Prone to Wander

Singularly Human

Earlier this month my company invited a celebrated futurist to speak with us about the landscape of the future. He defined 8 thought-provoking points which he believes will shape our future as humans. It was absolutely fascinating, and a new way of thinking about the things which could undoubtedly consume our thoughts in 50 years… things like water and food distrubtion, world population expansion, and true globalization.

However, one of the most controversial theories he shared was the concept of “technological singularity,” or the inflection point at which our machines or computers will become conscious, surpass human intelligence, and begin to exponentially evolve their own intelligence at a mind-bogglingly rapid rate. It is said that the machine we build that becomes conscious may need to be the last man-made invention we ever make. Many futurists predict that this event will occur around 2045.

So how do the futurists think that we will arrive there? Well, think of your iPhone. Apple’s Siri is our new personal assistant. “Your Wish is My Command,” says Siri. Surely we have seen how technology has been advancing exponentially: the power of our devices has been doubling, tripling, quadrupling with every new release, within shorter and shorter timeframes. Today Siri is helpful inside a phone; tomorrow it may be attached to you, inside of you, or you may even be inside of it! It may even go so far as to map the neurons in your brain and begin to help you by anticipating your thoughts and needs.

It sounds extraordinary. So extraordinary that you are probably shaking your head, saying that I have surely gotten things confused with the plot of The Matrix or The Terminator. Have I lost my mind? (Well, not yet… read on…)

Truthfully, it all did sound pretty silly to me too, so I decided to do some of my own research. I grabbed a couple of books (referenced throughout this post) and incredibly the more I read up on it, the more I felt like I was going down Neo’s rabbit hole myself. Belief in “the singularity,” and the advent of “machine consciousness” is a very real persuasion among many. I might go so far as to say that it may be a new religious sub-culture. Of course, it exists in various forms – some may go so far as to believe in the singularity itself, but others may simply believe that our technological advances will create some kind of ideal existence.

Some of the ideas behind these beliefs are rooted in reality, based on the technical and scientific innovations and advancements that we are making today. And there are quite a few books, mathematical theories, and research institutes that have been developed to support them. This means that for some, the singularity isn’t just a far-fetched fringe idea. Just google it and you’ll see what I mean. There are articles in Time Magazine, institutes for artificial intelligence and technical research, singularity news sites and even a public endorsement from Bill Gates. Prominent futurists act as advisors and consultants to some of the most powerful leaders in technology today, like Bill Gates, NASA and the US Army. Google, under the leadership of co-founder Larry Page, helped to start up and fund the “Singularity University” in California.

Echoes of these beliefs can be found within our current technology. In the Industrial Revolution, our machines augmented our physicality. In the Information Age, they aim to augment our intelligence. Cell phones predict what I should be saying in a text, Google shows me certain search results based on who I am, advertisers know me so well that they can tailor ads in order to play on my desires, and Siri will be able to guide me to care about certain things on a daily basis. In science, we’ve been able to map genomes, and we’re well on our way to mapping out the regions and neural processes of the brain. If we can pinpoint exactly how the brain works, some scientists say, we may be able to create true artificial intelligence. No doubt about it, we’re making major, rapid advancements in science and technology – many of which the general public may not even be aware of. But is being able to augment a brain, or even create a brain, the same thing as being able to create a mind? This is precisely the point at which we leave the realm of science and enter the realm of faith.

In the book You Are Not a Gadget, web 2.0 pioneer and virtual reality guru Jaron Lanier compares the way that radical singularitarians believe in the “moment” of Singluarity to the way that some Christians believe in ‘the rapture.’ In both events, no one before, during, or after the event would be aware of it, because by definition each are said to happen in a flash, changing the course of our world. If computers suddenly became conscious, do we have any idea what they would do? Perhaps they will decide to eliminate humans altogether, or perhaps (as singularitarians hope) they will decide to ‘upload’ us as virtual minds inside a program. Either way, the transition would happen in a moment, and we can’t predict what will happen. Notable futurists like Ray Kurzweil believe that we will become an uploaded part of a hyper intelligent system, and that in the future we will have no need for our biological bodies. We will be unified virtually into some kind of meta-program, a megabrain of sorts, thus achieving true immortality, ever-expanding universal knowledge, and freedom from sickness, death, and the problems of this world. In short, nerd nirvana. The singularitarian gospel preaches that information will be our savior, and that this unified ultimate machine will save us from the evils of our frail, limited and imperfect bodies.

