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James John Bell

There is no question that technological growth trends in science and industry are increasing exponentially. There is, however, a growing debate about what this runaway acceleration of ingenuity may bring. A number of respected scientists and futurists now are predicting that technological progress is driving the world toward a “Singularity” — a point at which technology and nature will have become one. At this juncture, the world as we have known it will have gone extinct and new definitions of “life,” “nature,” and “human” will take hold.

“We are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth,” San Diego University Professor of Computer Science Vernor Vinge first warned the scientific community in 1993. “Within 30 years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will end.”

Some scientists and philosophers have theorized that the very purpose of life is to bring about the Singularity. While leading technology industries have been aware of the Singularity concept for some time, there are concerns that, if the public understood the full ramifications of the Singularity, they would be reluctant to accept many of the new and untested technologies such as genetically engineered foods, nanotechnology, and robotics.

Machine Evolution

A number of books on the coming Singularity are in the works and will soon appear. In 2003, the sequel to the blockbuster film “The Matrix” will delve into the philosophy and origins of Earth’s machine-controlled future. Matrix cast members were required to read Wired editor Kevin Kelly’s 1994 book, Out of Control: The Rise of Neo-biological Civilization. Page one reads, “The realm of the born — all that is nature — and the realm of the made — all that is humanly constructed — are becoming one.”

Meanwhile, Warner Brothers has embarked on the most expensive film of all time— a $180 million sequel called “Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines.” The film is due out in 2003; a good decade before actual machine evolution is predicted to accelerate “out of control,” plunging human civilization towards the Singularity.

Central to the workings of the Singularity are a number of “laws” — one of which is known as Moore’s Law. Intel Corp. cofounder Gordon E. Moore noted that the number of transistors that could fit on a single computer chip had doubled every year for six years from the beginnings of integrated circuits in 1959. Moore predicted that the trend would continue, and it has — although the doubling rate was later adjusted to an 18-month cycle. Today, millions of circuits are found on a single miniscule computer chip and technological progress is accelerating at an exponential rather than a linear growth rate.

In his book The Clock of the Long Now, Stewart Brand discusses another law — Monsanto’s Law — which states that the ability to identify and use genetic information doubles every 12 to 24 months. This exponential growth in biological knowledge is transforming agriculture, nutrition, and healthcare in the emerging life-sciences industry.

In 2005, IBM plans to introduce “Blue Gene,” a computer that can perform one million-billion calculations-per-second — about 1/20th the power of the human brain. This computer could transmit the entire contents of the Library of Congress in less than two seconds. According to Moore’s Law, computer hardware will surpass human brainpower in the first decade of this century. Software that emulates the real world — “artificial societies” — may take a few more years to evolve.

Rise of Artificial Worlds

Connected via phone lines and the Ethernet, over 400,000 people “live and work” in the fantasy game EverQuest’s world of Norrath. At any given moment there are 60,000 “avatars” working and interacting. These avatars are characters controlled by players sitting at their terminals who gain skills and items while adventuring. Many EverQuest players use the online trade sites, like eBay, to exchange experienced characters and items for actual currency. This phenomenon is similar to the trading of baseball cards, POGs, and Magic cards except that the characters and items in question do not actually exist in any physical way whatsoever.

Edward Castronova, of the economics department at California State University at Fullerton, studied thousands of EverQuest transactions performed through eBay to determine the real-world economic value generated by the inhabitants of Norrath. He found that Norrath’s gross national product per-capita is $2,266. If Norrath was a country, it would be the 77th wealthiest in the world, just behind Russia. It turns out that Norrath’s virtual currency is more valuable in the U.S. than the Yen. EverQuest players earn an average of $3.42 for every hour spent playing the game, more than the minimum wage in many Third World countries.

Castronova says that because of the social importance attached to the game, EverQuest’s economy can be studied like any normal economy, even though Norrath is a world of magic and fantasy. Castronova believes that virtual worlds like Norrath could eventually become more closely linked with the real world. “Virtual worlds may be the future of e-commerce, and perhaps the internet itself.” Launched in 1999 by Sony, EverQuest survived the crash at the end of the millennium and became the largest role playing game on the internet.

