Preparing for the next god

Google and NASA are collaborating to start Singularity University, an institute that will prepare the way for the time when, in a few decades, computers will become smarter than human beings and will start solving the world’s problems on their own:

Google and Nasa are throwing their weight behind a new school for futurists in Silicon Valley to prepare scientists for an era when machines become cleverer than people.

The new institution, known as “Singularity University”, is to be headed by Ray Kurzweil, whose predictions about the exponential pace of technological change have made him a controversial figure in technology circles.

Google and Nasa’s backing demonstrates the growing mainstream acceptance of Mr Kurzweil’s views, which include a claim that before the middle of this century artificial intelligence will outstrip human beings, ushering in a new era of civilisation.

To be housed at Nasa’s Ames Research Center, a stone’s-throw from the Googleplex, the Singularity University will offer courses on biotechnology, nano-technology and artificial intelligence.

The so-called “singularity” is a theorised period of rapid technological progress in the near future. Mr Kurzweil, an American inventor, popularised the term in his 2005 book “The Singularity is Near”.

Proponents say that during the singularity, machines will be able to improve themselves using artificial intelligence and that smarter-than-human computers will solve problems including energy scarcity, climate change and hunger.

Yet many critics call the singularity dangerous. Some worry that a malicious artificial intelligence might annihilate the human race.

Note the millennial, messianic hope AND the apocalyptic fear this is engendering, both of which are fundamentally religious. We are constructing our god, and soon he will take over. But why is NASA involved in this? A governmental agency whose purpose is space travel? I guess the agency is filled with fans of the movie “2001: Space Odyssey” who want to create HAL.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Manxman

    Mr. Veith

    I highly recommend that people read Kurzweil’s “The Singularity is Near” so they can get a feel for just how disturbing the ideas of scientific radicals are. This is where they will try to take mankind, and it is an ugly place. They are staging an attack on God’s order of creation.

    I think you’re misreading Kurzweil when you say that he’s talking about a take-over by super “smart” machines. He goes way beyond that. He’s talking about a melding of man and machine with the human brain function being broken loose from its biological platform so as to eventually achieve some form of digital eternal life. His work is very disturbing – first because someone would seriously consider these changes in the first place, and secondly because technology is advancing so rapidly that it may be possible to actually achieve some of his obscene vision for mankind.

  • EconJeff

    Isn’t this kind of the premise for the Terminator movies? And also the Matrix movies? And Battlestar Galactica? The world is taken over by machines that are smarter than them. We can already imagine the downside of this.

    If what Manxman says is true about Kurzweil, it’s even worse, and we should be a little scared (or a lot scared). There is no respect for what life is and means in that scenario. The abortion war will be lost in that scenario.

    Dr. Veith–the government is involved in a lot of things it shouldn’t be. I’m not too surprised.

  • FW

    problems are not logical and linear.

    palistinians and jews will illogically reject peace, prosperity and material goods for the sake of a religious or philosophical goal. christians will reject what “works” for the sake of something that they (against all apparent reason) believe will endure.

    the kinds of problems computers can resolve look like the approach that totalitarianism has taken.

    Good men and women, both athiests and christian have come to know that ONE human life is not worth sacrificing for ANY higher good.

    Social morality boils down to this simple truth.

    You don´t even need to be religious or believe in “a god” to follow this simple ideal to a logical and consistent and comprehensive world view. Means to that end that are many, can then be debated as to which is most likely to be most effective by men of good will with profitable result.

    Many here posit that without belief in a higher power, that true morality is impossible. this flies in the face of what St Paul writes. faith in the wrong object can be far worse than faith in no object. Faith in the god shiva or baal or any “ism” I can think of at the moment is simply Jim-Jones-Koolaid.

    the world will always be about false gods. Even as a christian I have many. this is the root of my sin.

    It is an article of faith then, not of sight, that THE God makes this messy business called sanctification to be salt and yeast and leaven. It is important to note that Leaven can be a good thing AND a bad thing in the words of our Lord. what makes Leaven good or bad is the One Who when lifted up filled all things.

    we eat unleavened bread in the blessed sacrament. the bread that comes down from heaven. The “missing” leaven is our Lord. and all of us who are his body. without those two things, the holy supper is not the holy supper, no matter how many times the host is paraded about and turned to superstition.

  • Manxman

    Check out this article by Ray Kurzweil. The title, “Live Forever – Uploading the Human Brain – Closer than You Think.” Ray Kurzweil ponders the issues of identity and consciousness in an age when we can make digital copies of ourselves.

    http://www.kurzweilai.net/articles/art0157.html?printable=1

  • http://kirkles.tumblr.com Kirk

    We all know exactly what the computer is going to say. 42.

