It’s not clear to me whether the
Singularity is a technical belief system or a spiritual
The Singularity–a notion that’s crept
into a lot of skiffy, and whose most articulate in-genre spokesmodel
is Vernor Vinge–describes the black hole in history that will be
created at the moment when human intelligence can be digitized. When
the speed and scope of our cognition is hitched to the
price-performance curve of microprocessors, our "prog-ress" will
double every eighteen months, and then every twelve months, and then
every ten, and eventually, every five seconds.
Singularities are, literally, holes in
space from whence no information can emerge, and so SF writers
occasionally mutter about how hard it is to tell a story set after
the information Singularity. Everything will be different. What it
means to be human will be so different that what it means to be in
danger, or happy, or sad, or any of the other elements that make up
the squeeze-and-release tension in a good yarn will be
unrecognizable to us pre-Singletons.
It’s a neat conceit to write around.
I’ve committed Singularity a couple of times, usually in
collaboration with gonzo Singleton Charlie Stross, the mad antipope
of the Singularity. But those stories have the same relation to
futurism as romance novels do to love: a shared jumping-off point,
but radically different morphologies.
Of course, the Singularity isn’t just
a conceit for noodling with in the pages of the pulps: it’s the
subject of serious-minded punditry, futurism, and even
Ray Kurzweil is one such
pundit-futurist-scientist. He’s a serial entrepreneur who founded
successful businesses that advanced the fields of optical character
recognition (machine-reading) software, text-to-speech synthesis,
synthetic musical instrument simulation, computer-based speech
recognition, and stock-market analysis. He cured his own Type-II
diabetes through a careful review of the literature and the
judicious application of first principles and reason. To a casual
observer, Kurzweil appears to be the star of some kind of Heinlein
novel, stealing fire from the gods and embarking on a quest to bring
his maverick ideas to the public despite the dismissals of the
establishment, getting rich in the process.
Kurzweil believes in the Singularity.
In his 1990 manifesto, "The Age of Intelligent Machines," Kurzweil
persuasively argued that we were on the brink of meaningful machine
intelligence. A decade later, he continued the argument in a book
called The Age of Spiritual Machines, whose most audacious
claim is that the world’s computational capacity has been slowly
doubling since the crust first cooled (and before!), and that the
doubling interval has been growing shorter and shorter with each
passing year, so that now we see it reflected in the computer
industry’s Moore’s Law, which predicts that microprocessors will get
twice as powerful for half the cost about every eighteen months. The
breathtaking sweep of this trend has an obvious conclusion:
computers more powerful than people; more powerful than we can
Now Kurzweil has published two more
books, The Singularity Is Near, When Humans Transcend Biology
(Viking, Spring 2005) and Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to
Live Forever (with Terry Grossman, Rodale, November 2004). The
former is a technological roadmap for creating the conditions
necessary for ascent into Singularity; the latter is a book about
life-prolonging technologies that will assist baby-boomers in living
long enough to see the day when technological immortality is
See what I meant about his being a
I still don’t know if the Singularity
is a spiritual or a technological belief system. It has all the
trappings of spirituality, to be sure. If you are pure and kosher,
if you live right and if your society is just, then you will live to
see a moment of Rapture when your flesh will slough away leaving
nothing behind but your ka, your soul, your consciousness, to ascend
to an immortal and pure state.
I wrote a novel called Down and Out
in the Magic Kingdom where characters could make backups of
themselves and recover from them if something bad happened, like
catching a cold or being assassinated. It raises a lot of
existential questions: most prominently: are you still you when
you’ve been restored from backup?
The traditional AI answer is the
Turing Test, invented by Alan Turing, the gay pioneer of
cryptography and artificial intelligence who was forced by the
British government to take hormone treatments to "cure" him of his
homosexuality, culminating in his suicide in 1954. Turing cut
through the existentialism about measuring whether a machine is
intelligent by proposing a parlor game: a computer sits behind a
locked door with a chat program, and a person sits behind another
locked door with his own chat program, and they both try to convince
a judge that they are real people. If the computer fools a human
judge into thinking that it’s a person, then to all intents and
purposes, it’s a person.