Technologic Globalization

Physicists, mathematicians, and scientists like Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil have identified through their accelerated technological change theories the likely boundaries of the Singularity and have predicted with confidence the effects leading up to it over the next couple of decades.

The majority of people closest to these theories and laws — the tech sector — can hardly wait for the Singularity to arrive. The true believers call themselves “extropians,” “post-humans” and “transhumanists” and are actively organizing not just to bring the Singularity about, but to counter what they call “techno-phobes” and “neo-luddites” — critics like Greenpeace, Earth First!, and the Rainforest Action Network.

The Progress Action Coalition (Pro-Act), formed in June 2001, fantasizes about “the dream of true artificial intelligence... adding a new richness to the human landscape never before known.” The Pro-Act web site features several sections where the strategies and tactics of environmental groups and foundations are targeted for “countering.”

Pro-Act, AgBioworld, Biotechnology Progress, Foresight Institute, the Progress Freedom Foundation, and other industry groups that desire accelerated scientific progress acknowledge that the greatest threat to technologic progress comes not just from environmental groups, but from a small faction of the scientific community — where one voice stands out.

The Warning

In April 2000, a wrench was thrown into the arrival of the Singularity by an unlikely source — Sun Microsystems’ Chief Scientist Bill Joy. Joy co-founded Sun Microsystems, helped create the UNIX computer operating system, and developed the Java and Jini software systems — systems that helped give the Internet “life.”

In a now-infamous cover story in Wired magazine, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” Joy warned of the dangers posed by developments in genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics. Joy’s warning of the impacts of exponential technologic progress run amok gave new credence to the coming Singularity. Unless things change, Joy predicted, “We could be the last generation of humans.” Joy has warned that “knowledge alone will enable mass destruction” and termed this phenomenon “knowledge-enabled mass destruction” (KMD). The Times of London compared Joy’s statement to Einstein’s 1939 letter to President Roosevelt, which warned of the dangers of the nuclear bomb.

The technologies of the 20th century gave rise to nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) technologies that, while powerful, require access to vast amounts of raw (and often rare) materials, technical information, and large-scale industries. The 21st century technologies of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR), however, will require neither large facilities nor rare raw materials.

The threat posed by GNR technologies becomes further amplified by the fact that some of these new technologies have been designed to be able to “replicate” — i.e., they can build new versions of themselves. Nuclear bombs did not sprout more bombs and toxic spills did not grow more spills. If the new self-replicating GNR technologies are released into the environment, they could be nearly impossible to recall or control.

Globalization and Singularity

Joy understands that the greatest dangers we face ultimately stem from a world where global corporations dominate — a future where much of the world has no voice in how the world is run. The 21st century GNR technologies, he writes, “are being developed almost exclusively by corporate enterprises. We are aggressively pursuing the promises of these new technologies within the now-unchallenged system of global capitalism and its manifold financial incentives and competitive pressures.”

Joy believes that the system of global capitalism, combined with our current rate of progress, gives the human race a 30- to 50-percent chance of going extinct around the time the Singularity happens. “Not only are these estimates not encouraging,” he adds, “but they do not include the probability of many horrid outcomes that lie short of extinction.”

Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen contends that if chemists earlier in the last century had decided to use bromine instead of chlorine to produce commercial coolants (a mere quirk of chemistry), the ozone hole over Antarctica would have been far larger, would have lasted all year, and would have severely affected life on Earth. “Avoiding that was just luck,” stated Crutzen.

It is very likely that scientists and global corporations will miss key developments (or, worse, actively avoid discussion of them). A whole generation of biologists has left the field for the biotech and nanotech labs. As biologist Craig Holdredge, who has followed biotech since its early beginnings in the 1970s, warns: The science of “biology is losing its connection with nature.”

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