Sunday, June 13, 2010

New Technology, Old Psychology

Many humans obsess about a future event that will transform the world -- apocalypse, armageddon, ragnarok, rapture. Nothing new there. These days we have a technocratic version, something called The Singularity.

As far back as the 1950s, John von Neumann, the mathematician, is said to have talked about a “singularity” — an event in which the always-accelerating pace of technology would alter the course of human affairs. And, in 1993, Vernor Vinge, a science fiction writer, computer scientist and math professor, wrote a research paper called “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era.”

“Within 30 years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence,” Mr. Vinge wrote. “Shortly after, the human era will be ended.”

In “The Singularity Is Near,” Mr. Kurzweil posits that technological progress in this century will be 1,000 times greater than that of the last century. He writes about humans trumping biology by filling their bodies with nanoscale creatures that can repair cells and by allowing their minds to tap into super-intelligent computers. . . . “Ultimately, the entire universe will become saturated with our intelligence,” he continues. “This is the destiny of the universe.”
I also expect that technological progress over the next century will be impressive. But it will happen step by step, not all at once in some dramatic event. Progress in computing is already running up against obstacles, like problems printing smaller elements on chips and the supply of electricity, that I think will slow the great advances of recent years. New digital and biotechnologies will change life, but I seriously doubt anything will be "transformed." I really dislike that word, which lends a suddenness and importance to change that change rarely has.

What all of this "Singularity" stuff shows me is that technological change has not altered the fundamental human thought patterns that have made apocalyptic religion so popular, and that only reinforces my belief that fundamental changes in human nature are unlikely in the foreseeable future.

4 comments:

David said...

To be fair, what the singularity prophets are forecasting (or at least what Vinge is forecasting) is not that human nature will change, but that it will be superseded.

A problem at least with Vinge is that his basic message seems to be "Nyah, nyah," as in "you're all going to be superseded, nyah, nyah!"

One factor that techno-prophets often seem to ignore is cost. This seems especially true with forecasts of advanced medical technology conquering aging and death. Who's going to be able to afford this stuff?

David

Thomas said...

I think the problem with The Singularity is the idea of nearly unlimited scientific advance.

So many of the great discoveries of the 20th Century contain the realization that there are thing we can't do. From Einstein to Goedel to Heisenberg to Schroedinger, we have learned that there are limits, and we are already starting to bump up against those limits. The uncertainties of the quantum world and the limit of the speed of light, for example, combine to restrict how fast we can make our microprocessors.

Thomas said...

That said, one of my favorite "doomsday" ideas comes from an episode of "The Outer Limits." In it, a bright chemistry undergrad suddenly realizes that there is an extremely simple method of generating a hugely destructive nuclear-level explosion. Turns out, he's not the first, and there is a government agency that exists entirely to spot and neutralize any person who makes this realization before he can disseminate the idea.

The idea that we are one realization away from some ruinous scientific advance is, I think, on the tip of everybody's tongue. When people can reap huge amounts of destruction with fertilizer or jet airplanes, it feels like its only a matter of time before some everyday object can be used to create untold destruction. The rumors that the Large Hadron Collider might create a black hole (or whatever that fear was) is an example of this, as well.

John said...

I do wonder what will happen when dangerous new pathogens can be created in high school biology labs. We can only hope our ability to treat disease keeps with our ability to create it.