Some days, as we watch the news on TV and read the papers we come across some wonderful things and it is easy to be an optimist. But on other days it seems like the world is going crazy and is surely headed for destruction. This observation provides the context for addressing one of the most enduring mysteries of all time, and asking one of the most challenging questions: Where is Mankind headed?
In this series of essays we will consider what some very prominent people have had to say about where Mankind might be headed. We’ll begin with the generally optimistic views of Ray Kurzweil. Next we’ll consider some more pessimistic views of people like Eric Fromm on the nature of human destructiveness, and Charles Mathewes on the origin and nature of evil. In the final essay I will attempt to pull it all together into a “most likely” scenario.
Kurzweil is a brilliant fellow who has always been of great interest to me because he is both highly creative, and very practical. He has invented many things that directly impact my life - such as the famous Kurzweil music synthesizer, but also he is a highly successful businessman, a technical advisor to the federal government, and most recently Kurzweil became Director of Engineering for Google. If you look at his bio on the web I believe you’ll find it to be truly amazing.
Another reason Kurzweil has always held interest for me is because his love for life drives him to find ways to extend his life, so that he can remain as creative and productive as long as possible. To that end he has investigated human biology and the aging process in some detail, concluding that aging can be slowed down considerably. He has mounted a campaign to remain creative and productive. Part of his regimen is to use vitamin supplements, reportedly taking 100 vitamin pills a day. I think this recent photo suggests that his plan is working.
In the course of investigating life-extension strategies, Kurzweil has thought a lot about where Mankind might be headed. He has a great deal of faith in the power of technology to address the many serious problems facing us. He acknowledges that technology is nearly always a double-edged sword and can be used for good or for ill. He also acknowledges that some people, driven by greed, a desire for power, or some other factor, will try to highjack technology and bend it to their personal agenda. But in the end, as I read Kurzweil (R. Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Penguin Books, 2005), he believes that good will overcome evil, and that our increasingly sophisticated technologies will allow us to flourish and create a better world.
Central to Kurzweil’s views is what he calls “The Singularity.” To understand this concept, we need a little background on two important trends.
The first critical trend relates to our knowledge of human biology. We are increasing our understanding how human biological processes work at a very rapid rate and a rate that is continually speeding up. This knowledge is not just limited to one area of biology, but ALL aspects of human biology, from how organs function, to how cancer cells grow, to how our brain operates. We are also learning very quickly about how to use technology to repair or augment our biology. For example, pacemakers are now commonplace to aid the heart. Prosthetic legs, arms, and even hands are routine and are becoming increasingly functional and “lifelike” every year. We are just beginning to insert various types of monitors to quickly evaluate emerging situations and intervene…such as monitoring the brain for indicators of impending epileptic seizures.
The second critical trend Kurzweil discusses is rate at which computers are becoming smaller and more powerful. Highly capable computers will shrink to become nano-sized (less than 100 nanometers). This will be small enough to run nano-sized machines which will be inserted in everything from toys to clothing to sensors in highly dangerous environments. Over the years just ahead, as the number of calculations per second computers can crunch continues to grow at an exponential rate, the “quality” of computation will also change. Our computers will become increasingly intelligent. Our efforts in the field of “artificial intelligence” will pay off big time. Computers will increasingly be able to mimic human intelligence. Kurzweil believes that their abilities will make them indistinguishable from human responses in the next decade or two.
Kurzweil claims that these two trends will eventually intersect. That is, what we know about computers will be applied to what we know about human biology. Powerful, nano-sized computers will be small enough so that we will be able to insert thousands, even millions of “nanobots” within the human body to search out, analyze, and rectify problems before they become debilitating. We will learn how to interface computers directly into our brains to add to our memory, knowledge…….slow down aging….become a lot smarter. When that happens, Kurzweil says, our entire environment will change. We will enter a new era where our bodies, our minds, and our relationship to our physical environment will all be dramatically different. This point in time he refers to as “The Singularity.”
Kurzweil summarizes the profound changes that he believes will occur with the advent of the Singularity:
“…. Although neither utopian nor dystopian, this epoch [i.e., The Singularity] will transform the concepts that we rely on to give meaning to our lives, from our business models to the cycle of human life, including death itself. Understanding the Singularity will alter our perspective on the significance of our past and the ramifications for our future. To truly understand it inherently changes one’s view of life in general and one’s own particular life.” P 7
Setting aside the flowery language, Kurzweil is saying that when The Singularity arrives, it sets in motion a series of events that transform Man and our environment forever.
