Saturday, October 27, 2018
Book Review: The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology
The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
Ray Kurzweil postulates that we are fast approaching a time when humankind will meld with technology to produce mind boggling advances in intelligence. He calls this future time period The Singularity, which is a term he borrowed from physics, in which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, it’s impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed. In other words, "technology will be the metaphorical opposable thumb that enables our next step in evolution."
But, as Paul Davies wrote in Nature about The Singularity is Near, “it’s a breathless romp across the outer reaches of technological possibility" while warning that the "exhilarating speculation is great fun to read, but needs to be taken with a huge dose of salt."
This book should not be read as a scientific treatise. Rather, it is a futuristic book of technological optimism limited only by our human imagination.
In the book Kurzweil characterizes evolution as progressing through six epochs, each one building on the one before. He says the four epochs which have occurred so far are Physics and Chemistry, Biology and DNA, and Brains and Technology. Kurzweil predicts the Singularity will coincide with the next epoch, which would be The Merger of Human Technology with Human Intelligence. He even predicts that this future intelligence will actually radiate outward from the planet until it has saturated the entire universe.
Kurzweil says that evolution moves towards "greater complexity, greater elegance, greater knowledge, greater intelligence, greater beauty, greater creativity, and greater levels of subtle attributes such as love". He says that these attributes, in the limit, are generally used to describe God. “That means,” he continues, “that evolution is moving towards a conception of God and that the transition away from biological roots is in fact a spiritual undertaking.”
This is perhaps the best known book related to transhumanism which is a zealous type of utopian thought underwritten by the belief that day by day we are getting closer and closer to building a better human.
Transhumanists believe we can make ourselves. But, as Thomas Ligotti says, “this is impossible,” and the reason its impossible is because of evolution. “Evolution made us. And everything we have done since we became a species has been a consequence of being made. No matter what we do it will be what we were made to do. One of those plans seems to be the dream of transhumanism which may just be a plan to unmake us.”
Transhumanists are dissatisfied with what we are as a species. Naturally they think that being alive is all right so much so in fact that they cannot stand the idea of not being alive and have envisioned strategies for staying alive forever. Their problem is that they need being alive to be vastly more all right than it is.
An apocalyptic scenario has even been inserted into their world view like a wild card, which they refer to as the Singularity. In this sense, transhumanism is a secular retelling of the Christian rapture myth, and some of its believers even foresee it as happening within the lifetime of many who are alive today, just as the early Christians believed in an impending Judgement Day.
Yet one possibility transhumanists have not wrestled with is that the ideal being standing at the end of evolution may deduce that the best of all possible worlds is useless, if not malignant, and that the self-extinction of our future selves would be the optimal course to take.