So how do you know if the backed-up
you that you’ve restored into a new body–or a jar with a speaker
attached to it–is really you? Well, you can ask it some questions,
and if it answers the same way that you do, you’re talking to a
faithful copy of yourself.
Sounds good. But the me who sent his
first story into Asimov’s seventeen years ago couldn’t answer
the question, "Write a story for Asimov’s" the same way the
me of today could. Does that mean I’m not me anymore?
Kurzweil has the answer.
"If you follow that logic, then if you
were to take me ten years ago, I could not pass for myself in a Ray
Kurzweil Turing Test. But once the requisite uploading technology
becomes available a few decades hence, you could make a
perfect-enough copy of me, and it would pass the Ray Kurzweil
Turing Test. The copy doesn’t have to match the quantum state of my
every neuron, either: if you meet me the next day, I’d pass the Ray
Kurzweil Turing Test. Nevertheless, none of the quantum states in my
brain would be the same. There are quite a few changes that each of
us undergo from day to day, we don’t examine the assumption that we
are the same person closely.
"We gradually change our pattern of
atoms and neurons but we very rapidly change the particles the
pattern is made up of. We used to think that in the brain–the
physical part of us most closely associated with our identity–cells
change very slowly, but it turns out that the components of the
neurons, the tubules and so forth, turn over in only days.
I’m a completely different set of particles from what I was a week
"Consciousness is a difficult subject,
and I’m always surprised by how many people talk about consciousness
routinely as if it could be easily and readily tested
scientifically. But we can’t postulate a consciousness detector that
does not have some assumptions about consciousness built into
"Science is about objective third
party observations and logical deductions from them. Consciousness
is about first-person, subjective experience, and there’s a
fundamental gap there. We live in a world of assumptions about
consciousness. We share the assumption that other human beings are
conscious, for example. But that breaks down when we go outside of
humans, when we consider, for example, animals. Some say only humans
are conscious and animals are instinctive and machinelike. Others
see humanlike behavior in an animal and consider the animal
conscious, but even these observers don’t generally attribute
consciousness to animals that aren’t humanlike.
"When machines are complex enough to
have responses recognizable as emotions, those machines will be more
humanlike than animals."
The Kurzweil Singularity goes like
this: computers get better and smaller. Our ability to measure the
world gains precision and grows ever cheaper. Eventually, we can
measure the world inside the brain and make a copy of it in a
computer that’s as fast and complex as a brain, and voila,
Here in the twenty-first century we
like to view ourselves as ambulatory brains, plugged into
meat-puppets that lug our precious grey matter from place to place.
We tend to think of that grey matter as transcendently complex, and
we think of it as being the bit that makes us
But brains aren’t that complex,
Kurzweil says. Already, we’re starting to unravel their
"We seem to have found one area of the
brain closely associated with higher-level emotions, the spindle
cells, deeply embedded in the brain. There are tens of thousands of
them, spanning the whole brain (maybe eighty thousand in total),
which is an incredibly small number. Babies don’t have any, most
animals don’t have any, and they likely only evolved over the last
million years or so. Some of the high-level emotions that are deeply
human come from these.
"Turing had the right insight: base
the test for intelligence on written language. Turing Tests really
work. A novel is based on language: with language you can conjure up
any reality, much more so than with images. Turing almost lived to
see computers doing a good job of performing in fields like math,
medical diagnosis and so on, but those tasks were easier for a
machine than demonstrating even a child’s mastery of language.
Language is the true embodiment of human intelligence."
