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.