Becoming Robots

by Justin

I worry about encouraging the seduction of the material world. The dichotomy of Haves and Have-nots inspires crime and prejudice, hatred and conflict. If a new pinnacle of physical achievement emerges that further stratifies the world, how dangerous might that be for all involved? I’m not so sure I’d sign up for what certain groups believe is the next round of evolution.

The New York Times ran a piece last week about the Singularity movement, interviewing some of the crazier geniuses and technophiles at the new university funded by Google founders and other Silicon Valley darlings. For a lot of people the concepts of transhumanism, of a post-human world of biotech and other science fiction wonders this isn’t a revelation. The fact that a university with extensive funding is actively pushing for the realization of that particular utopia may be a bit surprising. Ashlee Vance covers the major ideologues well in the article and introduces the concepts to the less nerdy among us. For starters, they envision a future

… when a superior intelligence will dominate and life will take on an altered form that we can’t predict or comprehend in our current, limited state. At that point, the Singularity holds, human beings and machines will so effortlessly and elegantly merge that poor health, the ravages of old age and even death itself will all be things of the past.

All in all, that doesn’t sound like a bad gig. It’s a rare thing to see someone uninterested in curing diseases and alleviating the sufferings of old age.

“We will transcend all of the limitations of our biology,” says Raymond Kurzweil, the inventor and businessman who is the Singularity’s most ubiquitous spokesman and boasts that he intends to live for hundreds of years and resurrect the dead, including his own father. “That is what it means to be human — to extend who we are.”

Here we hit a vague and concerning point. Extension. Not resurrection, as that seems not so vague and wholly concerning. Extending who we are requires some sort of definition of who or what we are at present, and the Singularity acolytes anchor that in the corporeal (or digital, as the case may be). Kurzweil is a bit polarizing in the field and doesn’t necessarily speak for everyone. But that he’s a significant investor and spokesperson, maybe the loudest visionary in the bunch, leads me to suspect that that the biotech evolution they promote may take us down a tricky road. Before I get into my own misgivings I’ll address those raised by Vance.

There are camps of environmentalists who decry efforts to manipulate nature, challenges from religious groups that see the Singularity as a version of “Frankenstein” in which people play at being gods, and technologists who fear a runaway artificial intelligence that subjugates humans.

Should that be the great fear? Fear of technology makes it taboo and mysterious, it lets the movement swell in the shadows and grow unchecked. Best to have whatever advances happen be in the full light of day, regulated and examined so we dodge the scenario where the best and brightest are operating in secret. I touched on this in my post a while back about the creation of artificial life. Also, the notion of playing god is absurd. Absolutely ridiculous. You can only ever be whatever is encoded in our biology and in our consciousness – if by virtue of those gifts we move to another level then it is still only through of our humanity. So you believe in God, you believe he made us. We can’t be that omnipotent omniscience, and the fearful faithful are diminishing their own deity by putting scientists on that pedestal. Grant Morrison pointed out that the word ‘unnatural’ is nonsensical in human development, because we can only ever behave according to our nature. You either believe in Nature, or you don’t. From the horse’s mouth, though:

Mr. Kurzweil himself acknowledges the possibility of grim outcomes from rapidly advancing technology but prefers to think positively. “Technological evolution is a continuation of biological evolution,” he says. “That is very much a natural process.”

Right on. But I think we derailed a while ago (hard to argue against the dreamiest of life-logic in Ishmael); after the agricultural revolution accumulation became the agenda and technology became the benchmark of progress. Anyway, if your fear is a rogue AI hijacking the world’s technology and enslaving/exterminating humanity, then I can appreciate that.

Then, on the notion of stratification. Crime as we know it is a product of greed, of status symbols and a capitalist market that wants you to want. And if you can’t afford to buy it, maybe you should want it enough to steal it. This excludes, of course, crimes of passion or psychosis. But consider the gap between the rich and the poor, the obliviousness of those on top and the resentment of those on the bottom. Here you get the Haves: robot bodies with super-human consciousness playing in a digital, ageless, and pain-free world. And the Have-Nots: life as usual with the same pains and same pleasures.

So you’ve got some immediate pitfalls. Notably a digital abomination that destroys the world as we know it or a version of utopia that exists by invitation only.

