This book offers three things that will make it a seminal document. 1) It brokers a new idea, not widely known. 2) The idea is about as big as you can get: the Singularity — all the change in the last millions years will be superceded by the change in the next five minutes, and 3) It is an idea that demands informed response. The book’s claims are so footnoted, documented, graphed, argued, and plausible in small detail, that it requires the equal in response. Yet its claims are so outrageous that if true, it would mean… well … the end of the world as we know it, and the beginning of Utopia. Ray Kurzweil has taken all the strands of the Singularity meme circulating in the last decades and has united them into a single tome which he has nailed on our front door. I suspect this will be one of the most cited books of the decade. Like Paul Erlich’s upsetting 1972 book Population Bomb, fan or foe, it’s the wave at epicenter you have to start with.
The Singularity is Near
When Humans Transcend Biology
2005, 672 pages
Available from Amazon
Misperceptions about the shape of the future come up frequently and in a variety of contexts. As one example of many, in a recent debate in which I took part concerning the feasibility of molecular manufacturing, a Nobel Prize-winning panelist dismissed safety concerns regarding nanotechnology, proclaiming that “we’re not going to see self-replicating nanoengineered entities [devices constructed molecular fragment by fragment] for a hundred years.” I pointed out that one hundred years was a reasonable estimate and actually matched my own appraisal of the amount of technical progress required to achieve this particular milestone when measured at today’s rate of progress (five times the average rate of change we saw in the twentieth century). But because we’re doubling the rate of progress every decade, we’ll see the equivalent of a century of progress — at today’s rate — in only twenty-five calender years.
From my perspective, the Singularity has many faces. It represents the nearly vertical phase of exponential growth that occurs when the rate is so extreme that technology appears to be expanding at infinite speed. Of course, from a mathematical perspective, there is no discontinuity, no rupture, and the growth rates remain finite, although extraordinarily large. But from our currently limited framework, the imminent event appears to be an acute and abrupt break in the continuity of progress. I emphasize the word “currently” because one of the salient implications of the Singularity will be a change in the nature of our ability to understand. We will become vastly smarter as we merge with our technology.
Evolution applies positive feedback: the more capable methods resulting from one stage of evolutionary progress are used to create the next stage. As described in the previous chapter, each epoch of evolution has progressed more rapidly by building on the products of the previous stage. Evolution works through indirection: evolution created humans, humans created technology, humans are now working with increasingly advanced technology to create new generations of technology. By the time of the Singularity, there won’t be a distinction between humans and technology.
Evolution moves toward greater complexity, greater elegance, greater knowledge, greater intelligence, greater beauty, greater creativity, and greater levels of subtle attributes such as love. In every monotheistic tradition God is likewise described as all of these qualities, only without any limitation: infinite knowledge, infinite intelligence, infinite beauty, infinite creativity, infinite love, and so on. Of course, even the accelerating growth of evolution never achieves an infinite level, but as it explodes exponentially it certainly moves rapidly in that direction. So evolution moves inexorably toward this conception of God, although never quite reaching this ideal We can regard, therefore, the freeing of our thinking from the severe limitations of its biological form to be an essentially spiritual undertaking.