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The Wonders of Man in the Age of Simulations.

A new urgency has energized those who welcome and those who fear the power of man to transform his nature. While hopes of technological utopias and fears of technological dystopias may be part and parcel of the human condition itself, we are living through a moment when extraordinary technological advances are once again raising the question of what it means to be human. The problem that confronts man in the 20th and now 21st centuries, as Hannah Arendt writes, is that we face the danger that we might so fully create and make our artificial world that we endanger that quality of human life which is subject to fate, nature, and chance. To bring oneself up to date on this current version of the debate over our human, superhuman, and inhuman futures, three recent books serve as excellent guides.

AMONGST THE DREAMERS OF a new age of man, none combines credibility and popularity like Ray Kurzweil. In six best-selling books and two movies, Kurzweil has honed his argument that the rapid advance of computational technology is ushering in a new humanity, one that will merge human and machine into a higher and more intelligent form of life. Not only will man attain mastery over the world with intelligence unimaginable to mere human cognition, but also humans will be able to choose their lifespans—Kurzweil himself speaks of living till the ripe age of 700. And eventually, human and machine intelligence will merge with the intelligence of the universe, forming one omniscient cosmic whole of which all of us are parts. This eventual uniting of man, machine, and nature goes by the name the Singularity, and it is a faith with many adherents who flock to its website, attend its university, and hope to live its promise.

In The Singularity is Near, first released as a book and now showing as The Singularity is Near: The Movie, Kurzweil advances his fundamental thesis: the Singularity–the event during which the nature of human life and super-intelligent machines will merge into a new and more powerful species–is near. Really near. It will happen within the next 30 years.

The Singularity, as Kurzweil defines it, is “a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed.” Transformed could also mean superseded. The point is that humans will of necessity evolve into a hybrid species. As he writes: “This book, then, is the story of the destiny of the human-machine civilization, a destiny we have come to refer to as the Singularity.”

Underlying Kurzweil’s confidence in the coming nearness of the Singularity is his conviction that “we have the ability to understand our own intelligence—to access our own source code, if you will—and then revise and expand it.” While this may seem impossible today or in the near future, Kurzweil believes that the pace of technological advance is accelerating at a still underestimated pace. As Kurzweil writes:

The list of ways computers can now exceed human capabilities is rapidly growing…. For example, computers are diagnosing electrocardiograms and medical images, flying and landing airplanes, controlling the tactical decisions of automated weapons, making credit and financial decisions, and being given responsibility for many other tasks that used to require human intelligence.

Doubters can always point to limits on artificial intelligence. Computers make mistakes. Translation programs result in comical absurdities. Robots don’t understand slang or jargon. But Kurzweil thinks these are mere temporary glitches, soon to be overcome, on the way to a new super-human humanity.

The Singularity, Kurzweil believes, is cause for celebration. While he says, at times, that the Singularity is neither utopian nor dystopian, he leaves little doubt as to his optimism:

The Singularity will allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains. We will gain power over our fates. Our mortality will be in our own hands. We will be able to live as long as we want (a subtly different statement from saying we will live forever). We will fully understand human thinking and will vastly extend and expand its reach. By the end of this century, the nonbiological portion of our intelligence will be trillions of trillions of times more powerful than unaided human intelligence.

In short: as computers surpass human intelligence, they will become not merely human, but super-human. And humans too, will adapt, incorporating the power of computer intelligence into their bodies and brains, powering themselves to levels of intelligence and insight that are still hardly imaginable. Together, these intelligent machines and enhanced humans will converge in the Singularity, a point at which man and his machines will together grasp man’s destiny, to fully and intelligently create his world and himself in the most intelligent and beneficial way possible. Eventually, “the entire universe will become saturated with our intelligence. This is the destiny of the universe.” This full fusion of machine-man with the cosmos is “the sweetest music, the deepest art, the most beautiful mathematics.”

There is an ambivalence, if not hostility, towards humanity in Kurzweil’s writing that recalls the double meaning of “wonder” that Sophocles invokes over two millennia ago. The Singularity cannot be experienced by living human beings. Kurzweil awaits the time when our experiences will cease to be experienced by bodily human beings; instead, “As virtual reality from within the nervous system becomes competitive with real reality in terms of resolution and believability, our experiences will increasingly take place in virtual environments.” Once the entire universe—including all matter in the universe—is transformed into a computer-saturated intelligence, all matter will be subject to intelligent modification.

The ultimate end of such an evolution of human intelligence that “is more powerful than physics” is the Singularity. Once we perfect computation, our “intelligence saturates the matter and energy in its vicinity, and it begins to expand outward at at [sic] least the speed of light.” We will then, as a civilization, overcome gravity and other cosmological forces and “engineer the universe” we want. This is the goal of Singularity.

There is a real question about whether such a “civilization” is indeed a civilization of humans. Kurzweil insists it will be. The human-machine-natural beings of the coming Singularity will, he writes, retain the essential human character of intelligent striving: “what will remain unequivocally human in such a world [is] simply this quality: ours is the species that inherently seeks to extend its physical and mental reach beyond current limitations.” As we merge with machines and with the cosmos, our civilization will “be more exemplary of what we regard as human than it is today, although our understanding of the term will move beyond its biological origins.” It is difficult for us mere humans to know what we will be in the coming decades, but Kurzweil is hopeful that we will continue to expand our intelligence, our dreams, and our desire to improve the world.

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