“The Singularity is not the great vision for society that Lenin had or Milton Friedman might have,” says Andrew Orlowski, a British journalist who has written extensively on techno-utopianism. “It is rich people building a lifeboat and getting off the ship.”

It does sound like escape, right? Running away from this world and into another. It hearkens back to Kurzweil’s idea of extension, which I take to mean the further indulgence of the more superficial elements of consciousness. Escape the challenges of a physical body, escape the limitations of the brain’s ability to process information, escape the tedium of a world that doesn’t reshape itself to suit your desires. That’s the most dangerous thing about the sort of bliss the Singularity hurtles toward: without challenges, will people stop and reflect?

It comes down to the prevalence of suffering for me. Ever since ol’ Fear and Trembling I’ve been a firm believer in the miraculous epiphanies one might have in the throes of agony. That’s what inspires revaluation, soul-searching and a questioning of the status quo. This happens many ways – even by virtue of touching the infinite and realizing that the life you used to love was only cherished on a shallow level. Suddenly, knowing how deep the well goes you can no longer be content to float on the surface.

Pain is valuable. Not essential, maybe. But I believe that challenges encourage questioning and then understanding. Old-fashioned character building.

It comes down to Deadlines vs. Endless Time. I do my best work under pressure – from some force or another. Whether it’s a bout of depression, the death of a loved ones, the great dissatisfaction of a wannabe artist, I’m at my best grappling with great questions of how to reconcile the discordant elements in my world. I may not enjoy imbalance, but I’m grateful later on for the ways in which impermanence slaps me in the face. With endless time and less tangible suffering will people no longer feel the need to transcend? The good people at Tricycle raise questions about the Singularity vision.

Conversely, does an eternity of day-to-day lose its luster eventually and demand that we collectively take the next step? Maybe tedium and an endless electronic consciousness will do what traditional impermanence has failed to do on a large scale. For all we know, maybe tuning into the information processing of some massive super-computer will acquaint us with quantum change instantaneously and we’ll shed these archaic egos and melt into something bigger. Maybe these Singularity cats will get the Human Instrumentality Project in motion and surprise us all by being deeper than the geekdom suggests.

Hell, I bet that building a machine that emulates and surpasses human thought will ultimately yield an irrefutable super-intelligence that affirms the great truths of art (and of Buddhism, of rapture, of transcendence) and renders itself obsolete, taking us along for the ride. Wouldn’t that be rad?

But when I read bits of interviews with the pioneers of the movement I can’t help but think this sort of consciousness will drive us further away from anything essential – the mind will find greater and greater diversions and entertainments. They read like kids at a toy store, consumed with the newest and shiniest item on the horizon. We’ll swim on into a forever that keeps us comfortably numb. There will always be a new way to interact with information, so these hyper-consciousnesses will do just that. Rather than note that the nature of information is the nature of illusion. It’s a dangerous road.

That said, given my recent wave of dental issues and the subsequent knife to my wallet, I’d trade my teeth for robot molars any day. In fact, I’d trade my entire body for something less consumed by the pains of cell decay. But I’m also acutely aware of how lame I am for focusing on those thoughts and hunting for escape rather than getting intimate with the emblems of my impermanence.

Maureen from Albuquerque, commenting on the Times article, summed it up brilliantly:

So what are these people going to do after the Singularity? Watch an infinite number of baseball games? Have sex an infinite number of times with their sexbots? If Mr. Kurzweil is 62 and still has a little boy’s science fiction understanding of existence, what makes him think that he’s going to be any deeper when he’s 562?

Yes, I know, computers and the wowzy zowzy new genone and the this and the that are somehow going to create a Consciousness so much bigger and better than what we have now. And all of our desires will be fulfilled and all our wishes granted.

Guess what? The Consciousness is already here. And yogis and monks have been tapping into it for thousands of years. But the only way they have found it is by turning away from desires and wishes, and learning to still that hyperactive mind that we each have. Oh, and becoming humble and grateful doesn’t hurt, either.

Of course, I know that all that’s a little harder than inventing gadgets, holding conferences and making and spending lots of money.

How much simpler to pretend that the Future will do the work on ourselves that we fail to do Now?

Although I do respect that the word ‘singularity’ makes me think first of black holes, and accelerating involuntarily toward something with an inescapable gravity.