Ray Kurzweil: The Singularity is Not a Religion

November 06 2008 / by Alvis Brigis
Category: Technology   Year: Beyond   Rating: 4 Hot

At last week’s Singularity Summit, Future of Gadgets Editor John Heylin had the opportunity to ask a swarmed Ray Kurzweil, the face of exponential change and the Singularity, one question. As I scrambled to pull out my flip cam to capture the moment, he cut straight to the heart:

Do you feel the Singularity has become its own religious movement inside the science community?

Kurzweil began his response by acknowledging that though there are some people who seek the rapture according to their own preferences, that “the idea of the Singularity did not start from religion.” Instead the concept sprang from “over 30 years of technology trends research.”

But he did admit that it can seem similar to some of the concepts contained in religion:

“Some of the ideas look like a way of transcending our limitations. You can argue that’s what technology does in general, and given that it’s exponential it ultimately feels supposedly transcendent, so people use words like rapture.”

Kurzweil said that, in particular, “[The Singularity] does then achieve some of the things a religion has sought to achieve, like a way to forestall death,” pointing out that, “When we didn’t have any rational means of doing that we can up with rationalizations why death was a good thing.”

He added that because “the whole concept of religion emerged in pre-scientific times” it is now time to “update our philosophy.” Therefore, he argues, the Singularity should not be lumped in with “pre-scientific or un-scientific” religion.

Kurzweil concluded his thoughts by pointing out the Singularity is in fact a prediction, or scenario, and not a religion, but that he’s betting on its explosive potential largely due to his impressive track record of technology predictions:

“There are plenty of wrong predictions, certainly coming out of religion because it’s not scientific, but even coming out of science,” he said, “But the fact that some predictions are wrong doesn’t make every prediction wrong and my predictions have actually been pretty accurate.”

Still, though ongoing accelerating change is highly probable, I believe it’s also important to question how exactly Kurzweil’s vision will manifest. While it is possible to be very accurate about hard trend lines, convergent effects from unexpected areas such as biology, human psychology, economy, memetics, etc, all have a shot at disrupting Kurzweil’s pet Strong AI scenario.

Furthermore, as I have previously noted, the notion of a Singularity is based on a subjective definition of intelligence, which could further throw a wrench into how everything unfolds.

That is not to say that the future won’t look like a rapture of sorts, just that it’s hard to imagine how this rapture-like spurt or event will take place when there are so many moving parts. Yes, Kurzweil has been right about the speed of technological evolution, but is he operating from an accurate context for that technology?

Only time will tell. And one way or another, things are going to get more and more interesting to those of us who grew up in the Linear Days, many of whom will undoubtedly view acceleration itself as the basis or result of religion.

Note: Its important to point out that at no point was Kurzweil knocking the spiritual aspects of religion, just the fact that predictions contained in religions have often been proved wrong.

Comment Thread (7 Responses)

  1. Kurzweil gets a bad rap for trying to be accurate as possible. I know people in the scientific community are really jaded but there isn’t anything really all that astonishing that Kurzweil is saying. It’s all based on transistor size, MIPS projections, charts and spreadsheets. It’s actually pretty boring until he starts making conjecture about post-Singularity life.

    The striking similarity between religion and science is there is this hunger for transcendence and control, like Kurzweil says. Antibiotics have saved countless lives, prosthetics have enabled people to function in their daily lives again and modern medicine has reached the point where we can look at our own DNA and someday manipulate it.

    We are becoming something more than the animal we evolved from. You can even say we are hungry to discard that part of ourselves too. That is a common thread in religion and in science.

    And it’s just not Kurzweil that wants to end death. The first time we’ve exploited our intelligence to extend our lives we have been heading in this direction. Most scientists would have to agree.

    The only thorny controversial issue has to do with consciousness. It has to be grounded in reality because we are part of physical reality. Our belief that it is something “more” is based on a “cultural belief.”

    I’ve never been that much of a “spiritual” person, even though I do believe there is something more than the reality we are experiencing now. I guess that’s why I don’t see consciousness as something “different”; just something we need to figure out—like “dark matter.”

    Posted by: Covus   November 07, 2008
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  2. The comparison I made to religion wasn’t from the point of view that the Singularity isn’t based on fact but based more on the idea of moving to a higher plane of existence, much like a heaven.

    The Singularity Summit was my first real experience with Singularity’s followers and frankly, it shocked me. One of the speakers asked the audience how many had signed up for cryogenics and even he was surprised to see about 35-40 audience members raise their hands (The recent frozen mouse being cloned made me think of them).

    Another speaker finished his slide-show with “The Rapture” and said he had personally re-defined the term for his own use much to the surprise of the audience. And the die-hard fans in the audience were eating it up.

    Yes, you can map out technological achievements and plot out convincing evidence of the Singularity, but that’s not the aspect I’m thinking about. What the comparison was supposed to be was between the followers and the promise of salvation.

