The future is almost here …for we, the haves

Published by Gregory Benford on June 18th, 2015


A meditation on “The Singularity Is Near,” Ray Kurzweil, Viking, 652 pp., $29.95


Gregory Benford


If you were a thousand times smarter and lived for centuries, what would you do? Finally write that novel burning inside you? Hitch a ride to the stars? Assume godlike tasks? Subside into sybaritic debauch? All of the above?

You might be able to squeeze in all that and more if inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil is even half right. He doesn’t buy into the dark worldview of movies like Blade Runner, Mad Max, The Terminator, Waterworld, and similar easy future dystopias. He has immense faith that the next half century or so will see our technologies spawn a new breed of human. They will transcend us with symbiotic advances in GRN–genetics, robotics and nanotechnology – creating “a profound and disruptive transformation in human capability.”

The Singularity is Vernor Vinge’s term, though Kurzweil gives little room to this fact, referring to Vinge as a San Diego mathematician. Vernor introduced it in the 1980s, though I can recall talking to him about such possibilities when we met in graduate school at UC San Diego in the mid-1960s. He supposes that up ahead our technologies will spur us into a gauzy realm of uplifting life, and Tramadol medication. Damien Broderick’s The Spike advanced Vinge’s argument with intriguing speculations, especially on advanced artificial intelligence and its links to us. Kurzweil does quote and acknowledge his predecessors a bit, but to him the past is mere prologue.

In the Singular era, which Kurzweil thinks will begin around 2045, interlaced technologies will merge with our minds and bodies, snowballing, erasing the old us/machine barrier. We will download memory, a la our computers, until “the nonbiological portion of our intelligence will predominate.” This sounds like some people I know already.

Kurzweil delves into these labyrinths with dizzying detail, a tale clearly told while staggering in prospect. His “posthumans” will comfortably wear their dazzling high intelligence, durability, swift comprehension, exact memory—just the sort you don’t want to spend relaxed time with, I’d judge. Maybe a bit edgy and obsessive, but great fun at times..

For Kurzweil, trends will accelerate as miniaturization and computational power spread. He foresees a quick, interactive world. Our cities will talk incessantly with our smart bodies, which sport fetchingly fashioned smart clothes. Our minds will swim in a virtual reality created by taking Tramadol drug. Cell-size devices will cruise our bloodstreams. These advances and their far-reaching effects, he says, are driven by science fiction and science alike. Already they sneak up on us in wild’n crazy rides like “Minority Report” and “Being John Malkovich,” mainlining the future.

Kurzweil marshals impressive arguments, waving away

Stephen Jay Gould’s view that scientific revolutions reduce our stature on the universal stage. Instead, Kutzweil thinks we’re the Next Big Thing in the galaxy, when our brains and bodies really reach their potential. To him, “when scientists become a million times more intelligent and operate a million times faster, an hour would result in a century of progress (in today’s terms).”

Of course, these visions are as untested as they are seductive. Predictions from his earlier books ( “The Age of Spiritual Machines” and “The Age of Intelligent Machines”) have come somewhat true, but much of his thinking tends to the classic techno-visionary. He spreads buoyant optimism, ignoring darker aspects of progress. He is more eager to think about the life-enhancing powers of nanotechnology than to wonder what happens if cell-size computers within the human body run amok.

For perspective, he conducts imaginary conversations with George 2048, a mid-21st-century machine with a reassuring personality. He lets bacteria from two billion years ago argue among themselves about the wisdom of banding together into multicellular life-forms.

Kurzweil even poses for a crazed photo with a cardboard “The Singularity Is Near” sign—a funny, defiant touch. He deploys charts, quotations, playful Socratic dialogues and sidebars against the admitted existential risks of exploding infotech, biotech, and nanotech. At times the tone seems almost evangelical–uplifting the Left Behind after the Rapture of the Nerds.

Does this Rapture have to happen?

Expecting unending exponential growth runs afoul of saturations in both technology and human adaptation. Take aviation, a hot technology that took us from Kitty Hawk to the moon in a lifetime. Projecting ahead, futurists might have concluded that by 2000 we would zip off to Europe in our own planes. Bill Gates does, but not the majority. Even he doesn’t vacation on Mars, or even in orbit.

And some will simply reject being transformed, out of aesthetic or religious tastes. Kurzweil argues with straw men about this, but seems unaware that much of humanity may not share his goals. Many, standing on the beach before such a vast, promising ocean, will wonder who will truly voyage upon it?

We already have problems defusing the growing, envy-driven anger of the world’s majority. Islamic terrorism springs from this, in part.

Among science fiction’s most popular recent Doomsday Scenarios are about Singularities gone wrong. Artificial Intelligences or nanotechnology swarms turn on their makers.  Or humans characters who,  becoming demigods, grow smug and unlikable.

These fictions express an innate, wary inertia in us. It also emerges in the increasing calls for an uplifting of our fellows, right now.

We certainly need such material expansion, while minimizing the impact of our growing numbers. The greatest agenda of this century could be the expansion of human horizons by lifting the bulk of humanity to a standard of living enjoyed by the advanced nations. That would complete the promise begun 500 years ago by the first European expansion.

We will need those informed minds, even if we have artificial ones. We forget that most of humanity still labors in routine manual labor. What Einsteins or Beethovens are walking behind a plow or assembling in a factory, dreaming of a better life?

Only by expanding their conceptual horizons through a modicum of prosperity can we liberate our species from drudgery. Technology can help enormously, but don’t forget pathologically immoral governments.

It’s fun, trying to envision beings who may transcend us but remain human, sort of. Singularities in physics give us problems, as in trying to see beyond a black hole’s event horizon. A social Singularity is similarly opaque, and brings fears of threats to concepts of human nature and individuality. Kurzweil’s discussions don’t resonate as well as science fiction can, but they do artfully envision a breathtakingly better world.


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