AI Week, Day 2: Repent! The Singularity Is Near!

I believe in the Singularity.

I don’t know when it will happen. There are a lot of hurdles to overcome, technological, biological, even philosphical. But I believe that day is coming.

And on that day I shall mourn.

There are a lot of definitions of the singularity, but fundamental amongst all of them is the belief in something that will transcend human intelligence, whether it will augment us or be separate is unknown, but the goal of many who pursue this dream is simple, immortality.

Immortality in this sense is achieved in a couple of ways. The body is augmented with machines that help it to run better and more efficiently (something we’ve already begun to do with artificial organs and limbs). Second, our minds are augmented through thousands of tiny nano-machines which store information, connect us to the net, and can even back up our consciousness. We’re already treading into the realms of science fiction with this idea, but we have technologies that exist today that can translate thoughts into actions, like shooting a monster in Doom.

Along the way these technologies are invented and created by an Artificial Intelligence, capable of increasing its intelligence exponentially to the point where it can solve problems that would take us thousands or millions of years to solve. At some point we may even choose to fuse our consciousness with this intelligence, or with each other in a connected network.

Let’s be a little more concrete for a moment.

Exponential growth of technology does exist. We use our latest technology to develop the next generation. We double computing power every year. At some point the hardware, if not the software will exist to make AIs possible. We don’t know exactly what kind of software will be necessary, and it may take more than technological advances to achieve it, some novel elegant thinking about the problem. Insight, intuition, we’ve solved hundreds of problems as a species with these methods. This one is no different.

I don’t want to die.

We’ve all faced death, whether it’s the death of a loved one or a more personal glimpse of mortality. I’ve had two such glimpses in my life, a brush with cancer and a genetic heart condition that 10 years ago would not have been able to be corrected. Both of these problems have been fixed by modern medical science, and I expect technology will help us to live longer than ever before in the future as it has for centuries.

But one day I shall die.

And that’s okay. As a Christian I believe in another kind of eternal life, a life with God in heaven. C.S. Lewis writes about humanity in The Screwtape Letters that we’re amphibians, capable of living in the temporal and the eternal world. Our lives on this planet are part of a long chain for which death is only the beginning. In the temporal world it can be hard to get a sense of the eternal, but it is what we were made for. Before the fall we were meant to live forever. Everything since that moment has been moving toward a day when that fall will be corrected.

I fully admit it takes faith to believe this. Ray Kurzweil, one father of the idea of the Singularity, would say that I have created this belief to cope with the idea of death, and that no one can truly accept death. But it also takes faith to believe that technology will positively enhance our lives beyond our limitations, or that a super-intelligent AI would have any interest in helping us.

I have practical concerns as well. A society so directly infused with technology would be dangerously susceptible to EMP (Electro-Magnetic Pulse, think Goldeneye). And if I were able to back up my brain to a disk and my body fails, would the restored mind be me? It might act like me, but I still died. It’s like identical twins, except that in addition to physical characteristics their minds are copied as well. If one dies do they continue to live forever in the other twin. And what’s to stop me from putting copies of my mind in other bodies. The world does not need more than one of me, trust me.

I was talking to my dad last week about Faith and Reason. Scientists have a kind of faith, a faith that the entire world can fit into a logical and describable framework. To me this seems incomplete. We have emotions, intuition, feelings about the world. If logic was meant to be the only way to solve and understand the world, why would we also have these other aspects of our humanity. Some problems, some answers to questions about life, are better sussed out by our feelings than by our logical minds.

I think Kurzweil and other futurists have chosen well in calling this advance the Singularity. Singularities are destructive, uncontrollable, they seem to violate the laws of nature. And they are a point from which we cannot escape. I find myself filled with an existential horror at the notion of being replaced by an intelligence greater than my own. I do not want to change the nature of my body, my mind, this machine I am tuning myself to be this engine of creativity.

It’s possible I am part of the last generation of humans who will die a natural death. The singularity is something that may effect my children or my grand-children, and I want to leave an idea of humanity before that point arrives. We can dismiss this as science fiction, and it is, but science fiction has always been unusual as a genre in that if often predicts the future correctly, the problems we will have to face as a society, and the technological implications of the paths we’re traveling down. I think it’s an idea that Christians and parents and everyone will have to understand in twenty years. Already we have a generation of children, just a couple of years younger than me, who conduct their lives socially online without a thought to what they are sharing about themselves. The idea of privacy as a desired thing is falling away. I think an aversion to technology being implanted in the body will disappear the same way. Children are raised as if the world in which they exist is normal, is intentional, is the way things should be. I hear Borg when someone talks about uploading and sharing consciousness on the net. My children may see something else, a kind of inseperable love, or an exploration of worlds beyond imagination. It is folly, but it is a child’s folly, and so an understandable and inevitable one.

I think God does want us to live forever, but not like this.

