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The Singularity: Is This Our Future?

February 26, 2011

One of the most intriguing and disturbing, if not frightening, plot lines of Star Trek, the Next Generation, was The Borg.

The Borg are a fictional pseudo-race of cybernetic organisms depicted in the Star Trek universe. Whereas cybernetics are used by other races in the science fiction world (and in recent times the real world) to repair bodily damage and birth defects, the Borg voluntarily submit to cybernetic enhancement as a means of achieving what they believe to be perfection (they also force their idea of perfection on others). Source: Wikipedia

This morning while watching Bloomberg Financial, I saw their promotion for a new show premiering on Monday. They made reference to speaking with Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.

What is “The Singularity”?

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology is a 2005 update of Raymond Kurzweil’s 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines and his 1990 book The Age of Intelligent Machines. In it, as in the two previous versions, Kurzweil attempts to give a glimpse of what awaits us in the near future. He discusses the coming technological singularity, and how we will be able to augment our bodies and minds with technology. He describes the singularity as resulting from a combination of three important technologies of the 21st century: genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (including artificial intelligence).

Four central postulates of the book are as follows:

1. A technological-evolutionary point known as “the singularity” exists as an achievable goal for humanity.
2. Through a law of accelerating returns, technology is progressing toward the singularity at an exponential rate.
3. The functionality of the human brain is quantifiable in terms of technology that we can build in the near future.
4. Medical advancements make it possible for a significant number of his generation (Baby Boomers) to live long enough for the exponential growth of technology to intersect and surpass the processing of the human brain.

Kurzweil’s speculative reasoning and selective use of growth indicators has been heavily debated and challenged.

What stood out in the Bloomberg promo was the hosts’ star struck quality when discussing Kurzweil’s predictions. Kind of a ooo-ah moment. What was apparent was the real lure of Kurzweil’s future shock ideas: the lure of immortality. If we embrace integrated technology into our human bodies the theory goes, we can live forever. This brings up all sorts of issues: moral and ethical, spiritual and socio-economic, philosophical and psychological… should we, and why would we? Who gets it? How will this technology be regulated? Will this lead to a super race like the Borg?

Transformation of a Different Kind

One of my favorite movies is Bicentennial Man with Robin Williams. Based on a novella in the Robot Series by Isaac Asimov, it is the story about future robot servants who are helpers and workers for mankind. In the movie the robot called, Andrew, works for the Martin family. We follow his story from robot to a self-aware sentient being. Through the process of integrating human parts into his body he transforms himself into being human, or nearly so. It is an insightful and touching movie. It challenges us to ask what being human is and what are our motivations for what we do and how we view our existence.

My own personal take on the Singularity issue is this: It’s fascinating in theory just like the classic Ray Bradbury’s science fiction story, I Sing the Body Electric (a child, Agatha, is unwilling to accept an Electrical Grandmother as a surrogate for her dead mother, until the Grandmother demonstrates her own immortality). For a polymath like me with a high IQ one might think I love all things technological, futuristic. The answer is no. While I like technology for certain uses, I prefer the natural world. I do not embrace AI technology like a good friend. I think of most artificial intelligence as computers in trash cans – fancy trash cans, but nonetheless vacuous housing – no one is in there; it is a machine, albeit a sophisticated machine just like Mr. Data in Star Trek, another robot who asks what it is like to be human and to feel. It is a tool with many uses, but I will never delude myself into thinking that i would replace friends, family, or even caretakers with robots. The human touch is magical. Human empathy healing. Intimacy irreplaceable. No matter how well AI is fashioned to mimic human gestures, or spout answers based in sophisticated software and an encyclopedic database– it is what it is – and it is not human. Let me be clear, I prefer dogs over many humans, but I prefer humans over robots.

Nanotechnology

The technology I find most intriguing however is, nanotechnology where nanobots can be programmed to find cancer cells in our bodies and destroy them. This takes me to two other shows I recently saw – both on PBS television.

1. What’s the Next Big Thing?
Greet the future: social robots, a “smart” electric grid, microbes that make diesel fuel, and more. Aired February 23, 2011 on PBS. In this episode of NOVA scienceNOW, come face to face with social robots that understand human feelings, carry on conversations, even make jokes. Then travel to Haiti, where geologists investigate the 2010 earthquake not long after it struck for clues to how to better forecast future quakes. Afterwards, join engineers at General Motors who are testing tiny, two-wheeled cars called EN-Vs, which one day might drive themselves through city streets. Learn about proposals for making our outdated electric grid “smart.” And meet Nebraska native Jay Keasling, a pioneer in synthetic biology who shares his work on developing “designer” microbes that produce biofuels and medicines.

Click to watch it here

2. Making Stuff Smaller
How small can we go? Could we one day have robots taking “fantastic voyages” in our bodies to kill rogue cells? The triumphs of tiny are seen all around us in the Information Age: transistors, microchips, laptops, cell phones. Now, David Pogue takes NOVA viewers to an even smaller world in “Making Stuff: Smaller,” examining the latest in high-powered nano-circuits and micro-robots that may one day hold the key to saving lives.

Click to watch it here

Sources:
Two Paths to Singularity
http://spectrum.ieee.org/computing/hardware/ray-kurzweil-and-neil-gershenfeld-two-paths-to-the-singularity

Spectrum IEE
http://spectrum.ieee.org/static/singularity

PBS NOVA the Next Big Thing’
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/tech/what-is-the-next-big-thing.html

Nanotechnology News
http://www.sciencedaily.com/news/matter_energy/nanotechnology/

The Dangers of Nanotech
http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/tech/maynard-nanotech-au.html

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