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Singularity -will our grandchildren be cyborgs?

March 13, 2017

 

Technical Singularity (as opposed to the black hole gravitational kind) is really the stuff of science fiction. Simply stated, it's the coming together of technology and humankind in a way that will cause the human race to be something more than human...potentially unrecognizable...and it may be here sooner than we think. Imagine a time when we can fully map the brain, transfer information and consciousness between humans and machines. Authors and filmmakers and theorists have had fun with this concept for decades but what happens when it becomes reality? Never happen, is, I'm sure what most of you are thinking, but believe me it's coming and we'd better prepare ourselves for it. In the past few years there have been several outrageous seeming cases of individuals (mostly avant garde artists - no surprise there) who have had cameras surgically attached to their heads. Think of them as Montgolfier Brothers of the Singularity.

 

The world-renown mathematician John von Neumann used the term singularity when he stated back in the late 1950's "The accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, give the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, can not continue." (BTW, if you want to learn more about the history of mathematics and John von Neumann may I suggest the BBC series "The Story of Maths" by University of Oxford professor Marcus du Sautoy, 2008 - it's on Netflix). 

 

The paths to singularity vary. We could be producing self-conscious AI in the very near future; we could be genetically modifying humans to increase brainpower, essentially rewiring or prewiring individuals for different tasks; we could be downloading individual consciousness into machines designed for specific tasks - space travel - undersea exploration, etc. - or simply to be able to live vastly long lives; or we could be uploading individual consciousness into the cloud- a vast hive brain of sorts. Sounds crazy, but be aware these goals are being actively researched today. Take a look a this article from Stanford University on the quest to download consciousness:

 

https://cs.stanford.edu/people/eroberts/cs181/projects/2010-11/DownloadingConsciousness/tandr.html

 

We  can't predict who long it will take for the first major breakthrough, however we can predict that this will create fundamental issues that may dwarf any of current concerns. The potential gap between the modified and the unmodified; the loss of human values, the possibility of nearly eternal life and knowledge. Scientists and science fiction writers have enjoyed speculating what the next step in human evolution might be. Large brains and atrophied bodies have long been a standard of far future humankind in a number of SF stories. Now what happens if that evolution is sped up by artificial means? Now we're not talking tens or hundreds of thousands of years, but something that could conceivably take place within the next 50 to 100. The pace of technological advancement makes this a distinct possibility and it will be something that ethicists, politicians, geneticists,  religious leaders, scientists, all of us... may just have to face.

 

The AI issue has been dealt ad nauseum in popular culture from "I Robot" to "Westworld." How will we treat machines that are now self-aware and how will they treat us? The question I'm raising here is "how we will treat and be treated by our potential cyborg descendants?" Will there be a great divide in humanity? Those who choose to be enhanced mentally or physically versus those who choose or are forced to stay fully human? What will the philosophers say about the purpose of life? Will our enhanced descendants develop a new type of purpose? Hive-like or unemotional? Will there even be a need for a physical body in the same sense that we take for granted? And how with this affect just about anything that we've come to appreciate as part of the human experience? Art, philosophy, business, medicine, politics, identity, individualism, overall purpose?

 

While is all still mostly the domain of futurists and SF writers  you can bet that it will cause some lively debate as the reality gets closer. In discussing whether humanity (and our universe, for that matter) is nothing more than a computer simulation Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom, wrote the human species is very likely to go extinct before reaching a posthuman stage; any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of their evolutionary history (or variations thereof); we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation. 

 

I'll add, that we may reach that posthuman stage rather quickly in the scheme of things...Our grandkids may be wrestling with the almost incomprehensible (by today's standards) question of "do I want to upload my consciousness to a machine today?"

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