Is this a good thing? In Kurzweil’s view it certainly is. He holds this position because he sees the human body and brain (as we know them today) as extremely limited. The brain operates several millions of times slower than modern computer circuits. Our bodies are frail and tend to break down. And most importantly from an evolutionary perspective, our brains make it very cumbersome to transfer knowledge from one person to another. All of these limitations and frailties will be overcome, as Kurzweil sees it, when The Singularity arrives:
“The Singularity will allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains. We will gain power over our fates. Our mortality will be in our own hands. We will be able to live as long as we want (a subtly different statement from saying we will live forever). We will fully understand human thinking and will vastly extend and expand its reach. By the end of this century, the non-biological portion of our intelligence will be trillions of trillions of times more powerful than unaided human intelligence.” P 9
“The Singularity will represent the culmination of the merger of our biological thinking and existence with our technology, resulting in a world that is still human but that transcends our biological roots. There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality.” P 9
If Kurzweil is right, it is indeed a very brave new world. How will we handle all these developments? Are we up to it? Will we be able to cope? Flourish? Kurzweil sees a mostly—although not entirely—rosy future.
On the positive side:
“The Singularity will allow us to overcome age-old human problems and vastly amplify human creativity. We will preserve and enhance the intelligence that evolution has bestowed on us while overcoming the profound limitations of biological evolution.” P 21
But on the negative side:
“But the Singularity will also amplify the ability to act on our destructive inclinations, so its full story has not yet been written.” P 21
We’ll return to the negatives shortly. Meanwhile let’s continue to investigate Kurzweil’s mostly optimistic view of our future.
“In the aftermath of The Singularity, intelligence - derived from its biological origins in human brains and its technological origins in human ingenuity - will begin to saturate the matter and energy in its midst. It will achieve this by reorganizing matter and energy.” P21
This is a tough concept, so let’s clarify it before going forward. What Kurzweil is talking about here is the fact that computers are physical machines. As such, they must be based on some kind of material. Up until now that material has generally been silicon. But that is changing. Computer scientists are experimenting with other materials, including living cells. Bio-computers have been created on a small-scale and it is generally expected that they will become more prevalent in the years ahead.
So what Kurzweil is saying is that we will increasingly employ an ever-growing range of materials to serve as the building blocks of computers. Moreover, he says that once we have employed all the material in our immediate environment, our need and desire for greater computing power will push us to travel to and utilize material further away from Earth.
“[Our] reorganizing matter and energy to provide an optimal level of computation [will] spread out from its origin on Earth….the ‘dumb’ matter and mechanisms of the universe will be transformed into exquisitely sublime forms of intelligence….This is the ultimate destiny of The Singularity and of the universe.” P 21
To me, this is an amazing idea, and one that I’ve never heard before. Since it is so bizarre, let me state it in another way. If I understand him, Kurzweil is saying that post-Singularity, we will be so smart that Mankind will be able to continue to evolve by transforming every-day “dumb” matter into computers, and we will merge with these computers so that they are incorporated into entities that we will consider “us”. After we press into service all local matter, we will then use our expanded brains to figure out how to use non-local matter and in this way extend our merged biological/technological selves through all the matter we encounter in our solar system, our galaxy, and ultimately the entire universe. Kurzweil refers to this process as the universe “waking up.” Extraordinary.
What will living be like?
After we reach The Singularity our bodies should be working just fine, thanks to nanobots helping us to monitor health and avoid disease, and our ability to clone organs when needed to replace worn-out ones.
Nanobots in our brains will be capable of providing full-immersion virtual reality including all senses, neurological correlates of our emotions, and profoundly growing human intelligence. We will be able to download from centralized computers—what we currently call “the cloud”-- new knowledge and skills, vastly expanding human potential.
Kurzweil says that we will be able to re-shape our bodies at will, building tissue of any type at any time, molecule by molecule. He bases this idea on the prospect of our mastering of molecular nano-technology (MNT). He expects a lot of body-shaping to go on:
“[The] human body version 3.0 is likely still to look human by today’s standards, but given the greatly expanded plasticity that our bodies will have, ideas of what constitutes beauty will be expanded upon over time. Already, people augment their bodies with body piercing, tattoos, and plastic surgery; and social acceptance of these changes has rapidly increased. Since we’ll be able to make changes that are readily reversible, there is likely to be far greater experimentation.” P 310
As the saying goes, “one thing leads to another” and as Kurzweil sees it, once we get into serious body-shaping, personality shaping soon follows. We will gain the ability to become someone else at will albeit in virtual reality. We will create virtual body “avatars” just like in the movies and the nature of these avatars will be changeable:
“In virtual reality we won’t be restricted to a single personality, since we will be able to change our appearance and effectively become other people. Without altering our physical body (in real reality) we will be able to readily transform our projected body in these three-dimensional virtual environments. We can select different bodies at the same time for different people. So your parents may see you as one person, while your girlfriend will experience you as another.” P 314
Are we still human?
