Last Off Ramp Before Armageddon Email Print

In previous diaries, I've argued that our cheap energy culture is fragile, precariously balanced, and likely to die a messy death unless we begin devoting a lot more effort to shoring up our future.  I've also diaried the idea that we're falling far short of that goal, and that for a number of reasons we're likely to fail, leading to... bad stuff.  In short, I have been a gloomy Gus.

But not today.  Today, I'm going to bring you a more hopeful vision of the future.  In fact, you might consider this a religious diary.  Because if Ray Kurzweil is right, immortality is right around the corner.

So, say Amen and pass the microchips, because we're heading for the singularity.

Back to the Past
Before we consider Kurzweil's vision of the near future, we need to take a side trip back to the past.  So hang on, and cue that talking dog and the kid with the glasses.

Okay, it's 12,000 BCE.  The last major ice age is on the wane, the world is both wetter and warmer than it has been in millennia, and every person on earth is a hunter-gatherer.  Thanks to an extended period of good weather, people are spreading out in numbers never seen before.  In the Middle East, the Fertile Crescent was genuinely fertile, and (as Jared Diamond pointed out so well in his book, Guns, Germs, and Steel) singularly well provided with an array of edible plants and animals.  It's party time.

But the party wouldn't last.  A time of extremely turbulent climate change began, and after brief interludes of both warmer and cooler weather, the ice age conditions that had prevailed for much of the last 20,000 years suddenly came rushing back.  In both North Africa and the Middle East, a thousand years of drought set in.

All around the world, hunter-gatherer populations were stressed by the change.  Humans retreated from the refreshed glaciers and fled from expanding deserts.  Some regions lost their human populations entirely.

But not the Middle East.  Some time in the midst of this calamity, humans living in the Fertile Crescent passed through a tight spot and came out different than when they went in.  At the start of this period, every human being on the planet moved with the seasons and wandered after the herds.  By the end of it, in areas near the Jordan and Euphrates rivers, there were small towns made from stone and mud brick.  Surrounding these towns were fields of emet wheat and barley.  In the face of disaster, these people had become transformed into something that no hunter-gatherer of a previous age could imagine.  They had become farmers.  Within the next few millennia, other groups would make this transition, and the new way of life would spread quickly over Europe and Asia.  

Kurzweil labels this kind of transformative event a "singularity," naming them after the bit of raw, anomalous physics exposed at the heart of a black hole.  In a physical singularity, the usual rules go out the window, and systems as simple as cause and effect can appear to reverse their direction.  In a societal singularity, the old assumptions, morals, and way of life are overthrown.

Farming the Mind
In his latest book, The Singularity Is Near Kurzweil argues that we are following an exponential curve when it comes to information and biological technologies.  Already, we've seen how technologies like the Internet can be both enabling and disruptive, but these are only the opening grumbles to a social earthquake in the making.  According to Kurzweil, we're reaching an exponential point in the curve, and will soon face one of those transitional moments just as great as the change from hunter-gatherer to farmer.

In Kurzweil's future -- a future he sees as imminent -- almost nothing remains of how we live today.  The rapid convergence of information technologies along with what he labels GNR (genetics, nanotechnology and robotics) results in an explosive break with our current society.  People will never die unless they choose to.  The ravages of age are swept aside.  The boundaries of the mind are removed.

Not even the language survives.  What does it mean to "know" something if you can know everything?  What does it mean to talk if you can communicate as effectively as computers on a network?  What if you can relay your meaning -- your real meaning -- without having to face the clumsy burden of words?  What does it mean to be "you," if that you is only part of a kind of technological godhead?  Are you still you, or are you just another scribble of code in the machine?

And hang on, did I say this was a happy diary?

Kurzweil uses the improvements in computing technologies over the last fifty years to show that the idea of a computer as "intelligent" as a person, long the stuff of science fiction, is finally drawing near.  Within a decade, we should have the first box that can think as well as, if not like, a man.  This won't just be a number cruncher par excellance, but a machine that can also synthesize and ferret out patterns as humans do.  A few years after that, we'll have boxes that are much better than us.  It will not take long before the mass power of computers greatly exceeds that of all the organic brains on Earth.

