The Singularity is defined by Wikipedia as : “a theoretical future point of unprecedented technological progress, caused in part by the ability of machines to improve themselves”. Ray Kurzweil predicts that we will reach singularity in a couple of decades from now. He sees the law of accelerating returns for technological development (a refinement of Moores law) as proof that this drastic endpoint is imminent. Kurzweil outlines the process in his book “The Singularity in near“. This post comments on the book and summarizes some of my thoughts on the singularity, which again will be pivotal in my own decision to embrace Transhumanism or not (next blog post).
Image from KurzweilAI.net
I am not going to discuss the concept of singularity itself as others have already done that extensively. The IEEE Spectrum Online’s special edition on Singularity is a recent example where several papers presents intelligent criticism of Kurzweils view on singularity:
The singularity debate is too rarely a real argument. There’s too much fixation on death avoidance. That’s a shame, because in the coming years, as computers become stupendously powerful—really and truly ridiculously powerful—and as electronics and other technologies begin to enhance and fuse with biology, life really is going to get more interesting. – Glenn Zorpette, IEEE Spectrum Online.
Reading the book from a biology/biochemistry perspective I myself find a number of flaws in Kurzweils arguments. He clearly is not a biologist by training and his lack of knowledge in biology fundamentals, in my view, puts a dent in his predictions. An illustrating example is when he mislabels the E. coli bacteria as a virus (p. 392, 1st chapter, 3rd bulletpoint). This in itself is a minor error, and could easily be excused if it wasn’t for the fact that he throughout the book, displays a lack of understanding of the complexity in biology. Which in turn leads to oversimplified solutions like the one for antiviral medications and treatments:
We have new tools suited to this task. RNA interference for example can be used to block gene expression. Virtually all infections (as well as cancer) rely on gene expression at some point during their life cycles (p. 422)
The basic biological fact is that all cells rely on gene expression, and consequently, simply knowing about RNA interference will not cure viral disease. Similar oversimplifications are displayed when discussing our brains (the quote below is also a quote in the book, but Kurzweil voices similar views throughout his book):
….The brain is bad: it is an evolved, messy system where a lot of interactions happen because of evolutionary contingencies…….(Anders Sandberg, quote p. 143)
I am convinced as I have argued before, that this brainy mess is a good thing and I most certainly do not think our brains are bad, – although granted, there is room for significant improvement. The problem with biology however, is that it sometimes is hard to predict what side effects such improvements can have (see this Sentient Development post for illustrative examples). This last point is my major issue with Kurzweil’s time-line predictions.
That said, none of the things discussed above diminish the essential message in the book :
Only technology, with its ability to provide orders of magnitude of improvement in capability and affordability, has the scale to confront problems such as poverty, disease, pollution and the other overriding concerns of society today (p. 408).
More worryingly, oversimplification is sometimes combined with throwing caution aside. I strongly feel that a warning is in place when Kurzweil argues towards speeding up medical treatment approval by loosening up FDA guidelines and regulations (p. 417). Safety should always be put first, regardless of the treatment potential. Deviating from this rule truly puts us at risk.
The complexity of biology and the much needed regulative process for approving medical treatments suggest that the singularity is further away than Kurzweil predicts. However, the timing is of minor importance. My conclusion from reading this book, and a personal revelation that has had profound impact on my view of the world, is that the singularity will come in one form or another. It may take a 4-5 decades or it may take longer – but, it is relentlessly approaching. And importantly, … we need to be aware of the far reaching social and ethical issues that lie ahead.
To me, transhumanism needs to be about how we can best prepare for the singularity. What I have to consider in my personal quest is whether the actions, life choices and political stands (that I as a member of the transhumanist society would have to adhere to) are the right ones for me and my consciousness.