Will We All Be Obsolete? Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity Debate

Hello everyone! This month I’ve been talking about William Gibson’s non-fiction writings, centering on his assertion that our interactions with technology have already made us the cyborgs of his stories. This brought me back to the Technological Singularity, the idea that at a certain point in human history, we will eventually artificial intelligence sophisticated enough to create better artificial intelligence.

This is a really cool / terrifying idea, and I’ve covered it before, specifically focusing on how to use it or avoid being hobbled by it in your own writing. However, what I realized I have not discussed is the tempestuous debate surrounding this topic in both the public and academic spheres.

Singularitarianism as the New Utopian Dream

Vernor Vinge, on of the first contemporary theorists in the field of “Future Studies” has predicted four different possible routes we might take to reach an uncontrolled and possibly cataclysmic explosion of technological development:

  • We might develop self-aware artificial intelligence on purpose (think Siri)
  • We might accidentally create self-aware artificial intelligence (as in, the Internet wakes up, or Skynet)
  • We augment our intelligence prosthetically to the point that we are superhuman (Cyborgs)
  • We augment ourselves biologically to the point that we are superhuman (think Benedict Cumberbatch’s Khan from the recent Star Trek movie, but not necessarily  evil or murderous)

Obviously, the examples I give seem to imply that any one of these could mean our doom, and that is one interpretation of the theory. However, many Singularitarians (as they have come to call themselves) have hopes that this event will actually mean the next stage of human evolution and mean the transcendence of natural limitations. According to some, this could mean we finally get Utopia.

Ray Kurzweil is an extremely outspoken (and combative) member of this group, and is responsible for inspiring a lot of the public interest in this topic. His first book The Age of Intelligent Machines kicked off much of the larger discussion and made him well known for his transhumanist predictions that we will take the less apocalyptic route and use the Singularity to become more than human. Here’s an interview from SingularityHub which encapsulates much of Kurzweil’s thoughts:

Or, for a much shorter and quite funny presentation of what Singularitarians believe, see this video:

But the Singularitarians do have their opponents, and it is important to see the other side of the argument.

Opponents of the “New Church” of the Singularity

Theoretical utopian societies always have detractors, often because they make necessary assumptions about human nature or technology which can be criticized. It is interesting to note that even some of the cyberpunk writers such as Bruce Sterling and Neal Stephenson are critical of Kurzweil’s theories, seeing them as too fantastic to truly represent a possible future.

But there are also voices from the scientific community who do not agree with the premises of the Singularitarian movement. One example is Brazilian neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis denies that the human brain can actually be simulated, and that we can especially not replicate the human consciousness. While Kurzweil believes that we are pretty close to figuring out how the human brain works, Nicolelis thinks this is all “hot air” (according to Singularity Hub). Another is George E. Moore, the guy Moore’s Law of semiconductors is named after, who does not believe that machines will attain the same intelligence as humans, because they are outside the natural evolutionary process which (he believes) resulted in us.

In fact, IEEE.org, the website for the Institute for Electric and Electronic Engineers, has a fantastic list of high profile supporters and detractors of the theory of the Singularity, and their diverse thoughts on the subject offers a sample of the debate (part of a larger single-issue web magazine full of extremely interesting articles; check it out here!). The sheer number of consequences and possible outcomes for the Singularity (or any of the above should the event never occur) has been a significant feature of science fiction in the past 20 years, so it is extremely useful to understand where so many of these writers, critics, and theorists are coming from.

That’s it for this week! I’ll finish up my discussion of Gibson’s non-fiction next week (there’s one more really great article I want to talk about). Until then, do you believe in the Singularity? Let me know in the comments below!

 

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About erikthereddest

I'm a Masters student in English, and I love technology and Science Fiction. I am refining and enhancing my (admittedly novice) writing talents under the sage advice of my friends here at Lantern Hollow Press, and with the great many books I am reading from the best authors I can find.

Posted on October 23, 2013, in Artificial Intelligence, Authors, Cyberpunk, Erik Marsh, Inspiration, Lantern Hollow Press Authors, Science Fantasy, Science Fiction, Speculative Fiction, Technology, William Gibson, Writing Hints and Helps and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Have you read Roger Penrose, THE EMPEROR’S NEW MIND? He claims to have proved that strong AI is mathematically impossible. I can’t follow all the math, but it’s a fascinating book.

    • I have not, but I think I’ll look into it (not that I necessarily believe that I will be able to follow the math either XD). Personally, I believe that it will prove impossible to create true human-esque A.I. because I don’t believe that it’s as simple as simulating the human brain, but we’ll definitely keep making smarter and smarter computer intelligence. It’s one thing to actually create an artificial sentient being, but one thing entirely other to make something that acts close enough to the real thing to fool us. Will it have feelings and other human characteristics? Naw. But then, why would it need to if we want it to order out movie tickets online for us or schedule our next doctor’s appointment (like the things we’re actually programming AI to do for use currently)?

  2. I believe Skynet is out there, just biding its time. 😉

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