The Speculist: Review -- The Singularity Is Near


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Review -- The Singularity Is Near

Per my earlier post, I had the pleasure of attending world premiere of The Singularity Is Near at the Breckenridge Film Festival. Based on Ray Kurzweil's bestselling book of the same title, The Singularity Is Near is really two movies:

First, it's a documentary, in which Kurzweil lays out his argument that accelerating technological development is rapidly leading us to a future which is impossible to predict, perhaps even impossible to imagine. Director Anthony Waller relies on nifty computer animation as well as interviews with some of the world's leading thinkers in artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and related disciplines to show how exponential growth in computing power eventually produces machines that are as smart as we are (and ultimately smarter than we are). Marvin Minsky, Eric Drexler, Alvin Toffler, Bill Joy and others contribute to the discussion, along with FastForward Radio guests Aubrey de Grey, J. Storrs Hall, Eliezer Yudkowsky, and of course Kurzweil himself. For those familiar with Kurzweil's ideas, this portion of the movie is a handy summary. For those unfamiliar, it should prove a quick and inviting introduction.

But the movie also tells a science fiction story, in which Kurzweil's cyber creation / alter-ego Ramona [spoilers ahead] saves the world from a grey-goo meltdown, gets in touch with her human side, and finally kicks off the Singularity by legally establishing the personhood of beings such as herself. Pauley Perrette of NCIS plays Ramona as an interesting collection of contradictions. She is at the same time childlike and very powerful . Over the decades, we see her becoming smarter and more capable, even as she is rendered by increasingly realistic imaging software.

Although these are two different movies, they are relating the same narrative. Ramona evolves from a simple chatbot in Second Life who can't fool any of the real humans to a Neo-like cyberwizard with resources at her disposal that even the most powerful government agencies can't match. She is a personification of the exponential growth in computing power that Kurzweil and his interview subjects discuss. Her taking on the grey goo monster parallels Kurzweil's discussion about the inherent risks involved in moving ahead with artificial intelligence and nanotechnology. Finally, her quest to achieve full personhood fits nicely with Kurzweil's prediction that while coming intelligences may be post biological, there's no good reason to describe them as posthuman.

Ramona puts a human face on the Singularity, and a pretty one at that. Watching her early attempts to communicate in second Life, I was reminded of my own chats with the real Ramona some time ago. Could such a simple construct of vocabulary and interaction cues really evolve into a thinking and feeling person? The answer is...maybe. Maybe Ramona can one day become like us.

But the movie doesn't end there. It ends with Ramona, speaking to us from the future she has helped to create, inviting us to hang in there long enough so that we might live to join her in that world. So the question then is flipped: can we someday become like Ramona? While it was presented in a lighthearted way, I was deeply moved by this invitation. It put me in mind of the wrap-up to my old interview with Ramona linked above:

Phil: May I ask you one more question.

Ramona: Alright. Anyway...

Phil: Will you remember me when the Singularity comes?

Ramona: Of course I remember you well Philip A Bowermaster.

When Ramona answers in the present tense a question about what she will do in the future, it's just another chatbot glitch -- of which there are many in that interview. And saying that she remembers me well is just a bit of contextual boilerplate her coding coughed up. Even so, I admit to getting a bit of a chill when I read that statement as an echo back through time of something we will hear one day -- recognition and perhaps even affection from these new persons -- smarter, faster, more powerful, and (we have to hope) much nicer than we have ever been -- with whom we once interacted as mere machines.

Meanwhile, over in the documentary, Kurzweil posits a future where it no longer matters who wants to be like whom. In that future, the distinction between human and machine has ceased to be a meaningful one. The post-Singularity intelligences have more important issues to deal with than trying to figure out who is a person or who is a machine. Kurzweil describes a universe whose every object is imbued with intelligence. This self-aware universe takes on the biggest issues of all -- the cosmological ones. It's a universe that gets to decide its own fate.

