Over the past 60 years, computers have shrunk from room-sized to pocket-sized. According to Moore’s Law, technology is improving at an exponential rate. Futurists like Ray Kurzweil claim that technology is advancing so quickly that in the next 50 years there will be an intelligence explosion, creating an era in which machines will be more intelligent than people. At some point, man and machine will merge. And, since computers don’t degrade like biological tissue, the worn-out parts could be easily - and endlessly - replaced. Humans, in machine form, could theoretically live forever. This is The Singularity.
Wait, wait, wait…I’ve totally seen this movie. Wasn’t Keanu Reeves in it?
But this isn’t Sci-Fi… this is real. And it’s a theory that some of today’s most brilliant minds and innovators support.
WHAT?! Are these super-intelligent robots going to take over the world and eat our brains and steal our souls??!! Are we doomed??
Not really. And there isn’t a “point in time” when The Singularity will “hit”. In fact, it’s a process that is already occurring. Think about it. We’ve watched as secretaries have been replaced by computer programs like iCal, and travel agents are on the endangered species list, being replaced by websites. Even doctors are being replaced by robotic devices. We are on the verge of ordering up an ear or a liver with a combo CT scanner/3D printer! Someday, these super-fast and super-smart machines could aid in solving the world’s most complex problems, problems too difficult for the current state of human brains to solve. What if curing cancer could be as simple as a Google search? The possibilities are endless. Technology is amazing.
The annual Singularity Summit, an academic symposium for Singularity dialogue, was held in New York City last month. I’ve been going to Singularity conferences over the past couple of years. What’s interesting to me is that rarely is there talk of brain-uploading or human/machine merging or any of that “crazy Singularity stuff”. Rather, it’s always an intellectual smorgasbord of some of the world’s most renowned thinkers and doers. Yes, there are the weirdos that want to live forever– but are they really weirdos? The life-extensionists that are there are just trying to help you live longer and healthier (What’s a little cryogenic freezing between friends?). Robotics professors like Professor James McLurkin came to discuss their latest inventions such as tiny cheap robots that operate in sync. “We need to RockStar-ify science and technology,” McLurkin mused, “It should be cool to be a geek.”
<— Alcor/Cryonics “Emergency ID” bracelet/necklace (in case you die).
Investors like Peter Thiel talked about the importance of innovation and uniqueness. He commented on Steve Jobs’ recent passing with a startling true remark: “We shouldn’t be content with there being one person in our society who tries to invent things.” He’s right - we should ALL be feeding society with ideas.
Ray Kurzweil mused about how he’d rather have the smartphone on his belt be embedded inside of his body. And, of course, there was the dude whose presentation seemed an awful lot like an acid trip (Take the trip yourself, but make sure you’re in a safe place with some friends you trust).
But overall, the people “involved” in the so-called Singularity are simply brilliant thinkers and innovators looking to push the bounds on what’s possible in their respective fields of science, technology, and engineering. The Singularity University itself (founded by Kurzweil) does not at all aim to write code for every neuron in the brain or try to stuff their students inside of supercomputers. Rather it brings students together to try to solve global problems like poverty and the energy crisis.
If you told your friend that you wanted to send 2,000 cockroach-sized robots to Mars to search for life, they might check you in to the nearest psychiatric ward. But so many of these seemingly wacky ideas lead to game-changing inventions that change the world. (“Here’s to the crazy ones…”) By embracing a world that thinks outside of the box - one that questions, is perpetually curious, and shuns repeat and “me-too” technologies - we’re allowing the universe to become a vastly more innovative place.
With this in mind, it’s odd that the Singularity concept is still taboo. One of my computer science professors at the University of Pennsylvania told me he thought the Singularity is as real an issue as global warming. He also stressed that if a professor admits that he or she “supports” the Singularity, they will not get tenure. What does it even mean to “support” the Singularity? It’s just supporting technological advancement– and who doesn’t support that? The US government and corporate America both cry out for a more innovative society and try to interest young students in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).
Does this make us all “Singularitarians”, “futurists”, or “transhumanists”? Does it matter? Labels like these, which many of the people involved in the Singularity dialogue like to call themselves, might be fun and exclusive-sounding for them. They make them feel like they belong to something, but if public involvement is the goal, then these labels might do more harm than good.
The overall spirit/sentiment of the Singularity is to make the most of our fleeting lives on Earth – to see how much we as toolmaking humans can make, how far we can possibly push, how long we can possibly live. We’re explorers, makers, movers, shakers, doers, thinkers, tinkerers and this is a group that’s doing exactly that. Taking risks on new technology and “crazy” ideas will lead to a more advanced and exciting universe that appeals to all, not just the Sci-Fi nerds that sign themselves up to be cryogenically frozen at 16-years-old.
After all, it is only 2011 – and there is so much ground left to break.