TEDxSiliconAlley 2012

Who believes in the Singularity?

It is the year 2045. Humans and machines have melded together because machine intelligence has progressed to the point of parity with that of humans.

 Parity is fleeting, though. Exponential technical progress advances so quickly that it soon surpasses humans and machines can redesign themselves in increasingly rapid upgrade cycles. As a result, humans begin uploading their minds into machines and live forever while Mostly Original Substrate Humans (MOSHs) steadily lose their ability to engage in dialogue with the rest of the cybernetic-enhanced race of humans in the following decades.

No it’s not a rip-off of The Matrix or a new Joss Whedon-directed series coming this fall on FOX. It’s the Singularity and it’s very real — “MOSH” sub-class designation and all. The term is actually in the glossary at the end of Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines:

MOSH: In 2099, an acronym for Mostly Original Substrate Humans. In the last half of the twenty-first century, a human being still using native carbon-based neurons and unenhanced by neural implants is referred to as a MOSH.”

Described as a “the ultimate thinking machine” by the Forbes, Kurzweil has won the Lemelson-MIT Prize and received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation for his pioneering work in text-to-speech synthesis and optical character recognition. (More of his work and accolades are listed on his website.) Kurzweil has dedicated his life to technological advancements and Singularity research and most recently signed on to be a director of engineering at Google so he could harness the search giant’s processing power and research faculties. Indeed, far from a sci-fi writer or firebrand pundit, Kurzweil is one of the tech community’s most active public intellectuals, with the Singularity as the cause about which he passionately preaches. Due to the exponential progress of technological advancements known as the “law of accelerating returns” as Kurzweil calls it, he believes that machine-human intelligence parity will arrive before the mid-21st century. It’s Moore’s law writ large, applied to the whole of machine intelligence and biotechnology. Associated predictions include that idea that, in 15 years, advances in medicine and technology will allow humans to prolong their lives by more than a year each year, thus achieving an indefinite lifespan. Kurzweil explains more about the Singularity here in an interview with Big Think:

The idea has been gaining currency in the tech world since Kurzweil first introduced his conception of the Singularity in his 2005 book The Singularity is Near. Prominent supporters of the theory include Larry Page, Peter Thiel and Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X Prize Foundation. Kurzweil and Diamandis even established Singularity University in 2007 to educate “future leaders, entrepreneurs, and technologists” on harnessing exponential technologies to address global problems. The annual Singularity Summit, also started by Kurzweil and friends, is currently in its eighth year and more people attend the conference every year.

With the rise of the Singularity’s popularity among the scientific community, its critics have risen proportionately as well. Paul Allen, best known as the co-founder of Microsoft, points out that the law of accelerating returns doesn’t apply to the Singularity the way Kurzweil envisions:

“… History tells us that the process of original scientific discovery just doesn’t behave this way, especially in complex areas like neuroscience, nuclear fusion, or cancer research. Overall scientific progress in understanding the brain rarely resembles an orderly, inexorable march to the truth, let alone an exponentially accelerating one. Instead, scientific advances are often irregular… and every so often new scientific paradigms sweep through the field and cause scientists to reevaluate portions of what they thought they had settled. These kinds of fundamental shifts don’t support the overall Moore’s Law-style acceleration needed to get to the singularity on Kurzweil’s schedule.”

Paul Root Wolpe, a bioethicist who’s worked with NASA, Planned Parenthood and various science journals and has several professorships at Emory University, deems Kurzweil’s conception of the Singularity as too simplistic, citing the reality of scientific research, which does not occur on a steady, exponential scale as the law of accelerating returns suggests.

Others take a more religious and ethical approach. Jaron Lanier, a pioneer in the field of virtual reality and a partner architect at Microsoft Research, likens Kurzweil and his transhumanism to a new-age religion and the Singularity as just another form of death denial — akin to the concept of Heaven in Judeo-Christian narratives.

“What we are seeing is a new religion, expressed through an engineering culture. … What all this comes down to is that the very idea of artificial intelligence gives us the cover to avoid accountability by pretending that machines can take on more and more human responsibility.”

To each of these critics, Kurzweil responds in a remarkably similar way, drawing upon the same examples with stoic patience — like a fatherly priest condescending to a rebellious child. His response usually includes the Human Genome Project (how it took seven years to decode 1 percent of the genome but the rest of the project was completed in the next seven) and how his critics don’t understand the law of accelerating returns. Here’s a classic, slightly snooty response he told the Wall Street Journal:

“My critics are thinking linearly and imagining continued linear progress, but that’s not true. [Progress will be] exponential: It makes an enormous difference. People also say the brain is too complex. Well, it’s a complicated area, but there’s a tremendous amount of redundancy—the complexity is more apparent than real. It’s a level of complexity that we can handle.”

With so many high-profile supporters and critics like Page and Allen (and the defensive back-and-forth in which Kurzweil is prone to engage), Kurzweil’s credentials, multiple books and essays, and a dramatic concept that invites comparisons to The Matrix, The Terminator series and other pop culture works, why isn’t Kurzweil a household name? Why don’t more people in the general public talk about the Singularity? One would think that the Singularity, as the technological equivalent of sorts to Christian Rapture, would at least be on par with the Rapture in American discourse in terms of popularity.

Sure, Kurzweil’s pedantic approach to criticism cannot compete with his more charismatic colleagues in science (e.g. Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson). His oftentimes defensive-sounding responses did not facilitate his role as a science communicator. To top it off, Wired’s 2008 feature on him revealed his daily diet includes consuming 210 pills a day in a radical attempt to stay alive long enough to witness the Singularity. Yet, these quirks about Kurzweil aren’t why the Singularity hasn’t achieved greater debate among the general public.

