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
“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.
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
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
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 dot.com crash at the end
of the millennium and became the largest role playing game on the
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
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.
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
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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