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.

3D printing might save your life one day. It's transforming medicine and health care.

What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

Northwell Health
Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
  • Eventually, scientists hope to print patient-specific organs that can be transplanted safely into the human body.
  • Northwell Health, New York State's largest health care provider, is pioneering 3D printing in medicine in three key ways.
Keep reading Show less

Hyperdimensional computing discovered to help AI robots create memories

New computing theory allows artificial intelligences to store memories.

Credit: Perception and Robotics Group, University of Maryland.
Technology & Innovation
  • To become autonomous, robots need to perceive the world around them and move at the same time.
  • Researchers create a theory of hyperdimensional computing to help store robot movement in high-dimensional vectors.
  • This improvement in perception will allow artificial intelligences to create memories.
Keep reading Show less

10 new things we’ve learned about death

If you don't want to know anything about your death, consider this your spoiler warning.

Culture & Religion
  • For centuries cultures have personified death to give this terrifying mystery a familiar face.
  • Modern science has demystified death by divulging its biological processes, yet many questions remain.
  • Studying death is not meant to be a morbid reminder of a cruel fate, but a way to improve the lives of the living.
Keep reading Show less

Why inequality is a ticking time bomb – for poor and rich

Riots may ensue as more poor Americans recognize their "miserable" long-term prospects.

Videos
  • How bad is wealth inequality in the United States? About 1 percent of Americans hold 80 percent of the money.
  • In the United States, the correlation between the income of parents and the income of their children when they grow up is higher than in any other country in the world.
  • One of the big underlying reasons for poverty is receiving a crummy education, which in turn leads to crummy jobs. When people recognize their miserable long-term prospects, they are more likely to partake in riots.