One Friday on 11 June 2010, New York Times published an article “Merely Human? That’s So Yesterday” that brought the Singularity into the mainstream. If you’ve never heard of this term until now, it is not surprising. Its visionaries come from the ranks of prodigies.
The visionaries of Singularity trumpet a bright future where the ills of the world can be solved by the power of technology, even overcoming death. However, the Singularity also has the capacity to mutate into some George Orwellian-like science fiction world with human beings controlled by a new type of sophisticated totalitarianism that will transcend anything we can imagine. The movie “Matrix,” actually gives a good portrayal of what a world shaped by the Singularity philosophy looks like, if it goes wrong.
Much as we would like to think that this is science fiction, we are witnessing the exponential progression in the power of technology that has huge implications for humankind’s ability to manage it wisely.
In May 2010, Synthetic Genomics announced that “it had created a bacterial genome from scratch” and the company’s work as “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer.” This moves technology beyond the realm of science into the realm of metaphysics that will bring with it more questions than answers.
Merely Human? That’s So Yesterday
Published: June 11, 2010 New York Times
Some of Silicon Valley’s smartest and wealthiest people have embraced the Singularity. They believe that technology may be the only way to solve the world’s ills, while also allowing people to seize control of the evolutionary process. For those who haven’t noticed, the Valley’s most-celebrated company — Google — works daily on building a giant brain that harnesses the thinking power of humans in order to surpass the thinking power of humans.
Larry Page, Google’s other co-founder, helped set up Singularity University in 2008. The university represents the more concrete side of the Singularity, and focuses on introducing entrepreneurs to promising technologies. Hundreds of students worldwide apply to snare one of 80 available spots in a separate 10-week “graduate” course that costs $25,000. Chief executives, inventors, doctors and investors jockey for admission to the more intimate, nine-day courses called executive programs. Both courses include face time with leading thinkers in the areas of nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, energy, biotech, robotics and computing.
There are camps of environmentalists who decry efforts to manipulate nature, challenges from religious groups that see the Singularity as a version of “Frankenstein” in which people play at being gods, and technologists who fear a runaway artificial intelligence that subjugates humans.
For the most part, Mr. Kurzweil serves as a figurehead of Singularity University, while Mr. Diamandis steers the institution. He pitches the graduate student program as a way to train young, inspired people to think exponentially and solve the world’s biggest problems — to develop projects that will “change the lives of one billion people,” as the in-house mantra goes.
Mr. Diamandis hopes that the university can create an unrivaled network of graduates and bold thinkers — a Harvard Business School for the future — who can put its ideas into action. Along with that goal, he’s considering creating a venture capital fund to help turn the university’s big ideas into big businesses. As some of their favored student creations, school leaders point to a rapid disaster alert-and-response system and a venture that lets individuals rent their cars to other people via cellphone.
Mr. Diamandis has certainly built a selective institution. More than 1,600 people applied for just 40 spots in the inaugural graduate program held last year. A second, 10-week graduate program will kick off this month with 80 students, culled from 1,200 applicants.
During the spring executive program, about 30 people — almost all of them men — showed up for the course, which is something of a mental endurance test. Days begin at dawn with group exercise sessions. Coursework runs until about 9 p.m.; then philosophizing over wine and popcorn goes until midnight or later. A former Google chef prepares special meals — all of which are billed as “life extending” — for the executives.
The meat of the executive program is lectures, company tours and group thought exercises.
Other lecturers talk about a coming onslaught of biomedical advances as thousands of people have their genomes decoded. Jason Bobe, who works on the Personal Genome Project, an effort backed by the Harvard Medical School to establish a huge database of genetic information, points to forecasts that a million people will have their genomes decoded by 2014.
“I know in 10 years it will be a junior-high project to build a bacteria,” says Mr. Hessel. “This is what happens when we get control over the code of life. We are just on the cusp of that.”
Christopher deCharms, another Singularity University speaker, runs Omneuron, a start-up in Menlo Park, Calif., that pushes the limits of brain imaging technology. He’s trying to pull information out of the brain via sensing systems, so that there can be some quantification of people’s levels of depression and pain.
“We are at the forefront today of being able to read out real information from the human brain of single individuals,” he tells the executives.
George Orwell Revisited
Some of the Singularity’s adherents portray a future where humans break off into two species: the Haves, who have superior intelligence and can live for hundreds of years, and the Have-Nots, who are hampered by their antiquated, corporeal forms and beliefs.
“The Singularity is not the great vision for society that Lenin had or Milton Friedman might have,” says Andrew Orlowski, a British journalist who has written extensively on techno-utopianism. “It is rich people building a lifeboat and getting off the ship.”
He began his march toward the Singularity around 1980, when he started plotting things like the speed of chips and memory capacity inside computers and realized that some elements of information technology improved at predictable — and exponential — rates.
“With 30 linear steps, you get to 30,” he often says in speeches. “With 30 steps exponentially, you get to one billion. The price-performance of computers has improved one billion times since I was a student. In 25 years, a computer as powerful as today’s smartphones will be the size of a blood cell.”
His fascination with exponential trends eventually led him to construct an elaborate philosophy, illustrated in charts, that provided an analytical backbone for the Singularity and other ideas that had been floating around science-fiction circles for decades.
As far back as the 1950s, John von Neumann, the mathematician, is said to have talked about a “singularity” — an event in which the always-accelerating pace of technology would alter the course of human affairs. And, in 1993, Vernor Vinge, a science fiction writer, computer scientist and math professor, wrote a research paper called “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era.”
“Within 30 years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence,” Mr. Vinge wrote. “Shortly after, the human era will be ended.”
Despite all of the zeal behind the movement, there are those who look askance at its promises and prospects.
Jonathan Huebner, for example, is often held up as Mr. Kurzweil’s foil. A physicist who works at the Naval Air Warfare Center as a weapons designer, he, like Mr. Kurzweil, has compiled his own cathedral of graphs and lists of important inventions. He is unimpressed with the state of progress and, in 2005, published in a scientific journal a paper called “A Possible Declining Trend for Worldwide Innovation.”
Measuring the number of innovations divided by the size of the worldwide population, Dr. Huebner contends that the rate of innovation peaked in 1873. Or, based on the number of patents in the United States weighed against the population, he found a peak around 1916. (Both Dr. Huebner and Mr. Kurzweil are occasionally teased about their faith in graphs.)
“The amount of advance in this century will not compare well at all to the last century,” Dr. Huebner says, before criticizing tenets of the Singularity. “I don’t believe that something like artificial intelligence as they describe it will ever appear.”
Steve Jurvetson, a director of Synthetic Genomics, is part of a group of very rich, very bright Singularity observers who end up somewhere in the middle on the philosophy’s merits — optimistic about the growing powers of technology but pessimistic about humankind’s ability to reach a point where those forces can actually be harnessed.
Mr. Jurvetson, a venture capitalist and managing director of the firm Draper Fisher Jurvetson, says the advances of companies like Synthetic Genomics give him confidence that we will witness great progress in areas like biofuels and vaccines. Still, he fears that such technology could also be used maliciously — and he has a pantry filled with products like Spam and honey in case his family has to hunker down during a viral outbreak or attack.