Time’s Person of the Year 2045

I’ve been posting on the Singularity hypothesis and have already alluded to this big story in Time Magazine.  It’s worth reading as perhaps a foretaste of an emerging secular religion, one that will solve all of our problems and bring us everlasting life.  A sample:

So if computers are getting so much faster, so incredibly fast, there might conceivably come a moment when they are capable of something comparable to human intelligence. Artificial intelligence. All that horsepower could be put in the service of emulating whatever it is our brains are doing when they create consciousness — not just doing arithmetic very quickly or composing piano music but also driving cars, writing books, making ethical decisions, appreciating fancy paintings, making witty observations at cocktail parties.

If you can swallow that idea, and [Raymond] Kurzweil and a lot of other very smart people can, then all bets are off. From that point on, there’s no reason to think computers would stop getting more powerful. They would keep on developing until they were far more intelligent than we are. Their rate of development would also continue to increase, because they would take over their own development from their slower-thinking human creators. Imagine a computer scientist that was itself a super-intelligent computer. It would work incredibly quickly. It could draw on huge amounts of data effortlessly. It wouldn’t even take breaks to play Farmville.

Probably. It’s impossible to predict the behavior of these smarter-than-human intelligences with which (with whom?) we might one day share the planet, because if you could, you’d be as smart as they would be. But there are a lot of theories about it. Maybe we’ll merge with them to become super-intelligent cyborgs, using computers to extend our intellectual abilities the same way that cars and planes extend our physical abilities. Maybe the artificial intelligences will help us treat the effects of old age and prolong our life spans indefinitely. Maybe we’ll scan our consciousnesses into computers and live inside them as software, forever, virtually. Maybe the computers will turn on humanity and annihilate us. The one thing all these theories have in common is the transformation of our species into something that is no longer recognizable as such to humanity circa 2011. This transformation has a name: the Singularity.

The difficult thing to keep sight of when you’re talking about the Singularity is that even though it sounds like science fiction, it isn’t, no more than a weather forecast is science fiction. It’s not a fringe idea; it’s a serious hypothesis about the future of life on Earth. There’s an intellectual gag reflex that kicks in anytime you try to swallow an idea that involves super-intelligent immortal cyborgs, but suppress it if you can, because while the Singularity appears to be, on the face of it, preposterous, it’s an idea that rewards sober, careful evaluation.

via Singularity: Kurzweil on 2045, When Humans, Machines Merge — Printout — TIME.

And the date this will come to pass, according to the prophets, is 2045.

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.

  • ELB

    The article says, “It’s impossible to predict the behavior of these smarter-than-human intelligences with which (with whom?) we might one day share the planet, because if you could, you’d be as smart as they would be. ”

    The same people who would say this have no trouble criticizing God for the way He governs the world. Right, Job?

  • ELB

    The article says, “It’s impossible to predict the behavior of these smarter-than-human intelligences with which (with whom?) we might one day share the planet, because if you could, you’d be as smart as they would be. ”

    The same people who would say this have no trouble criticizing God for the way He governs the world. Right, Job?

  • WebMonk

    It’s standard breathless hypothesizing to sell an article – the article isn’t worth the electrons spent on it.

  • WebMonk

    It’s standard breathless hypothesizing to sell an article – the article isn’t worth the electrons spent on it.

  • Gulliver

    In his “Foundation” series, Asimov has Daniel as a god-like sentient robot who tweaks history to follow the mathematically pre-determined path. This is an example of a good Singularity in science fiction. However, Daniel has to stay hidden because people would try to use him for their own evil ends.
    I believe that intelligence (the ability to think abstractly) is the function of the created soul. Therefore a computer cannot be sentient unless it is hooked up to a human mind.
    Is this a propoer criticism of the Singularity idea? I realize that religious people can make highly inaccurate statements about scientific ideas and be embarrassed when proven wrong.

  • Gulliver

    In his “Foundation” series, Asimov has Daniel as a god-like sentient robot who tweaks history to follow the mathematically pre-determined path. This is an example of a good Singularity in science fiction. However, Daniel has to stay hidden because people would try to use him for their own evil ends.
    I believe that intelligence (the ability to think abstractly) is the function of the created soul. Therefore a computer cannot be sentient unless it is hooked up to a human mind.
    Is this a propoer criticism of the Singularity idea? I realize that religious people can make highly inaccurate statements about scientific ideas and be embarrassed when proven wrong.

