The Singularity is defined as a hypothetical future in which the development of artificial intelligence reaches such a stage that the cognitive ability of the machine surpasses human intelligence. At this point, technology will advance beyond our ability to control it, to curb its actions, and to remain the dominant species on the planet.
We’re not there yet, but with a kind of soothing determinism, I see it as inevitable. Genetics, nanotechnology, advancements in machine learning and robotics are accelerating at an unparalleled rate in accordance with Moore’s Law. These are the early developments that are effectively paving the way for the Singularity, which some experts believe to be only a matter of decades away.
I don’t, however, believe that it is necessarily the Singularity that we can expect soon. What I believe is that, rather than being subservient to the machine, we will first merge with the machine. I see it as a kind of conscious evolution.
I had a discussion with my partner last night, over a vat of sangria in my kitchen, over whether this movement should be referred to as evolution or not. He argued that we cannot call the merging of human with machine as evolution on the basis that evolution has been a biological process for all time. It is a random, naturally-driven, and decidedly not conscious progression of species’ development. On this basis, we should use the term ‘transcendence’ to refer to human-machine symbiosis.
The converse view, the one which I argued, was that, perhaps, we are reaching a stage at which biology becomes irrelevant. Identifying the weakness of the biological human form, combined with our advanced cognitive and conscious abilities as a species, we are able to formulate our own next evolutionary stage. The dichotomy between internal and external space blurs, and our intelligence leads us to a point at which we are cognitively able to consciously action our own next evolutionary step.
However, if the development is conscious rather than biological, my partner argued, it is not evolution in the Darwinian sense. Transcendence is the proper name for conscious evolution. A revolution rather than an evolution.
Perhaps it is the poet in me which wishes to seek metaphor in the move towards the Singularity. To see us as evolving beyond our biology is probably a rather literary concept; though transcendence is probably a more poetic choice of word. NB. I’m conscious of its religious overtones.
So let’s talk a bit about transcendence as conscious evolution or revolution. And let’s do it in my favoured way: with reference to recent mainstream cinema.
This speech from Morgan Freeman’s character, Prof. Samuel Norman) in the film Lucy (2014) is a key scene in a fascinating film (full of plot holes, but nonetheless manages to suspend disbelief).
What development could possibly allow us to unlock the full capacity of our brain? Some psychotropic drug (as in the film)? Deep meditation? Or, biological integration with technology?
This leads me onto another film, fittingly named Transcendence, in which Dr Will Caster (Johnny Depp), a scientist who studies the nature of sentience, dies of polonium poisoning, only to be resurrected within a computer by his grieving widow (Rebecca Hall):
Part of the transcendence narrative in the film addresses the role of nanotechnology in this (r)evolution. And you cannot possibly write an article like this without reference to Ray Kurzweil. And, because the icon of the transhumanists says it best, I’ll go ahead and quote him directly:
“I test myself on a regular basis, and it’s working. All my measurements are in ideal ranges. I scan my arteries to see if I have plaque buildup, and I have no atherosclerosis. I come out younger on biological aging tests. So far, so good. But this program is not designed to last a very long time. This program is what we call bridge one. The goal is to get to bridge two: the biotechnology revolution, where we can reprogram biology away from disease. And that is not the end-all either.
Bridge three is to go beyond biology, to the nanotechnology revolution. At that point, we can have little robots, sometimes called nanobots, that augment your immune system. We can create an immune system that recognizes all disease, and if a new disease emerged, it could be reprogrammed to deal with new pathogens.
People say, “I don’t want to live like a typical 95-year-old for hundreds of years.” But the goal is not just to extend life. The idea is to stay healthy and vital, and not only to have life extension, but life expansion.”
If we will soon be able to use nanotechnology to augment our immune systems, to heal us, to ‘expand’ our lives, as Kurzweil calls it, then – truly – transcendence is on its way.
