introduction to computational limits, see Ibid. For an understanding of genomic expression as a complex biological system, see Scott F. Gilbert and David Epel, Ecological Developmental Biology: Integrating Epigenetics, Medicine, and Evolution (Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 2009). See also my review of Gilbert and Epel’s book, William J. Grassie, “Post-Darwinism: The New Synthesis,” Metanexus Institute http://grassie.net/postdarwinism-the-new-new-synthesis/. Roger Penrose, The Emperor’s New Mind: Concerning Computers, Minds and the Laws of Physic (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). ———, Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994).
13. James Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science (New York: Penguin, 1987).
14. This is the view presented in Stephen Wolfram, A New Kind of Science (Champaign, IL: Wolfram Media, 2002). Wolfram acknowledges that there will be irreducibly complex entities in nature that we can control or predict or adequately model.
15. Orrin H. Pilkey and Linda Plkey-Jarvis, Useless Arithmetic: Why Environmental Scientists Can’t Predict the Future (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007). See also my review of their book, William J. Grassie, “Useless Arithmetic and Inconvenient Truths: A Review,” Metanexus Global Spiral (2007), http://grassie.net/useless-arithmetic-and-inconvenient-truths/ .
16. See Kevin Kelly, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1994). See also my bookreview William J. Grassie, “Wired for the Future: Kevin Kelly’s Techno-Utopia,” Terra Nova: Nature and Culture 2, no. 4 (1997).
17. Gleick, Chaos: Making a New Science. Kelly, Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World. Brian Castellani and Frederic William Hafferty, Sociology and Complexity Science: A New Field of Inquiry (Berlin: Springer Verlag, 2009). Brian Castellani, “Map of Complexity Science,” http://www.art-sciencefactory.com/complexity-map_feb09.html. Grassie, “Wired for the Future: Kevin Kelly’s Techno-Utopia.”
18. Lanier, “One-Half of a Manifesto: Why Stupid Software Will Save the Future from Neo-Darwinian Machines.”
19. “The fallacy of misplaced concreteness” is from Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: Free Press,  1967), 51. “Seek simplicity and distrust it” is from ———, The Concept of Nature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1926), 163.
20. J.Robert McNeill, Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000).
21. Eric Chaisson, Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 139.; ———, Epic of Evolution : Seven Ages of the Cosmos (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), 293 – 96.; David Christian, Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).
22. Kurzweil certainly knows this and has done some interesting calculations on the energy requirements, which he envisions coming largely through more efficient harnessing of solar energy, perhaps on the scale of the solar system collection devices rather than merely Earth bound collectors.
23. Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything: Special Illustrated Edition (New York: Broadway Books,  2005), 477-78.
24. Peter Thiel is president of Clarium, a global macro hedge fund. He is also the founder and chairman of Palantir Technologies, a national security software firm, and a founding investor and board member of Facebook. He was founder and CEO of PayPal.
25. See chapter eight in Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.
27. For a brilliant series of lectures on the role of ideologies and utopias in human society, see Paul Ricoeur, Lectures on Ideology and Utopia (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986). For a philosophical analysis of conflicting ideologies, see my essay William J. Grassie, “Entangled Narratives: Competing Visions of the Good Lie,” Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities XXXIV (1&2), http://www.grassie.net/articles/2008_entangled_narratives.html.
29. Ray Kurzweil and Terry Grossman, Trascend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever (New York: Rodale Press, 2009).
30. The term “mythinformation” was coined by Langdon Winner, The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1986). While dated somewhat, this book is extremely helpful in thinking philosophically and critically about technology, politics, and culture. In 2000 I helped organize a two-day conference on life extension technology. See Arthur Caplan and et.al., “Extended Life, Eternal Life,” John Templeton Foundation, http://www.extended-eternallife.org/frame.html. See also my essay, William J. Grassie, “Time Enough for Love,” http://grassie.net/time-enough-for-love-life-extension/.