If we’re not so complex, then it’s
only a matter of time until computers are more complex than us. When
that comes, our brains will be model-able in a computer and that’s
when the fun begins. That’s the thesis of Spiritual Machines,
which even includes a (Heinlein-style) timeline leading up to this
Now, it may be that a human brain
contains n logic-gates and runs at x cycles per second
and stores z petabytes, and that n and x and z are all within
reach. It may be that we can take a brain apart and record the
position and relationships of all the neurons and sub-neuronal
elements that constitute a brain.
But there are also a nearly infinite
number of ways of modeling a brain in a computer, and only a finite
(or possibly nonexistent) fraction of that space will yield a
conscious copy of the original meat-brain. Science fiction writers
usually hand-wave this step: in Heinlein’s "Man Who Sold the Moon,"
the gimmick is that once the computer becomes complex enough, with
enough "random numbers," it just wakes up.
Computer programmers are a little more
skeptical. Computers have never been known for their skill at
programming themselves–they tend to be no smarter than the people
who write their software.
But there are techniques for getting
computers to program themselves, based on evolution and natural
selection. A programmer creates a system that spits out
lots–thousands or even millions–of randomly generated programs. Each
one is given the opportunity to perform a computational task (say,
sorting a list of numbers from greatest to least) and the ones that
solve the problem best are kept aside while the others are erased.
Now the survivors are used as the basis for a new generation of
randomly mutated descendants, each based on elements of the code
that preceded them. By running many instances of a randomly varied
program at once, and by culling the least successful and
regenerating the population from the winners very quickly, it is
possible to evolve effective software that performs as well
or better than the code written by human authors.
Indeed, evolutionary computing is a
promising and exciting field that’s realizing real returns through
cool offshoots like "ant colony optimization" and similar approaches
that are showing good results in fields as diverse as piloting
military UAVs and efficiently provisioning car-painting robots at
So if you buy Kurzweil’s premise that
computation is getting cheaper and more plentiful than ever, then
why not just use evolutionary algorithms to evolve the best
way to model a scanned-in human brain such that it "wakes up" like
Heinlein’s Mike computer?
Indeed, this is the crux of
Kurz-weil’s argument in Spiritual Machines: if we have
computation to spare and a detailed model of a human brain, we need
only combine them and out will pop the mechanism whereby we may
upload our consciousness to digital storage media and transcend our
weak and bothersome meat forever.
But it’s a cheat. Evolutionary
algorithms depend on the same mechanisms as real-world evolution:
herit-able variation of candidates and a system that culls the
least-suitable candidates. This latter–the fitness-factor that
determines which individuals in a cohort breed and which vanish–is
the key to a successful evolutionary system. Without it, there’s no
pressure for the system to achieve the desired goal: merely mutation
and more mutation.
But how can a machine evaluate which
of a trillion models of a human brain is "most like" a conscious
mind? Or better still: which one is most like the individual whose
brain is being modeled?
"It is a sleight of hand in
Spiritual Machines," Kurzweil admits. "But in The
Singularity Is Near, I have an in-depth discussion about what we
know about the brain and how to model it. Our tools for
understanding the brain are subject to the Law of Accelerating
Returns, and we’ve made more progress in reverse-engineering the
human brain than most people realize." This is a tasty Kurzweilism
that observes that improvements in technology yield tools for
improving technology, round and round, so that the thing that
progress begets more than anything is more and yet faster
"Scanning resolution of human
tissue–both spatial and temporal–is doubling every year, and so is
our knowledge of the workings of the brain. The brain is not one big
neural net, the brain is several hundred different regions, and we
can understand each region, we can model the regions with
mathematics, most of which have some nexus with chaos and
self-organizing systems. This has already been done for a couple
dozen regions out of the several hundred.
"We have a good model of a dozen or so
regions of the auditory and visual cortex, how we strip images down
to very low-resolution movies based on pattern recognition.
Interestingly, we don’t actually see things, we essentially
hallucinate them in detail from what we see from these low
resolution cues. Past the early phases of the visual cortex, detail
doesn’t reach the brain.
