The Cult of the Singularity
Friends, a new world is waiting for all of us. It is a world without want, where every need is satisfied by boundless resources. It is a world of friendship, where war does not exist. And when we get there, we'll achieve immortality. I'm not talking about Heaven, Nirvana, or some other religious tenet - I'm talking about the future according to Singularity University. But is it really as close as the Singularity folks say?
Singularity is ostensibly an executive education program for people hoping to unlock the power of disruptive technologies, thus moving the world closer to “the singularity” – the eventual convergence of human and machine intelligence. The school itself is a small shop with growing influence, thanks to links with NASA, Google, and other prominent organizations. By design, it has little in common with traditional universities.
Perhaps not by design, it has rather more in common with a cult. Singularity’s leaders are the futurist Ray Kurzweil and the entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, two gurus of Silicon Valley and tireless evangelists of a technology-driven future. Diamandis’s latest book, Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think, is akin to Singularity’s bible. And the university has plenty of apostles: its star-studded and overwhelmingly male faculty, virtually all of whom have other jobs, and scores of ambassadors around the world.
What apostles they are! This month I had the pleasure of speaking at Korea's tech+ forum, a conference designed to interest young people in technology and innovation. My talk followed that of Jose Cordeiro, an advisor in Singularity’s Energy & Environmental Systems program. Wearing a Singularity lapel pin, flashing dozens of inspirational images, and quoting from Abundance, he awed the assembled students and professionals with a vivid picture of their boundless future, including the opportunity to live forever.
To my ears, Cordeiro’s speech sounded like a good excuse for young people to do nothing. After all, if such an amazing future is just around the corner, thanks to technologies created by other people, then what is left for the rest of us to do? We can sit back and enjoy the ride. To be fair, Cordeiro told the audience that they would need to learn English and travel to take full advantage of the coming new world. It still seemed like a low bar to me.
Of course, Singularity is not your everyday form of evangelism. Its proselytizers aren’t asking the public for money, and they don’t threaten us with the perils that may befall us if we fail to convert. But I worry that Singularity encourages us to rely too much on what is, after all, an idiosyncratic process.
Innovation doesn’t happen reliably on a fixed schedule. Technology may someday solve a lot of our problems – medical, environmental, you name it – but in the meantime, we shouldn’t remain idle. We still need to conserve energy, recycle, educate ourselves, eat healthy, exercise, and try not to waste the resources and time we have on this planet.
Remember that wacky pastor who predicted the end of the world twice last year? I wouldn’t want to bet our global economy on his prophecy or anyone else’s. We need to keep doing the small stuff, just in case those world-changing innovations don’t arrive on time.
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