A metaphor is a glorious thing,
A diamond ring,
The first day of summer
A metaphor is a breath of fresh air,
Chicks dig, dig, d-i-g, dig, dig metaphors,
Metaphors are scraps of resemblance that tie us down. Ted Nelson
Let’s talk about the Singularity.
The Singularity is the closest thing to a religion for a large number of people who self-identify as ‘geeks’ at the moment. It’s also an idea which has been widely publicised in the last couple of weeks with the Singularity Summit having acheived some mainstream media coverage. The Singularity also *matters*, because it’s something that is believed in, to a greater or lesser extent, by a large number of tech billionaires – people who have actual influence and power.
The Singularity is a term taken from a science fiction story, and has a variety of meanings – almost one for every ‘Singulatarian’, but roughly speaking they all believe that “The Unity of Nanoscience, Biotechnology, Information Technology and Cognitive Science” (to borrow from the title of a book I’m currently reading ) will lead to humanity becoming gods.
That’s not an exaggeration. The basic belief of Singulatarians is that at some point in the future, we will have enough knowledge of biology, computing and nanotech that we can make ourselves immortal, upload our minds to tiny nanotech computers which will then take over the entire universe, turning it into computronium. We would then become immortal omniscient gods in a virtual reality indistinguishable from the real thing, except that it would be geared entirely to our personal happiness. There is another theory which states that this has already happened.
The timescale of this is, of course, disputed. At one end is Ray Kurzweil, stupid person and author of the moronic The Singularity Is Near, who argues due to his ability to draw a straight line that by the year 2010 “computers will disappear as distinct physical objects, with displays built in our eyeglasses and electronics woven into our clothing” (three months to go. I hope I can afford new glasses and clothes before Christmas) and that we will all become immortal gods within his lifetime. Kurzweil is regarded as one of the greatest futurists of our time, and billionaire technologists fawn on his every word.
At the other extreme is eccentric right-wing astrophysicist Frank Tipler, who also thinks this will happen, but believes it will take about fifteen billion years for us to become immortal, omniscient and omnipotent. Also, while Kurzweil bases his argument on drawing lines (and not even very accurate lines – I’m not usually a particular fan of P.Z. Myers, but I was very pleased to see that blog post from last year, because it saved me having to write the exact same thing), Tipler’s argument (in his fascinating The Physics Of Immortality (apparently out of print) and his frankly barking Physics of Christianity, but first put forward in The Anthropic Cosmological Principle , which is also the most sensible explanation) is based on known physics and makes testable predictions. However, unlike Kurzweil, Tipler also identifies the end result of his speculations with the Christian God, so he’s regarded as a crank, rather than an eminent futurist. (He *is* a crank, as anyone who reads his recent work, like this paper arguing that Obama is evil because of the existence of the luminiferous aether and the arguments put forward against abortion by the film Starship Troopers, will recognise, but he’s less so than Kurzweil). Tipler also argues that his Singularity will be an actual physical singularity – the universe will be condensed to a single point he calls the Omega Point.
Now, these ideas are actually inordinately appealing, to me at least. I like the idea of becoming an immortal, omniscient superintelligent superbeing living in a universe which exists solely for my pleasure. That sounds like a good thing to me. And I’m probably far more likely to want the Singularity to be true than the average person, because I’m not especially attached to my body. I’m balding, asthmatic, dyspraxic, overweight, have migraines and mild psoriasis, and have various sensory issues, the combination of which means that most of the time the closest i get to physical pleasure is ‘in less discomfort’. Upload my mind into a computer capable of processing text and music, and you’ve kept 95% of my joys in life while losing 100% of the unpleasantness. That seems like a good deal to me – especially if that computer can then simulate my mind in any body I want.
Unfortunately, I see three problems with the Singulatarian view – one technical, one poilitical, and one philosophical. All of these are surmountable, but there seems to be little evidence that any of them *will* be surmounted – or that any Singulatarians even consider these to be real problems.
This post is getting much, much longer than I thought it would, so I’m breaking it into several sections. I’m still writing the other sections as I post this, but they’ll be posted as I get them done. I won’t be replying to comments til they’re all complete.