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Intelligence as imperialism?
on July 16, 2006
The role of the "futurist" is difficult and often thankless. The more daring of the tribe, among whom Kurzweil is prominent, will apply deadlines to forecasts. That's always risky, and failure to meet them appears to undermine the concept. Kurzweil, however, is able to brush aside such trivial complaints to focus on the bigger issues. How fast is technology improving and how will these advances affect humanity. For him, the answer is clear - humanity and technology will merge. The result will be Version 2.0 of humanity with enhanced intellect and bodies that will not "wear out". Kurzweil's "Singularity" is that point at which the merger will be complete. And final - a word to keep in mind.
The basis of his thesis is the advance of technology, typified by GNR [Genetics, Nanotechnology and Robotics]. While these sound intimidating, one need not be highly conversant with the technologies to understand his argument. He explains them all clearly. Basing his project on the well-known "Moore's Law" - computing power will double every eighteen months - Kurzweil shows how computer processing capacity will soon outstrip that of the human brain. Once that transformation is achieved, it will be a short step to enhance existing technology to reforming the human body. The heart, an inefficient and vulnerable pump, can be replaced by a easily repairable mechanical version. The grumbling intestinal tract can dispense with all those E. coli bacteria and an energy transfer mechanism, requiring greatly reduced resources can take its place.
To transform the speed and capacity of a silicon-based device to a carbon-based biological entity seems anomalous to some and blasphemous to others. Kurzweil dismisses the second objection and carefully explains how the first is short-sighted. While computers run on a digital system, the brain runs on a combination of digital storage and analog processing. In many respects, replacement limbs and organs, "smart" weaponry, and much medical diagnosis already is automated and transmitted around the planet for analysis. Kurzweil takes us a major step beyond this - he even addresses the notion of human intelligence encompassing the cosmos. This is the "Anthropic Principle" writ very large, and on a practical basis.
Kurzweil uses a tried and true method to address the concerns he anticipates. Creating or adopting various characters such as "Molly 2004", Ned Ludd, "George 2048" - even Charles Darwin and Bill Gates, he's able to pose and answer questions of common concern. He even stages an argument between bacteria at life's origins about how evolution will lead them to become something more "advanced". It's a mild fantasy, but a serious object lesson in this context. He would be a tough debater on this topic. One thing is clear: the objections on "moral" grounds are thoroughly addressed through this means. The technological issues are a given in his estimate. From the evidence he presents, he's close to the mark.
There will be critics contending Kurzweil ignores this or that issue. He does address the issue of "terrorism" and notes preventive measures must be applied up front. The biggest omission, however, is the social one. He argues that the declining cost of technology will allow it to be applied universally. Still, there remain questions about distribution and willingness. It's abundantly clear that the first applications of the Singularity will occur in the developed countries by people who can afford it. Declining costs require a time frame, and what can occur between inception of the programme and universal application escape Kurzweil's notice. While he proposes "brain imaging" from carbon humanity to silicon humanity, he ignores the breadth of possible personalities that will undergo the process. Will a radical fundamentalist of any stripe retain a similar worldview after becoming "immortal"? In a similar vein, how many cultures will wish to participate in the enhancement? Will the Singularity initiate a new form of imperialism, the "immortals" dominating the MOSH [Mostly Original Substrate Humans]? And will the MOSH form along cultural or "ethnic" lines? Kurzweil's unspoken assumption is that everybody else does indeed wish to be like us - even more so.
If Kurzweil ignores these questions, preferring to let others resolve them while he concentrates on the technical issues, we can still find this a valuable study. It's not something that can be lightly dismissed. There's far too much valid information and prediction in here for short-sighted criticism. Kurzweil has done a great service in collecting and summarising the state of today's technology. If his projections frighten you, that doesn't refute his foundation for them. There is nothing fabricated here, and if nothing else, you can use his information to develop your own future scenarios. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]