»  The Straggler, No. 85

December 21, 2009

   Machine Dreams

What shall I do to be saved? Well, I might try uploading the contents of my brain to some more durable substrate. If I survive another 30 years, this will be a real option, according to Ray Kurzweil, leading light of the Singularity movement.

Singularitarians believe that galloping progress in computer technology and brain science will, quite soon, lead to computers as smart as ourselves. They further surmise that the understandings attained along the way will take us further, from AI (artificial intelligence) to AI+. Developments beyond that are unknowable, since we cannot second-guess the actions of such post-human actors. And granted the premise that we can create super-brains, presumably they will be able to create super-super-brains, AI++, and so on, up an exponential curve into ever higher realms of unknowability.

This is not, or not all, cultish crackpottery. Singularitarianism builds on ideas that have been around for decades. The tremendous genius John von Neumann prepared a series of lectures touching on the key ideas shortly before his death in 1957. Some very sober and respectable persons and institutions are lending support. Google, Inc., the world's largest internet company, is involved; so is billionaire entrepreneur Peter Thiel (to whom nobody ever says: "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?"); so are numerous departments and research institutes at prestigious universities. Some of the principals gathered at a Singularity Summit in New York City in October this year. I went along to see what they have to say.

Kurzweil himself gave one of the lectures. I found him more persuasive in person than in print, where he plods. He has been promoting the Singularity for 20 years, so his presentation is brisk and polished, and he has long since worked out ripostes to any objection anyone might come up with. (The current edition of his book The Singularity Is Near has a 60-page chapter responding to critics.) There were other solidly thoughtful addresses, along with some woollier stuff from the speculative fringes.

It is very fascinating to peer into a phenomenon like this, to observe high-IQ types giving free rein to their imaginations. Factions and schools of thought emerge. "Complementers" want super-smart gadgets with AI for particular tasks — self-driving automobiles, language translation, the modeling of climates and economies. "Substituters" seek AGI, artificial general intelligence — complete simulations of the human brain, able (after having lived some kind of social life, surely?) to be moved by poetry, see the point of jokes, and practice the Golden Rule. We also heard from the Methuselaritarians who, while promising no super-brains, think the standard-issue item can be made to last indefinitely.

A key reason to attend any gathering of very bright people is of course the hope of stock tips. The closest we got at the Summit was Peter Thiel arguing that the non-appearance of the Singularity will be very bad economic news. Humanity, Peter told us, is riding a technological bicycle which, if it does not keep moving — indeed, keep accelerating — will fall over. Well, well; where's the fun of futurology without a doom scenario? There were other dark speculations, not all serious. In a discussion of what super-minds might do once created, one wag suggested that, being rational, they might commit suicide — a rational act from several points of view, as philosophers have noted. It was decided that we had better equip the super-brains with a belief in hell.

I left the Singularity Summit impressed by the talent and imagination on display, and confident that gadgets of breathtaking capability lie in our near future. The dream of AI has, like some other mid-20th-century techno-dreams — fusion power, moon bases — seriously under-delivered so far, but it seems far from hopeless to me, though on some timescale much less optimistic than Ray Kurzweil's.

Of the possibility of transforming human nature, however, I remain a skeptic. One abiding impression left by events like the Singularity Summit is that the principals do not engage much with people of low to middling intelligence — which is to say, most people.

A day or two after I came home from the Summit, with visions of a posthuman future still dancing in my head, Mrs. Straggler sent me to our local discount department store to purchase a commonplace household object. The store stands next to a "low-income housing" project. Cruising the aisles, I got stuck behind a short, spherical woman pushing a shopping cart filled with cheap junk. As I edged past her, I heard that she was crooning softly to herself in Spanish. I suppose the song was some equivalent of the one sung by the prole woman Winston Smith watched from the window of his love nest in Nineteen Eighty-Four:

It was only an 'opeless fancy,
It passed like an Ipril dye …

("The words of these songs," Orwell tells us, "were composed without any human intervention whatever on an instrument known as a versificator." Artificial intelligence? Machine creativity?)

While wishing my fellow Kmart shopper no harm at all, I could not help wondering what it would avail her if the dreams of the Singularitarians and Methuselaritarians were to be realised. A thousand years of life for her would be, what? A thousand years of watching TV game shows? Uploading her consciousness to microchips would lead to, what? An eternity of buying discount kitsch? Yet if these marvels come to pass — if they are not themselves 'opeless fancies — how, in a society as egalitarian and lawyered-up as ours, could they be denied to anyone? Thomas Jefferson declared it self-evident that we have a right to life, but omitted to say how much.

Late in his own life, Vladimir Nabokov explained why he was not curious to see his native Russia after decades of absence. He knew all too well what he would find there, said Vlad: "The wretched muzhik flogging his wretched mule with the same wretched zeal." Were I to be transported through time to the U.S.A. of the later 21st century, I am likewise sure that I would find the same globular woman murmuring the same vapid song with the same dull inattention in the aisles of some junk discount store. I look forward eagerly to self-driving cars; but human nature-wise, put me down as a Continuitarian.