The Ray Kurzweil documentary, Transcendent Man, has been downloadable for a while now and is having selected screenings across the world. Prompted by Paul Raven’s review on Futurismic (and his appearance on the panel discussing the film in London, get down there locals!) I decided to give it a watch.
Firstly, to be clear, I’m not a Believer in the Singularity, and I feel that it’s these Believers that contribute to the frequent descriptions of it as a techno-religious cult. Indeed, the almost immediate impression you got from this Kurzweil love-fest was: There is only one God (Technology) and Ray Kurzweil is its Prophet. There’s A LOT of time dedicated to what seems to be the creation/promotion of a Cult of Personality around Ray (but this may well be my own sensitivities speaking, since I’ve dedicated a lot of time lately studying Mao Zedong) and far less given to those equally brilliant people, doing amazing work, with dissenting opinions (the clips with Kevin Warwick, always a favourite here, are particularly good.) But far be it for me to mount an aggressive campaign picking apart his arguments. Starting a War is the furthest thing from my mind. Instead, let me gently point out a few of flaws as I see them:
- Ray is focusing on Technological change to the complete exclusion of all other elements, be they Social, Political or Economical. I agree we’re in the midst of rapid change, but you must account for the intersection & feedback between all aspects of Human Society.
- Ray seems to have pinned his hopes on the eventual arrival of Friendly AIs (primarily to resurrect his dead father.) While I can sympathize with this desire, I think it’s foolish to imagine that should near-god-like AIs suddenly burst into existence that they will even remotely resemble Human Beings and have human concerns. This applies equally to the Doomsday scenarios, that The Machines Will Wipe Us Out! Why would they/it bother?? If anything, like in Vernor Vinge’s book Rainbow End, they might see us as a curiosity to be toyed with, but forget the Terminator-nightmare. That is just Humanity’s ego overstating it’s own anthropocentric importance.
- Finally, his whole theory is posited on the idea that all human biological evolution has ceased and it is within the sphere of technology and culture that evolution now takes place. This idea has been popular for a while, but like all scientific ideas, it represents just the current understanding (with its implicit statement of the Myth of Nature, the idea that Humans have left the Animal Kingdom.) Whereas current indications (see Are We Still Evolving?) hint that not only did we never stop evolving (because we are still Animals), but as a consequence of <rapid change = rapidly changing selection criteria> humanity might Naturally be about to make a Great Leap Forward.
Nonetheless, for all interested in Technological Change this documentary is well made and worth seeing, if only to focus your own viewpoints and sharpen your arguments.
Tangentially, I recently read Jonathan Hickman’s run on the Fantastic Four comic and Kurzweil seems oddly similar to the depiction of Reed Richards in these (especially in issue #579.) They’re both unquestioningly brilliant men trying to fix the world and in short: Solve Everything. However, intelligence and wisdom are two different things. (Weirdly enough, both had largely absent fathers too.) But enough conflating fact and fiction.
Fundamentally my bugbear with Singularitarianism is this: it discourages engaging with the Present, thinking that we can just lie back and let Technology Fix Everything. It seems focused on watching for the arrival of elements necessary to fulfill its predictions, rather than closely observing the present and trying to extrapolate from emerging trends, continuously updating your future-world-view. What worries me is that people viewing this documentary will think that everything will be just fine and they can safely adopt a passive role.
As I see it, the challenge we’re facing right now is making the Transition as gentle as possible. As I’ve said before, we’re already mid-Singularity, in that a one-way shift is happening. The world that lies on the other side will very much be the product of the choices we make right now and they require us all to be engaged in making and shaping them; but I am absolutely down for Total Life Forever.