  • Tom Hering

    An absolutely necessary step along the the road to the Singularity is Kurzweil’s statement in the TIME article:

    “We will successfully reverse-engineer the human brain by the mid-2020s.”

    A good way to sober up from a statement like that is to watch The Great Mysteries of the Human Brain – Episode One of what might be the best science series ever televised, The Charlie Rose Brain Series. Excerpts:

    (Eric Kandel, Columbia U.) If you asked most scientists in the world, “What is the most difficult challenge?,” they would answer, “Understanding the human mind” … [consciousness] is the most mysterious problem in all of brain science, and since brain science is the frontier of all science, it’s probably the most difficult question in all of science.

    (Tony Morvshon, New York U., on biological specificity) We often think of the analogy of the brain as a computer … but the brain works the way it does because it’s made of meat and not silicon and copper.

    (John Searle, UC Berkeley) For a long time the computer metaphor was really an impediment in cognitive science, because it led people to the illusion that the anatomy doesn’t really matter, all that matters is the programs, so you have to write programs, and I think for a whole lot of reasons that’s a very unintelligent view.

  • Tom Hering

    An absolutely necessary step along the the road to the Singularity is Kurzweil’s statement in the TIME article:

    “We will successfully reverse-engineer the human brain by the mid-2020s.”

    A good way to sober up from a statement like that is to watch The Great Mysteries of the Human Brain – Episode One of what might be the best science series ever televised, The Charlie Rose Brain Series. Excerpts:

    (Eric Kandel, Columbia U.) If you asked most scientists in the world, “What is the most difficult challenge?,” they would answer, “Understanding the human mind” … [consciousness] is the most mysterious problem in all of brain science, and since brain science is the frontier of all science, it’s probably the most difficult question in all of science.

    (Tony Morvshon, New York U., on biological specificity) We often think of the analogy of the brain as a computer … but the brain works the way it does because it’s made of meat and not silicon and copper.

    (John Searle, UC Berkeley) For a long time the computer metaphor was really an impediment in cognitive science, because it led people to the illusion that the anatomy doesn’t really matter, all that matters is the programs, so you have to write programs, and I think for a whole lot of reasons that’s a very unintelligent view.

  • Chryst

    The church needs to start thinking of these things. The pace of change is ever more rapid, and the implications are mind-boggling. We are behind the curve already when it comes to bioethics, for instance. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

    I’ve read enough of Kurzweil and other futurists to say that while they are engaging in speculation – it’s not always wild but usually educated speculation. Technology has the potential to change our world in ways beyond our imagination.

    The bio-ethical implications of a cyborg, or of extending life indefinitely, or augmented reality – technologies which are at least thinkable and at most already on the horizon.

    Will technology be our next Tower of Babel, uniting us so that “nothing they do will be impossible”? And will the Lord frustrate these efforts as he did in the past, or return before we go too far? Or will our punishment for “going to far” be the very world we create?

    God put an angel with a flaming sword at the gate to Eden, in mercy, to keep us from living forever in sin. What happens when technology allows us to sneak into Eden’s back door, and eat away? Will living forever in sin be so much punishment in itself?

    Call it what you will – Singularity, Tipping Point, whatever… there are questions that will need to be answered. And as we have experienced already, if a technology exists, for good or evil, someone, sometime will use it.

  • Chryst

    The church needs to start thinking of these things. The pace of change is ever more rapid, and the implications are mind-boggling. We are behind the curve already when it comes to bioethics, for instance. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

    I’ve read enough of Kurzweil and other futurists to say that while they are engaging in speculation – it’s not always wild but usually educated speculation. Technology has the potential to change our world in ways beyond our imagination.

    The bio-ethical implications of a cyborg, or of extending life indefinitely, or augmented reality – technologies which are at least thinkable and at most already on the horizon.

    Will technology be our next Tower of Babel, uniting us so that “nothing they do will be impossible”? And will the Lord frustrate these efforts as he did in the past, or return before we go too far? Or will our punishment for “going to far” be the very world we create?

    God put an angel with a flaming sword at the gate to Eden, in mercy, to keep us from living forever in sin. What happens when technology allows us to sneak into Eden’s back door, and eat away? Will living forever in sin be so much punishment in itself?

    Call it what you will – Singularity, Tipping Point, whatever… there are questions that will need to be answered. And as we have experienced already, if a technology exists, for good or evil, someone, sometime will use it.

  • http://thezellman.xanga.com Michael Z.

