Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘The Singularity is Near

The ethereal phase

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Like many readers, I first encountered the concept of the singularity—the idea that artificial intelligence will eventually lead to an era of exponential technological change—through the work of the futurist Ray Kurzweil. Fifteen years ago, I was browsing in a bookstore when I came across a copy of his book The Singularity is Near, which I bought on the spot. Kurzweil’s thesis is a powerful one, and, to a point, it remains completely convincing:

What, then, is the Singularity? It’s a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed…The key idea underlying the impending Singularity is that the pace of change of our human-created technology is accelerating and its powers are expanding at an exponential pace. Exponential growth is deceptive. It starts out almost imperceptibly and then explodes with unexpected fury—unexpected, that is, if one does not take care to follow its trajectory.

Kurzweil seems particularly enthusiastic about one purported consequence of this development: “We will gain power over our fates. Our mortality will be in our own hands. We will be able to live as long as we want (a subtly different statement from saying we will live forever).” And he suggests that the turning point will occur “before the middle of this century.”

This line of thinking, which was much more novel back then than it is today, was enough to briefly turn me into a transhumanist, or at least into the approximation of one. But I’m more skeptical now. As I noted here recently, one of Kurzweil’s core arguments—that incremental advances in medical technology will lead to functional immortality to those who can hang around for long enough—was advanced by John W. Campbell as far back as 1949. (Writing in Astounding Science Fiction, Campbell muses that a child will be born one day who never has to do die, and he concludes: “I wonder if that point has been passed? And my own guess is—it has.” There’s no proof yet that he was wrong, but I have my doubts.) And the notion of accelerating change is even older. The historian Henry Adams explores the possibility in an essay published in 1904, and a few years later, in the book Degradation of the Democratic Dogma, he writes of the pace of technological progress:

As each newly appropriated force increased the attraction between the sum of nature’s forces and the volume of human mind, by the usual law of squares, the acceleration hurried society towards the critical point that marked the passage into a new phase as though it were heat impelling water to explode as steam…The curve resembles that of the vaporization of water. The resemblance is too close to be disregarded, for nature loves the logarithm, and perpetually recurs to her inverse square. For convenience, if only as a momentary refuge, the physicist-historian will probably have to try the experiment of taking the law of inverse squares as his standard of social acceleration for the nineteenth century, and consequently for the whole phase, which obliges him to accept it experimentally as a general law of history.

Adams thought that the point of no return would occur around 1917, while Buckminster Fuller, writing over a generation later, speculated that technological change would lead to a post-scarcity society sometime in the late seventies. Such futurists tend to place the pivotal moment at a far enough remove to be plausible, while still potentially within their own lifetimes, which hints at the element of wishful thinking involved. (It’s worth noting that the same amount of time has passed since the publication of The Singularity is Near as elapsed between Adams’s first essay on the subject and the date that he posited for what he liked to call the Ethereal Phase.) And unlike other prophets, they benefit from their ability to frame such speculations in the language of science—and especially of physics and mathematics. Writing from the point of view of a historian, in fact, Adams arrives at something that sounds remarkably like psychohistory:

If values can be given to these attractions, a physical theory of history is a mere matter of physical formula, no more complicated than the formulas of Willard Gibbs or Clerk Maxwell; but the task of framing the formula and assigning the values belongs to the physicist, not to the historian…If the physicist-historian is satisfied with neither of the known laws of mass, astronomical or electric, and cannot arrange his variables in any combination that will conform with a phase-sequence, no resource seems to remain but that of waiting until his physical problems shall be solved, and he shall be able to explain what Force is…Probably the solution of any one of the problems will give the solution for them all.

And each of these men sees exactly what he wants to find in this phenomenon, which amounts to a kind of Rorschach test for futurists. On my bookshelf, I have a book titled The 10% Solution to a Healthy Life, which outlines a health plan based largely on the work of Nathan Pritikin, whose thoughts on diet—and longevity—have turned out to be surprisingly influential. Its author says of his decision to write a book: “Being a scientist and a trained skeptic, I was always turned off by people with strong singular agendas. People out to save my soul or even just my health or well-being were strongly suspect. I felt very uncomfortable, therefore, in this role myself, telling people how they should eat or live.” The author was Ray Kurzweil. He makes no mention of the singularity here, but after another decade, he had moved on to such titles as Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever and Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever. Immortality clearly matters a lot to him, which naturally affects how he views the prospect of accelerating change. By contrast, Adams was most attracted by the possibility of refining the theory of history into a science, as Campbell and Asimov later were, while Fuller saw it as the means to an ecological utopia, which had less to do with environmental awareness than with his desire to free the world’s population to do whatever it wanted with its time. Kurzweil, in turn, sees it as a way for us to live for as long as we want, which is an interest that predated his public association with the singularity, and this is reason enough to be skeptical of everything that he says. Kurzweil is a genius, but he’s also just about the last person we should trust to be objective when it comes to the consequences of accelerating change. I’ll be talking about this more tomorrow.

