the skeptic’s guide to the singularity
Whenever I write about Ray Kurzweil and the imminent paradigm shifts in technology and human evolution he predicts will happen in the next few decades, I always get a stream of very critical feedback calling me way too pessimistic, or arguing that new and better technology will always be possible as long as there are engineers working on it. The response from the Singularity Institute has varied from critical, to extremely congenial with the important point that we shouldn’t shoot down the promise of highly advanced computer technology but do our best to explore it.
And you know what? I agree with all the points brought up by the critical readers and by the members of the Institute. However, I have a number of issues with Ray’s fantastic world of tomorrow and want to provide a cold, hard, skeptical look into the science and technology behind making it happen in reality. Believe it or not, I actually want to work on some of the projects brining some of the sci-fi style machinery Ray constantly invokes to life. But my problem with the Singularity blueprint for the future is a rush towards seeing the progress happen and escaping mortality since this is Kurzweil’s primary goal. Transhumanists want to be immortal and they try to find any reason why this should be possible.
The end result gives them an alternative worldview in which technological advancement somehow becomes part of human evolution and the idea of a tool that could be used to radically extend our lifespans and grant us the ability to branch out beyond the Earth as some sort of imminent evolutionary step by which we transcend nature and take evolution into our very own hands. But that’s not how evolution works. Rather than take the process into our hands, we’re still going to be ruled by it no matter what we do.
Instead of planning to get away from evolution and perfect nature, we should be trying to learn from the bizarre and nifty solutions that evolved to counter harsh environments and restrictions placed on us by chemistry and physics. For a very long time, we’re not going to be giving birth to cyborgs. Rather, we’ll be turning people into them as they grow and age. We’ll need to keep our current organic brains to allow the random complexity and subtle interactions of neurons to shape our personalities.
We’ll need to limit tinkering with our genomes to a minimum so we don’t rely on rather flimsy gene therapy and let evolution do what it does. And very importantly, the engineers who’ll be working on these solutions need to plunge deep into the realm of science. When we start working on nanobots to help blast away cancerous tumors and perform surgeries without scalpels, we’ll need to spend years studying biology and medicine with qualified scientists as our guides. For those of us in the computer science realm, we’ll need to inject as much science into our work as we do engineering to truly provide Singularity-style solutions.
I simply can’t understate the importance of realizing that every transhumanist desire is very firmly based in our evolutionary drive to survive and ensure our species continues. Every one of the changes we want to develop so we can walk on other planets, become as resistant to radiation as the heartiest bacterium, and maybe put death on a very long hold, would just be a response to natural selection. We’re never going to transcend every rule imposed on us by the laws of nature. We just need to make the best of them and with enough effort, time and money, we can really build amazing things. But we shouldn’t invent ridiculous dogmas and pretty charts devoid of practical meaning.
It’s probably hard to tell from my critical posts, but I’m very passionate about this stuff and could easily spend hours building requirements for some of these technologies, discussing all the pros and cons of mind uploading vs. extensive programs to change humans into cyborgs as well as the bugs and technical challenges we’d need to address. I’m even continuing my education for a chance to do tangible work in this direction and apply what I’ve learned about science to the realm of speculative technology.
So ladies and gentlemen, I don’t simply snarl at the Singularity or dismiss the work slowly being done by the idea’s proponents. But just like scientists want to critique and debate ideas to find the right answer, designers and engineers want to weed out potential dead ends and clear up misconceptions. This isn’t about optimism vs. pessimism or practical vs. pie-in-the-sky ideas. It’s about separating real projects from wishful or suspect thinking and creating real blueprints, real requirements and getting down to work. The longer we talk about all sorts of pseudoscientific transhumanist mythologies, the longer it will take to bring the products their want to market and accomplish the lofty goals from which humanity will benefit.