In the book The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Kurzweil goes so far as to say that this transformation will not only affect our own planet but also the universe at large as well: “The entire universe will become saturated with our intelligence. This is the destiny of the universe. We will determine our own fate rather than have it determined by the current ‘dumb,’ simple, machinelike forces that rule celestial machines.” Interestingly, an undercurrent throughout Kurzweil’s book seems to suggest his strong distaste for man and the natural world, our failings, our inability to perform at a higher level, and even our fickleness in emotions and our our painful unreliability in love.

On one hand, the singularitarian, (or cybernetic totalist) philosophy has a very familiar ring to it. Throughout history, humans have looked around themselves to see the evil, death and failure that persists in our world and we have exclaimed, “Really? Is this really it?” After all, this is the question of all philosophy and faith. C.S. Lewis, Oxford professor and author of the Narnia tales, wrote: “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.” Christians like Lewis (and myself) believe that we are living in a state of the “already but not yet” – we can see glimpses of glorious things that point toward our ultimate redemption and “wholeness” as humans (in BOTH body and mind) – but at the same time in this world we see glimpses of awful things, of hell. Cybernetic totalists are simply defining their own hope for a fulfilled “other world” that they believe must exist – one in which we will make ourselves whole and make ultimate sense of the universe through knowledge, science and technology. We are natural heirs to this bittersweet human craving; like Adam and Eve, we want to know all.

In the 2009 documentary Transcendent Man, Ray Kurzweil commented, “Does god exist? Well, I would say not yet.” I find it fascinating that this worldview purports that man-made inventions will create god. And not only that, it implicitly trusts that this new god will be a “good” god, or in other words, that this superior intelligence will have mercy on us, the weaker race, and will decide not to destroy us. Throughout history, we have shown both our glory and our ugliness through the things we have created. In the late 19th century, we celebrated our engineering accomplishments and the coming golden era of machine innovation – and then we turned around and used our shiny new technology to commit bloody mass murder on a never-before-seen scale in World War I. On the internet you can see the best and worst of humanity. Through the singularity, man hopes he can finally escape that curse; instead of “garbage in, garbage out,” we hope for “garbage in, supreme consciousness out.” But alas, a machine that we construct out of zeroes and ones can no more eternally save us than a golden calf we fashion from melted gold bracelets.

“Man at the Crossroads,” or “Man, Controller of the Universe” by Diego Rivera (1933-34)

Mexican muralist Diego Rivera explored a similar subject in the early 1930s. The message of the mural is clear: Despite all of our setbacks in the past, if we put the power in the hands of the common man, we will finally come to the crossroads of all knowledge, rise above war and poverty, and control the universe.

******

Belief in the technological singularity is faith-based, and for some of us, easy to reject as such. However, even if we think it’s all hocus-pocus, perhaps it’s worth taking a look at the appeal of the ideology behind it, and what that could potentially reveal about our culture and our own hearts. At the center of every person, worldview or religion is the idea of some kind of ‘ultimate,’ or someone or something that is being worshipped. In order to really understand someone, you have to find out what their ultimates are. They can be literally anything – a god, intellect, achievement, success, approval, kindness, morality, a political party, family, a person, knowledge, information, and so on. Ultimates can sometimes be subtle – often the obvious choice is just a ‘front’ for an even deeper ultimate. For example, ‘money’ seems like it could be an obvious one for some people – but digging deeper, the true ultimate might in fact be ‘respect,’ a ‘sense of security,’ or the ‘ability to provide for my family,’ etc. And for the record, that goes for religions as well. For example, some so-called Christians may not be worshipping Christ at all, but may instead be worshipping ‘Christianity’ itself, which is a different faith entirely. As the late David Foster Wallace mused, “Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.” For cybernetic totalists, at a surface level the ‘ultimate’ seems to be “information”, but at a deeper level it could be knowledge, power, achievement, recognition, or even amusement, escape, peace, harmony or personal acceptance. Why do we run to “unplug” within the solace of our iPads and televisions when we get home from work? What causes that desire within our own hearts and what does it mean?

The more that I’ve thought about this, the more uncomfortable I’ve become. Let me be clear: I certainly don’t think that technology, information or the internet are evil, by a long shot. I happen to work in technology, and I think that it can be inventive, creative and helpful. But when we set up imperfect things as ultimates we go too far. We want so badly for our machines to be something that they’re not that we become willing to sacrifice little pieces of ourselves in order to try to force that to be true. And as a result, I think we are in danger of losing too many irreplacable, beautiful things as a culture if we’re not careful.

If more and more we are wrapped up in our phones, iPads and computers instead of looking around ourselves at what is truly happening, we at a greater risk of devaluing the purpose of the natural world, the beauty and importance of our environment, the physicality of our bodies, and the importance of existing in the here and now – the real, tangible, physical world. The meaning of true human connection and ‘friendship’ is lost, and we seem to miss the purpose of being a part of a family.

We may also be rejecting the mysterious complexity of our biological minds in favor of something that is much more limited than we are. We may be “dumbing ourselves down” in order to fit within the confines of the way the machine works. Why? In the name of simplicity? Entertainment? Distraction? Perhaps it’s because we like being in control – machines are designed to follow our instructions, they never question us, and we don’t have to worry about thinking about certain things if the machine either distracts us or does those things for us. But what will we have lost? Machines place no value on the necessity of failure and pain as an agent of healthy change. But perhaps our human minds are more creative and more passionately, stubbornly, and ardently glorious in this world because we are forced to wrestle with impermanence, pain, and death.

Furthermore, I think that even now we are in danger of silencing individual voices – perhaps not intentionally or maliciously– but simply as a byproduct of the way that we have started to aggregate, slice, dice, and summarize information at higher and higher meta-levels. It is more and more difficult for individuals, authors, and artists to keep their thoughts and contributions together as a complete, in-tact idea, expression or opinion. We are being systematically parsed, dismantled and blended into larger and larger informational search engines and data-structures, combined and mixed with other information until all that remains is a meaningless mediocre gray goo of “crowd wisdom”. In You are Not a Gadget, Lanier laments this loss within today’s Web 2.0 architecture: “Authorship – the very idea of the individual point of view – is not a priority of the new ideology.” Today, this is Wikipedia. Tomorrow, some leaders hypothesize, there may not be the concept of individual “books” – there may be one dataset from hundreds of thousands of sources that can be searched and indexed together. They beleive that a ‘mashup’ of everything will yield a more powerful knowledge overall. It seems odd that we are so readily and quickly embracing this as a ‘good thing.’ As Lanier astutely observes, “If a church or government were doing these things, it would feel authoritarian, but when technologists are the culprits, we seem hip, fresh, and inventive. People will accept ideas presented in technological form that would be abhorrent in any other form.”

A book that had a profound influence on me as a child was the 1962 novel A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle. In the story, L’Engle describes a cloud of darkness that is expanding in the universe. A planet called Camazotz is behind this cloud and is controlled by a giant, pulsating mega-brain – a single unified planetary consciousness called “IT”. IT controls everyone and everything on Camazotz, claiming to protect the residents of the planet from war, unhappiness and inefficency. People on Camazotz subsequently all move and live according to a rhythm and schedule set by IT. Children robotically exit their houses and bounce balls to IT’s pulse, they wear the same thing, walk the same way, and nothing is a problem, and nothing is out of place.

One of the main characters in the story is a boy genius named Charles Wallace who falls under IT’s spell and becomes possessed by the machine because of the wealth of information and knowledge IT promises. IT says: “You see, what you will soon realize is that there is no need to fight me. Not only is there no need, but you will not have the slightest desire to do so. For why should you wish to fight someone who is here only to save you pain and trouble? For you, as well as for the rest of all the happy, useful people on this planet, I, in my own strength, am willing to assume all the pain, all the responsibility, all the burdens of thought and decision.” At the climax of the book, only the heroine Meg, Charles Wallace’s sister, can ultimately save him from the clutches of IT. Meg does this by introducing the concept of love. IT claims to understand love, but cannot – and essentially self-destructs.

Love, in it’s true form – deeply hoping for the ultimate good of another person regardless of the effects or consequences to yourself – makes no logical, biological or evolutionary sense at all. Can anything but a human experience it? Will we forget how to love if we keep plugging ourselves into a daily existence that is less than real?