I understand the desire. Ray Kurzweil is motivated by many things, the death of his father, his own health problems, and a belief in a bright future for humanity. He wants to live forever, and even bring back his father using old notes and papers and an AI to emulate him. He wants to create God, rather than meet him. I can’t hate a man like this, who’s experienced many of the tragedies life puts upon us. Rather I pray for him, that he will someday have faith in something in addition to technology, that God might meet him in the end. That’s where I believe true eternity lives, and that’s where he can meet his father again.

Afterword: Okay this got a little more somber and serious (and rambling) than originally intended, but it is a serious topic, even if it may be many decades in the future. It’s something we should think about both intellectually and emotionally, since these are both facets of our humanity. A lot of material for Singularity theory for this post came from the documentary “Transcendent Man” which is on Netflix streaming at the moment. It’s provocative stuff, and may make this a little more real for those of you who still think this is wackadoo Sci-Fi (yes WordPress, it’s a word). Additionally, Ray Kurzweil has done a number of TED talks which are fascinating listening (some material from which is in the documentary), and has started a SingularityU designed to advance technologies, partnered with Google and others. And if you want a more amusing perspective try Season 4 Episode 2 of The Big Bang Theory, “The Cruciferous Vegetable Amplification”. Also, be sure to head on over to the Buckley Blog for his take.


Filed under Faith + Life, Trube On Tech

5 responses to “AI Week, Day 2: Repent! The Singularity Is Near!

  1. You’ve packed a lot of ideas into one post, so there’s a lot to say in response. I’ll be as brief as I can. *gulp*

    RE: Immortality, I’m not a Christian, so I look at “artificial” immortality much more favorably than you. But all the technology in the world can’t reverse the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Singularity or no Singularity, we’ll all die eventually – maybe not till the heat death of the universe, but eventually. So if extending our lives from 30 years to 100 years is okay, why not 100 million?

    RE: Reason and faith. You said “Scientists have a kind of faith, a faith that the entire world can fit into a logical and describable framework.” I disagree. Scientists have faith that the entire *MEASURABLE* world can fit into a logical and describable framework. That still leaves plenty of room for subjective feelings, even transcendent feelings, and I think most scientists would agree those are important. If we didn’t *feel* that progress was important, why do science at all?

    RE: fundamentally altering ourselves, becoming cyborgs, uploading our consciousness, etc. Yes, a part of me feels revulsion toward those things too. But another part of me knows that revulsion alone isn’t a strong enough argument. Might a machine not feel similar revulsion toward consciousness encased in gooey human flesh? Might I, myself, not feel enormous gratitude after a technological “ascension,” horrified at the thought of returning again to my old biological prison?

    (Out of curiosity – do you think an artificial intelligence would have a soul, capable of going to heaven or hell? Why or why not?)

    I do share your concerns about the Singularity, even if I’m a little less pessimistic myself. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

    • You’re right that a lot of my basis for denying this sort of immortality is my faith, though I’ve got a couple of other reasons as well. As I stated in the post, I don’t feel that whatever was living forever would actually continue to be “me”, whether we’re talking uploading my consciousness, or even significantly augmenting my brain capacity. If I’m uploaded, the physical body I currently inhabit will still die, as will the soul in it. As for augmentation, I spend enough time with computers that I don’t need one inside my head. I worry that a brain that could connect to the net would be subsumed by the personalities of others and of the collective whole. I have no interest in being a drop in a vast sea. I want to be me, wonderfully and fearfully made. I do find the idea of meta-humans to be an interesting one to explore in fiction, if nanites eventually replace or augment every cell in our bodies and brains would we still be human?

      I take your point about the measurable world. Part of my reason for mentioning it is that I feel there are some things in life that faith is required to decide, evidence will never be enough. It’s relevant to the point in that a machine would need to be capable of making these leaps of faith, something I’m not sure is possible. And of course I’m using my own faith as a primary basis for not wanting to continue my existence indefinitely in this fashion.

      I don’t look upon my body as a prison, even though my back hurts from the batting cages last night. Everything I understand about this world has come from the experience of being human. And a question we’re not asking is how our species would procreate. How old should a person be before they are augmented? I would imagine the transition would be difficult for those without a fully formed personality, but if we wait too long and they die of an accident is that a tragic loss? Would we even physically procreate, or simply create fusions and copies of our programming? I’m gonna have to go with my animal instinct on this one, that idea is revolting.

      Do I think an AI can have a soul? If I’m being honest, no. I like the thought that an AI might achieve sentience and maybe God has a plan for such existences, but fundamentally I believe that any AI, no matter how emergent or intelligent, is a simulation of a soul. It’s a fundamentally different creature, one that in some ways might be beyond us, and in others lacking. AI is a fascinating topic, and I think the best AI will be one that works differently than we do. There’s a lot of how we think and feel about this world that is part of our genetic makeup, the bodies we inhabit. The same should be true of AI.

      A lot to respond in your comments. Hope I got it all. Thanks for the detailed response. This week is turning out to be a lot of writing and reading!

  2. Good thing we like both. 😉

  3. Pingback: Body and Soul | Going Deeper

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