A radical conception of where we might be headed, known as the Singularity, is gaining increasing momentum among the high tech cultural elite. The Singularity refers to a belief that, at the current rate of technological progress, we’re rapidly approaching a threshold event in history when artificial intelligence will transcend human intelligence, and the resulting transformation will lead to a new form of existence utterly different from anything that has come before.
British mathematician, I. J. Good, was the first to describe this powerful and unsettling vision in 1965. “Let an ultraintelligent machine,” he wrote, “be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion’, and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.”
More recently, the idea of the Singularity has been associated with inventor and futurist Raymond Kurzweil, who published a bestseller, The Singularity Is Near, in 2005. Speculative as his ideas remain, they’re gaining traction: Kurzweil is currently a director of engineering at Google, and his Singularity University boasts a faculty of some of Silicon Valley’s leading entrepreneurs.
Kurzweil’s vision of the Singularity
The Singularity, for Kurzweil, will be an intentional merger of humans with technology, permitting us to transcend our biological limitations. “There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality,” Kurzweil declares. He argues that the Singularity is much closer than most people imagine, setting its date at 2045.
Kurzweil bases his prediction on his “law of accelerating returns,” under which technological advances keep accelerating exponentially. Until when? In Kurzweil’s model, it just doesn’t stop. Even the Singularity is just one stage towards something even grander, a “Big Bang”-like explosion of intelligence on a vast, cosmic scale “until nonbiological intelligence comes close to ‘saturating’ the matter and energy in our vicinity of the universe.”
Even this is just a step towards a greater destiny. “As we approach this limit,” he continues, “the intelligence of our civilization will continue its expansion in capability by spreading outward toward the rest of the universe... Ultimately, the entire universe will become saturated with our intelligence.”
Kurzweil envisions the entire universe filled with an intelligence originally created by the human mind. While the scope of his vision is extraordinary, it is based on a value system as old as the ancient Greeks. What we see in Kurzweil’s discourse is an ultra-modern version of the deification of reason initiated by Plato, which became the foundation for our modern worldview.
In Plato’s cosmology, our reason linked us to the divine. The early Christians transformed this into the conception of an immortal soul existing, after the body’s death, with God in heaven. Descartes reformulated this dualistic framework into the modern, scientifically acceptable mind/body split, identifying the human capacity for thought as the essence of our existence. Kurzweil’s vision of pure intelligence carries this dualistic tradition into the future, fueled by the power of technology.
Plato used his extraordinary imagination to deify the human reasoning capability, conceiving a creator god as the personification of reason. Kurzweil is prepared to go further: through technology, our intelligence will ultimately become God. “Is there a God in this religion?” he asks, and then answers his own question. “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.”
When Kurzweil talks about “we” possessing this future godlike power, he means this literally. His fervent hope is that the Singularity will arrive soon enough for him to get on board personally, and thus escape what he calls the “calamity” of death. “I’m not planning to die,” he reveals. “It’s my plan to be involved in this next phase of humanity where we get past some of the frailties of these Version 1.0 bodies we have.
Why Kurzweil’s Singularity is a delusion
Two and a half millennia ago, Plato attempted to transcend the death of his body by making it irrelevant, imagining himself to have a soul that would survive for eternity. Now, Kurzweil is straining towards the actualization of Plato’s original ambition.
How does he intend to achieve this? By scanning the entire contents of his nervous system into a digital format and uploading it onto hardware that he thinks will be available by the late 2030s.
For Kurzweil, his body is “hardware” and his mind is “software”: a direct continuation of the dualistic Cartesian conception of the human being. With a simple updating of terminology, Plato’s “soul,” which became Descartes’s “mind,” is transformed into Kurzweil’s “software.”
Once again, we’re back to that root metaphor of Western cognition: nature as a machine. The problem with this view is that it is fundamentally misguided. The metaphor of nature as a machine, whether applied to the natural world or the human organism, is no more than a metaphor, one that has been powerful enough to propel the trajectory of the modern world and, through its success, to mislead many people into mistaking it for reality.
“It is important,” writes a team of leading neuroscientists, “to emphasize the stark differences between brains and computers… Software and hardware, which can be easily separated in a computer, are completely interwoven in brains – a neuron’s biophysical makeup is intrinsically linked to the computations it carries out.”
Our human experience, whether Kurzweil likes it or not, is fundamentally embodied and cannot be separated from our physical existence in the way software can be separated from hardware. Sadly for Kurzweil, he will not succeed in his quest for immortality by uploading his brain, because his ambition is based on a dualistic metaphor of human existence that ultimately does not constitute reality.
Selected references: Vernor Vinge, "What Is the Singularity?", VISION-21 Symposium (March 301993). Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near (New York: Penguin Books, 2005). Christof Koch, and Gilles Laurent, "Complexity and the Nervous System," Science 284 (1999): 96–98.