The immortality factor

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If you’ve done any reading over the last few years about the transhumanist movement, you’re probably aware that there are people among us who are pretty sure that they aren’t going to die. This expectation might seem ludicrously farfetched, but to hear some of them talk, immortality is mostly a matter of good timing. Here’s how one writer explains the underlying logic:

At some point in the history of the world and the history of medical science, a point will be reached such that a child born at that time can, if he chooses—and has reasonable luck so far as mechanical damage goes—live practically forever. This point in time will be some forty or more years before the perfection of the full requirements for continuous life—and this point may already have passed without our knowing it…The first advance of thirty years [of lifespan] would be no “eternal youth” treatment. But—science tends to advance exponentially. That thirty-year reprieve might give just the time needed for research to extend your life another forty years. And that forty years might—

The author continues: “Somewhere in history there must come a point such that a child born then will be just passing maturity when the life-extension techniques will reach the necessary point. They will grant him a series of little extensions—each just sufficient to reach the next—until the final result is achieved.” And he closes on an optimistic note: “I wonder if that point has been passed? And my own guess is—it has.”

The logic here isn’t inherently unreasonable, and it gains much of its power from one particular point—the allegedly “exponential” growth of science and technology, which implies that if we manage to hang on for long enough, we have a shot at reaching the breakthrough that leads to unlimited life extension. Another highly intelligent proponent of transhumanism begins by repeating the argument made above:

For every ten or twenty scientists who will admit they believe in possible longevity, there is only one who will go so far as to speak of physical immortality. Nonetheless, every breakthrough in life extension means that some of us will live long enough to be around for the next breakthrough, and the next, until immortality is actually achieved…I am…confident that something will come of this kind of research “in fifteen years maximum.”

In support of this viewpoint, he cites “the acceleration of scientific breakthroughs,” adding later: “Many things in technology are advancing exponentially, and the one general tendency is clearly that there will be more basic breakthroughs (both in scientific theory and in technological applications) in each generation than in any previous generation.” And he concludes with a familiar statement to the reader: “Some of the readers of this book—the more determined ones—may never die at all.”

More recently, the conversation about technological acceleration has come to focus on the concept of the singularity—the moment at which artificial intelligence advances to the point where it becomes capable of building on itself, leading to the standard exponential curve. It isn’t hard to think of plenty of unpleasant scenarios that might follow this development, but for your average transhumanist, it only provides another path forward. Another prominent advocate has consistently argued for years that we’re on the verge of three major revolutions—in genetics, technology, and robotics—that will culminate in the singularity, which he expects to live long enough to see. As he puts it: “How long does a house last? The answer obviously depends on how well you take care of it…If you proactively take care of the structure, repair all damage, confront all dangers, and rebuild or renovate parts from time to time using new materials and technologies, the life of the house can essentially be extended without limit.” He continues in a reassuring vein: “The same holds true for our bodies and brains. The only difference is that, while we fully understand the methods underlying the maintenance of a house, we do not yet fully understand all of the biological principles of life. But with our rapidly increasing comprehension of the biochemical processes and pathways of biology, we are quickly gaining that knowledge.” And his conclusion should ring a bell: “Sufficient information already exists today to slow down disease and aging processes to the point that baby boomers like myself can remain in good health until the full blossoming of the biotechnology revolution, which will itself be a bridge to the nanotechnology revolution.”

By now, you’ve probably figured out the punchline. The first writer whom I quote above is John W. Campbell, writing in an editorial in Astounding Science Fiction in 1949. Campbell died in 1971. The second source is Robert Anton Wilson, who added elsewhere in Cosmic Trigger, which was written in 1977: “Since DNA was discovered in 1944, the biological revolution (including longevity, and possibly immortality) should be peaking in 2004.” Wilson died in 2007. The third quote is from Ray Kurzweil, who published The Singularity is Near twelve years ago. Kurzweil is still around, and as a senior director of engineering at Google, he’s certainly in a better position than his predecessors to devote actual resources to the promised revolution in longevity. And while it may well happen in my lifetime, as the earlier examples indicate, it’s far from certain. A child born when Campbell wrote his editorial would be nearly seventy now, which reminds us that we’ve been hearing these promises for a long time—and it hints at an important distinction between the actual argument and its rhetorical presentation. The assertion that technology advances at an exponential rate is convincing enough, and so is the idea that we’ll eventually reach a point when death can be indefinitely postponed, although your mileage on the latter notion may vary. But the statement that the generation in which the author is writing is the one that will witness this breakthrough is purely a rhetorical device, with nothing in particular to back it up. (On some level, it’s as old as as the Gospel of Matthew: “Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”) There may come a time when we’ll be able to live for as long as we like. But it will take more than wishful thinking to get there.

Written by nevalalee

July 23, 2018 at 9:41 am

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