The end of civilization as we know it – 35 years away?

Last Wednesday evening, I attended one of those one-night-only movie theater events. Usually these events present a night of opera, a Broadway play or a concert, but not this time.

This presentation was called Transcendent Man: A Conversation About the Future. It offered futurist Ray Kurzweil, Deepak Chopra, inventor Dean Kamen and several others who looked at what the exponential growth of knowledge will mean for us in the not-too-distant future. I’ll be writing about this over the next few days.

The driving idea behind the notion of transcendent man is that computers are developing exponentially – so quickly that, along about 2045, they will be capable of something very much like human intelligence. Past that point, their intellectual abilities will continue to grow. They will take charge of their development from that point forward, and we’ll be left in the dust.

Unless . . . unless we merge with them. Computers, of course, are getting smaller all the time, exponentially smaller. That smart phone we carry in our pockets holds far more computing power than the gigantic machines of the 1950s and ’60s. By 2045 – maybe before then – we’ll be able to inject computers the size of a red blood cell into our bodies, and they could be capable of helping us keep up with the pace of growth.

This merging of man and computers is termed the Singularity, a term borrowed from astrophysics. It refers to a point in space-time — for example, inside a black hole — at which the rules of ordinary physics no longer apply. In Kurzweil’s thinking, it signals a transformation of the human species as we know it. It sounds fantastic, I know, but organ transplants and test-tube babies would have sound fantastic, and impossible, a century ago.

Plenty of skeptics doubt that the Singularity will arrive; they argue that the silicon used to create computer intelligence can’t replicate the complexity of human cells, especially brain cells. Biologist Dennis Bray says: “Although biological components act in ways that are comparable to those in electronic circuits, they are set apart by the huge number of different states they can adopt. Multiple biochemical processes create chemical modifications of protein molecules, further diversified by association with distinct structures at defined locations of a cell. The resulting combinatorial explosion of states endows living systems with an almost infinite capacity to store information regarding past and present conditions and a unique capacity to prepare for future events.” Bray maintains that machines will never be able to replicate such complexity.

Kurzweil’s rejoinder is simply that skeptics are discounting the power of exponential growth and that, in one way or another, the Singularity is inevitable.

Many credible scientists are buying into the notion that the Singularity, in some form or other, will happen. I think you should take time to learn more about it. You can start with an article earlier this year in Time magazine. You can also buy the documentary Transcendent Man by clicking on the link below.

Let me know what you think. Will the Singularity take place and see us merged in some fashion with computers? If so, will you welcome it or fear it? Tomorrow I’ll write about the idea of GNR – the interaction of genetics, nanotechnology and robotics.

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One Response to The end of civilization as we know it – 35 years away?

  1. Jessica G says:

    Peter – nice job writing a clear, easy to read recap about this complex issue! I think it’s a fascinating theory. It makes sense that humans would merge with machines over time as a natural progression. The human body is so fragile, machines would help prolong, preserve and enhance it. Of course there are many issues that would stem from this that could be scary and get out of control. I would have loved to have seen Ray, Deepak and Dean’s discussion about it.

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