The Singularity is Near

Que horror movie sound track.

So this may sound really strange for a guy who is doing the whole countryside living, back to the land thing, but I do in fact believe that a technological singularity is near (as in within the next 30 to 50 years), and I am, in my own personal way, preparing for it.

If you got my book, then you already know that the technological singularity is a major theme in it. That book and its sequel, which I am drafting now, is my exploration of the “issues” that the singularity brings up, what could go wrong, what could go right, etc.

Regardless of whether or not a near future featuring the technological singularity is something you look forward to, I think the evidence that it will occur is overwhelming. It will have a huge effect on everyone, on humanity as a species, and on the planet as a whole. Some imagine the effect to be highly beneficial all around, and others have a more pessimistic, even apocalyptic view.  But regardless of whether they are optimists or pessimists ,there is very little disagreement by the experts in these fields (biology, nanotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence,) that we are indeed going to see unprecedented change in our lifetimes.

Again, I’m not saying good change, and I’m not saying bad change. Personally, I don’t know which it will be. I just know that the world as we know it is going to change big time. But that uncertainty, which is fundamentally a part of the singularity, is a part of the reason I am living as I currently do (the term “singularity” was coined by author Vernor Vinge in reference to the fact that it is impossible to predict events, or “see past” the point in  time when the singularity occurs).

The Question of Immortality

A major facet of the idea of the singularity is that it will make it possible for poeple to live “forever.” And so there are many who oppose the singularity on the basis that death is natural and attempts to become “immortal” are evil, abhorrent, unnatural, etc. I find this type of thinking flawed and highly irrational for a couple of reasons.

The first is the premise of “immortality” itself (meaning to live forever, or to never die) is somewhat of a red herring. I don’t think that is necessarily the “goal” of the singularity, but it is clear that advances in bio-technology and nanotechnology will allow for greatly lengthened or perhaps even indefinite lifespans. I don’t see that as a bad thing at all. Just like I don’t see good personal hygiene or antibiotics as a bad thing, advances which easily doubled human life expectancy in the last century (in fact I know that I would likely be dead already if not for those advances).  Granted I believe that living a natural life, with clean food, clean water and environment, can and has done a lot to lengthen lifespan too. But that too, is a type of technology, or implementation of knowledge and ways of living that were little understood by our ancestors.

The body, no matter how much we associate it with our “selves”  is simply an organic machine, infinitely more complex than any machine man is capable of creating (for now), but none-the-less a machine. And one thing we know about machines is that if they are properly maintained and repaired, their “lifespan” is indefinite. If you look at aging then, as the accumulation of damage, or as an inability to properly maintain the body. Then the answer to aging becomes one of simply finding ways to properly maintain the body and repair the accumulated damage. Cancer, Heart Disease, Diabetes, Arthritis, Alzheimers, and others, are all degenerative diseases that are the result of the accumulation of damage, or a “lack of proper maintenance” over time.

So ask yourself this question: If the technology existed to extend not only the length, but the quality of life indefinitely into the future, would you use that technology? For me it’s a pretty easy yes. And if you say no, yet you are perfectly willing to brush your teeth, wash your hands with soap, take antibiotics for an infection, immunize yourself against small pox, tuberculosis, diphtheria, malaria, etc., or even see the doctor at all, I am sorry but you might just want to turn to the mirror in order to find the nearest hypocrite.

Those might be harsh words but we’re talking about technologies that promise to not only cure the most deadly degenerative diseases of our age but in the process will also extend life, not just length, but the quality of that length, into the indefinite future. To say “poo poo, that’s unnatural, every one needs to die someday,” is missing the point entirely. Sure everyone is going to die someday, but while we are here, should we not try to live as long and productively as possible? If it is good to gain a century of wisdom and pass it on to the next generation why not gain two, or three centuries of wisdom and pass that on?

