The Singularity Backlash

June 03 2009 / by Alvis Brigis / In association with Future
Category: Technology   Year: General   Rating: 1

With a pair of feature films due for release in 2009, Ray Kurzweil is poised to shotgun the Singularity mega-meme to the mainstrean.

Ray Kurzweil Singularity Messiah

But how will the message and messenger be received? And what effect will Kurzweil's rising star have on associated memes such as accelerating change, transhumanism, extropianism, futurism, AGI and other less extreme Singularity definitions? 

If recent Newsweek ("is this the next great leap in human evolution, or just one man's midlife crisis writ large?") and slanted io9 ("the famous futurist's meat brain has made some ludicrously inaccurate predictions") coverage is any indicator, the seeds of a Kurzweil backlash are beginning to sprout -- a social dynamic that probably also extends to technology in general.

Though I'm no proponent of Kurzweil's Strong Singularity school of thought, relegating it to a low-probability event, I do think the man has contributed a great deal to the study of accelerating change and the human condition.  I find the aforementioned criticism, and especially the voluminous associated comment threads, superficial and incendiary, not productive.  And though I'm not all that surprised about the reaction, I'm a bit worried now that I'm actually witnessing the number of Singularity haters rise, especially because the mentality is likely to extend to the notion of the clearly palpable and verifiable accelerating change occuring in many human-related domains.

Now, if you're going to criticize Kurzweil -- and I think more people should do just that -- it makes more sense to carefully take a go at the definition of the Singularity itself rather than his, frankly, rather safe hardware and computing predictions.  But that takes time, commitment to simulating multiple futures, and careful consideration, which means there will be many millions of emotionally anti-tech eager to pan Kurzweil's brand of techno-utopianism and accelerating change rather than engage in rigorous debate. 

Like I said, it's not surprising, just scary.

Hopefully the story will end more positively than, say, the tale of Giordano Bruno, advocate of heliocentrism, one of my all-time faves.  But alas, if things do turn nasty and all apocalyptic, neo-luddite versus transhuman, then perhaps we'll need Skynet to save us from ourselves after all, thus making Kurzweil's Singularity a twisted self-fulfilling prophecy.

Say it won't be so Ray.  Some of us will believe you!

Illustration by Ian Kirby.  Feel free to use w/ attribution to Ian and linkback to

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Comment Thread (2 Responses)

  1. Not many individuals can see a year ahead of their present state, let alone 40 – in addition to the topography of technology. I don’t think people quite get why Kurzweil is so confident in his prediction of this Singularity. It’s very difficult to comprehend, but looking at the facts, things are shaping up that way.

    Listen to Radio.Seti.Org, and you get the sense that we are on the verge of creating a vast global network of autonomous killing machines and we’re increasingly taking ourselves out of the loop. Sound familiar? Oh yeah, that’s Skynet. Additionally, evolutionary and economic pressure will keep the U.S and other countries building more and more sophisticated robots with increasingly strong A.I. One of the guests on the show also admits the militaries of the world have the resources to create AGI, if they needed to further the efficiency of their drones, autonomous tanks and spy planes. These aren’t science fiction – they are science fact.

    Not only is this going to start another arms race, we will have Nanotechnology and other technologies in the coming 20 years which are going to complicate things even further.

    We are under increasing existential threats which are fairly dangerous – climate change, for instance- which will disrupt life on Earth on a global scale. Developing new super-technologies might be the only way to stave off disaster and our eventual collapse as a society which might inadvertently lead to the development of a machine intelligence.

    Do I believe the Singularity will come to pass? Depends on how the future landscape looks in 10 to 20 years. To me, the future is analogous to how meteorologists predict where hurricanes are going to land. If you look into the future too far, things start to get hazy and you end up with multiple paths. As it moves along that path, it becomes easier to discern the outcome.

    Do I believe intelligence is possible to engineer? Absolutely. I guess the only objection to the Singularity is if we should do it or not. You can’t control a thinking entity. Any attempts – “friendly” A.I, for instance- is completely absurd. If the genie is let out of the bottle, I would hope it will let us merge with it or we might just engineer ourselves out of the picture.

    Alas, this might be our fate, since I don’t think we are immune or special in the grand scheme of things. Our natural competitiveness is inexorably leading us towards a strong A.I. It might not come in 2045 but it will probably happen by the end of this century.

    Recently, there was an article in the NYT called “The Coming Super Brain.” The only thing that could stop it is if we killed its life support system. Us.

    Posted by: Covus   June 04, 2009
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  2. Alvis—

    What’s needed is what the Pentagon might call a “preemptive anti-backlash.” That is, we need to put a good foot forward as we discussed recently on the podcast. It will be unfortunate indeed if most people get their first taste of accelerating change or transhumanist ideas via some mainstream media reductionist smear job.

    Posted by: philbowermaster   June 11, 2009
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