Most importantly, the Singularity just isn’t sexy enough for Americans to contemplate. Despite Kurzweil’s credentials, the gravity of the prediction and its close timeline, the Singularity fails to gain traction among the American public due to a decline in Americans’ appetite for public intellectualism.

Last month, as videos of Miley Cyrus’ provocative performance at an awards show made the rounds on the Internet, many criticized CNN’s prominent placement of Cyrus’ video over arguably more important topics of coverage (e.g. the Syrian civil war). The Onion offered a scathing satirical article that asserted CNN’s greedy executives were more concerned with gathering clicks and earning money than actual news reporting. While most agreed that the Cyrus story objectively didn’t deserve top billing over more important stories, Andrew Wallenstein, editor-in-chief of the digital department at Variety, chided *The Onion *with a sobering message:

“… Those who cherish the Syria coverage need to understand that Cyrus doesn’t detract from Syria; it actually bears the weight of traffic demands that Syria shouldn’t be expected to meet. Thus Cyrus is helping shoulder the cost of more substantial coverage that Syria can’t possibly meet on its own.

Fantasize if you must about a Cyrus-less CNN: all substantive coverage, all the time. But as long as CNN needs the kind of scale that keeps it on the ground in Syria and the world over while still dependent on advertising revenues, the organization must be mindful of keeping up audience levels across all platforms. Do you think Syria can carry that load?”

If Americans were more interested in Syria, the clicks would show it and CNN wouldn’t have to dedicate so much coverage to Cyrus’ twerking. While the debate over whether Cyrus’ dancing — whether it was too outrageous or just an artistic expression of the times — did generate much discussion among Americans, it’s hardly the type of public intellectualism with which Americans should be engaging — and it’s definitely not the level needed to wrangle more complex topics such as the Singularity or Syria.

Public intellectualism is a muscle that requires constant practice. If one’s job isn’t to practice that critical thinking muscle every day then one would find it difficult to think critically about more complex topics. In this case between Cyrus and Syria, Americans have chosen the easier intellectual debate over the more difficult one. In the debates surrounding Cyrus’ twerking, the most popular endgames (the most popular opinions) are more accessible. The terms and concepts with which one argues about twerking are more familiar to the American public, and therefore use less critical thinking muscle to reach a personal opinion (and engage in the debate). Furthermore, because more people discuss about Cyrus’ twerking, the various opinions and thoughts have already been expressed multiple times so it’s easier to follow someone else’s trail and develop an opinion. With Cyrus, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel in order to engage in the debate and reach and make an argument.

But with Syria and the Singularity, there’s a more difficult intellectual debate. Some Americans don’t even know where Syria is. As such, these topics requires more reinventing of the wheel in order to reach a conclusion. These topics are less accessible because most American communities don’t talk as often about Syria. But Syria, almost without a doubt, is the more complex issue with more grave ramifications to the world. The Cyrus story is a small speck compared to Syria. Yet Americans chose Cyrus over Syria, so it would seem that Americans are increasingly turning away from public intellectualism by opting for more low-level pop-culture intellectualism.

Stephen Mack, a professor with the University of Southern California’s (my school!) writing program, however, argues against the notion of American anti-intellectualism:

“Two points will suffice: One, the fact that academic institutions wield enormous financial, technological, and cultural power—and the fact that, more generally, education continues to be the centerpiece of some of our most cherished social myths (i.e., “the “American Dream”)—are both powerful reasons to doubt that Americans suffer from some instinctive hostility to intellectuals. Two, what is sometimes identified as anti-intellectualism is in fact intellectual—that is, a well articulated family of ideas and arguments that privilege the practical, active side of life (e.g., work) over the passive and purely reflective operations of the mind in a vacuum.”

With few exceptions, Mack is largely correct with his assessment. One could argue his first point about the influence of academic institutions might not be as true as it might have been in 2007 when his article was first published. As the cost of higher education rises and alternative programs such as the Thiel Fellowship crop up, more Americans are reconsidering the role of formal education in the American Dream. Nevertheless, Mack doesn’t exactly respond to the article’s initial concern that there might indeed be a decline in interest over the public duty of criticism. His article merely sidesteps it by providing a simplistic rebuttal to the concern (those two points in the blockquote) and then goes on to dismiss wholesale the premise of the concern — that there has been a decline of influence among American public intellectuals. Yet, there is validity to it. The root question should be rephrased such that it’s about the decline of public intellectualism and not public intellectuals themselves. Because there are more humans than ever on this globe, society doesn’t lack the cranial resources to think critically about issues. The problem, then, is that even with an unprecedented amount of resources (humans and their brains) to think critically, many Americans are actively disengaging from intellectual criticism by, for example, clicking on CNN’s coverage of Cyrus’ twerking instead of the latest military action from Syria.

As such, since Americans would rather pay attention to Cyrus instead of Syria, there’s little chance they’d look into Ray Kurzweil’s work and the Singularity. Not only is the Singularity not an action happening right now to be captured on video but the concepts surrounding the Singularity — neuroscience, bioethics, the law of accelerating returns — and the metaphysical consequences of a post-Singularity society — the loss of humanity, class warfare, cybersecurity issues — are too murky and unsavory for many Americans to voluntarily process. Nobody wants to think about the existential repercussions of a cyborg race when it’s more fun to talk about how rapper Kanye West’s baby is called North West.

Perhaps Jaron Lanier, the Singularity critic who highlighted transhumanism and Singularity’s religious and cultist undertones, has an idea about making the Singularity and similar ideas more palatable to the American public:

“If technologists are creating their own ultramodern religion, and it is one in which people are told to wait politely as their very souls are made obsolete, we might expect further and worsening tensions. But if technology were presented without metaphysical baggage, is it possible that modernity would not make people as uncomfortable?”