In fact I would rather live in a world full of people who have lived two or three hundred years and have every intention of living two or three hundred more; people who have within them the accumulated wisdom, knowledge and maturity to reverse the damage done by our short-lived ancestors who only thought of the short term. No longer will humanity be plagued by the attitude that says, “I’ll be long gone by then…”

Next ask yourself: If such technology existed, would you have the right to prevent people from using it to extend their own lives? My entire moral and ethical paradigm demands that I answer a resounding NO to this question. And if you think you have such a right, then you and I are operating from a fundamentally different moral premise.

“Ohh Noohs, the world will be taken over by robots and the robots will enslave the humans and the world will turn into something like the Matrix movies or worse… and… and…” Um, probably not. Any superhuman intelligence is going to be essentially human (either derived from actual human intelligence or created by human intelligence). In other words it is what we are, but potentially much better. The increased capacity for intelligence means all intelligence, including reason, emotion, and empathy. All aspects of intelligence will be affected, and not only that but perhaps even higher states of consciousness could be achieved. The potential is simply unknowable, which of course scares the crap out of people. But the thing to remember is that the most likely way superhuman intelligence will emerge is simply by augmenting existing human minds. Those “robots” will just be us…

The second thing people will bring up is overpopulation. Okay, this is perhaps a valid issue, but again it is an issue that can be resolved in a number of ways. The first is to remember that as affluence rises in a society (by which I mean not necessarily material wealth, but level and quality of education, amount of “free” time, and general feeling of contentedness) birth rate drops. This is because in less “affluent” societies children are often seen as a means toward economic security in the family. The more children you have, the more productive and affluent your family can become. This equation does not hold true in higher educated, technologically advanced societies. In those societies children represent a significant expense. The more children you have, the less economically secure you become, because in order to function as part of that society, those children must be educated and trained more extensively. Even if you are living in the countryside like me, you still want the best education for your children. So while 8 or 9 child families were common in the past, now people are SHOCKED that I have three kids…

The point is that in some ways the population problem takes care of itself, as long as “affluence” reaches all people throughout the world, birthrates will drop and the human population will stabilize. That’s in the near term. In the long term of course there are plenty of other worlds out there…

The third thing people will say is “what about peak oil???” and to that I would say, “Okay, what about it?” Fossil fuels will not be a significant source of energy by the end of the 21st century in my opinion. By that time the efficiency of solar (not to mention material sciences that will allow solar, as well as static power generation on almost any surface), and other technologies should be advanced enough that fossil fuels are no longer required. Production of solar “collectors” will also be far less resource intensive. You will be able to essentially use a “desktop nano-factory” to assemble the solar panels for your house,  create clothing that uses a combination of solar and static electricity generated by your own movement, which will keep you warm in winter and cool in summer and many other applications.

And then those people that are really rowing hard down that river called “da Nile” will say, “this is all just fantasy, none of this will come to pass, all this technology will fail, peak oil will come and society will collapse!”

And to that I say, “That’s fine. I’ll just be at my farm house, puttering around the garden, looking after my orchard, growing my food and cooking it over the wood-fired rocket stove, drinking my beer made from home grown barley and hops and spring fed water, raising my children and goats and chickens and pooping in my compost toilet.”

If the singularity never comes, no sweat off my back, but if it does (as I think it will) I’m ready for that too.  And that, my friends, is my own personal way of dealing with the uncertainty of the future.

Cheers.

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8 Responses to The Singularity is Near

  1. kenelwood says:

    Hi Brodo, Interesting post. You’ve really got me interested in your book now.

    I think technological singularity is, to a degree, already here, and I’m wondering, is the change being slowed to maintain stability, or is it being blocked? I can imagine the technology is being blocked, kept a secret, in well-stocked libraries of wealthy overlords, and because it is, we’re always in the middle of history, and the normalcy fields keep muddling along.

