Singularity

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Definition

In terms of cyborg anthropology, the singularity is the hypothetical moment past which all conceptual constants have disappeared. The cyborgization of humankind would effectively be "complete", in the sense that the distinctions that we hold so dear would lose reference. History continues post-singularity, but at this point we have effectively merged with our machines and therefore entered an entirely new realm of the possible.

The Singularity is the quasi-messianic concept of the transhumanist movement which posits a rupture in history due to accelerating technological change. Though some credit Stanislaw Ulam with inventing the singularity term and concept, others make the case for Isaac Asimov. Asimov wrote that, “Each [intelligent computer] designed and constructed its [...] more intricate, more capable successor”.[1]

Other believe that the concept of the Singularity was first conceived in a conversation between Stanislaw Ulam and John Von Neumann, among the most prominent members of the Manhattan Project. Ulam reports that:

One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.[2]

This was only comment made by Von Neumann, but another father of computing, I. J. Good, expanded upon this theme, suggesting that the first ultra-intelligent machine would recursively improve upon itself (creating a positive feedback loop of exponential intelligence) and therefore be “the last invention that man need ever make.”[3] But the honor of first explicitly theorizing the singularity goes to Vernor Vinge, a notable computer scientist and science fiction author. In his 1993 lecture “The Coming Technological Singularity”, Vinge explains the three central concepts that define the Singularity:

  1. The law of accelerating change
  2. The intelligence explosion
  3. The event horizon of prediction.

On any line that represents an exponential function, there is a point when the line suddenly veers off the graph into infinity: this point of drastic increase is the Singularity, and at this moment the pure form of the logarithmic graph becomes substantiated through our techno-evolutionary explosion. The exponential growth of technological evolution manifests specifically (so the transhumanists hope) in certain technologies, most notably information technology, AI, nanotechnology, and bioengineering. Rapid advances in these fields would yield a vast increase in intelligence resources, thus inducing an intelligence explosion. The intelligence explosion could manifest in several different forms, although transhumanists stress that once one of these scenarios take place, the rest would soon follow:

  • The development of computers that are "awake" and superhumanly intelligent.
  • Large computer networks (and their associated users) may "wake up" as a superhumanly intelligent entity.
  • Computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent.
  • Science may find ways to improve upon the natural human intellect.[4]


Any one of these situations then lead to the super-intelligence, a super-intelligence that recursively improves upon itself, thus adding another level of exponential growth. Between the “natural” law of accelerating growth and the second level of super-intelligences recursively improving upon themselves, the variables proliferate and destroy our ability to model the future. This is the third characteristic of the Singularity, the event horizon of prediction. The Singularity was originally a concept borrowed from physics. It denotes the horizon of a black hole past which we cannot model and the laws of physics collapse: Time stops, the fabric of space-time ruptures. Past this point there can only be a black box of possibilities. The Singularity acts as the central symbol of the transhumanist theology, a point past which existence is ineffable. Through this concept they can project fantastic claims into our future, such as Ray Kurzweil’s notion that “need” will be a “quaint idea” post-Singularity.[5] When these ideas are challenged, we still find ourselves in their indeterminate realm, arguing about technologies that they inevitably know more about. Despite the insistence that we cannot model past this point, transhumanists offer utopian predictions of how our life will be transformed post-Singularity, predictions that are hard to “disprove” given the “event horizon” postulate. The Singularity inaugurates the start of the fifth epoch of evolution, the merger of man with machine. AI intelligences will be common. Brain-computer interfaces will be so advanced that we will not be able to conceptually isolate the human from the computer. For transhumanists, post-Singularity entails absolute freedom. Ettinger captures this theology well in explaining our abilities in the fifth epoch:

In principle a machine can be made to do anything that is physically possible, and if we envision a human brain coupled to a machine or complex of machines—so that the machines are extensions of the person—then, with only modest reservations, we can do anything, which means we can be anything.[6]

This logic is common among transhumanists when discussing the Singularity: because the Singularity cannot be modeled, post-Singularity speculation becomes a void on which transhumanists project utopian desires. Humans are liberated from their material substrate and gain the morphological freedom to substantiate themselves in any form they wish. As Moravec writes:

I have faith in these computers. This is not some way of tricking you into being less than you are; you’re going to be more than you are. You’re going to be more intelligent, you’re be able to do much more, understand much more, go more places, not die—all these things… It really is sort of a Christian fantasy: This is how to become pure spirit.[7]