"We are getting exponentially
more knowledge. We can get detailed scans of neurons working in
vivo, and are beginning to understand the chaotic algorithms
underlying human intelligence. In some cases, we are getting
comparable performance of brain regions in simulation. These tools
will continue to grow in detail and sophistication.
"We can have confidence of
reverse-engineering the brain in twenty years or so. The reason that
brain reverse engineering has not contributed much to artificial
intelligence is that up until recently we didn’t have the right
tools. If I gave you a computer and a few magnetic sensors and asked
you to reverse-engineer it, you might figure out that there’s a
magnetic device spinning when a file is saved, but you’d never get
at the instruction set. Once you reverse-engineer the computer
fully, however, you can express its principles of operation in just
a few dozen pages.
"Now there are new tools that let us
see the interneuronal connections and their signaling, in
vivo, and in real-time. We’re just now getting these tools and
there’s very rapid application of the tools to obtain the
"Twenty years from now we will have
realistic simulations and models of all the regions of the brain and
[we will] understand how they work. We won’t blindly or mindlessly
copy those methods, we will understand them and use them to improve
our AI toolkit. So we’ll learn how the brain works and then apply
the sophisticated tools that we will obtain, as we discover how the
"Once we understand a subtle science
principle, we can isolate, amplify, and expand it. Air goes faster
over a curved surface: from that insight we isolated, amplified, and
expanded the idea and invented air travel. We’ll do the same with
"Progress is exponential–not just a
measure of power of computation, number of Internet nodes, and
magnetic spots on a hard disk–the rate of paradigm shift is itself
accelerating, doubling every decade. Scientists look at a problem
and they intuitively conclude that since we’ve solved 1 percent over
the last year, it’ll therefore be one hundred years until the
problem is exhausted: but the rate of progress doubles every decade,
and the power of the information tools (in price-performance,
resolution, bandwidth, and so on) doubles every year. People, even
scientists, don’t grasp exponential growth. During the first decade
of the human genome project, we only solved 2 percent of the
problem, but we solved the remaining 98 percent in five
But Kurzweil doesn’t think that the
future will arrive in a rush. As William Gibson observed, "The
future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed."
"Sure, it’d be interesting to take a
human brain, scan it, reinstantiate the brain, and run it on another
substrate. That will ultimately happen."
"But the most salient scenario is that
we’ll gradually merge with our technology. We’ll use nanobots
to kill pathogens, then to kill cancer cells, and then they’ll go
into our brain and do benign things there like augment our memory,
and very gradually they’ll get more and more sophisticated. There’s
no single great leap, but there is ultimately a great leap comprised
of many small steps.
"In The Singularity Is Near, I
describe the radically different world of 2040, and how we’ll get
there one benign change at a time. The Singularity will be gradual,
"Really, this is about augmenting our
biological thinking with nonbiological thinking. We have a capacity
of 1026 to 1029
calculations per second (cps) in the approximately 1010 biological
human brains on Earth and that number won’t change much in fifty
years, but nonbiological thinking will just crash through that. By
2049, nonbiological thinking capacity will be on the order of a
billion times that. We’ll get to the point where bio thinking is
"People didn’t throw their typewriters
away when word-processing started. There’s always an overlap–it’ll
take time before we realize how much more powerful nonbiological
thinking will ultimately be."
It’s well and good to talk about all
the stuff we can do with technology, but it’s a lot more
important to talk about the stuff we’ll be allowed to do with
technology. Think of the global freak-out caused by the relatively
trivial advent of peer-to-peer file-sharing tools: Universities are
wiretapping their campuses and disciplining computer science
students for writing legitimate, general purpose software;
grandmothers and twelve-year-olds are losing their life savings;
privacy and due process have sailed out the window without so much
as a by-your-leave.
