All the hubbub around IBM’s new Jeopardy champ has stirred up talk in pop-futurist circles of the coming Singularity—the idea that one day humankind will create a machine that is intelligent enough to build an improved version of itself, which will then replicate and improve itself in the next generation, and so on until eventually humans are rendered obsolete.
Another vision of the Singularity is that human consciousness will somehow be “loaded” onto machines, freeing us from the bonds of biology and anatomy.
The Watson win on Jeopardy coincides with me finally reading Jaron Lanier’s intriguing manifesto “You Are Not a Gadget,” in which he rails against the idea that technological breakthroughs are always and necessarily good for mankind. Indeed, he views many if not most Web 2.0 and A.I. technologies as soul-crushing dehumanizers.
According to Lanier, these technologies are leading us toward the Singularity partly through technological innovation, and partly through defining down what it means to be a human. We’re now part of “The Crowd,” or even more abstractly, “The Cloud.” Violent revolutions are measured in retweets. Individuals are spliced and diced by their meta-data, the better to be targeted by advertisers, which are now themselves merely algorithms on a server.
Not all of Lanier’s arguments are convincing to me, perhaps because as a Mormon, I’m predisposed to see light in technological advances. A familiar rationale goes something like: “The Church is using Twitter/TV/satellites to reach people, so the hand of God must have been involved in its creation.” Some of us even think of the iPhone as a fulfillment of prophecy (deifying Steve Jobs even more than he already is).
Whether or not we think of technology that way, there are some intriguing things for Mormons to think about when it comes to Singularity and the dangers of technology. The big one from Lanier is that technology is decreasing our human-ness in real ways.
“A new generation has come of age with a reduced expectation of what a person can be, and of who each person might become,” he writes.
That’s a fascinating statement, especially when you add an LDS layer on top. Unlike Lanier, who points out that he is unable to define what makes a person a person, Mormons have very specific definitions of humankind’s origin, purpose, and destiny. The idea of humans decreasing in our person-hood should be terrifying, as it represents a diminishing of our intelligence—an undoing of whatever divine process made us who we are. I don’t even know to what extent such an undoing is possible, but if we view our destiny as a fulfillment of our potential, a “culmination of person-hood” if you will, anything that keeps us from that destiny is accomplishing the same thing as Lanier is describing.
Another interesting LDS point about Singularity is that we believe humankind has been in Singularity-type situations before. In the first, our level of intelligence reached a plateau, requiring a radical change in state to continue our progression. Such a change was effected deliberately after much debate.
In the second situation, beings were empowered with the ability to replicate themselves, and perhaps even improve the species across generations.*
I mention these two examples to illustrate that the idea of a coming change in our state of being ought to be a familiar one. At the current rate of technological advancement, it’s hard not to see evidence of either divine guidance or impending ruin, or both. I tend to think of cloud computing, powerful search engines, mobile wireless technology, and social media as earthly manifestations of a heavenly infrastructure, in which all things and all people are known, connected, and instantly discoverable. But where I see an eternity of close communion through shared intelligence, Lanier perhaps would see the tragic loss of what makes us individual, unique, and human.
Oh, by the way, the Singularity is going to happen in 2045. Just so you’re ready.
* The idea that we can create beings more powerful than ourselves is fascinating, possibly false, and perhaps even heretical. So I’m going to leave that line of thinking alone in this post.