Technology, Humanity, and Jeopardy

The inevitable future, as depicted by Matsby

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.

Both are fun theories to think about, and form the basis of lots and lots of bad sci-fi stories and a few good ones.

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.


  1. This is an awesome post.

    But I have a feeling you’re going to take some heat for calling Caprica bad. Not from me, though.

  2. Thanks! And Caprica did get better at the end, I’ll give it that.

  3. Two short quotes from the TIME piece (if we can do this w/o getting nailed for copyright):

    “When people look at the implications of ongoing exponential growth, it gets harder and harder to accept,” he [Kurzweil] says. “So you get people who really accept, yes, things are progressing exponentially, but they fall off the horse at some point because the implications are too fantastic. I’ve tried to push myself to really look.”

    “Within a matter of centuries, human [machine?] intelligence will have re-engineered and saturated all the matter in the universe. This is, Kurzweil believes, our destiny as a species.”

    Kurzweil does not say for what purpose “all the matter of the universe” will be re-engineered. But if evolution contradicts entropy in that systems aren’t winding down, but are actually winding up (to ever more sophisticated & efficient forms), this is mirrored in progression of the microchip, which follows that same curve at vastly greater speed. The trend lines would seem to favor Kurzweil.

  4. There’s a lot to chew on here. Thanks.

    I tend to agree with your view in the second-to-last paragraph. At the very least, our technological advances ought to make belief in God a little easier to conceptualize and more logical (especially the type of God taught within Mormonism) – and it also ought to eliminate some of the more . . . backward . . . ideas that sprang up in our culture before such technological advances occurred.

    Post-mortal pregnancy comes to mind immediately, but there are plenty of others.

  5. Lincoln Cannon says:

    The Mormon Transhumanist Association provides additional resources related to this subject:

  6. Kyle. Great Post! This is one of my favoriate topics. My sense is though that the singularity will be impossible until evolutionary forces can be brought to bear in enhancing machine intelligence. His assumption that once a machine can make a smarter copy it’s off and running is not how I think it will play out. Evolution has been how intelligence at every level has occurred from the rise of simple neurologies to more complex social organisms where the big brains are found e.g., elephants, dolphins, dogs, us. Evolution requires three basic things inheritance, variance, and selection. Lanier seems to be arguing that only the first will be necessary to launch the singularity. I’d argue that the other will be necessary as well and until those are in place the singularity will never get off the ground.

  7. Thanks SteveP! The assumption might be that intelligence at a sufficiently massive scale transcends the need for variance and selection…not to put words in anyone’s mouth.

    If you haven’t read the book, it’s worth picking up. It’s not always easy to follow Lanier’s arguments, but he provides a thousand launching pads into different areas of thought.

  8. pdmallamo, that Kurzweil quote is awesome…seems almost Joseph-Smithian in its scope and tone.

    Fascinating stuff.

  9. 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.

    Is that too strong of a statement about what Mormons have? We certainly have strong opinions about the existence of specific definitions, but do we actually, as a practical matter, know what those are?

  10. gwenydd mccoy says:

    church should be shorter if i can upload my conciousness.

  11. More posts from Kyle! PS: We need to get more Mormon Transhumanist posts going around here. :)

  12. 2050, not 2045

  13. What, the super-smart robot overlords can’t meet their deadlines?

  14. So is it wrong to think of resurrection as a superb technological achievement?

  15. Herb, unless you have a website with super-awesome graphic design, like the 2045 guys, I’m just not going to take you seriously.

    Speaking of super-awesome 2045 website, has anybody with more guts than me clicked the “Explosion” button at the bottom of that site, to see what that’s about? I’m kind of afraid of clicking a button labeled “Explosion.”

  16. Scott FTW!

  17. Fear not, human friends. I am here to serve you.

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