Jan 17, 2011

Stories We Tell

Posted by in categories: complex systems, existential risks, futurism, lifeboat, policy

What do Singularitarianism and popular Western religion have in common? More than you might imagine. A thumbnail evaluation of both ends of the American technocentric intelligence spectrum reveals both remarkable similarities in their respective narrative constructions and, naturally, amusing disparities. It would appear that all humans, regardless of our respective beliefs, seem to express goal-oriented hardwiring that demands a neatly constructed story to frame our experiences.

Be you a technophile, you are eagerly awaiting, with perhaps equal parts hope and fear, the moment when artificial general intelligence surpasses human intelligence. You don’t know exactly how this new, more cunning intelligence will react to humans, but you’re fairly certain that humanity might well be in a bit of trouble, or at very least, have some unique competition.

Be you a technophobe, you shun the trappings of in-depth science and technology involvement, save for a superficial interaction with the rudimentary elements of technology which likely do not extend much further than your home computer, cell phone, automobile, and/or microwave oven. As a technophobe, you might even consider yourself religious, and if you’re a Christian, you might well be waiting for the second-coming, the rapture.

Both scenarios lead humanity to ironically similar destinations, in which humankind becomes either marginalized or largely vestigial.

It’s difficult to parse either eventuality with observant members of the other’s belief system. If you ask a group of technophiles what they think of the idea of the rapture you will likely be laughed at or drown in tidal wave of atheist drool. The very thought of some magical force eviscerating an entire religious population in one eschatological fell swoop might be too much for some science and tech geeks, and medical attention, or at the very least a warehouse-quantity dose of smelling salts, might be in order.

Conversely, to the religiously observant, the notion of the singularity might for them, exist in terms too technical to even theoretically digest or represent something entirely dark or sinister that seems to fulfill their own belief system’s end game, a kind of techno-holocaust that reifies their purported faith.

The objective reality of both scenarios will be very different than either envisioned teleologies. Reality’s shades of gray of have a way of making foolish even the wisest individual’s predictions.

In my personal life, I too believed that the publication of my latest and most ambitious work, explaining the decidedly broad-scope Parent Star Theory would also constitute an end result of significant consequence, much like the popular narrative surrounding the moment of the singularity; that some great finish line was reached. The truth, however, is that just like the singularity, my own narrative-ized moment was not a precisely secured end, but a distinct moments of beginning, of conception and commitment. Not an arrival but a departure; a bold embarkation without clear end in sight.

Rather than answers, the coming singularity should provoke additional questions. How do we proceed? Where do we go from here? If the fundamental rules in the calculus of the human equation are changing, then how must we adapt? If the next stage of humanity exists on a post-scarcity planet, what then will be our larger goals, our new quest as a global human force?

Humanity must recognize that the idea of a narrative is indeed useful, so long as that narrative maintains some aspect of open-endedness. We might well need that consequential beginning-middle-end, if only to be reminded that each end most often leads to a new beginning.

Written by Zachary Urbina, Founder, Cozy Dark


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  1. Mark Bruce says:

    I couldn’t agree more that we all seem to need a setting or story within which to frame our experiences, for at its core the composition of each individual “self” appears to be little more than an evolving narrative — similar to that espoused by Daniel Dennett and others. It’ll probably come as no surprise that I am an optimistic technophile and non-believer (in a religious sense) when I say that I largely agree that humans — as we know them today — cannot help but be marginalised to some extent when sharing the planet with an entity much more intelligent than themselves. Such marginalisation need not be detrimental and indeed may be wonderfully beneficial if the inception of such an entity is managed in a responsible manner. However, in so saying we should also recognise the distinct possibility that some (perhaps most?) humans may get “taken along for the ride” and so reach an enhanced state that largely avoids such marginalisation.

    Of course I can appreciate some broad similarities in the finality of themes present between Singulatarianism and various religions. Indeed some commentators have argued that “faith” is strongly apparent in both narratives. From a personal point of view I would disagree with this assessment, although to what extent my personal biases drive this disagreement as a result of the perceived negative connotations associated with the word “faith” is perhaps a discussion for another day. For the sake of brevity my view is that religious beliefs are not based on testable, verifiable evidence from physical phenomena and indeed often contradict physical law, and as such are never worth serious consideration let alone adoption into one’s world view. Regarding the Singularity (and various related transhumanist themes) strictly speaking I do not KNOW that it will happen and nor do I believe that it WILL happen; I believe only that it is LIKELY TO happen.

    If computing technology, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and brain mapping / emulation technology continues to develop as it has been and advances along projected developmental road maps into the future, THEN it appears likely that a greater-than-human artificial-intelligence will be developed this century. Based on my own daily consumption of a multitude of scientific / technology developments, and also on the opinions of those I deem knowledgeable and trustworthy I believe this IS likely. Those who state that they KNOW, that it WILL, what it will be LIKE (without offering various provisions and grace in the face of opposition) should not be too surprised if they attract derogatory labels like “rapture of the nerds”.

    For me the concept of the Singularity represents the ultimate beginning, one that allows us true open-ended freedom for the first time and brings an end only to the conventional limitations of time, space, and energy that we have struggled under for millennia. Finally, the chaotic convergence of both related and disparate technological domains almost guarantees us a multitude of shades of grey to look forward to, and while no one knows how we will navigate this uncertain period in history, I certainly feel privileged to have the opportunity to ride it out with all of you.

  2. You and I have a great deal in common, belief-wise. Although my point here was to objectively look at narrative construction, subjectively speaking religion and technology are growing further apart, and with good reason. Intelligence demands it.

    Also, “rapture of the nerds” is derogatory? Allow me to be one of the first to say, please, sign me up. (: