Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

The Singularity and Its Discontents

Bioethicist Paul Root Wolpe questions the basic premise of the Singularity concept, arguing that it “misunderstands the complex nature of biological and physical life.” 

In February, 2011, a powerful IBM computer called Watson became the Jeopardy world champion. Immediately, the media went crazy with headlines about machines obliterating mankind. As a media professional, I am not at all surprised by this – the more powerful our machines become, the more our attitudes toward them become polarized between paranoia on the one hand and weak-kneed submission on the other. Playing upon those fears and desires is a guaranteed attention-getter – the stuff of multi-digit pageviews and retweets. 


What's the Big Idea? 

The concept of “the Singularity,” a moment in the not-too-distant future when we will manage to create superhuman intelligence, either in machine form or by augmenting our own brains with biotechnology, is particularly effective at inspiring this kind of technophobia or technophilic zealotry. Mathematician and Science Fiction author Vernor Vinge coined the term in a 1993 article – analogizing our inability to envision a post-A.I. world to modern physics’ inability to explain what happens at the center of a black hole. In the hands of Futurist Ray Kurzweil and friends, the Singularity has evolved into an inspirational movement with its own Institute and University, both dedicated to hastening the coming of the big event and ensuring that its outcomes are beneficial – rather than disastrous – for mankind.

The movement has its fervent detractors. Jaron Lanier, an early Internet pioneer, the author of You Are Not a Gadget, and a partner architect at Microsoft Research calls the Singularity an “ultramodern religion . . . in which people are told to wait politely as their very souls are made obsolete.” Lanier objects to what he sees as as an increasingly widespread desire to cede human responsibility to technology – to let Netflix, for example, decide what movie we should watch next, or allow expensive data-crunching systems to represent the reality in public-school classrooms  – though machines haven’t yet achieved anything approaching (our admittedly imperfect) human sentience or complexity. He cautions against Silicon Valley hype that prematurely paints technology as redemption from human suffering.

Bioethicist Paul Root Wolpe, a recent Big Think guest, is not overly disturbed by visions of a future in which people have robotic arms and silicon brain-implants. Still, he questions the basic premise of the Singularity concept, arguing that it “misunderstands the complex nature of biological and physical life.”

Every branch of science, Wolpe points out, periodically reaches major thresholds that are expected – by the media, at least – to redefine and clarify everything, forever. But for each threshold of understanding we cross, unforseen complexities arise – the frontiers of the next generation of the science. Wolpe finds the Singularity’s focus on a single, transformative event misleading and dangerously simplistic.
Paul Root Wolpe: Physics also thought it was going to find its grand unified theory a long time ago.  And now we’re just beginning to discover that maybe the universe isn’t exactly organized the way we thought it was with dark matter and String Theory and all of that, which we still don’t really understand the nature of and can’t agree about.

I think what we’re going to find over time is that rather than convergence leading us to some sort of unified idea is that there will constantly be this kind of complexity fallout.  As we learn about things more and more deeply, we will discover that in fact, there’s all kinds of peripheral work to be done that we couldn’t have even imagined looking forward.  And what that means is you’re not going to have a convergence towards a singularity, but you’re going to have a very complex set of moments where things will change in a lot of different ways.  
What’s the Significance?

The danger of the Singularity concept lies in its assumption that an inevitable, singular transformation of life as we know it is fast approaching. In some, this inspires paranoid, Terminator-style visions of mankind enslaved by machines. In others, beatific fantasies of a world free of messy human imperfection. In either fiction, involuntarily or by choice, we are annihilated by our own creations. The first is a primal death-wish. The second, a religious vision of redemption. Neither approach faces squarely the real challenges and possibilities before us.

In reality, the future may be much closer in some respects to William Gibson’s cyberpunk classic Neuromancer, in which biotechnology and artificial intelligence solve some of our problems, only to introduce a myriad of new ones. What do you do, for example, when you’re surfing some infinitely distant spiral arm of the Internet via 4-D holovision and a glitch in the damn program suddenly leaves you stuck halfway through the wall of a giant, obsidian cube that represents a block of encrypted data you’re trying to access?

Close your eyes and wait for the update? 

The series Re-envision is sponsored by Toyota. 

Follow Jason Gots (@jgots) on Twitter

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
  • COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
Keep reading Show less

A temporary marriage makes more sense than marriage for life

Most marriages end in resentment. Why should longevity be the sole marker of a successful marriage?


 

 

Angelina Jolie Pitt and Brad Pitt attend the WSJ Magazine 2015 Innovator Awards on November 4, 2015. (Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for WSJ)
Personal Growth

In November 1891, the British sexologist Havelock Ellis married the writer and lesbian Edith Lees. He was 32 and a virgin. And since he was impotent, they never consummated their union. After their honeymoon, the two lived separately in what he called an open marriage. The union lasted until Lees’ death in 1916. 

Keep reading Show less

Live on Tuesday | Personal finance in the COVID-19 era

Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.

How DNA revealed the woolly mammoth's fate – and what it teaches us today

Scientists uncovered the secrets of what drove some of the world's last remaining woolly mammoths to extinction.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Surprising Science

Every summer, children on the Alaskan island of St Paul cool down in Lake Hill, a crater lake in an extinct volcano – unaware of the mysteries that lie beneath.

Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast