By Adam Pez
Will our children be ‘uploaded’ into digital immortality in the next 30 years? Could a rogue artificial intelligence burst into near-omniscience and take over the world?
According to some academics and Silicon Valley visionaries—among them artificial intelligence (AI) pioneer and Google director of engineering Ray Kurzweil—the answer is: maybe.
The Silicon Rapture follows author Adam Pez into the big, weird questions of the Singularity: a predicted and possibly inevitable future when humanity and AI fuse into an entity of godlike proportions.
In this captivating read Pez introduces the history (and potential future) of AI, meets with the inventor of RoboCup, and sifts visionaries from crackpots on his quest to understand the meaning and likelihood of a ‘silicon rapture.’
Read an excerpt below. Click for a bio of the author, Adam Pez.
Print length: 60 pages
Print editions available through better bookstores.
THE SPIRES OF THE EPISCOPAL GRACE CATHEDRAL rise over the Masonic Center, a blocky, modernist temple of glass and concrete in the Nob Hill area of downtown San Francisco. The doors are inscribed with the Masonic square and compasses symbol—a reminder to Freemasons to measure their actions against the geometry of virtue.
Inside, the convention center’s lobby bubbles with anticipation. On this, the first day of the 2012 Singularity Summit, an eclectic gathering has assembled: hipster geeks with dyed hair and tech-meme t-shirts chat with men (they are mostly men) in generic suits. A transvestite in leather boots stands by a doorway. A man with a top hat mingles. The assembly of roughly 800 people is a mix of futurologists, inventors, software programmers, hedge fund managers, cognitive scientists and sci-fi enthusiasts. They’re here to see some big-name speakers, among them Ray Kurzweil—artificial intelligence developer, current director of engineering at Google and recipient of the National Medal of Technology from President Clinton—and Peter Norvig, director of research for Google and former head of the Computational Sciences Division at NASA’s Ames Research Center.
Eventually the group filters into the main auditorium to hear Kurzweil’s presentation, delivered before a giant, glowing projector screen. His face looks flushed in the bright light, as if he’d had a recent chemical peel.
“A lot of audiences have the idea that things are getting worse,” says Kurzweil. “There are a number of works coming out now showing how life has really improved, but people very quickly lose perspective. They’re focused on the latest political issues or whether education or the economy is up one percent or down two percent over the last year. But if you broaden your horizon, really remarkable things have happened.”
The mood in the room is high. Attendees are here to discuss ideas about technologies—nanotech, AI, biotech—that may determine the fate of humanity, and that may or may not result in what they’ve come to call the Singularity. Kurzweil is the last speaker of this first day, and as he flicks through a series of slides illustrating two centuries’ worth of progress in education, health and national GDP, cheers and laughter accompany several of his points. The plotted lines jag upward, with a few shooting up in exponential curves, recalling the climate-change “hockey-stick” graphs of rising global temperatures.
The historic achievements Kurzweil mentions are fairly well known, but the ones he looks forward to in the next twenty to fifty years are less so, particularly to people outside this particular hall. Kurzweil is a big fan of “obsoleting the dilemma,” to use the words of one of his colleagues, via the deus ex machina of technology. He envisions humanity curing global warming through deployment of advanced solar panels and nano-engineered fuel cells. By 2050, he says, tiny nano-engineered robots, or “nanites,” will be able to build objects out of dirt and other base materials, ending resource scarcity forever.
Nano-robots, says Kurzweil, could also be inserted into our bloodstream to enhance human capacities. These “respirocytes”—a term borrowed from the Institute for Molecular Manufacturing in nearby Palo Alto—would ferry oxygen more efficiently than our blood cells and release performance-optimizing hormones.
“Once we understand biology’s principles of operation, and as the pace at which we are reverse-engineering it is accelerating, we can actually design these things to be much more capable,” Kurzweil says.
“If you replaced ten percent of your red blood cells with these robotic versions you could do an Olympic sprint for fifteen minutes without taking a breath. You could sit at the bottom of your pool for four hours. So ‘Honey, I’m in the pool’ will take on a whole new meaning.”
These leaps in nanotech are projected to parallel advances in other fields, with profound consequences. By 2050, for example, Kurzweil predicts that a typical desktop computer will have the processing power of all human minds combined. The climax of all this accelerating change is a quasi-religious transformation referred to as the Singularity. Depending on whom you speak to, the Singularity is the idea that anyone alive in forty years or so will be able to upload their minds into computers and become effectively immortal—part of a vast network of artificial intelligence that lives without the need for mortal bodies. No sickness, poverty or death. The Omega Point. Heaven. A silicon Rapture.
But there is also the less-than-trivial possibility that a mutant and near-omniscient AI could take over entirely, killing or enslaving humanity and the biosphere—deciding, in the apt words of one Singularity thinker, that “our molecules can be used for another purpose.”