Documenting the Coming Singularity

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Newsweek's naysayers - Science Cult

Newsweek - May 18, 2009, by John Horgan

Ray Kurzweil's vision of a 'Singularity' has attracted some followers, but don't expect it anytime soon.

I once believed in the imminence of superhuman intelligence. In 1981, when I was still in college, I took a science-writing class at Columbia University from the journalist Pamela McCorduck. She had just written Machines Who Think (note the mischievous "Who"), a book about the efforts of Marvin Minsky and other artificial-intelligence pioneers to create conscious, autonomous computers that would leave mere humans in their cognitive dust. This research, which McCorduck often enthused over in class, helped persuade me to become a science journalist. What could be cooler than witnessing this giant leap forward in the evolution of consciousness?

My youthful infatuation with AI gives me a somewhat jaded perspective on the prophecies of some modern scientists, notably the computer entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil, that we are on the verge of a "Singularity." In physics, a "singularity" is an event or place, like the big bang or a black hole, where the laws of physics are stretched to the breaking point. Singularitarians (which some call themselves) have adopted the term to describe a radical transformation of consciousness that will result from breakthroughs in artificial intelligence as well as nanotechnology, biotechnology and neuroscience.

At first, Singularitarians say, we may become cyborgs, as WiFi-equipped brain chips, nanobots and genetic modifications soup up our intelligence, perception and memory. Eventually, we may abandon our flesh-and-blood selves entirely and transform our psyches into giant software programs, like Vista but presumably less buggy. We will then "upload" ourselves into computers and dwell forever in cyberspace. Our transformation into immortal, God-like cyberbeings will supposedly take place not millennia or centuries from now but within the next few decades.

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