With all this change—our bodies, our personalities, our brains, our minds—it seems fair to ask if the future “people” Kurzweil is describing are still human. After all, these new entities are so different from people today, maybe we should just admit it and acknowledge that by bringing on The Singularity we are also bringing into existence a new species. Kurzweil doesn’t agree with this view. He argues:
“Non-biological intelligence should still be considered human, since it is fully derived from human-machine civilization and will be based, at least in part, on reverse engineering human intelligence….The merger of these two worlds of intelligence is not merely a merger of biological and non-biological thinking mediums, but more important, one of method and organization of thinking, one that will be able to expand our minds in virtually any imaginable way.” P 317
This does not strike me as a very compelling argument. It may well be true, but just because we pattern this new entity on aspects of humanity, this doesn’t mean that when we take specific aspects and evolve them over time, combine them into unique and never-before-seen ways, what we develop can still be considered human. Using the “human” label for these new creatures strikes me as just a means of calming fears and avoiding the wrath of those who might consider all of this as despicable hubris or worse, “playing God.”
Kurzweil also makes another argument for considering the post-Singularity entities human. This one, for me, is a bit more convincing:
“To me being human means being part of a civilization that seeks to extend its boundaries. We are already reaching beyond our biology by rapidly gaining the tools to reprogram and augment it. If we regard a human modified with technology as no longer human, where would we draw the defining line? Is a human with a bionic heart still human? How about someone with a neurological implant? What about two neurological implants? How about someone with ten nanobots in his brain? How about 500 million nanobots? Should we establish a boundary at 650 million nanobots: under that, you’re still human and over that, you’re post human?
Our merger with our technology has aspects of a slippery slope, but one that slides up toward greater promise, not down into Nietzsche’s abyss. Some observers refer to this merger as creating a new ‘species.’ But the whole idea of a species is a biological concept, and what we are doing is transcending biology. The transformation underlying The Singularity is not just another in a long line of steps in biological evolution. We are upending biological evolution altogether.” P 374
While “being part of civilization that seeks to extend its boundaries” is only one of several things that makes us human, it does not strike me as the be-all and end-all. Man’s constant curiosity and clear willingness to take enormous chances to see what’s around the corner, to try and satisfy his curiosity, is undeniably a big part of who we are. Still, it seems a bit of sleight-of-hand to first define humans in a certain way, and then say that when they exhibit that characteristic it is evidence that they are human. Isn’t that circular reasoning?
I’d also like to address his point about whether all this change is really creating a new “species.” He is probably technically correct that this new entity is not a new species. But that seems to me beside the point. His idea that this new entity is not just another biological step but rather a transcendence strikes me as so big—so profound—that it really matters little what label one puts on it. The entities Kurzweil describes would have such different abilities it is likely their experiences would be far, far different than ours. These enhanced creatures will be the entities that burst out of our galaxy and spread throughout the universe. Call them what you will.
Consciousness and Personal Identity
Another fascinating point touched on by Kurzweil is the issue of consciousness. How will our consciousness change through all this? Kurzweil clearly believes that consciousness is at the core of “us” and is a big part of what it means to be human. And even though he argues that “there exists no objective test that can conclusively determine its presence” (p 378), and the best we can do is measure correlates of subjective experience, Kurzweil believes that one’s identity most fundamentally resides in the energy patterns making up our unique, personal consciousness.
“My personal philosophy remains based on patternism—I am principally a pattern that persists in time. I am an evolving pattern, and I can influence the course of the evolution of my pattern.” P 386
Kurzweil is saying that consciousness is a label we put on the unique energy patterns of each individual. These patterns constitute our unique personalities. They exist over time, changing as we go through life and have different experiences. Also, we have the ability to change these patterns through our life choices. I don’t believe he ever addresses what type of energy patterns he is really speaking about. He hints that he believes it is something more than just electrical impulses, but never really tackles the issue.
Evidence that Kurzweil believes that the energy patterns of consciousness are more than just electricity can be, I believe, seen in his argument that even if well develop the ability to copy our consciousness “patterns” into a computer and upload them to some super-computing “cloud,” these copies would just be copies. The “original” pattern/entity, in his view, remains the original and exists only as long as it remains alive. He never thoroughly explains this. Are the copies only copies because they are missing something? If so, what? Or is he making an existential argument…that even if the copies are not missing anything, they can only exist because an original came first? In this case the “real me” has that status because it came temporally before any copies. We are left wondering.