    In the face of so much science and possibly the obliteration of the idea of a god to those in the science community, is the Singularity a filler? Do humans posses the need to have some sort of reward, some sort of mission to their lives? In that case, is the Singularity the new god?

    Posted by: John Heylin   November 07, 2008
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  3. I agree generally, and particularly on the issue of death. It is unfair that he should be accused of selfishness over this. If we eat an extra piece of fruit each day so we can live longer, are we being selfish? But nobody will live forever by eating an apple a day.

    Somehow, people believe that when millions die each year from smoking-induced lung cancer, it is a tragedy (which of course it is), but that when millions die each year of “natural causes” (whatever that means), it is acceptable. It is not acceptable, it is just as tragic. Basically, for every billion dollars we spend on rockets rather than medical research, a whole bunch of people will die who might have lived a few years longer.

    I’m actually unsure what to make of the complex and subtle issues to do with consciousness, and anything else related to the singularity (which was actually a rather balanced concept before it was hijacked), but Kurzweil is not away with the fairies for suggesting we could and should greatly expand life/healthspan.

    The word “spiritual” is overused, and can mean a great number of things. If we were to transport into the year 3000 it is unlikely we would recognise anything, and that’s assuming we haven’t put the Earth on a shelf by then so that we can play with prettier marbles. A person might perceive their location as “heaven” infact. To me, “spiritual” has the same meaning implied (or explicitly stated) by Einstein, Hawking et. al., and there will be many opportunities to marvel at the power of the laws of nature in the next fifty years.

    So if by “religion” a person means an irrational body of thought in which belief happens before you seek to validate the belief, then oppose it, but if its meaning is being tossed around here and there like the word “spiritual” is, then it really doesn’t matter whether we view acceleration with religious awe or not.

    Posted by: CptSunbeam   November 07, 2008
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  4. I think John has identified a not-well explored aspect of the singularity theory. Coming as no surprise to anyone here I’m sure, I think I differ from his stated position. Or possibly only his current statement of it.

    I think Covus has well summed up the mechanics of the theory. What John seems to have fixed on is the post-singularity bluring of the pre-singularity distinction between science and philosophy.

    I’m going to try to put a post together this weekend examining my thoughts on this, but basicly I think that the old Clarke-ian definition of “magic” and the ideology of human perception will be key to better clarifying this general class of question.

    Posted by: Will   November 07, 2008
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  5. John Heylin, you certainly bring an unmatched degree of subtlety to the implications of Singularitarian-ism. As a blogger, it is certainly a valid investment for you to create a riddle around the singularity and religion. I often collapse the two all the time, as I do with technology and mythology.

    The thing to understand is that all of it is made up. Technology, mythology, math, science, the singularity, the Gods, completely fabricated by humans.

    It isn’t the idea of the singularity that has it occur as religious. What has it occur that way is the listeners, or followers, and how they operate with the idea as it relates to the future. People also have a great tendency to add story or images to what they think it means. They operate and create dialogue as if it were fact or reality and as if there is a particular way it will turn out. Scientists are guilty of this as well.

    I find that futurism has the same kind of characteristics of religion, the God of math, the God of unknown all knowing systems.

    I actually think we keep cycling the same simulation over and over again and calling it something else, one name that we use is more complex, or more better. Some people call it Heaven or Hell, or singularity.

    Whatever we make up will find alignment among us story tellers.

    Posted by: Peltaire   November 11, 2008
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  6. Be careful, Peltaire, about accusing scientists of viewing things such as mathematics as a God. Scientists such as Eistein and Hawking did not mean God when they used that word, and in fact they should not have done so, since this is misleading. Scientists do sometimes have a kind of awe and wonder at the things they study, but it is fundamentally different from religion.

    The world’s major religions operate in the reverse order to science (science: look at facts, form conclusions; religion: form conclusions, search for supporting facts). They typically rely on some personal or pseuso personal presence, but in science there is nothing to pray to (you cannot pray to an equation. It just sits there). If a scientist finds energy in the universe to be awesome, then fine – but remember you can find energy in a lump of coal too. Futurism is the art of prediction based on present data, such as we do when we examine the time-evolution of an equation of motion.

    Real science allows us to make real predictions, and if we are sufficiently careful we can do this about technology. There is nothing mystical about that. Don’t confuse enthusiasm for mysticism. I’m tired of people slipping populist anti-intellectualism into their posts, while dressing up the rest of their comment to make it appear as though they are a reasoning person.

    Posted by: CptSunbeam   November 18, 2008
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  7. I agree with Kurzweil on just about everything, including his optimism, but on this I gotta disagree. The Singularity IS a RELIGION! http://www.plusultratech.com/2011/06/singularity-is-religion.html

    Posted by: ThirtySteps   June 12, 2011
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