Kurzweil's Chart of Increasing Computer Power

The good news is that this massive improvement in brainpower offers an "out" to all those dire circumstances I've outlined in previous diaries.  Yes, it may be getting harder and harder to solve our problems, and the raft of troubles facing us may be the toughest nut mankind will ever have to crack, but augmented by an army of superbrains, we'll break on through to the other side of material and energy shortfalls.

The bad news is, the computers are going to eat us.  Okay, not eat us so much as succeed us.  Kurweil sees this as the next step in the evolution of humankind, in which we will transcend our biological limitations and merge with our computing creations.  The current planet full of disconnected humans and dumb-as-a-bug computers will be replaced by a superintelligent entity that has elements of the biological and the technological.  There was an old cartoon in which someone asks the computer "Oh, great computer, is there a God?" and the computer replies "There is... now."  Evidently, the person who crafted this quip was prescient.

Kurzweil not only welcomes this idea, he sees it as inevitable.  He cites the ways in which were are already using technology to extend both our lifespans and our minds, and argues quite convincingly that we will not be able to put the genie back into the bottle.  The trends that gave us pacemakers and PCs are accelerating, not slowing, and the improvements in both computing power and miniaturization are making new advances possible year after year.  Increasingly, we are turning our lives over -- and into -- smart machines.

The price we pay for avoiding the trap of a failing society, may be that of abandoning humanity.

Brain Fog
So is Kurzweil right?  Are we all heading toward techno-krishna?  

Well, there's no doubt that Kurzweil is an extremely bright guy.  He's been a pioneer in so many areas of computing, that he's respected as an all round guru of all things technological.  There's also no doubt that he's been passionately investigating these areas for years.  

However, there's a big problem with singularities.  Remember that physical singularities are buried at the bottom of a black hole.  So far as we're aware, the "naked singularity" that allows inspection, does not exist in nature.  So, the rules of normal space may be very muddy down there in the singularity, but we don't get to see the chickens going back into their eggs or banana cream pies appearing ex nihilo.    Similary, when it comes to societal singularities, we have a very limited ability to conceive of what comes on their other side of the choke point.

The hunter-gatherer who first held a handful of wheat in her hand, and conceived the idea that by returning some of that grain to the ground, there might be more food for the tribe in the next season, may have envisioned a full belly down the line.  However, it's unlikely that she knew this would lead to settled towns, to city states, to inter-city warfare, to nations, to pyramids, and roads, and ships, and moon landings, and us.

Even Ray Kurzweil will admit that the effects of his impending singularity are unknown.  He can see the crunch coming, but he can't know the results.

Many of those who have looked at Kurweil's predictions think that he's been too generous in expecting continual improvements in all these areas, and too optimistic in the idea that we'll be able to copy in silicon what the human brain does in a soup of fat and chemicals.  After all, the development of artificial intelligence, like fusion power plants, always sees to be "just around the corner."
But if Kurzweil is right, many of us alive today may never die.  You want to think about something that would transform societies beyond all recognition, think about that.  The surety of death defines us.  It molds our myths, defines our morality, and shapes ever facet of our world.  We live to die.  An escape hatch, not just from the frailties of our own system, but from death itself, would be far more transformative than any technology of the past.

Personally, I'm hoping Ray nailed this one.  I've got a lot of books to write, and unless I get at least a few hundred years more, I'm never going to get to them all.

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Using the logarithmic scale is going to enhance the flatlander's over-inflated perception of man's significance in the long history of planet Earth -- like they needed any further inflation.


Political Cortex -- Brain Food for the Body Politic

by Tom Ball on 01/20/2006 02:51:09 PM EST

The Neander-right will never manage to read the chart anyway.

Maybe the joke should go like this:

Pat Robertson: so, is there a God?

Massive collective of brain-soldered liberals: this is now.

by Devilstower on 01/20/2006 02:55:04 PM EST

of mortality, they have predicted an end to humanity. In fact, they have encouraged that end -- perhaps as a result of their own inflated sense of self-importance.