    I too laughed when I saw them put a date on it. Especially with all the talk of May 21, and 2012, etc. However, I am pretty sure that Kurzweil would not be dogmatic about his date. My guess is that the date is based on his exponential growth theory and his estimates for how fast a computer would have to be in order to be autonomously intelligent.

    I agree with Gulliver#3′s last statement. We, as Christians, shouldn’t just oppose theories like this just because they challenge our hegemony on issues, instead we should confront the real falsehoods in the philosophy. The truth is every life will end eventually, even if we implant our consciousness into an invincible cyborg body, eventually Christ will return.
    We have to remember that humans are already immortal, it is only our flesh that will die. We will all live forever, in heaven or in hell. This technology just may make our time on earth a little longer.

  • http://thezellman.xanga.com Michael Z.

    I too laughed when I saw them put a date on it. Especially with all the talk of May 21, and 2012, etc. However, I am pretty sure that Kurzweil would not be dogmatic about his date. My guess is that the date is based on his exponential growth theory and his estimates for how fast a computer would have to be in order to be autonomously intelligent.

    I agree with Gulliver#3′s last statement. We, as Christians, shouldn’t just oppose theories like this just because they challenge our hegemony on issues, instead we should confront the real falsehoods in the philosophy. The truth is every life will end eventually, even if we implant our consciousness into an invincible cyborg body, eventually Christ will return.
    We have to remember that humans are already immortal, it is only our flesh that will die. We will all live forever, in heaven or in hell. This technology just may make our time on earth a little longer.

  • http://www.biteinteractive.com/ Brant

    I believe that intelligence (the ability to think abstractly) is the function of the created soul. Therefore a computer cannot be sentient unless it is hooked up to a human mind.

    As a computer science guy myself, I can say that you believe this with good reason. There is a whole field of computability that seeks to mathematically prove what is and is not possible to compute. Without going into too much math, there are many ad hoc tasks that a computer cannot do. This makes me highly skeptical of any theory about computational intelligence – its not a question of just going faster and storing more data; its a totally different ballgame.

    This fundamental truth has really not changed since the AI research boom/bust of the 80s. Things like Neural Nets – which were modeled after the brain and would supposedly start to “think” for us if we poured enough research dollars into them – were shown to be mathematically reduced to a Turing Machine. A Turing Machine is the mathematical construct used to prove that computers can/can’t do certain tasks.

    However, I do think it might be very possible to integrate computers with the human brain and thus connect them to the mind. We may not be able to make a brain from scratch, but we seem to be able to study it enough to the point where we could tie some sort of device into it. This might be enough to take Singularity theories at least mildly serious, and its something that we in the Church need to really think clearly about. I’m not sure if I should be horrified or excited about the prospect of better living through computer implants and I’d love to hear thoughts/discussion on the ethical concerns of that.

  • http://www.biteinteractive.com/ Brant

    I believe that intelligence (the ability to think abstractly) is the function of the created soul. Therefore a computer cannot be sentient unless it is hooked up to a human mind.

    As a computer science guy myself, I can say that you believe this with good reason. There is a whole field of computability that seeks to mathematically prove what is and is not possible to compute. Without going into too much math, there are many ad hoc tasks that a computer cannot do. This makes me highly skeptical of any theory about computational intelligence – its not a question of just going faster and storing more data; its a totally different ballgame.

    This fundamental truth has really not changed since the AI research boom/bust of the 80s. Things like Neural Nets – which were modeled after the brain and would supposedly start to “think” for us if we poured enough research dollars into them – were shown to be mathematically reduced to a Turing Machine. A Turing Machine is the mathematical construct used to prove that computers can/can’t do certain tasks.

    However, I do think it might be very possible to integrate computers with the human brain and thus connect them to the mind. We may not be able to make a brain from scratch, but we seem to be able to study it enough to the point where we could tie some sort of device into it. This might be enough to take Singularity theories at least mildly serious, and its something that we in the Church need to really think clearly about. I’m not sure if I should be horrified or excited about the prospect of better living through computer implants and I’d love to hear thoughts/discussion on the ethical concerns of that.

  • WebMonk

    Brant – Grand Central Arena by Spoor has something sort of like what you mention, as well as the Commonwealth Saga by Hamilton. Never forget anything that you don’t want because computer implants that are meshed with the brain let you have instant and perfect recall.

    That application doesn’t have any moral dilemmas I see off hand. I’m sure there are lots of applications based of that sort of technology that could be violations.

