Thursday, February 24, 2011

A singular idea

There's an idea floating around that some find very nearly obvious and others see more as a kind of scientific myth. But unlike the myths of old, this new idea is embraced not by the uneducated masses, but by some of the smartest scientists and engineers of today. The idea: a "singularity" that will change mankind forever is quickly coming our way.

The main man behind the idea is scientific entrepreneur and futurist Ray Kurzwell, who in 2005 published "The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology." The basic idea is that technology continues to expand exponentially - on a graph it is quickly shooting toward infinity - and within only decades computers, say, will be as intelligent (and soon much more intelligent) than humans. This revolutionary new situation will mean the computers can help us exterminate aging - or let us hook up with the machines themselves. Either way, man will become utterly changed, and immortality - and the whole universe - will be his.

Some scientists and engineers buy this because they, of all people, understand how very fast technology is advancing. They see a merger of technology and intelligence as not only inevitable, but not very far away. Yet many - most - others among their peers scoff. Could there be things happening in our brains that can't be duplicated electronically? By banishing death, would our lives still have meaning?

Christ Edwards, a skeptic and author, has a couple of big doubts. For one, who's to say technology will continue to grow so quickly? Will all complexity comes cost, which can stop growth in its tracks, much like progress in flight, from Kitty Hawk to a trip to the moon, has stalled in the face of the costs of flight to other stars. Another doubt calls into question Kurzwell's contention (based on the anthropic principle) that because a singularity has obviously not happened anywhere else, earthlings must be in the lead. But while such a principle might be used to help explain highly unlikely events in the past, it can't be used to confidently predict future unlikely events.

This is not to say that some sort of signularity can't await sometime ahead, but that possibility doesn't guarantee that a leap to a whole new kind of humankind is only 20 or 30 years away.

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