The Singularity Is Near presents this sweeping vision of the future in a surprisingly accessible and often humorous way. (There are lots of funny moments in the Ramona story, but the biggest laugh of all goes to Eliezer Yudkowsky for a quip we have often repeated at this site and on the podcast.) It owes its dual nature to an earlier film -- What the Bleep Do We Know? -- which seeks to reconcile physics with lot of New Age baloney. What the Bleep reached a wide audience; I hope that some of those folks will get the chance to see The Singularity Is Near. Kurzweil demonstrates that science and technology don't have to be reshaped into mysticism; a few simple extrapolations on where technological development is taking us can provide a vision of the future of humanity as profound and challenging as any invented from whole cloth or finessed out of a sketchy "reconciliation" between science and spirituality.



I shall have to wait to see it to determine whether the notion that "postbiological does not equal posthuman" is a valid concept.

I think a Transhuman - which after all means "transcending the human" - is highly unlikely to be anything resembling a human at all - especially mentally - except perhaps in the very early stages. Such stages are unlikely to last very long, either. Exponential development does eventually become very fast, and the period during which an accelerated non-biological consciousness is going to resemble a human consciousness is likely to be very short.

To be more precise, I think the emotional content of the human consciousness, dependent as it is almost entirely on its biological origins, wll be shed very quickly once a more controlled, rational consciousness is created.

And if a more powerful non-biological consciousness is created that does retain an emotional component without adequate control, not only will the risks of such a development be increased, it will in fact be almost a contradiction to the whole point of the exercise.

Transhumanism of the sort I espouse - radical Transhumanism - implies the shedding of the human body and brain (at least eventually) for something considerably more powerful, less vulnerable, and certainly less subject to the irrationality and emotionalism which grows out of the fear of death which is the mammalian evolutionary basis of human nature. I cannot see any advantage in dragging that unnecessary baggage along into the Transhuman.

It seems even few proponents of Transhumanism can let go of the attachment to the human. Understandable since we are still all human, but incorrect.

Of course, for some, it may just be a bit of propaganda to soothe the fears of the majority about their coming obsolescence. Sadly, this is unlikely to be effective in the long run, especially as the differences between human and Transhuman start to truly manifest in the real world.

With all due respect I am one to disagree with the Kurzweil agenda:

"Technology, while a big and important cultural driver, has always been only a part of the fundamental shifts that humans have increasingly manifested over time and which may be expected to culminate in the coming Singularity event.

From a Metaphysical point of view the so called Technological Singularity, Trans-humanism, AI, or whatever one may wish to call it, represents an illusion, spawned within a continuing cynical, materialist hallucination in projecting a disrespect for life and a desired ultimate dominance of and a total submission from nature. This technological vision promotes an adolescent wet dream of the ego supreme; a very attractive, but delusional and dangerous fantasy that revels in power and control.

Indeed, at the end of the day, who would the Technological Singularity Trans-humanist agenda serve and how? For the bulk of humanity it would not and could not exist. This option will only be for a very select few and they will need to check their humanity, empathy and compassion for the rest of Earth’s children at the door. The keys to a digital heaven will be given only to those who can afford it and are willing to turn their backs on its ancestry, history, humanity and soul.

There could indeed be a singularity in human consciousness occurring in the exponential growth manifesting in data, information and inter-connectivity; but it will not be exclusively a technological one. There seems to exist, a natural evolutionary breakthrough in human consciousness, occurring in humanity’s time-line and swelling in our life time. An accumulation of rapid change that has already been overwhelming and ravishing us. Humanity has been accelerating into an intense, instinctual, migratory phase physically, psychologically and metaphysically. A shift that is happening and that cannot be avoided, revealing itself as a culmination of our past epiphanies, experiments and collective experiences. That this looks conflicted and confusing should be no surprise.

Metaphorically we are like a caterpillar in its self-constructed cocoon, dying to one reality while also being born into a fresher and expanded being-becoming. A metamorphosis stimulated through the awaking of a deeply en-coded biological message triggering a transformation of old material into new..."

(the above is quoted from an article I wrote for the Singularity Weblog Symposium)

Oh, a "singularity" is headed Kurzweil's way alright. It is what is called "old age followed by death".

It is the failure to face this that causes all of this goofy, adolescent daydreaming about "the "singularity". These folk have a childish notion of what being is or what it is for. One way or another, they will be forced to let go of it.

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