Where the Next Singularity Might Take Us
“Performance philosopher” Jason Silva understands the Singularity. It’s obvious from his infectious can’t-quite-spit-the-words-out-fast-enough excitement that he’s spent a lot of time marinating in the idea that, within the next 30 years or so, things are “going to get really weird.”
For the uninitiated, and for those who just can’t spare four and a half minutes to watch Silva’s video, the Singularity is a physics term co-opted by futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil to describe a worldwide event so hugely defining, so epoch-making, so miraculous in its brilliance that all of human existence bottlenecks and, once it emerges on the other side, is dramatically changed forever — changed so greatly, in fact, that people standing on the pre-Singularity side of history cannot reasonably begin to comprehend life as it has become on the other side.
As Silva puts it, try explaining something as complex as a Shakespearean sonnet to one of our ancient prelingual cave-dwelling ancestors. She would probably lack the cognitive muscle to process not only the meaning of figurative language but also language itself. The sounds emanating from your mouth would be just that — sounds. Your way of life would be an existential mystery to her. The ability to speak and communicate and share ideas both practical and metaphysical has enabled humanity to make unimaginable strides in a limitless number of areas. Had we never discovered the ability to make the sounds in our mouths mean something other than what they literally are — sounds — would any of this have been possible?
You wouldn’t be reading this blog, for sure.
So when will the next Singularity event occur?
As always, the Future Culturalist refuses to give specifics. But he will acknowledge that not one but three events as great as the invention of language will take place sometime before 2099. For now, all we can do is speculate. Such speculation is tricky, as we’ve already pointed out. Could our knuckle-dragging forebears ever have anticipated where language would take us? How would we go about explaining the Internet to an ancient, even one as ahead-of-his-time intelligent as, say, Socrates?
Kurzweil — who has made some bold predictions over the years, some of them accurate, most of them not-so-accurate — predicts that the next Singularity will be reached by 2045, when the line separating man from machine will blur completely. The reverse-engineering of human brains will allow us to build smarter computers capable of much more than making lightning-fast calculations. Indeed, they will be able to think and understand symbolic language and feel like a human. Conversely, breakthroughs in nanotechnology will allow us to implant tiny yet powerful computers in our brains, perhaps even replace large sections of our brains with artificial components, thereby boosting our computational speed and accuracy, not to mention improving our memories.
Ever walk in a room, only to forget why you entered it in the first place? Yeah, that will be going away.
However, the real story isn’t that we’ll be smarter than we are now. The story is that, for the first time in history, one of our inventions — the computer — will become our peer. What will the difference be between a machine with human-like abilities (learning, thinking, reasoning, feeling) and a human with computer-like abilities (making instantaneous calculations, making sophisticated predictions, housing and retrieving vast amounts of data accurately)? Granted, one was assembled in a factory whereas the other slipped crying and screaming from its mother’s vulva.
But the day will indeed arrive when humans and machines see each other as equals, relate to one another — even existentially and religiously — and share more similarities than differences. When that day comes, we’ll know for sure that we’ve passed through yet another Singularity. When that day comes, humanity as we know it will have been irreversibly changed and redefined. We who stand on this side of the Singularity cannot fathom the far-reaching implications of such an event any more than our prelingual ancestors could fathom the implications of human language.
Any Star Wars fan knows that C-3PO is designed for human-cyborg relations. He helps humans (as well as non-humans) communicate with clunky droids such as R2-D2 and even the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive engine. As companionable as the ever-fussy C-3PO is, the imminent Singularity will no doubt prove that we have no need for his kind’s services. The reason? An intercessor will not be necessary between two beings who feel one-and-the-same. We will have already become C-3PO, and C-3PO will have already become us.
Plus, the blurring of boundaries between humans and machines might bring new meaning to “human-cyborg relations.”
Silva warned us that things were going to get weird.