There Is No Spoon #4: A Singularity

In astronomy, a(the?) singularity [sing-gyuh-lar-i-tee][1] is a hypothetical point in spacetime at which matter is infinitely compressed into an infinitesimal volume. (It’s also an acceptable representation of a black hole in mathematics.) Ray Kurtzweil believes the singularity will occur once man invents a form of artificial superintelligence that will help humans transform their[/our] bodies — ostensibly by controlling matter at the atomic level — so that they[/we] can live for hundreds of years (and, thus, truly emerge as another species). Kurtzweil also believes they’ll[/we’ll] even be able to upload their[/our] consciousness[es] into machines.

We might truly be living during the dawn of the age of posthumans. . .

—or maybe not.

Another brilliant man by the name of Shawn Douglas is currently programming nanobots to find and kill cancer cells in living organisms — in reality, the one in which we currently all live — seemingly a clear first step towards Kurtzweil’s idea of manipulating matter at an atomic level. Not only does this mean humans could slow the aging process to a tic above halting it altogether (for nothing ever truly stops moving unless it reaches Absolute Zero[2]), it also means we’ll be able to create an infinite amount of anything we like.

The posthuman future sounds bitchin!

But — because there always must be a “but” when considering something as complex as the singularity — there are far-reaching and potentially devastating repercussions when meddling with the fabric of existence. If the planet is currently over-populated by most experts’ opinions, and the average life expectancy of a human is 70 years (give or take, depending on countless factors unimportant to this discussion), what happens when (read: if) billions of people starting living hundreds of years? The mass explosion in population would deplete the planet’s resources far faster than it could resupply them.

So it begs the question: who will be allowed to live for centuries? It should be clear that this option/opportunity/curse will not be offered/afforded to every single human being. The math simply doesn’t support it, doesn’t allow it. And while money can’t buy you happiness (arguably), one feels compelled to believe that enough of it could probably buy you pseudo-immortality.

So will the wealthiest of humans be the first to emerge in the next step of the evolution of homo sapiens sapiens? And just because the math doesn’t support “immortality for all!” doesn’t mean that rogue geniuses with a biology lab won’t conduct the same experiments on their own — a drink from the fountain of youth purchased on the black market. Would this scientific development prompt a new kind of class warfare that includes actual warfare?[3]

What sort of governmental legislation would be passed if large numbers of people stopped dying? Perhaps an even more frightening question to pose in the wake of the aforementioned developments would be: Could the emergence of the posthuman mean a reemergence of horrific eugenics experiments, a renaissance of biological manipulation, if you will? Those who cannot learn History are doomed to repeat it.

The posthuman future sounds decidedly less bitchin once one stops to consider some of the variables at play.

This concept actually makes me think about Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy (of which I’ve currently read the first 65 pages or so), though only because the books are set in the very distant future and the singularity has (seemingly) not happened (yet). However, an important character, Hari Seldon, has predicted by way of psychohistory and mathematics the ultimate destruction of Trantor, the planet at the center of the Galactic Empire. Seldon predicts the ultimate destruction of the whole Galactic Empire itself as well. He makes these predictions this using what sound to me like complex differential equations (perhaps similar to — albeit, more advanced than — the ones Nate Silver used to predict the 2012 presidential election).

However, the Imperium — the hegemonic rule of the Empire under control of great bourgeois families (the Chens and the Divarts) — sees Seldon’s predictions as potentially disruptive to the Imperial rule. This results in Emperor Chen exiling both Seldon and 20,000 families of those who work for him to Terminus, a planet at the very edge of the Galactic Empire (though Seldon actually predicted the exile with his übermaths and had been planning for it for two-and-a-half years.

And this is just the beginning!

Seldon’s goal, and the project his team of thousands is working on, is to create a single encyclopedic history of humanity that will withstand/endure beyond the inevitable collapse of Galactic Empire (i.e. the Encyclopedia Galactica). I have my hypotheses about why Seldon chooses a planet on the fringes of the known galaxy to set up his H.Q. (most of which have to with the Imperium having little-to-no access to the project, thus limiting the chances of their tampering with recorded history), but I’ll keep them to myself because I want to be surprised!

However, the mere fact that my mind is immediately drawn to that conclusion raises a serious red flag, specifically as it relates to the following quote: “History is written by the winners.” Will the GM[H]Os (Genetically Modified [Human] Organisms) of the posthuman future erase their embarrassing, flawed origins (i.e. the rest of us)? Will the GM[H]Os have use for things like art and daydreaming and love, or will they be more like the pale, unfeeling, robotic humanoid simulacra (the Observers) from TV’s Fringe?

