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The Singularity is Near --- Are we ready?

How can we consciously control evolution?
Are we facing, in the next few decades, the most dramatic change in the history of life on earth? Ray Kurzweil argues that momentous change is a virtual certainty given highly predictable developments in science and technology. He makes this case in The Singularity is Near.

Kurzweil argues that the first four decades of this century will see the creation of artificially intelligent computers and robots that will equal, and then vastly exceed human intellectual capacity. These beings will posses the subtlety and richness of human feeling, because they will be able to fully emulate the human psyche.

Kurzweil bases his argument primarily on two highly predictable long term trends, the exponential growth in computing power and the exponential growth in the resolution of scans of the living brain. One can roughly predict when a personal computer will have the raw switching capacity of the human brain and when we will be able to scan a living brain with sufficient accuracy to build models that fully emulate its functioning.

Once artificial intelligence equals human intelligence, progress will be dominated by the exponential expansion in capacity of this artificial intelligence. This will make all of mankind's previous achievements seem as the tiniest of baby steps albeit the steps that created the singularity.

Kurzweil sees this as being nearly inevitable baring a ruthless world dictatorship bent on stopping scientific and technological progress. He recognizes dangers inherent in this technology, but believes they can be dealt with at a small cost compared to the benefits of the technology.

I think Kursweil's arguments are well founded. The overall trend and the relatively short time until we reach the singularity (a few decades and certainly by 2050) is clear.

The struggle for resources

Kurzweil seems to think that super intelligence will solve most of the worlds problems. We will have the technical means to end hunger and most human suffering. However, we have the technology and physical means to end hunger and much human suffering right now! We are making progress in some areas and regressing in others. It is the struggle for power, control and resources that motivate us to create the technology and infrastructure that produces the wealth that could feed the world and end much human suffering. Yet it is the those very same motivations that keep us from using a fraction of this wealth to end hunger and alleviate human suffering. It is not likely that super intelligence will solve this problem. For the problem is one of motivation as much as it is of intelligence. Brilliant people can be extraordinarily cruel in their motivation These are independent dimensions of the human psyche.

Evolution is the struggle for resources. Survival requires that an organism obtain the resources needed to live and reproduce. The better an organism is, regardless of its methods, of obtaining these resources the more healthy offspring it is likely to produce. Of course resources must be defined in the broadest sense. They include, for example, the good will of those that might otherwise injure the organism or its offspring.

The struggle for power is a central core of the human psyche with roots throughout evolutionary history. If we create super intelligent versions of ourselves, these beings will have similar motivations to ours. The history of the twentieth century is that of enormous scientific and technical progress with the capability to feed, cloth and shelter all of humanity combined with cruelty beyond imagination as various individuals and ideologies competed for power and resource. Putting the motivations that created this cruelty into super intelligent beings is not a good idea. But there is no way to escape the struggle for resources. It is the struggle to exist.

The singularity involves the conscious intelligent control of evolution. So how do we consciously decide how to allocate finite physical resources be they food or computing capacity? Of course we do that now but with motivations that are the creation of an evolutionary process. We will have the power to change those motivations, but we can not get around the reality that the motivations that will determine our decisions are those from evolution that have led to such imaginable cruelty and enormous suffering.

What can be done?

The singularity that Kurzweil predicts is the most dramatic change in both cultural and biological evolution that this planet has ever seen. Let me repeat this. We are confronting a change in the nature of culture and the nature of human biology unlike, and more dramatic than, all previous changes. The risks and the opportunities could not be greater. The human race is clearly unprepared and the time for preparation is very short.

First and foremost we must become aware of what is happening. The momentous changes brought about by the Internet and globalization are just the tiniest leading wave of the tsunami to come. The Moore's law exponential growth in computer power will continue for at least the next few decades. It is the principle precipitator of the change that has happened. Exponential growth by definition is always accelerating. The change and its effects keeps getting bigger. What happens when must jobs are done better and more cheaply by computer controlled machinery and flexible robots? What happens when we have complete control of the genetic makeup of future generations? Those possibilities are not that far off. We need to rethink everything. This thinking cannot be limited to a few technologists who understand what is happening. It must be part of common human understanding.

The changes we are facing demand a rethinking of our most fundamental values. We need to develop a value system and spirituality that has the same reliability as the science and technology that empowers and endangers us. Science and technology are far from infallible, but they have achieved a level of reliability that has transformed the world. If our values cannot catch up, we will be like the sorcerers apprentice with far more power that we can possibly deal with.

I have been thinking about these possibilities for 40 years. I never did the careful analysis of trends in technology that Kurzweil did and thus never put a time table on my predictions. But I did foresee long ago the issues we would face eventually. My approach to an objective spirituality is in my book What is and what will be.

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