Moravec’s wife is a Christian theologian, and he is quite open about making the parallels between Transhumanism and Christian theology: “The idea that your essence is software seems a very small step from the view that your essence is spirit.”[8] The information patterns posited by the Macy Conferences have become not only the common link between computers, consciousness, genes, and “form” in general, but also the modern reincarnation of “pure spirit”. Key to this epoch is the erasure of key distinctions that currently orient our lives. Computers will be embedded in almost every product, and they will not be limited to silicon substrates either. Already we have computers made out of e-coli and robot colonies that have “evolved” group hunting behaviors and altruistic behavior.[9] Sufficiently advanced AI and androids will be indistinguishable from humans. Individual personalities will be uploaded onto databases to either save a “back-up” copy or re-substantiate into a robot or cloned body. Virtual reality will be indistinguishable from “real” reality, and nanobots will be able to construct any material entity out of the raw material of the earth, making the distinction between virtual and real negligible:

Currently, when our human hardware crashes, the software of our lives—our personal ‘mind file’—dies with it. However, this will not continue to be the case when we have the means to store and restore the thousands of trillions of bytes of information represented in the pattern that we call our brains...They [the bodiless intelligences] will live out on the Web, projecting bodies whenever they need or want them, including virtual bodies in diverse realms of virtual reality, holographically projected bodies, foglet-projected bodies, and physical bodies comprising nanobot swarms and other forms of nanotechnology.[10]

By liberating information from its specific material substrate, form from specific instantiations in matter, transhumanists look forward to a utopia of absolute freedom. In an ironic twist, this freedom eventually even overrides the basic laws of science. Moravec explains how robot bushes, his transhuman body of choice, will allow for unimaginable control over all material constraints: "the laws of physics will seem to melt in the face of intention and will. As with no magician that ever was, impossible things will simply happen around a robot bush.”[11] Kurzweil makes quite clear the power of intelligence in the fifth and sixth epoch:

My conjecture is that intelligence will ultimately prove more powerful than these big impersonal forces. . . . Intelligence does not exactly repeal the laws of physics, but it is sufficiently clever and resourceful to manipulate the forces in its midst to bend [them] to its will. . . . Ultimately, intelligence will be a force to reckon with, even for these big celestial forces (so watch out!). The laws of physics are not repealed by intelligence, but they effectively evaporate in its presence. So will the Universe end in a big crunch, or in an infinite expansion of dead stars, or in some other manner? In my view, the primary issue is not the mass of the Universe, or the possible existence of antigravity, or of Einstein’s so-called cosmological constant. Rather, the fate of the Universe is a decision yet to be made, one which we will intelligently consider when the time is right.[12]

As this passage shows, the post-Singularity universe supercedes science, or at least the science that does not conform to our will. We will have absolute control, absolute communication, absolute information, regardless of whether the laws of physics allow this. Transhumanists often fail to note the irony that their “scientifically” proven theology results in the deconstruction of the laws of science. This is Cybernetics taken to its (cosmo) logical conclusion, a conclusion that entails the entire universe becoming a universal computer.

References

  1. The last question, Science Fiction Quarterly, Nov. 1956. Available on the Web. The story delineates the AI singularity concept.
  2. Stanislaw Ulam, "John Von Neumann," Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society (1958).
  3. I. J. Good, "Speculations Concerning the First Ultraintelligent Machine," Advances in Computers 6 (1965).
  4. Vernor Vinge, "What Is the Singularity?,"(1993), http://mindstalk.net/vinge/vinge-sing.html.
  5. Ray Kurzweil, "Spiritual Machines: The Merging of Man and Machine," (1999). p. 249.
  6. Regis, Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition : Science Slightly over the Edge. p. 169
  7. Regis, Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition : Science Slightly over the Edge. p. 176
  8. Regis, Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition : Science Slightly over the Edge. p. 6
  9. Science Daily, "New Meaning for the Term 'Computer Bug': Genetically Altered Bacteria for Data Storage," Science Daily(2008), http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/05/080520090551.htm., Tim Hornyak, "Robots Evolve to Learn Cooperation, Hunting," cnet newscnet. (2010), http://news.cnet.com/8301-17938_105-10432608-1.html.
  10. Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near : When Humans Transcend Biology. p. 325.
  11. Hans P. Moravec, Mind Children : The Future of Robot and Human Intelligence (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988). p. 107-108, Emphasis in original. Robot Bushes are nanobot machines that look like trees, with each branch splitting until the microscopic level, allowing for nano-level manipulation of immediate environment, bodily splitting, un-substantiation into the net, and re-substantiation into any body (that could be built or holographically projected from the bush).
  12. Kurzweil, "Spiritual Machines: The Merging of Man and Machine." p. 258-260