Despite claiming that there will always be a difference between any copies of our consciousness and the original, Kurzweil goes on to say that from a practical perspective, once we can upload a personality pattern we have essentially achieved immortality. Even when the original “me” dies, the uploaded pattern persists and it will be such a good replica that others—even our good friends-- could easily be fooled into believing that “I” am still around. I think Kurzweil is saying that when we have such highly-convincing copies of our consciousness’ energy patterns, it makes no practical difference to say that the copy is not also “me.”
To summarize, Kurzweil makes two main points about consciousness. First, that human consciousness will be greatly expanded and changed after the Singularity. Second, that it will become possible to “upload” and preserve our personality patterns in some form of super computer in the “cloud.”
Possible downsides to the Singularity
While Kurzweil is generally very optimistic about the future and how the Singularity will affect humanity, he does mention a few possible downsides. We’ll discuss only the biggest potential problem he sees.
The major risk, and it is a big one should it happen, is what is often called “runaway AI.” To understand the problem, we need a little background. It appears inevitable that at some point computers’ artificial intelligence will develop to the point where, when they are connected to machines, their behavior will be at least as skillful and flexible and subtle as humans’. This level of artificial intelligence is called “Strong AI.” When our computers/machines reach this level, we could face a huge risk:
“Once strong AI is achieved, it can readily be advanced and its powers multiplied, as that is the fundamental nature of machine abilities. As one strong AI immediately begets many strong AIs, the latter access their own design, understand and improve it, and thereby very rapidly evolve into a yet more capable, more intelligent AI, with the cycle repeating itself indefinitely. Each cycle not only creates a more intelligent AI but takes less time than the cycle before it, as is the nature of technological evolution (or any evolutionary process). The premise is that once strong AI is achieved, it will immediately become a runaway phenomenon of rapidly escalating super-intelligence….My own view is only slightly different. The logic of runaway AI is valid, but we still need to consider the timing. Achieving human levels in a machine will not immediately cause a runaway phenomenon.” P 262
He goes on to say that there will be a bit of time between when a single computer/machine achieves strong AI and when runaway AI, if it happens at all, could possibly happen. He claims that during that time delay, humans will put in place safeguards, so runaway AI will never occur and self-replicating robots will never take over the world.
Of course, Kurzweil doesn’t think that we should wait around for this cliff-hanger situation to evolve. We shouldn’t blithely push forward toward the Singularly, simply hoping that we can act fast enough once strong AI is achieved. Instead he says we need to immediately get to work creating an “immune system” so that it is in place before we create the first self-replicating nanobots. He admits this will be very difficult, and discusses the difficulties in detail in his book. Suffice it here to say that despite these difficulties, and despite the existential risk posed by strong AI and the prospect of self-replicating nanobots, Kurzweil didn’t think (in 2005 when he wrote his book) we should relinquish pursuit of the Singularity, but should cautiously move forward:
“My own expectation is that the creative and constructive applications of these technologies will dominate, as I believe they do today. However, we need to vastly increase our investment in developing specific defensive technologies. As I discussed, we are at the critical stage today for biotechnology, and we will reach the stage where we need to directly implement defensive technologies for nanotechnology during the late teen years of this century.” P 408
Ray Kurzweil argues that technological progress will continue accelerating in the decades ahead. Within a matter of just a couple of decades, so much progress will have been made that we will reach what he calls the “Singularity”. At this point, computer/machines will be as smart and capable as humans. Some will be stand-alone machines, that is, robots, but others will be within our bodies. Many will actually be directly connected to our nervous system and be extensions of ourselves.
As a result, he believes that many of the problems we face today will be eradicated, or at least brought under control. We will be healthier and live far longer. We will be vastly smarter and will enjoy the ability to experience virtual realities and even modify our own bodies at will. Some of us will choose to cast off our bodies entirely, only manifesting in the physical world for specific reasons and on exceptional occasions. Our intelligence will utilize all the matter and energy in our solar system and then move outward from our galaxy.
Sure there will be a few bumps along the road, he says. Cyber-wars may break out for a time. Rogues may pervert the idea of cloning and create armies of designer humanoids. But these things will be overcome, he argues. Good will overcome evil. The new technologies will help Man transcend biology and move into a new epoch where his consciousness will permeate the entire universe.
In our next essay, we will see what Eric Fromm had to say about where Mankind might be headed. A hint to his perspective may be found in the title to his book, The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness.