Ray Kurzweil kills

I think a long exposure (say, over 2 hours) to Ray Kurzweil could cause me to kill myself. I’ve just listened to and watched his talk from the Long Now (see my earlier post about this great organization) from Sept. 23rd, 2005. Luckily the presentation clocked in at just one hour and 42 minutes! Anyway, his depiction of the world places our generation of humans in such an instrumentalized (i.e. ‘made into a tool’), ‘constantly becoming’ position that I’m not left with much interest in being part of the ride. At the same time he’s quite convincing.

What projects could give me hope in the face of Kurzweil’s spiral (inwards or outwards, who cares?)?

1. ‘Virtual’ reality could still be designed now with a public basis (i.e. open-source citizenship). We could still avoid endless childish escapism. Ray doesn’t seem to have thought much about the value of public space, at least not in the terms I would encourage.

2. Space Travel: I now totally agree with Vernor Vinge’s point (also from a Long Now talk, partially in response to Kurzweil’s) that space travel is the best hope for continuing some kind of human-scaled (in space, time, intelligence) activity.

3. While Ray was talking, I gradually lost my fear of global warming. An article in this week’s Economist about using the earth’s magnetic field as a carbon dioxide ejector also helped. Basically the exponential increase in our computational capabilities would seem to far outpace the rapid rise in C02 emissions (both might be exponential, of course… and I notice that Kurzweil doesn’t show any graphs related to global warming, such as energy use mapped against computer speed — would love to see that one!).*

4. Creating ‘fiction’ (e.g. manga) that really traces out possible paths of our upscaling intelligence could be rewarding. At least, through analytical and projective tools, we could still talk about what was happening to us for a little while longer, we could still strive towards myth.

Some notes I took while listening (then elaborated a bit):

Public space is a parallel condition.

Kurzweil likens entering the singularity to hitting a black hole — we may not know when we’ve hit it. But to know you’re in the singularity, you’d have to just keep ‘pinging’ your condition and your past condition…. i.e. we need a series of tests for when we’ll be at the singularity. This might also be a worthwhile project for the stragglers of humanity.

“You can’t get rid of the bad parts without the good parts” — he’s quoting the Unabomber… “so get rid of all of it” (the Unabomber says) But will the dangers always be to humans? Yes, because we’ll be a part of the larger implications. Still, the dangers may be such that we have no reason to fear them…
Think of a fractal (e.g. Mandelbrot, which Kurzweil showed in his talk): perhaps humans are functions like this, where one or two variables are really ‘driving’, and the others just define the particular curvature of the ‘tail’. What I’m thinking of particularly is how our leisure activities (or, at least, the ones I really want to partake in) are usually ‘retro’, such as mountain climbing. We define our favorite leisure activities early in our lives, so, particularly for our generation — stuck in rapid change but without the enhanced/streamlined minds to adapt to it, we end up pursuing them our whole lives despite their increasing disconnection from the bulk of ‘reality’. They are completely ‘irrelevant’ to the driving functions of human ‘progress’ or whatever you want to call the upscaling of intelligence Kurzweil heralds.

But perhaps this is fine, in fact perhaps it is really in the nature of human and perhaps all intelligences to have ‘backwaters’, tails, otiose variables that just give character and inflect experience in a way that satisfies that particular intelligence. Going further still, might happiness, or what-have-you, really have to do with the extent to which you can engage the movement of the ‘larger’ variables in your life… i.e. make your tail matter to (or respond to?) other people, to the public realm, to larger currents?

But then what of the public realm? Where does parallelism enter into the fractal telescoping of intelligences? And so perhaps the great challenge for humanity (which we need to redefine in just this way) is to foster the development and interaction between parallel intelligences. Conversation rather than subjugation (i.e., really, just preserve or finally instate real democracy). Control the bubbling. Of course big bubbles do burst (the U.S. economy, perhaps, very shortly). Unfortunately the global techno-bubble will probably grow so large and far before it bursts that we’ll have no idea of the event when it happens. But also, perhaps it’s just perfect that in fifty years or more we may be killed absolutely suddenly and painlessly for reasons we don’t even have time to suspect. Perhaps, in fact, that is the very best would could hope for!

What’s amazing is how hard it is, how totally demeaning, to wish for ignorance, to wish to not know.

* NOTE: small project idea which I’ve had before — we need a ‘public graphing’ website, a YouTube for data analysis, that aggregates data like Kurzweil’s and lets you plot whatever against whatever. The most relevant graphs would rise to the top according to certain criteria, yada yada. Gradually you would feed in better and better public data, until the world’s public scientific bodies got involved.

4 comments to Ray Kurzweil kills

  • jd

    After reading your post (and after hearing more from you about this, how do you say, Singularity) I finally started taking advantage of my $8 Long Now Charter Member status and actually watched the lectures. It struck me how Kurzweil’s graphs, from which he extrapolates both the imminence and inevitability of The Singularity, are, as he himself notes, remarkably, consistently, smooth. Events such as Dark Ages, Black Deaths, Holocausts, etc, etc, don’t even cause a single flutter. It seems as though no human civilization has had any real impact on the exponential curve apart from the will-less participation in the facilitation of its rise. This leads me to ask the question (embodying the one category of scenario that Vinge’s lecture didn’t broach) – what if The Singularity has already happened?

    What else would explain the seemingly autonomous development (though I would prefer the less ethically charged term change) curves, unaffected as they are by humanity, ice ages, mass extinctions, etc (as evidenced by Kurweil’s deepest time graphs relating to evolution). Is it possible that the Singularity, which cannot privilege one form of matter-energy computation over another, actually occurred hundreds of millions of years ago, when biological evolution randomly struck upon tripartite bilaterally symmetrical schema? Or maybe even this is too shallow, too short-term, and too anthropocentric. This suggests that the resonance of The Singularity as a concept is due to it being an already perceivable condition, specifically one that humanity has only recently developed the breadth of mind to realize.

    This may also explain the exhilaration/anxiety of the old, wealthy, white members of the intelligentsia (and I love them all – I hope to be one of them some day). Possibly the formulation of The Singularity as Event-to-Be allows for its sublimation into fairy tale, in the old sense of cautionary horror story – Humanity will lose control, forever! What could be a more wonderfully ironic end to millennia of ever-increasing self-consciousness, an ever-greater illusory sense of domination?

    Returning to your post, and in light of the above, perhaps quitting the monastery of eco-consciousness is ill-advised after all. If the Holocaust doesn’t register in the exponential curve leading towards (or away from) The Singularity then it is the same if it happened or not, so maybe it is in humanity’s limited sphere of influence to prevent such inconsequential horrors, if only for its own benefit. Even more than that, the curve doesn’t depend upon humanity at all; if there is a certainty, it is that human beings will, whether by extermination or evolution, become extinct, and that this will happen relatively quickly on the time-scale of the life of the universe.

    (I can’t resist quoting Bertrand Russell’s version of this, despite its length – “Our own planet, in which philosophers are apt to take a parochial and excessive interest, was once too hot to support life, and in time will be too cold. After ages during which the earth produced harmless trilobites and butterflies, evolution progressed to the point at which it generated Neros, Genghis Khans, and Hitlers. This, however, is a passing nightmare; in time the earth will become again incapable of supporting life, and peace will return.”)

    So we’re booked on the flight, no way out but death, but it may be within our power to determine the seating – who’s in coach, who’s in first class, and how big or small each section is. Maybe the teleological curve of The Singularity is insensitive to the specific conditions of individual people, but that doesn’t mean we have to be. I’ll close with another quote, this one of far less auspicious provenance (Luc Besson’s ‘The Fifth Element’) – “Time not important – only Life important.”

  • George

    Thanks for the comments, Jeff! I have just finished watching the Bruce Sterling talk — or, rather, watching the slides while listening to the audio. It was certainly a humanizing talk, thanks perhaps to Sterling’s own glaring humanity (like a Mandrill’s ass).

    His talk reminded me of something that I thought was deeply ingrained in my thinking, but that Kurzweil had somehow cleared from my mind: there are already multiple scales (in time and space) of intelligence operating in the world. When the singularity happens, humanity will probably continue on much as before, either knowingly in the ‘shadow’ of the singularity, or perhaps just blindly unaware that some newness has been spawned. But in the second case, then, that new intelligence may already have been spawned. One would expect something like it, at an imperceivable scale, to have come out of urbanism — faster and more plentiful connections, new organs, etc.. Which could have happened hundreds of years ago.

    It’s funny that I had forgotten this since one of my recurring ‘daydream projects’ for the past few years has been a manga based on the premise that these things exist, and that occasionally they might try to communicate with humans, but then, HOW would they do so? It would be like me trying to communicate with a bacterium. Which is possible, but ONLY ON THE BACTERIUM’S TERMS. In other words, human communication, which seems to us to be a continuous field of nuance and art, may just be the dullest of protocols to a ‘larger’ intelligence. It would try desperately to be dumb enough to communicate with us.

    In fact I should take back my statement about communicating with the bacterium, because while I can drip something on it and get it to wriggle or secrete something else or what have you, I’m not really understanding its communication in any terms other than those with which I’ve framed its existence. Most simply put, I cannot understand bacterial ‘art’ or ‘culture’. Yet, anyway. So far as I know.

    And so intelligences may just continue to play themselves out at many scales simultaneously, co-spatially to some degree. Even a thousand years hence, galaxy-spanning minds may rigorously reduce the terms of their thought sufficiently to sit down for a cup of tea with a weird old man on Nantucket.

    This is the “Star Trek” version of singularities, I suppose.

    But of course the human/bacterium rift is a very drastic example, as are many of the capital-S Singularity scenarios. Much more interesting (and perhaps more likely to emerge in the coming decades) is a relation on the scale of the human/town rift, where feedback might be possible between the scales of intelligence. For instance, while we have become a substrate for the lives of cities, urban life has obviously altered us radically as individuals. Or so I think. This eventually leads us back to gestures/ideas being independent of — transcending, really — the ‘intelligences’ that hold them.

  • George

    One more comment on the talk. At the very very end, the last question from the audience brings Sterling to talk about what he sees as the most real danger to come from singularity thinking. It is just basic augmented intelligence, and his fear is that somebody who takes the right pills or has the right surgery ‘may have very little left to say to those who haven’t done so’ (paraphrasing). I.e. alienation.

    I share that fear totally and think that it is already in play — differences in education (taken broadly) can have this effect. But then I think of Go. A good Go player (say, 2-dan) has NOTHING to say to a bad Go player (say, 20 kyu) except in the role of a teacher. The two of them cannot communicate (play Go) without the good player simply dumbing himself down, or risking the result that both of them will become intensely irritated, humiliated, etc. BUT good and bad go players can easily be friends, because they relate on all kinds of other subjects (the weather, sex, soccer, etc.). Of course grandmasters in any field may not want to talk about anything else, but those are fringe cases.

    Just so, there will probably be situations for a long time to come — natural disasters, random acts of violence, physical games, sex — that will form bridges between people with different levels of intelligence. The key will be to foster a culture that can diffuse the tension inherent to the difference of intelligence. Go, a phenomenon presented as a game, administered by institutions, enshrined in history, is perhaps an example of how to bring different strengths of intelligence together in peace.

    Unless, of course, you see Go as war, as 98% of Go players probably do…

  • Andy Corr

    But we shouldn’t forget, regardless of changes in mental or physical states, we are all, and always have been, throughout our lives, connected. And we will continue to be after the theoretical occurence of the singularity. For neo-luddites who refuse to take the evolutionary step and singulatarians who embrace it, we shall always all be systemically connected to some, perhaps differing degrees.

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