Documenting the Coming Singularity

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Fearful & Wonderful?

The psalmist extols the virtues of his own body (Psalm 139:14)...
"I will give thanks to You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Wonderful are Your works, And my soul knows it very well. "

The human organism is the result and culmination of billions of years of evolution. It is mind-numbingly complex. It works pretty well. All that being said, it could sorely use some upgrades. Perhaps even a complete overhaul.

So, what's the problem? I've got two to start with. (Anyone familiar with the writing of Ray Kurzweil will recognize these complaints.) First, the stuff we are made of, proteins, has some issues. According to Hans Moravec, "protein is not an ideal material. It is stable only in a narrow temperature and pressure range, it is very sensitive to radiation, and rules out many construction techniques and components." Yeah.

Second, my neurons are too slow. Neurons can only do about 200 calculations per second. Compare that to electronic circuitry, which is a million times faster, and you may not be so happy with what you've got.

See, the real underlying problem is that DNA-based evolution is "good at tinkering with and extending its designs, but it is unable to scrap an entire design and start over" (Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines, 101).

The message here is this: If we're going to evolve much further, it will have to be through machinery rather than DNA. In the coming decades we will learn how to download the contents of our brains into appropriate substrates that do not suffer from the disadvantages of neurons. In addition, our downloaded minds will have to be provided with bodies made of stuff that's more durable and flexible than proteins.

These improvements won't happen all at once, however. They will happen gradually. In fact they have already begun. Many people have had their protein-based bodies augmented with parts made of stronger stuff. And many people have had computer circuitry implanted in their brains (such as cochlear implants). This process will continue to develop to the point where a person will be entirely made up of better materials, brain, body, the works. And if Kurzweil is right (I think he is), it will happen much sooner than you think.