    In the Commonwealth Saga, one of the side applications was in the movie industry – actors had chips that recorded their entire being of experience during a scene. The movie would then be distributed to viewers who would essentially re-live what the actor was doing in the movie. (sets were completely immersive, not the sets of our movies) I can see some pitfalls and major problems with that, but I thought it was an interesting application of the book’s technology.

  • WebMonk

    Brant – Grand Central Arena by Spoor has something sort of like what you mention, as well as the Commonwealth Saga by Hamilton. Never forget anything that you don’t want because computer implants that are meshed with the brain let you have instant and perfect recall.

    That application doesn’t have any moral dilemmas I see off hand. I’m sure there are lots of applications based of that sort of technology that could be violations.

    In the Commonwealth Saga, one of the side applications was in the movie industry – actors had chips that recorded their entire being of experience during a scene. The movie would then be distributed to viewers who would essentially re-live what the actor was doing in the movie. (sets were completely immersive, not the sets of our movies) I can see some pitfalls and major problems with that, but I thought it was an interesting application of the book’s technology.

  • Tom Hering

    “… instant and perfect recall. That application doesn’t have any moral dilemmas I see off hand.”

    For an example of such, watch the opening sequence of this week’s House episode, which concerns a woman with total recall.

  • Tom Hering

    “… instant and perfect recall. That application doesn’t have any moral dilemmas I see off hand.”

    For an example of such, watch the opening sequence of this week’s House episode, which concerns a woman with total recall.

  • WebMonk

    I haven’t watched House. Could you summarize the moral dilemma caused by the total recall?

  • WebMonk

    I haven’t watched House. Could you summarize the moral dilemma caused by the total recall?

  • Eric

    Kurzweil may have an answer for this, however, it does not seem to me that increases in computing power necessarily correlate with increases in our ability to use the computing power.

    Reading through the article, I do not recall seeing statistics that show that our ability to utilize the computing power in novel AI-type ways is also increasing exponentially (or, can increase without limit, cf Brant@7). If our ability to increase the complexity of our programs (at a pace to utilize the increase in computing power) is not statistically demonstrable, how could we know when, if ever, we would reach the threshold in computing that allows the computer to take over the process?

    Before one can solve a problem with more computing power, one must be able to state the problem. The other thing that occurred to me when reading the article is that a brain is not an isolated part of our human body. It amazes me, still, that when I get a paper cut, I “feel” the pain in my finger. To replicate this experience would require not only more computing power, but also the finger to cut. Without a compatible existence, how would it ever be possible to “scan our consciousnesses into computers and live inside them as software, forever. . .”

    Thinking about what computers may do in the future is fun. Thinking about a “Singularity” is a waste of time. We are being asked to think about the shape and consequences of something which the theory asserts we lack the ability to think about.

  • Eric

    Kurzweil may have an answer for this, however, it does not seem to me that increases in computing power necessarily correlate with increases in our ability to use the computing power.

    Reading through the article, I do not recall seeing statistics that show that our ability to utilize the computing power in novel AI-type ways is also increasing exponentially (or, can increase without limit, cf Brant@7). If our ability to increase the complexity of our programs (at a pace to utilize the increase in computing power) is not statistically demonstrable, how could we know when, if ever, we would reach the threshold in computing that allows the computer to take over the process?

    Before one can solve a problem with more computing power, one must be able to state the problem. The other thing that occurred to me when reading the article is that a brain is not an isolated part of our human body. It amazes me, still, that when I get a paper cut, I “feel” the pain in my finger. To replicate this experience would require not only more computing power, but also the finger to cut. Without a compatible existence, how would it ever be possible to “scan our consciousnesses into computers and live inside them as software, forever. . .”

    Thinking about what computers may do in the future is fun. Thinking about a “Singularity” is a waste of time. We are being asked to think about the shape and consequences of something which the theory asserts we lack the ability to think about.

  • WebMonk

    Eric, it depends on what you mean by humanity’s ability to utilize computational power in AI ways. AI development is going more slowly than people expected 40 years ago, but the reason for that could be any number of things, not just the proposition that man’s programming capability can’t keep up with computer capacity.

    For example it could be that artificial consciousness research isn’t economically rewarding – why spend billions of dollars on fundamental AC research that may or may not pay off in ten years when one can reliably develop in one year a non-conscious computer program that can do the job?

    As for the body-brain system, the brain gets all its information about what the body is doing from nerve impulses – how about hooking the brain up to a computer that mimics the signals going in so that the brain thinks that it is up, walking around, stubbing its toe, and getting paper cuts?

