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Science and Technology

Singularity


May,2008

Across cultures, classes, and aeons, people have yearned to transcend death.

Bear that history in mind as you consider the creed of the singularitarians. Many of them fervently believe that in the next several decades we’ll have computers into which you’ll be able to upload your consciousness—the mysterious thing that makes you you. Then, with your consciousness able to go from mechanical body to mechanical body, or virtual paradise to virtual paradise, you’ll never need to face death, illness, bad food, or poor cellphone reception.

Now you know why the singularity has also been called the rapture of the geeks.

The singularity is supposed to begin shortly after engineers build the first computer with greater-than-human intelligence. That achievement will trigger a series of cycles in which superintelligent machines beget even smarter machine progeny, going from generation to generation in weeks or days rather than decades or years. The availability of all that cheap, mass-­produced brilliance will spark explosive economic growth, an unending, hypersonic, tech­no­industrial rampage that by comparison will make the Industrial Revolution look like a bingo game.

At that point, we will have been sucked well beyond the event horizon of the singularity. It might be nice there, on the other side—by definition, you can’t know for sure. Sci-fi writers, though, have served up lots of scenarios in which humankind becomes the prey, rather than the privileged beneficiaries, of synthetic savants.

But the singularity is much more than a sci-fi subgenre. A lot of smart people buy into it in one form or another—there are versions that dispense with the life-everlasting stuff. There are academic gatherings and an annual conference at Stanford. There are best-selling books, audiotapes, and videos. Scheduled for release this summer is a motion picture, The Singularity Is Near, starring the actress Pauley Perrette and a ­gaggle of aging boffins who’ve never acted in a movie. (Without any apparent irony, the picture’s producers call it “a true story about the future.”)

There’s also a drumbeat of respectful and essentially credulous articles in the science press. Unlike stories about UFOs or zero-pollution energy sources, singularity stories don’t exact from editors a steep payment in self-respect. That’s because of the impressive attainments—albeit usually in fields unrelated to neuro­science or biology—of some of the people who chirp about mind uploading and nanomachine organ repair. The leading spokesman for the life-everlasting version of the singularity is the entrepreneur and inventor Ray Kurzweil, who’s also behind the movie The Singularity Is Near and a recent book of the same title.

Why should a mere journalist question Kurzweil’s conclusion that some of us alive today will live indefinitely? Because we all know it’s wrong. We can sense it in the gaping, take-my-word-for-it extrapolations and the specious reasoning of those who subscribe to this form of the singularity argument. Then, too, there’s the flawed grasp of neuroscience, human physiology, and philosophy. Most of all, we note the willingness of these people to predict fabulous technological advances in a period so conveniently short it offers themselves hope of life everlasting.

This has all gone on too long. The emperor isn’t wearing anything, for heaven’s sake.

The singularity debate is too rarely a real argument. There’s too much fixation on death avoidance. That’s a shame, because in the coming years, as ­computers become stupendously powerful—really and truly ridiculously powerful—and as electronics and other technologies begin to enhance and fuse with biology, life really is going to get more interesting.

So to produce this issue we invited articles from half a dozen people who impressed us with their achievements and writings on subjects central to the ­singularity idea in all its loopy glory, encompassing not just hardware and wetware but also economics, consciousness, robotics, nanotechnology, and philosophy. And with a few exceptions, we found people who are not on record as either embracing singularity dogma or rejecting it.

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