    And because we may never get to see full blown singularity in our lifetimes, lately I’m veering from reality, or what I perceive it to be, and thinking there could be a highly advanced intelligence, native to Earth and older than humans, that we have not yet recognized. And we could be a project of this intelligence! Again, like I said, perchance we are just in the middle of history.

    ken

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    • brodoland says:

      Ken, there is absolutely the potential for powerful people to manipulate upcoming technologies in order to further enslave the masses and maintain the current hierarchy, and that is a huge theme in “Alternet.” Like any technological advance, the advances we’ll witness over the next thirty years can either benefit humanity and the planet or can be usurped in order to further enslave humanity and the planet. I am hopeful that it will be the former, but I am personally preparing for the later… thus my current lifestyle.

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      • kenelwood says:

        Brodo, I immediately thought of you and singularity when I saw this. It’s a long piece by Cory Doctorow, The Coming Civil War over General Purpose Computing. Basically, as the world gets more computerized, there will be more opportunity for chaos, and worse, more opportunity for domination, especially where the owner of a technology is different from the user: “The poorer and younger you are, the more likely you are to be a tenant farmer in some feudal lord’s computational lands.”

        ken

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      • brodoland says:

        Great Article Ken. I look at the singularity with a mixture of hope and fear. I hope the technology itself (by it’s nature) will be impossible for governments/corps to control unilaterally. I hope that individuals will have the power and the right to control the technologies they use. But I fear that future technologies may be used as a means to further enslave us. So I sit here, on the fence, watching the approaching singularity from a distance, using fiction to communicate my fears and hopes to the world in the hope that people will think about the possible consequences if they let “the bad guys” have control over our computers.

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  2. freeB says:

    I’ve put a good amount of thought and conversation into this topic brodo. I mean there is so much technology out there that who is to say where it really ever ends or what exists. Of course in my mind, it all comes down to $. The population of the planet is pretty much Corporate Earths b**ch. With tech., I sort of see industrial nations all coming home from work and literally plugging themselves into a computer after possibly having already unplugged themselves at work.
    I mean what a perfect way to maintain control while enabling the illusion of freedom and happiness right?

    I think that the ones who pull the strings have realized that people can be led to do anything as long as they believe that they are the ones doing the leading. Therefore if humans are going to be living longer lives, how will it benefit those that enable it? Only by controlling every step of the way.

    So I guess I can only hope that energy prices soar beyond our reach before technology completely swallows us. That’s just my abbreviated take on it anyway.

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  3. brodoland says:

    “I mean what a perfect way to maintain control while enabling the illusion of freedom and happiness right?”

    That is exactly right *if* we let them control the the hardware/software and our access to it. See the link Ken provided above. This problem is exactly what my book is about. Depending on who “owns” the technology (the individuals using it or the corporations/governments that create/regulate it) it will either be a beneficial tool, or it will be the shackles of a new type of immortal slave.

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    • kenelwood says:

      Brodo,

      But I fear that future technologies may be used as a means to further enslave us. So I sit here, on the fence, watching the approaching singularity from a distance, using fiction to communicate my fears and hopes to the world in the hope that people will think about the possible consequences if they let “the bad guys” have control over our computers.

      I’d wager they would be. History has a lot to say about it, not to mention the present state. I look at these two time frames with THREE separate intuitions: One that is gathering and connecting historical fact to the present; One that is responding to problems with which we, or I, am currently struggling; And one that comes in sudden flashes of future significance.

      If biotech survives the ongoing collapse, which seems likely, then we may see cures for aging, and for most fatal diseases, in this century. I see only two ways to make this work: if everybody gets immortality technology, suicide will have to be the most common cause of death; but if too many people actually enjoy living thousands of years, the technology will have to be restricted to a small elite.

      ken

      Like

  4. kenelwood says:

    Brodo,

    The Singularity Already Happened; We Got Corporations, which suggests that we can think of the corporation as a form of artificial intelligence.

    Hope all is well,

    ken

    Like

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