Even P2P’s worst enemies admit that
this is a general-purpose technology with good and bad uses,
but when new tech comes along it often engenders a response that
countenances punishing an infinite number of innocent people to get
at the guilty.
What’s going to happen when the new
technology paradigm isn’t song-swapping, but transcendent
super-intelligence? Will the reactionary forces be justified in
razing the whole ecosystem to eliminate a few parasites who are
doing negative things with the new tools?
"Complex ecosystems will always have
parasites. Malware [malicious software] is the most important
"Everything will become
software–objects will be malleable, we’ll spend lots of time in VR,
and computhought will be orders of magnitude more important than
"Software is already complex enough
that we have an ecological terrain that has emerged just as it did
in the bioworld.
"That’s partly because technology is
unregulated and people have access to the tools to create malware
and the medicine to treat it. Today’s software viruses are clever
and stealthy and not simpleminded. Very clever.
"But here’s the thing: you don’t see
people advocating shutting down the Internet because malware is so
destructive. I mean, malware is potentially more than a
nuisance–emergency systems, air traffic control, and nuclear
reactors all run on vulnerable software. It’s an important issue,
but the potential damage is still a tiny fraction of the benefit we
get from the Internet.
"I hope it’ll remain that way–that the
Internet won’t become a regulated space like medicine. Malware’s not
the most important issue facing human society today. Designer
bioviruses are. People are concerted about WMDs, but the most
daunting WMD would be a designed biological virus. The means exist
in college labs to create destructive viruses that erupt and spread
silently with long incubation periods.
"Importantly, a would-be bio-terrorist
doesn’t have to put malware through the FDA’s regulatory approval
process, but scientists working to fix bio-malware
"In Huxley’s Brave New World,
the rationale for the totalitarian system was that technology was
too dangerous and needed to be controlled. But that just pushes
technology underground where it becomes less stable.
Regulation gives the edge of power to the irresponsible who won’t
listen to the regulators anyway.
"The way to put more stones on the
defense side of the scale is to put more resources into defensive
technologies, not create a totalitarian regime of Draconian
"I advocate a one hundred billion
dollar program to accelerate the development of anti-biological
virus technology. The way to combat this is to develop broad tools
to destroy viruses. We have tools like RNA interference, just
discovered in the past two years to block gene expression. We could
develop means to sequence the genes of a new virus (SARS only took
thirty-one days) and respond to it in a matter of days.
"Think about it. There’s no FDA for
software, no certification for programmers. The government is
thinking about it, though! The reason the FCC is contemplating
Trusted Computing mandates,"–a system to restrict what a computer
can do by means of hardware locks embedded on the motherboard–"is
that computing technology is broadening to cover everything. So now
you have communications bureaucrats, biology bureaucrats, all
wanting to regulate computers.
"Biology would be a lot more stable if
we moved away from regulation–which is extremely irrational and
onerous and doesn’t appropriately balance risks. Many medications
are not available today even though they should be. The FDA always
wants to know what happens if we approve this and will it turn into
a thalidomide situation that embarrasses us on CNN?
"Nobody asks about the harm that will
certainly accrue from delaying a treatment for one or more years.
There’s no political weight at all, people have been dying from
diseases like heart disease and cancer for as long as we’ve been
alive. Attributable risks get 100-1000 times more weight than
Is this spirituality or science?
Perhaps it is the melding of both–more shades of Heinlein, this time
the weird religions founded by people who took Stranger in a
Strange Land way too seriously.
After all, this is a system of belief
that dictates a means by which we can care for our bodies virtuously
and live long enough to transcend them. It is a system of belief
that concerns itself with the meddling of non-believers, who work to
undermine its goals through irrational systems predicated on their
disbelief. It is a system of belief that asks and answers the
question of what it means to be human.
It’s no wonder that the Singularity
has come to occupy so much of the science fiction narrative in these
years. Science or spirituality, you could hardly ask for a subject
better tailored to technological speculation and