26 January 2012

The Singularity

I'm back after winter vacation and getting my affairs in order at my college teaching job. Since the last post, I have been reading a great deal on the digital flood. I call it a flood because it is an unstoppable force that threatens to overwhelm us and take away our lives as we know them.

Don't get me wrong. I rely on computers to write, for communication of all kinds, for my car to run properly, and so on. I am the web master for my university department and I have two Facebook accounts: my regular one and a fan page for Angela 1. I am not a technophobe nor do I fear an apocalypse.

Ray Kurzweil is the high priest of the Singularity religion. You can get a full, and hair-raising, account by reading The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, which he wrote. It rests on two assumptions. The first is that information is the basic nature of the universe. Its corollary is that computers, being able to store far more information than humans can and to access it and transmit at speeds we cannot even imagine, are the next step in our evolution. Biological evolution is too slow for Kurzweil and the brain we have as its result does not work fast enough.

The other assumption is that the breathtaking speed and acceleration of computer technology will make machines totally reliable and miniaturized to the point of becoming part of our cell structure. Computer techs will become able to reverse engineer the brain and we will be able to merge with our machines. In the same way that we have pacemakers and brain implants to treat certain conditions, we will be able eventually to replace all this slow biology destined to die with machines that will live forever. If we could do all that, I find it scarifying. Kurzweil and all the technology apocalyptic apologists seem to think it will be a great thing. I say it would mean that machines will dominate and replace humans. That is, we all die. It is not the path to eternal life.

Don't fear. Both assumptions are highly questionable. No human, animal, plant, or even bacterium is reducible to a code of 1's and 0's (=yes/no). Humans are learning, emotional, spiritual, and social beings endowed with the ability to evaluate information, develop connections, create a world view involving all of the above and expressed in literature, art, music, science, and religion. We can communicate at levels different from and higher than information. Computers cannot come close to simulating that. Beyond that, we know what we know but a computer doesn't: it is not conscious. It is just a machine running routines as programmed. We are capable of achieving wisdom but machines only process data. Even smart, self-replicating nanobots.

The real danger is that we will accept any and everything that the digital flood throws at us. "If it's computer technology, it must be good for us," we seem to say. The time has come when we can and must evaluate what computer technology can and cannot do and, most importantly, should and should not do. If we do not take charge, all these things will be decided for us, not by machines, but by the Kurzweils of this world who make and program them.

In my Angela series I celebrate what makes us human. To find out more about it, go to www.strategicpublishinggroup.com/title/Angela1.html


  1. Nice post Dad! Interestingly, Ian McGilchrist would say that this is a reflection of the domination of the left hemisphere in how we (in the modern day West) think and therefore live our lives. Specifically he talks about the left hemisphere being that which builds up the world from little bits, as opposed to the right which takes it in whole (gestalt). The writers you mention look like textbook examples, thinking that our experience can be reduced to simple binary activities which are then scaled up.

    I wrote about this in a review of his book on my blog, have a look: http://from-all-angles.blogspot.com/2012/01/first-test-post.html

    He gave a similar example in Richard Dawkins' memes, which are his way of explaining the evolution of culture: basically little snipits of behaviour which can be inherited and eventually become a culture. McGilchrist calls this "the Dawkins Delusion" (play on words on Dawkins' book, the God Delusion).

  2. Great comment. Culture is shared values wrapped inside shared knowledge wrapped inside shared ways of doing things. The latter is the visible behavior of people, but it's the gestalt and the relationships only that give it meaning.