Seems every generation wants to believe, for some reason, that they are the last ones to grace the Earth's surface. That makes them important.

by Embolden on 01/20/2006 02:56:25 PM EST

Okay, so maybe they'll be BSG-esque Cylon hybrids, but still...

Naturally, immortality doesn't by force mean sterility, so any significant extension of human life span could easily result in a matching, rapid growth in population.  Eventually, however, one of the factors Paul Ehrlich brought up in The Population Bomb will come along to cull the herd.

by Devilstower on 01/20/2006 03:04:02 PM EST

Heck, at least they would (presumably) be smart enough to know how to get rid of the Busheviki.  Not that I actually expect said Cylons to come, at least not in my lifetime (yes, lifetime).

I think your critique of this prognosis (or any such prognosis) hits the nail on the head.  It's fashionable among us historians when attempting to explain the past to talk about events being "overdetermined."  What this pretentious-sounding word means is that there are such an infinite array of factors that cause something to happen (whether it is the invention of the cotton gin or the Russian Revolution or how and why Harry met Sally) that single-cause explanations (e.g. Marxism, Freudianism, rational choice theory, Francis Fukayama-ism) are inevitably hopelessly impoverished.

And if historians bicker and argue and even make careers(!) out of debating not only how and why things happened but even precisely what can be said to have happened, how can we begin to guess how things are going to unfold, even in the immediate future (c.f. "Dow 36,0000").  Perhaps quantitative, gradual breakthroughs in a particular branch of science might be with some confidence predicted, but to say either when or how a revolutionary breakthrough (let alone a Kuhnian revolution) will occur is, to my mind, impossible.

And if what a particular technological revolution will look like is so difficult to say, how much harder to look at a cluster of such revolutions, and, finally, how much more unlikely still to say how other political, social, cultural, etc., factors will interact with these changes to determine what effect it will have on society? (Not to mention the possibilities of avian flu, or some other previously inconceivable pandemic.)

No, I'm afraid I have more faith in Gloomy Gus, but even he is only making predictions based on inherently unstable and limited information (well-reasoned and sensible predictions, but provisional nonetheless.)

Still, Kurzweil (or your summary of him) makes good reading -- it reminds me of Greg Bear.

-- Stu

by sdf on 01/20/2006 04:16:15 PM EST

This reminds of something I read on by George Monbiot.  
Here is a passage, but I recommend reading the whole thing, as it offers a very interesting view on religion.
The myth of the Fall is the story of hunters and gatherers exceeding their ecological limits. They were forced out of Eden and into cultivation (Cain) and nomadism (Abel). But having conquered the fertile lands and developed an advanced agricultural economy, the former nomads who worshipped a single God were able, as technology improved, gradually to release themselves from some of the constraints of nature. It is surely this release which permitted them to believe that the cycle of history no longer needed apply; that the human story could instead be cumulative and progressive. From there it is a short step to the belief that history is moving towards a fixed point, when humans enjoy total victory over the material world, as the dead rise and live forever. If the myth of the Fall is the story of our subjection to biological realities, the myth of eternal life is the story of our escape from them. The first myth invokes the second. The gun on the wall in Act One must be used in Act Three.

by buddythedog on 01/21/2006 08:32:09 PM EST

Note that the Eden mythology reveals a very mixed view of civilization.  Mankind is forced from the garden, where life is easy and God a close and accessible presence, and into a life of constant toil.  All the instruments of civilization -- tools, music, metalworking -- are invented by the children of the murderer Cain, not Abel.

Even today, people have a yearning toward the shamanistic religions practiced (or previously practiced) by some Native American tribes, by Australian natives, or by isolated groups from the Amazon to Indonesia.  The Eden myth seems to reflect a keen longing among town-dwelling farmers for the life their ancestors enjoyed as hunter-gatherers, a life that among other things seemed much more imbued with spiritual practice.

by Devilstower on 01/22/2006 02:38:02 PM EST