Monday, November 16, 2009

The Singularity and singularity

When I lived in Boulder, I joined a group of fellow nerds in a “Future Salon” to discuss, well, the future. Several of the group’s members, not least its leader Wayne Radinsky, made an impression on me by focusing intensely, one might even say obsessively, on the pace of technological change in semi-conductors. They were constantly updating us on the relevance (yes, it’s still valid) of Moore’s Law: computing power has been doubling every 18 months or so since the late 1960s. Anyone aware of compound growth will immediately understand what this means. Quite frequently Wayne and others would let us know about Intel’s latest breakthroughs at the nano-level. I had heard of Moore’s Law before, but the Future Salonnieres’ obsession with it opened my eyes to its central importance for our economy and world.
This led soon to the Singularity, which I hadn’t heard of previously. The Singularity is a term coined by Ray Kurzweil, a singular genius who has invented or contributed to much of the technology underlying our high tech world. As far as I could tell (and I have only dipped a small toe in one of Kurzweil’s books), the Singularity refers in this context not to the convergence of space and time in a black hole, but to something just as irreversible: the imminent (within the next few decades) merging of computer and human intelligence, under the lead of computers whose abilities will have inexorably outpaced those of us humans. Most of the devotees of the Singularity appear to believe that this will be a wholly or largely good thing, i.e. that the computers will take over or merge with us with generally good purposes in mind. Kurzweil himself has apparently placed himself on an ultra-low calorie diet so that he may live another 30 or so years and thereby participate in the Singularity.
I found all of this fascinating, but also rather dubious. I can’t judge the technical likelihood that computers will actually surpass human intelligence. Yes, exponential growth is tremendous; but will some fundamental physical limits be reached at the atomic level (I thought I’d heard that we were nearing some with our current semi-conductor sketching technologies, but Wayne tells me we haven’t) which will stop Moore’s Law cold? Can raw computing power, no matter how great, really match and then exceed the creativity of wet human brains forged in millions of years of evolution? Maybe. I don’t know. Regardless (and again, I admit to making these judgments without having read the literature), the advocates of the Singularity seem to overlook the possibility, indeed the likelihood, that humans would intervene well before the stage when computers actually surpass us across the board. Why should we view technological advance as inevitable and out of all human control? The advocates seem to me to be most naïve in regard to the alleged desirability of the computer-human merger. Why should we believe the computer(s) will act benevolently, either in terms of our interests or even their own? If there’s one super-computer running the show, won’t it establish an electronic closed society as have all the human dictatorships in history? And if there are many, why wouldn’t they compete with each other, simply replicating all of humanity’s foibles at the speed of electrons? The nerds’ dream of an electronic heaven seems to me to be a fata morgana: it replicates the illusions of both organized religion and of secular movements of the 19th and 20th centuries built around the hopes of “scientific management” and centralized knowledge. They dreamt of an omniscient (and benevolent) overlord and refused to acknowledge that we are on our own in this world, engaged in different forms and levels of unavoidable combat or at least competition, without any overall referee. There can never be an Archimedean point of knowledge or control.
More interesting to me than the Singularity is singularity, the question of what kinds of individuals will exist and thrive in a world in which Moore’s Law applies. Computers are doubling their power every year or two because many different kinds of people want it to be so. Nerds love the challenge. Corporations and their marketers love the money. Ordinary people love the stimulation (ever more options on smart phones, ever more realistic video games, ever faster internet, ever more cable stations, etc.). As I see it, the first two groups are benefiting most. Ordinary people think they’re benefiting, of course, but I think an enormous craze for stimulation is sweeping over us. I don’t know how deleterious the addictions are or will become. I know that many of my students cannot put away their cell phones in class, even when I threaten them with severe penalties, and many of them admit they have an addiction. Will these habits undermine people’s abilities to achieve what they say they want – success in career, friendships, relationships? How will they affect deep human relations, which studies show to be the best predictor of happiness and are probably a prerequisite for other “goods” as well, such as civic engagement? Will all the gadgets and social media turn out to be more like coffee – addictive, to be sure, but for most people an enrichment of social life – or like cigarettes – addictive and in the long run destructive of health - or like crack cocaine or methamphetamines – immediate wreckers of lives? Perhaps at present the harm seems minimal. Perhaps it will never become as visible as the harm done by cigarettes or hard drugs. But for that reason, it may grow to be all the more insidious. Nobody will see the damage, least of all the addicts themselves. How will this change power relations in our society? Will the masses not be lulled into complacency and indifference? (If I'm sounding stangely like Adorno here, so be it.) These new narcotics have grown out of fully legitimate industries and desires. They enjoy the full backing of the law. No government, at least no democratic one, will ever ban their use, though perhaps more laws will restrict them in particular settings, as with limitations on texting while driving. And Moore’s Law says that the power of the drugs – the speed and effectiveness of the stimuli – will only continue to grow.
Who’s right – the optimistic visionaries of the Singularity, or the pessimistic mourners of disappearing singularity and individual independence and even "sobriety?" And if the latter, what should, what can we do about it?

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