The Singularity

Earlier this year I encountered a Time magazine article discussing Raymond Kurzweil’s vision of the Singularity. These three links should provide you with a basic idea of the futuristic concept, but for my readers who may, very understandably, be experiencing summer passivity, I will give a brief summary.

The term “technological singularity” refers to a theoretical future time in which technology and computing intelligence surpasses that of the human brain. It is the critical point at which the synthetic machine possesses an intelligence and consciousness greater than the biological entity that gave birth to it. This idea is by no means original; you can see examples in most every sci-fi novel and film. What interests me, however, is Kurzweil’s vision of how this technological singularity will impact daily human life. His theory implicates not just those interested in far-fetched science and technology, but every single human being.

In Kurzweil’s novel The Singularity Is Near, he puts forth the possibility of transplanting a human consciousness into a machine if scientists were able to mimic the exact architecture of an individual’s neurological system, a process called “reverse engineering.” In fact, scientists in Switzerland have already been trying to do so in the Blue Brain Project. By escaping the frail human body, we also escape all its limitations. This brings up the possibility of immortality (or at least longevity), escaping the physical boundaries afforded by the human body, and redefining reality. In turn, these possibilities raise many profound questions, many of which cannot easily be answered, or even easily approached.

How will immortality impact the human species? The awareness of death has permeated human life in both the macro and the micro aspects. All religions esteem death as an important event in one’s life. The concept of heaven, hell, and purgatory are based on death. Although my knowledge on religions is limited, I understand that part of what gives religion and spirituality its personal appeal is that they deal with inevitable death. You and I will die sometime in the future, and it is something out of our control. The very idea is more than daunting, it is destructive. Too many times have I heard the nihilist line, “Nothing matters because we’re all going to die in the end.” Religion lends meaning to life as well as death, often by asserting the existence of an eternal after life. On the micro scale, the awareness of death is evident in the typical age that people marry, from mid 20s to mid 30s. Furthermore, our education system begins educating kids at a fixed, young age. The structure of the “typical and proper life” synchronizes itself with the standard 90-100 year old life span of the modern day human. I could go on listing other examples of the societal “timeline,” but you get the idea.

Would immortality destroy these behavioral pillars of society? What reason is there to get married at that age if you will be living for however long you choose? What’s the big rush to get educated so early? Forgive me for not offering a definite opinion on these questions, I am still tackling them myself. At the same time that it lends me a sense of infinite freedom that accompanies the removal of a subconscious burden, I fear chaos. Without the pressure of time, would humans be as driven to progress? Or would we live in a constant state of dreamy torpor? How much does mortality drive us now? Would we, as a species, take advantage of longevity or would we exploit it as another reason to live complacent lives? I am not trying to offer some veiled assertion or criticism with these questions. I am genuinely curious of what you think.

Now the other question that bothers me is, would it be possible to 100% transfer a human consciousness? This puts my fundamental dilemma in the spotlight: do humans consist of simply atoms and molecules, or is there something more, something that surpasses the physical? If the answer is yes, we are indeed just biological machines, then Kurzweil’s consciousness transplant should succeed. But I’m curious for the day when this experiment is put to the test. Would it be the exact same individual once placed in the machine? Or would something be lost? Is there a such thing as a spirit, or a soul? And does it exist in the physical neurological system, or does it hold a metaphysical place of its own? My intuition is biased towards the latter.

Speaking of intuition, thinking about ideas like the Singularity, ideas that force oneself to consider disagreeable situations and compel one to question your deepest core beliefs, is very uncomfortable for me. But recently I’ve been trying out a new attitude towards thinking, “Face new ideas with an open mind, but not necessarily an open heart.” The mind and intuition are interconnected, but perhaps it would be beneficial to compartmentalize the two. In this manner, one can head into unknown territory and entertain ideas of all kinds, unburdened and unbiased by personal prejudice. However, the intuition makes sure he does not lose himself in ridiculous abstractions, reminding him of his inviolate agency in choosing what to think and believe. You can imagine this attitude as purposefully wandering into the unknown while bound by a safety rope that leads back to home. It’s been interesting so far and I wonder where it will lead me.

Tagged under Philosophy