(These are excerpts from my book "Intelligence is not Artificial")
Historians, scientists, philosophers and poets alike have written that the human being strives for the infinite. In the old days this meant (more or less) that s/he strives to become one with the god who created and rules the world. As atheism began to make strides in Western civilization, Arthur Schopenhauer rephrased the concept as a "will to power". Friedrich Nietzsche confirmed that the Western god is dead, and the Western search for "infinite" became a mathematical and scientific program instead of a mystical one. About a century ago, European mathematicians such as Bertrand Russell and David Hilbert launched a logical program that basically aimed at making it easy to prove and discover everything that can be. The perspective therefore changed: instead of something that humans have to attain, the infinite has become something that humans will build.
One of the consequences of this line of research was the creation of the digital electronic computer, the physical implementation of a thought experiment by the British mathematician Alan Turing. He also wrote a pioneering paper about machine intelligence (“Computing Machinery and Intelligence”, 1950) and a few years later the term "artificial intelligence" was already popular among both scientists and philosophers. The first conference on Artificial Intelligence was held in 1956 at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, organized by John McCarthy with help from MIT scientist Marvin Minsky and others. That was just ten years after the introduction of the first general-purpose computer, the ENIAC. From the very beginning, the electronic computer had been presented by the media as the “electronic brain”.
The idea behind the Singularity, a concept popularized by Ray Kurzweil's "The Age of Intelligent Machines" (1990) and by his subsequent, highly-successful, public-relations campaign, is that we are about to witness the advent of machines that are more intelligent than humans, so intelligent that humans can neither control them nor understand them.
Admittedly, the discipline of Artificial Intelligence, that had largely languished in the 1990s and 2000s, has staged a revival of sorts, both in the eyes of the public and in the eyes of big business. Achievements in the field of A.I. are often hailed by the mainstream media as steps towards machine domination, and investment in A.I. startups has multiplied to record levels.
In the age that has seen the end of human space exploration, the retirement of the only commercial supersonic airplane, the decline of nuclear power, and the commercialization of the Internet (an event that basically turned a powerful scientific tool into a marketing tool and a form of light entertainment), machine intelligence seems to bring some kind of collective reassurance that we are not, after all, entering a new Dark Age; on the contrary, we are witnessing the dawn of a superhuman era. Of course, decades of science fiction books and movies helped create the ideal audience for this kind of scenario.
However, the tone and the (very weak) arguments in favor of the Singularity do remind one of religious prophecies, except that this time the coming messiah will be a
product made by us instead of being sent by an external divinity. In a sense,
this is a religion according to which we are creating the divinity.
The idea of the Singularity is fascinating because it plays the history of religion backwards. Religion traditionally is meant to explain the mystery of the complexity of the universe, the miracle of life, the purpose of consciousness. Even some of today's eminent scientists subscribe to the "creationist" notion that a superhuman intelligence was required to create the world. This theory is frequently called "intelligent
design" but it would be more appropriate to call it
"super-intelligent design" because "intelligent" only refers
to human intelligence. The whole point of religion is precisely to posit the existence
of something that human intelligence could never possibly build. The hidden
assumption of religion is that all the laws of nature that humans can possibly
discover will never be enough to explain the mysteries of the universe, of
life, of the soul. Whatever can be explained by those mathematical laws can
also be implemented by humans, and therefore does not require the existence of
supernatural forces. God, instead, is a singularity, the singularity that
preceded human intelligence and created it, and is infinitely superior to it.
Luckily for us, this supreme deity is also capable of, and somewhat interested in, granting us immortality, which, at the end of the day, is what believers hope to obtain from believing.
Today's hypothesis of a coming singularity due to super-intelligent machines provides a mirror image of this story. The original singularity (God) was needed to explain the inexplicable. The new singularity (the machine) will be
unexplainable. Human intelligence cannot understand the workings of the God of
the past that created human intelligence; nor can it understand the workings of
the super-intelligent machine of the future that human intelligence will have
Then the Singularity movement splits in two camps, the optimists and the pessimists. The optimists think that machines will make us immortal. The pessimists think that machines will kill us all. I still haven't heard anyone take the kind of intermediary position that most religions take: good people will go to paradise, bad people will go to hell. Apparently, the Singularity will not distinguish between good and bad people: either it kills everybody or it makes
everybody immortal. (Money may be more important than good deeds for one to
become immortal because, if I understand correctly, immortality will be a
service available for sale or for rent just like cloud computing is today).
"This is the whole point of technology. It creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other. Technology is lust removed from nature.... It's what we invented to conceal the terrible secret of our decaying bodies". (Don DeLillo, "White Noise")
It is sometimes difficult to argue with the Singularity crowd because they often seem unaware that some of the topics they discuss have been discussed for a long time, with pros and cons, by philosophers and scientists. In its worst manifestation the Singularity movement is becoming the religion of high-tech nerds who did not study history, philosophy, or science, not even computer science. At its best, however, it helps acquaint the general public with a society of (software and hardware) robots that is inevitably coming, although its imminence might be wildly exaggerated.
It may not be a coincidence that the boom of interest in the Singularity originated in the USA (a country well acquainted with apocalyptic evangelism, conspiracy
theories, UFO sightings and cryptic prophets like Nostradamus) and that it
originated after the year 2,000, a year that had three zeroes according to the
calendar introduced by Pope Gregory in 1582 and that, because of those three
zeroes, was thought by many to herald a major discontinuity in history if not
the end of the world itself. For a while the world was shaken almost yearly by
catastrophic predictions, most famously (in the USA) Harold Camping's Biblical calculations that the end of the world was coming on the 21st of October of 2011 and the theory that the end of the Mayan calendar (December 21, 2012) marked the end of the world. Luckily, they were all proven wrong, but maybe they created a public opinion ready to be fascinated by a technological version of the same general story (the end of the human race).
Irony aside, it is fascinating to see how religion is being reinvented on completely different foundations in Silicon Valley.
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