  • WebMonk

    “Mr Kurzweil, an American inventor, popularised the term in his 2005 book “The Singularity is Near””

    FT is woefully ignorant if they think Kurzweil popularized the term. It’s been around for 50 years and has had several surges of popularity over the years.

    For all of Kurzweil’s study and expertise in matters like computing/biological matters, he falls prey to his own enthusiasm and lets it carry him well beyond what is, or likely will be, possible. He has made a number of predictions in the past that are still wildly outside of current possibility, and I suspect that the majority of his current predictions will still be wildly outside of possibility in another 20 or 30 years.

    One of his favorite technologies seems to be building a computer based on scanning a human brain. Conceivably we might be able to scan a brain in the resolution he suggests, but neuroscience has shown a great deal more complexity to the brain than just the number and type of connections.

    On one hand, I REALLY don’t think we’ll be wrestling with digital “persons” like he describes. On the other hand, it certainly seems likely that a form of some of what he describes is possible, and it’s something that is good for us to wrestle with.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Why is NASA involved?
    I suspect that they are trying to justify they’re existence to the public, and tech geeks watching Battle Star Galactica, and dressing up like Dr. Spock at Star Trek conventions are the only ones they can find to listen to them.
    They Air Force has a space program that make’s NASA’s look small, and far more practical as the novelty of Tang has worn off on most of us.
    This is also coupled with the problem that Karl Popper pointed out in “The Myth of Framework” pg72
    “More and more Ph. D Candidates receive merely technical training in certain techniques of measurement. They are not initiated into the scientific tradition, the critical tradition of questioning, of being tempted and guided by great and apparently insoluble riddles rather than by the solubility of little puzzles.”
    In other words due to the lack of a liberal arts education the scientist can no longer think clearly, but can measure accurately. (May be a bit of an over statement.) The Dr. that can afford to see the Notre Dame, does not have enough education to appreciate it or know what a gargoyle is, much less a flying buttress, which they probably have confused with a nun pretending to be an angel. (Perhaps another overstatement, but one I have witnessed.) So they become gullible and are unable to discern fact from fiction.

  • Joe

    So does he work at a company called Skynet?

  • Dan Kempin

    Good one, Kirk!

  • http://www.ourworldhisview.com Rev Grayl

    This is called Transhumanism. I did a radio program on it with Dr Kevin Voss. Check it out in our archives at http://www.ourworldhisview.com August 11th 2007.

  • http://www.scyldingsinthemeadhall.blogspot.com The Scylding

    Reminds me of the NICE in Lewis’ That Hideous Strength.

    Where is Merlin buried again? :)

  • The Jones

    I doubt that NASA has any policy about computers overtaking human abilities, but I bet they think they can get some wicked cool and very useful inventions and technological gadgets out of the institute.

    If a group of people have to plan for the Terminator Judgment Day in order to get it… …eh….what the heck, whatever. At least we’ll have a backup plan for Skynet, too.

  • Matt Jamison

    I don’t think there is anything in this to hope for, and little to be afraid of, other than a massive waste of taxpayer money.

    I strongly believe that this will fizzle just like the similarly overhyped Search for Extraterrestrial Life that has turned up nada.

    Artificial intelligence is a fraud: it doesn’t exist and probably never will. The basic problem is that scientific naturalists believe the brain is merely an organic computer. Therefore, science should be able to build a computer that does everything a human brain does.

    But no computer built has come anywhere near to passing the Turing test of AI posited in the 1950s. While the idea of AI is dead, the so-named field just keeps going.

    There is a fundamental part of human nature that scientific naturalism cannot even begin to account for, so it denies its existence; a kind of X-factor that make even the infant brain vastly different than the most powerful computer.

    We theists just might have a word for it. . .

  • http://www.simdan.com SimDan

    As a software engineer, I see this as something that I will believe when I see it.

    Yes, hardware is getting faster and faster and in recent years robotics have gotten quite impressive.

    The problem is software evolves much more slowly. Most AI systems, which are software, are little more than novel research projects. Getting any AI to the level of a human is far off, if ever. You cannot predict when an advance is going to take place. Just like in mathematics, a related field, problems can be known for hundreds of years before a solution is found.

    Indeed, there are some problems that even if we built a computer out of all of the matter of the universe, it would still take pretty much forever to reach a solution. See the Wikipedia article about time complexity http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Time_complexity

    Could it happen that we have AIs able to compete with humans in all matters of thinking? Sure. Just call me skeptical that it will happen.


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