One high-profile and potentially controversial speaker at the upcoming COSM conference (October 23–25 in Bellevue, Washington) is Ray Kurzweil. A prolific inventor in communications technologies such as the image scanner and optical character recognition, he is also co-founder and chancellor of Singularity University and a Director of Engineering at Google. But he is best known for his quasi-religious convictions that computers will soon be conscious and we can achieve immortality by merging with machines and making the universe intelligent.
Kurzweil, author of The Singularity Is Near (2005) and The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999), published his first novel this year, Danielle: Chronicles of a Superheroine. It tells how “a precocious girl uses her intelligence and accelerating technologies to solve the world’s biggest challenges.”
The novel comes with two companion books, one of which is How You Can Be a Danielle (learn by doing). The second e-book, A Chronicle of Ideas, spells out what that means. In a narrative that wanders between reality and fiction, Danielle meets real-life leaders like Martine Rothblatt, a transgender CEO pursuing transhumanism. Rothblatt’s group Terasem embraces four core beliefs, “The Truths of Terasem”:
I. Life is purposeful – The purpose of life is to create diversity, unity and joyful immortality everywhere. Nature—the Multiverse—automatically selects for these attributes. Diversity, Unity & Joyful Immortality is the self-fulfilling prophecy of creation.
II. Death is optional – Nobody dies so long as enough information about them is preserved. They are simply in a state of ‘cybernetic biostasis.’ Future mindware technology will enable them to be revived, if desired, to healthy and independent living.
III. God is technological – We are making God as we are implementing technology that is ever more all-knowing, ever-present, all-powerful and beneficent. Geoethical nanotechnology will ultimately connect all consciousness and control the cosmos.
IV. Love is essential – Love means that the happiness of others is essential to your own happiness. Love must connect everyone to achieve life’s purpose and to make God complete.
While many religions believe in a supernatural afterlife, we are told, Terasem teaches that “we can live joyfully forever if we build mindfiles for ourselves.” In Danielle’s alternative reality, she goes on to attack and disrupt a vocal music competition that is self-segregated by sex.
Danielle will not, of course, be to all readers’ tastes. Returning to technology claims as such, Kurzweil is an optimistic outlier among those who believe that computers that think like people (artificial general intelligence or AGI) are even possible. Informal responses in a recent survey of experts as to when there was a 50% chance of AGI ranged from 2029 (Kurzweil) through 2200 (Rodney Brooks).
One enthusiast for Kurzweil’s ideas is intellectual property lawyer Peter Clarke. Hoping that AGI will rid us of the idea that humans are exceptional, he offers, “Once we properly orient ourselves on the evolutionary tree, it becomes clear that we can learn more about ourselves by focusing on our similarities with other animals than by perpetuating the myth that we’re categorically unique.”
In a way, Clarke’s attachment is an odd one. In a culture in which humans are held to be merely evolved animals, the mind is simply what the brain does, and consciousness may be an illusion, perhaps shared by inanimate objects. Yet transhumanists like Kurzweil hope to cheat natural death by uploading consciousness (?), which is seen—at that point—as separable from our bodies, a virtual AI entity. Thus, immortality is re-envisioned as a ladder of ascent, like the oft-depicted Darwinian Ascent of Man—though both the transhumanist and the Darwinian hide the ladder from view.
Another supporter is centenarian James Lovelock, best known for the Gaia hypothesis (Earth as a living body ). He looks for Kurzweil’s Singularity to save Gaia by taking us over, rather than merging with us, as Kurzweil expects.
However, a number of academics, some of whom will be at the conference, question the Singularity and the transhumanism that goes with it. First, many thinkers dispute that artificial general intelligence is possible. For example, some hope that artificial intelligence could design the artificial super-intelligence that turns us all into super-geniuses. But computer engineer Eric Holloway points out that artificial intelligence systems are bound by and subject to the everyday laws of physics, which guarantee a point of diminishing returns.
Walter Bradley Center director Robert J. Marks points out that the human mind is not computable. That is, it is comprehensible but it is not reducible to calculations. To the extent that quantum mechanics plays a role in its operations, the mind may be intrinsically impossible to reduce to calculations because quantum mechanics operates on different laws from the physics of Newton and Einstein.
Perhaps the biggest issue, however, is that human consciousness remains the central problem in philosophy and it is difficult to replace something one does not even understand. The Singularity is far.
Even Kurzweil’s friend George Gilder questions the underlying basis of the transhumanist vision and points out that information is precisely what is not determined by a machine and is therefore the source of creativity.
Kurzweil has little use for such quibbles. He responds that “the entire universe will become saturated with our intelligence. This is the destiny of the universe.” As Marks notes, “His predictions are often so far in the future that they escape any immediate scrutiny.”
That doesn’t mean that such predictions do not answer a need. The definite religious undertones attract seekers. Nearly as many young Americans believe in ET as in God, religion prof Diana Pasulka reports, from her research. In a recent interview with Sean Illing at Vox, she tells him, “Technology defines our world and culture; it’s our new god…”
With what consequences, we shall see.
You can catch Kurzweil Thursday, October 24, 2019, 2:00 pm by video conference. Other featured speakers include Steve Forbes, Peter Thiel, and Ken Fisher, discussing where headline news like artificial intelligence, cryptocurrency, self-driving cars, e-commerce, and biotech is going. Are machines replacing or helping us and how will we know the difference? What can we do if we don’t like what’s happening?
Note: Keep an eye on the dates. The early adopter conference rate ($950) for COSM is only available until September 6. After that, it is $1,450. Until October 11, that is, when it goes to $1,950. If you think you should be there, do not wait to register.
Other COSM speakers, profiled here, to be sure to make time for:
Ken Fisher: Recession is NOT “bound to” happen, The COSM speaker also claims to dislike philanthropy but… People will remember mainly Fisher’s prediction if it doesn’t come true. If it does come true, they will be too busy spending their earnings to notice. The interesting part is, what underlies it.
Billionaire venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who has a history of challenging SiliconValley orthodoxies. His question, “How can Google use the rhetoric of ‘borderless’ benefits to justify working with the country whose ‘Great Firewall’ has imposed a border on the internet itself?”, is timely. China’s government uses high tech for, among other things, sophisticated racial profiling.