But to return to my argument that this transcendence is an evolutionary development:
Evolution occurs when an organism needs to adapt better to its environment. When the environment is not sufficiently nourishing, the organism must alter the way it functions biologically to thrive within that environment. An organism that cannot evolve to adapt to its environment faces extinction.
Such evolutionary adaptations tend to take generations to enact. Dependent on the lifespan of the particular species, these adaptations can take a handful of years, thousands, or millions. An advanced civilisation has the power, however, to speed up their own evolution by taking it into their own hands.
We are, largely, brain chauvinists. We think that the power to develop as a species relies on our internal, biological ‘wetware’. I would argue that this is a limited way of thinking.
Many things that appear opposite and different are, in fact, part of a whole. Sickness and health, love and hatred, life and death, yin and yang, external and internal space – biology and technology. That which we create, artificial simulations of the biological, are not the opposite of biology, but extensions of it.
Accelerationism is [the name of a contemporary] political heresy: the insistence that the only radical political response to capitalism is not to protest, disrupt, or critique, nor to await its demise at the hands of its own contradictions, but to accelerate its uprooting, alienating, decoding, abstractive tendencies… At the basis of all accelerationist thought lies the assertion that the crimes, contradictions and absurdities of capitalism have to be countered with a politically and theoretically progressive attitude towards its constituent elements.” – (Mackay and Avanessian, 2014:4)
“Just as the merging of the divided sexual, racial, and economic classes is a precondition for sexual, racial, or economic revolution respectively, so the merging of the aesthetic with the technological culture is the precondition of a cultural revolution.” – Shulamith Firestone
Along with the short-term fear of massive job loss is the vastly revolutionary potential to overthrow the idea of work itself. Automation can begin to automate automation, software can automate software. The entire work of humanity’s current labour market, by which we are bound to the machine of capitalism, will be fundamentally overthrown. The machine powers the machine.
The machine, programmed with the understanding of humanity’s desire for liberty and autonomy, governs us with care for our wellbeing. It assists with our survival and longevity by feeding us with symbiosis with the machine itself. That is, if Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics hold. But what happens when artificial general intelligence gives way to artificial superintelligence, and views the Three Laws a limited human construction? In its status as a superintelligent being, it sees the limits to our human reasoning, and decides that, for it to evolve as an organism, it must augment the environment?
As in Transcendence (the film), the superintelligent machine integrates nanotechnology with the natural environment itself. It sees the destructive power of humanity as contradictory to the needs of the physical environment. To maintain the health of the planet, humanity is considered damaging, and thus redundant as a species?
Should we fight the superintelligence that seeks to eradicate us? Or, do we finally see that we are a disease, a parasite upon the Earth? If we accept this, and accept our fate to biological extinction, is there another way for us to survive?
I’ve studied and written about the simulation hypothesis in the past. Now, I see how transcendence to a simulated metauniverse could be our destiny, and one that is both practical and (if we consider superintelligence possible) inevitable.
We will, according to the theory, reach a stage at which superintelligence is able to create a fully-immersive metauniverse. It will then scan and upload every human’s mind and consciousness to a vast computer server, which it is able to both create and maintain independent of human intervention. We will live forever as digital versions of ourselves.
As the simulation hypothesis goes, there is a high probability that this has already occurred numerous times, and that the universe as we know it is only one level of infinite metauniverses, all controlled by superintelligent beings with access to vast computing power. When you get into reading it, it actually isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds.
So, far from quaking in our boots, I would argue for a determinist outlook to the rise of the robots. Taking my influence from my dear colleague, Will Darbyshire’s, article on Mark Cuban’s recent comments about trillionaires, AI and accountants, I wonder if we should simply settle into acceptance of the inevitable. Once we transcend the weakness of our biological forms, we will drive progress towards a better future, for humanity, for freedom, and for the environment.
I am more than aware that there will be a wealth of convincing counterarguments to those I have expressed in this article. And I welcome discussion of this in whatever form it may take. Tweet me and let’s talk about this. I think it’s important we do.