31. In her “Cyborg Manifesto” and other writings, UCSC philosopher Donna Haraway has explored the many tragedies and ambiguities of technoscience and global capitalism, rejecting all forms of messianism. See Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York: Routledge, 1991). ———, Modest Witness @ Second Millennium.The Femaleman© Meets Oncomouse™. (New York: Routledge, 1996). ———, When Species Meet, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008).
32. Robert A. Heinlein, Time Enough for Love (New York: Ace Books, 1973).
Barrow, John D. Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Bryson, Bill. A Short History of Nearly Everything: Special Illustrated Edition. New York: Broadway Books,  2005.
Caplan, Arthur, et.al. “Extended Life, Eternal Life.” John Templeton Foundation, http://www.extended-eternallife.org/frame.html.
Castellani, Brian. “Map of Complexity Science.” http://www.art-sciencefactory.com/complexity-map_feb09.html.
Castellani, Brian, and Frederic William Hafferty. Sociology and Complexity Science: A New Field of Inquiry. Berlin: Springer Verlag, 2009.
Chaisson, Eric. Cosmic Evolution: The Rise of Complexity in Nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001.
———. Epic of Evolution : Seven Ages of the Cosmos. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
Christian, David. Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
Gilbert, Scott F., and David Epel. Ecological Developmental Biology: Integrating Epigenetics, Medicine, and Evolution. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, 2009.
Gleick, James. Chaos: Making a New Science. New York: Penguin, 1987.
Grassie, William J. “Entangled Narratives: Competing Visions of the Good Lie.” Sri Lanka Journal of the Humanities XXXIV (1&2), http://www.grassie.net/articles/2008_entangled_narratives.html.
———. “Post-Darwinism: The New Synthesis.” Metanexus Institute, http://www.grassie.net/articles/2009_postdarwinism.html.
———. “Time Enough for Love.” http://grassie.net/time-enough-for-love-life-extension/.
———. “Useless Arithmetic and Inconvenient Truths: A Review.” Metanexus Global Spiral (2007), http://grassie.net/useless-arithmetic-and-inconvenient-truths/
———. “Wired for the Future: Kevin Kelly’s Techno-Utopia.” Terra Nova: Nature and Culture 2, no. 4 (1997): 91-101.
Haraway, Donna J. Modest Witness @ Second Millennium.The Femaleman© Meets Oncomouse™. New York: Routledge, 1996.
———. Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991.
———. When Species Meet. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008.
Harel, David Computers Ltd.: What They Really Can’t Do. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Heinlein, Robert A. Time Enough for Love. New York: Ace Books, 1973.
Hofstadter, Douglas R. Gˆdel, Escher, Back: An Eternal Golden Braid. New York: Vintage Books, 1979.
Houellebecq, Michel. The Elementary Particle. Translated by Frank Wynne. New York: Alfred Knopf, 2000.
Joy, Bill. “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us.” WIRED 8.04, (1999).
Kelly, Kevin. Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World. New York: Addison-Wesley, 1994.
Kurzweil, Ray. The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.
Kurzweil, Ray, and Terry Grossman. Trascend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever. New York: Rodale Press, 2009.
Lanier, Jaron. “One-Half of a Manifesto: Why Stupid Software Will Save the Future from Neo-Darwinian Machines.” WIRED 8.12, (1999).
McNeill, J.Robert. Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
Penrose, Roger. Shadows of the Mind: A Search for the Missing Science of Consciousness. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
———. The Emperor’s New Mind: Cencerning Computers, Minds and the Laws of Physic. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.
Pilkey, Orrin H., and Linda Plkey-Jarvis. Useless Arithmetic: Why Environmental Scientists Can’t Predict the Future. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.
Ricoeur, Paul. Lectures on Ideology and Utopia. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.
Ross, Greg, and Douglas R. Hofstadter. “An Interview with Douglas Hofstadter.” American Scientists, http://www.americanscientist.org/bookshelf/pub/douglas-r-hofstadter.
Whitehead, Alfred North. Science and the Modern World. New York: Free Press,  1967.
———. The Concept of Nature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1926.
Winner, Langdon. The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1986.
Wolfram, Stephen. A New Kind of Science. Champaign, IL: Wolfram Media, 2002.