    That is still a couple orders of magnitude beyond our current capability, but there isn’t anything that fundamentally rules it out. There have already been successes in making people feel things through computers being hooked up to nerves. Right now it’s very crude things, like making a person feel a pressure on their hand, or heat/cold, but research seems to be progressing pretty steadily in that regard. It’s being used for amputees so they could have feeling in their artificial limbs, and after that, keep doing larger and larger amputations, and you can get pretty darned close to a person feeling his entire body through sensors on artificial limbs.

    Replace the artificial limbs with computers, and you can have a “paper cut” on a finger for a person who doesn’t have any arms. A person without any legs could get a “foot massage”. A person paralyzed from the neck down without feeling could get a “back massage”. I’ll call Rule 34 on the other possibilities.

    That seems like a very real possibility given what is already possible, and that would be close to many conceptions of what a Singularity could look like.

    How should we handle things like that? The computers which are giving the quadriplegic feeling are a part of his body’s system in much the same way that a pacemaker is a part of a body’s system. Sounds like a type of Singularity to me.

  • WebMonk

    Eric, it depends on what you mean by humanity’s ability to utilize computational power in AI ways. AI development is going more slowly than people expected 40 years ago, but the reason for that could be any number of things, not just the proposition that man’s programming capability can’t keep up with computer capacity.

    For example it could be that artificial consciousness research isn’t economically rewarding – why spend billions of dollars on fundamental AC research that may or may not pay off in ten years when one can reliably develop in one year a non-conscious computer program that can do the job?

    As for the body-brain system, the brain gets all its information about what the body is doing from nerve impulses – how about hooking the brain up to a computer that mimics the signals going in so that the brain thinks that it is up, walking around, stubbing its toe, and getting paper cuts?

    That is still a couple orders of magnitude beyond our current capability, but there isn’t anything that fundamentally rules it out. There have already been successes in making people feel things through computers being hooked up to nerves. Right now it’s very crude things, like making a person feel a pressure on their hand, or heat/cold, but research seems to be progressing pretty steadily in that regard. It’s being used for amputees so they could have feeling in their artificial limbs, and after that, keep doing larger and larger amputations, and you can get pretty darned close to a person feeling his entire body through sensors on artificial limbs.

    Replace the artificial limbs with computers, and you can have a “paper cut” on a finger for a person who doesn’t have any arms. A person without any legs could get a “foot massage”. A person paralyzed from the neck down without feeling could get a “back massage”. I’ll call Rule 34 on the other possibilities.

    That seems like a very real possibility given what is already possible, and that would be close to many conceptions of what a Singularity could look like.

    How should we handle things like that? The computers which are giving the quadriplegic feeling are a part of his body’s system in much the same way that a pacemaker is a part of a body’s system. Sounds like a type of Singularity to me.

  • Joe

    “Could you summarize the moral dilemma caused by the total recall?”

    You mean beyond the fact that we colonized Mars?

  • Joe

    “Could you summarize the moral dilemma caused by the total recall?”

    You mean beyond the fact that we colonized Mars?

  • WebMonk

    LOL Snort!

    I should have seen that one coming!

  • WebMonk

    LOL Snort!

    I should have seen that one coming!

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I decided to ask a computer what it thought about all this “Singularity” foofaraw. So I went to the search box in my local copy of Firefox and typed in “Kurzweil is”. Google suggested these endings to that sentence fragment, in order:

    wrong
    near
    full of crap
    right
    a crackpot

    So Google has told me that Kurzweil doesn’t know what he’s talking about, which means that Google is smarter than Kurzweil, which means that, in a local, limited sense, the Singularity has already happened for him, which means that, in a local, limited sense, Kurzweil was right. But likely only in that sense.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I decided to ask a computer what it thought about all this “Singularity” foofaraw. So I went to the search box in my local copy of Firefox and typed in “Kurzweil is”. Google suggested these endings to that sentence fragment, in order:

    wrong
    near
    full of crap
    right
    a crackpot

    So Google has told me that Kurzweil doesn’t know what he’s talking about, which means that Google is smarter than Kurzweil, which means that, in a local, limited sense, the Singularity has already happened for him, which means that, in a local, limited sense, Kurzweil was right. But likely only in that sense.

  • Michael Z.

    @tODD
    That made my day. :-P

  • Michael Z.

    @tODD
    That made my day. :-P

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