Like love, we also can’t recreate another important human anomaly within machines: creativity. In the book The Brain is Wider than the Sky: Why Simple Solutions Don’t Work in a Complex World, Bryan Appleyard explores this idea. Some neuroscientists might say that the phenomenon of creativity, insight, or inspiration happens when the brain is relaxed, unfocused, and disorganized. We loosen our brains to allow them to make unusual connections that they might not otherwise make in the rational world. Most “eccentric geniuses” that come to mind follow this pattern. For example, Sherlock Holmes would play the violin in the middle of an important case, much to the frustration of Dr. Watson, and by distracting and clearing his mind with music, his brain would find the answer. I know from personal experience that my mind works this way. If I leave a tough problem alone and allow my mind to wander elsewhere, many times my brain will suddenly put the thing together that I was looking for. This cognitive ability that seems to arise out of a mess of disorganization and unfocused relaxation – perhaps even out of artistic madness – is not the way that machines, search engines and data structures work for us today. A machine may return a thousand insights, but never the spark of human creativity, art, or inspiration that comes out of this kind of introspection. As Appleyard notes, “We do not expect our laptops to be distracted, dissociated or disorganized before they discover how to follow our commands. There is a fundamental difference here between what we now know of the mind and our machines, and, if this difference cannot be explained scientifically, then the human mind in its highest, most creative actions would, once again, be in danger of escaping the clutches of the materialist world view.”

And after all, as computing thinker John Seely Brown notes, “The essence of being human involves asking questions, not answering them.”

*******

So how will I personally reclaim what I believe cannot be lost? Technology is a part of life: I can’t ignore it, run from it, or divorce it. As a culture, we can sometimes over-react and vilify someone else the moment we see something unsavory – but in most cases we have only ourselves to blame. If I lose my creativity, my intelligence, or my individual voice, it’s not Silicon Valley’s fault – it’s mine. These are the questions that I must keep asking myself on a regular basis as I dare to live in this brave new world:

  • What makes a person a person? What is consciousness? Is it simply the synapses in the brain? What is “the mind”? Is it a soul? If I believe that we have souls that are eternally significant, how does that influence how I spend my time and the way that I value other people?
  • Am I protecting myself from becoming a fragmented, disconnected digital version of myself? In my urgency to communicate quickly and simply, am I over-simplifying? Am I taking the complexity of my mind and squashing it down into meaningless, disjointed hollow fragments – shared, uploaded and tweeted? Am I in danger of becoming a robot in the flesh; part of a race that CS Lewis would call “men without chests”?
  • What does “connection” truly mean? Am I hyper connected through social networking, but in reality, not truly connected to anyone at all? What should real human interaction look like?
  • How am I engaging my mind every day? Do I live by the rhythms of “IT” or do I make up my own rhythm? Do I simply move from distraction to distraction, update to update, email to email, without allowing myself downtime to think, process and connect – even to feel pain? And I don’t mean sharing snippets of thoughts on a Facebook wall.

These questions may not seem very unusual for some of us, but for the 5 year olds today who will grow up not knowing any other existence, they could eventually sound odd. What will the future look like for them? Eric Schmidt, former director of Apple and CEO of Google prophesies that our children will have two states: “asleep, or online.” Will those children know what it means to be a real person? A real friend? Will they feel and know the difference? In The Brain is Wider than the Sky, Appleyard highlights the research of Sherry Turkle at MIT, who studies the affects of technology on children. “At the extreme,” Turkle writes, “we are so enmeshed in our connections that we neglect each other.” Many of these children ‘feel bullied, threatened and exhausted by the hyper-connectivity of their lives – it is almost impossible for them to stand back and exercise judgment about the virtual societies they are now required to inhabit.’

But as an adult, I can stand back each day. I can choose to remain aware of the choices that I make to participate or not participate in technology, and I can fight against the urge to either worship it or allow myself to live wholly within it. I can resolve to bring up my future children differently. I refuse to live in anything but the real world, which means I choose to live in the “already but not yet” – accepting the peaks and valleys of both beauty and pain. The true danger we face is not a race of machines who might kill us – it is the danger of being lulled into dimming, dulling and supressing our own minds, forcing them to fit into a shape that is not our own. We are breathtakingly, infinitely more complex. As Emily Dickinson eloquently wrote:

The Brain—is wider than the Sky—
For—put them side by side—
The one the other will contain
With ease—and You—beside—

The Brain is deeper than the sea—
For—hold them—Blue to Blue—
The one the other will absorb—
As Sponges—Buckets—do—

The Brain is just the weight of God—
For—Heft them—Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—

A the end of the day, we simply cannot explain the soul. We cannot capture it, find it in the brain, recreate it, or describe it on a wiki. If God in a box is no God at all, the same could be said of a human soul. We are are wider, deeper, more complex and more eternally significant than we could ever hope to imagine. We have the unique ability to create, to think, to recognize and appreciate beauty, to love, and even to sacrifice ourselves in the name of love. These things remain unexplained by biology. And these are the things that we should hold onto with all our might, for they make us uniquely, and singularly, human.

“Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” by Caspar David Friedrich (1818)

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