Glenn Reynolds recently interviewed Ray Kurzweil, the futurist thinker who has recently come out with a new book, The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. I first came into contact with Kurzweil’s ideas when I read his earlier book, The Age of Spiritual Machines. In this, he expounds his idea of the Law of Accelerating returns, which holds that technological progress grows at an exponential rate.
If you are not familiar with the idea of the Singularity, the Wikepedia page is a good place to start.
It must be emphasised that the ideas and predictions made by Singularity enthusiasts should be examined with caution. I myself am hugely optimistic about the possibilities, however, I should point out that futurists have a patchy record. This is not because they are bad; it is rather a reflection that our technological society is now so complex that understanding the various trends of our society is becoming too much for a single individual. Singularity enthusiasts concede this, and part of the reason why the term ‘singularity’ is used is that beyond the ‘singularity’ we can not really comprehend what will happen. (Just as an event horizon clouds everything within a black hole.)
However there are some features that most futurists agree will occur as progress nears the Singularity, and my purpose is to ask some questions about how they will affect issues dear to the heart of this blog. The first question concerns artificial intelligence. As Kurzweil says:
The implications include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light.
Basically, the point is that we are going to build machines that have artificial intelligence, that can learn and become self aware. This idea has been kicking around Hollywood for a long time and, indeed, is screening at the moment (Stealth). While Hollywood invariably presents such technology as being hostile to its own creators, there seems no logical reason for a self-aware machine to be hostile. However, it might well decide that it is alive, and demand rights, as in Bicentennial Man. The issues that movie raises about the definition of ‘life’ and ‘rights’ could provide enormous headaches in this century, and could keep lawyers busy for decades.
The prospect of this may cause governments to interfere to prevent the development of self aware technologies.
Complicating this is the prospect of not only machines becoming like humans, but, humans becoming more like machines. Geeky technophiles are likely to fall in love with the idea of using technology to enhance themselves. I would love to have memory implants and the like myself. So the definition of ‘human’ and ‘robot’ possibly will get cluttered; fear, uncertainty and doubt from the wider community will be another huge issue.
Another issue that the Singularity might well bring into sharp political focus is healthcare. Life extension technology is one of the promises of the Singularity; ageing is likely to be reversible. The prospect of immortality, a human dream since the dawn of time, could be realisable within the lifetime of many of us.
This is sure to attract more political attention. The temptation of governments to interfere, to attempt to ‘socialise’ medical progress as an attempt to spread the benefits could well be irresistible. It is the natural way of things that wealthy people are best place to take advantage of new technologies, and this may cause considerable political stress in democracies and give new powers for the State in non-democracies. Consider the prospect of an immortal Robert Mugabe.
There are bound to be many more problems and questions that the technologies of the Singularity will bring to us. I have not even touched on the huge privacy implications. The sooner that friends of liberty start to ponder these questions, the better chance free societies will thrive rather then suffer.
Like all past technologies, the question of whether or not they are a blessing or a burden is likely to be decided by how humans decide what to do with them, rather then by the technology themselves. Although, with self-aware machines, this might be the last time we have to answer such questions alone.