the technological singularity, revisited again

Advocates of the supposedly incoming Technological Singularity have been long on talk but short on detail and seem to see no reason to reverse this trend.
enclosed city
Illustration by Jason Boog

Chances are that many of you either heard of Skeptically Speaking or tune in on a regular basis. For the 52nd episode of the show, yours truly made a brief appearance to talk about the Technological Singularity and point out that contrary to both New Age musings and technological evangelism, our advancement in everything from computing to biochemistry isn’t actually a part of human evolution.

You can look forward to the Singularity with all your might, but you’re not going to spot it not just because the original idea is so vague and open-ended in ways that make it impossible to pinpoint what would actually constitute the Singularity and why, but because a designation of a major revolution in technology is a retroactive event, not a proactive one. You can’t point to the future and say that with the inventions that will be completed by the end of 2045, the world will change forever since you a) probably don’t have the powers of precognition and b) it’s really not up to you. Instead, the point of the Singularity will be determined by the opinions of those who will write history books for future generations.

If we were to strip out references to bleeding edge science in Singularitarian literature and look at the central notion behind it, what’s left looks an awful lot like an attempt to codify ideas in popular science fiction as the blueprint of the future. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that because good sci-fi is supposed to inspire and we have satellite networks, space travel and a lot of military and civilian technology thanks to great sci-fi’s ability to get scientists rubbing their chins in thought. But what I do consider wrong is building businesses on the idea of machine-aided immortality and promoting pseudoscientific life-extension ideas which we know don’t work according to decades of research.

I’m also not a fan of high-minded delegation of crucial work to others, as if it’s up to today’s computer scientists and biologists to fulfill a certain group’s wish for immortality according to their schedule. Sorry Ray, but it simply doesn’t work that way. You can’t order immortality or a new cyborg body part like you order a pizza and expect it to be there in 25 years or less. As odd as it may sound, I’m just as determined as many Singularitarians to work on projects that can affect our future. The only difference between us is that I’m trying to keep my goals realistic.

And that concludes the snarling skeptic portion of the post because I can understand the motivations behind a lot of the Singularitarian hopes and dreams and I do appreciate their enthusiasm in the matter. However, one must keep in mind that we live in a universe in which our willpower can only affect so much and the progress in the direction we want to see won’t necessarily happen within our lifetimes. This is why the time we can get out there and do something is so important. We only get one shot at it and we have to do as much as we can in the time allotted to us to make a difference. Spending time on wishful thinking, pseudo-scientific magic and defending pet projects that can’t stand up to empirical scrutiny out of ego and the need for personal validation isn’t necessarily a wise use of our very finite and very valuable resource: time.

And this is why I’d like to offer a proposal to the members of the Singularity Institute who read this blog and have engaged in some interesting and very stimulating discussions with me. Partner up with colleges and invest in their AI and medical projects to back science-based research and development. Zero-in on the kind of cold, hard science that helps build a little piece of the future every day. The worst thing that can possibly happen is that you would’ve contributed to the search of knowledge which will lead to a better tomorrow, or in other words, you have nothing to lose.

# tech // futurism / technological advancement / technological singularity

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