I think the purpose of a project like Seldon’s Encyclopedia Galactica is to preserve a truth that’s purer than adulterated perfection. It reflects a history with messy, uneven edges, and whose square roots aren’t whole numbers. It reflects a history that plays jazz music and is full of art, and struggles, a history full of strife and full of joy.

In other words, it reflects a history that is uniquely human.

Seldon is such a complete character, even though he takes up so few pages, simply because he understands the significance of preserving all that makes us human, not “touching up” the less admirable parts. His vision is ostensibly pure, as close to a true example of altruism about which I’ve read in a long time. He knows that disaster is coming — it’s in the math and numbers don’t lie. But from the impending chaos, he sees hope. He sees a path for humanity to avoid annihilation and he has a plan to preserve it.

In the posthuman universe, after the singularity, when our GM[H]O descendants emerge into a new era of “humanity,” will they still have hope? Will they still have imperfect remnants of what made them who they are; will they remember the seemingly infinite number of mistakes that were required to achieve their perfection?

Or will all that matters to us now be looked at as inconsequential collateral damage — imperfections remedied, patched up and improved upon — relegated to the memories of a select few until the last memories of what we once were flicker for the last time before dimming into the freezing abyss?

###


[1] noun, plural sin·gu·lar·i·ties for 2–4.

[2] which equates to 0º Kelvin, -273.15º Celsius, and -459.67º Fahrenheit, respectively.

[3] A question that could be ruled moot if organic, regenerating carbon fiber skin grafts ever become widely available and covered under an HMO — I mean, humans could grow their own fucking body armor!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joseph Owens Joseph Michael Owens

Joseph Michael Owens is the author of the 'collectio[novella]' SHENANIGANS!, and has written for [PANK], The Rumpus, Specter, Grey Sparrow & several others. He is the blog editor for both InDigest Magazine and The Lit Pub, but you can also find him online at http://categorythirteen.com. Joe lives in Omaha with three dogs and one wife.

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  • petergkinnon

    Our quite natural anthropocentric mindsets leave us with vague woolly notions that the advancement of technology is something over which we humans have significant control.

    Bu we are putting the cart before the horse! The reality being that it is a largely autonomous evolutionary process.

    We seem to fail to notice that most of us are increasingly, in a sense, “enslaved” by our PCs, mobile phones, their apps, and many other trappings of the increasingly cloudy net and the ever-growing insidious reticulation to peripheral devices.

    We are already largely dependent upon it for our commerce and industry and there is no turning back. What we have fondly perceived to be a tool is well on its way to becoming an agent.

    It may be humiliating to have to admit that our species, far from being potential “masters of the universe” or the “pinnacle of biology”, is simply a tiny cog in the humongous machinery of nature. But, viewed objectively, that is quite clearly the way it is.

    And that our only claim to distinction is that our collective imagination is the medium in which technology has autonomously evolved in the course of the past 2.5 million years.

    Furthermore, that, within decades, we can reasonably expect to become redundant to that process.

    The construction of a “brain” that will soon equal and then surpass that typical of our species has for long been a work in progress. Not as a result of any deliberate human “design” but rather as the result of an autonomous evolutionary process that can be seen to have run its exponential course since humankind acquired the ability to share imagination, an ability which we know as language.

    Very real evidence indicates the rather imminent implementation of the next, (non-biological) phase of the on-going evolutionary “life” process from what we at present call the Internet.

    It is effectively evolving, in the tradition of biology, by a process of self-assembly.

    Consider this:

    There are at present an estimated 2 Billion Internet users. There are an estimated 13 Billion neurons in the human brain. On this basis for approximation the Internet is even now only one order of magnitude below the human brain and its growth is exponential.
    That is a simplification, of course. For example: Not all users have their own computer. So perhaps we could reduce that, say, tenfold. The number of switching units, transistors, if you wish, contained by all the computers connecting to the Internet and which are more analogous to individual neurons is many orders of magnitude greater than 2 Billion. Then again, this is compensated for to some extent by the fact that neurons do not appear to be binary switching devices but can adopt multiple states.

    Without even crunching the numbers, we see that we must take seriously the possibility that even the present Internet may well be comparable to a human brain in processing power.
    And, of course, the degree of interconnection and cross-linking of networks within networks is also growing rapidly.The culmination of this exponential growth corresponds to the event that transhumanists inappropriately call “The Singularity” but is more properly regarded as a phase transition of the on-going “life” process.
    An evolutionary continuum that can be traced back at least as far as the formation of the chemical elements in stars.

    The broad evolutionary model that supports this contention is outlined very informally in “The Goldilocks Effect: What Has Serendipity Ever Done For Us?” , a free download in e-book formats from the “Unusual Perspectives” website

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