The Singularity

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“It [the Singularity] will be an era in which the very nature of what it means to be human will be both enriched and challenged, as our species breaks the shackles of its genetic legacy and achieves inconceivable heights of intelligence, material progress, and longevity... the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity. In this new world, there will be no clear distinction between human and machine, real reality and virtual reality.” -Ray Kurzweil [1]

The “Singularity” is a concept that was coined by physicist and mathematician John von Neumann in the 1950s. Neumann used the term to define an era that will be increasingly defined by technology – to the point where human affairs as we know them will be obsolete. Since then, the term has come to mean a technological convergence between human and machine. This concept has obvious implications for our class themes. In particular, the singularity will, by definition, reshape society in fundamental and unforeseeable ways. This is the ultimate expression of the concept of technological determinism. Furthermore, the merging of man and machine will cause us to question what, really, does it mean human. Throughout much of history, there was a clear dividing line that set us apart from other animals and from nonliving objects. But now, a technological revolution presents us with pressing questions that many science fiction writers have attempted to answer through imagination of a future world.

Contents

Appearances of this Intersection in Class Reading

Views towards the effects of technology upon society and human identity differ. Science fiction writers interpret their contexts in a variety of ways. Often a story occurs in the future, full of technologies not yet extant. In this way, science fiction authors either criticize (provide a pessimistic view of societal progress) or promote (provide an optimistic view of societal progress) with the characters, symbols, or themes they implement in their work. This trope is intended to unify the modern perspective with the future perspective. It is intended to be provocative in justifying why an author believes society will progress in a certain way (i.e. what factors in the author's context contribute to his particular worldview). By examining a work in view of the Singularity, we will challenge our ability to connect the present context of technology to the future context of technology. Ultimately, it will allow us to heed the criticism while analyzing the praise of science fiction authors on issues related to the singularity.

Schismatrix [positive view]

The Schismatrix depicts humanity with such a high level of technology that they can alter anything about themselves at will. Kitsune becomes a giant spacestation, while others turn themselves into "angels" or "wireheads". These clearly push the boundaries of what it means to be human until there is no meaningful distinction to be made with machine intelligence. This is largely depicted as a positive force. The humans on Earth who rejected the change are shown to be stagnant and miserable. Meanwhile, Abelard Lindsey believes that a vision such as terraforming is necessary to keep people sane and this vision relies on post singularity technology.

Neuromancer [dystopian view]

Neuromancer ends with the two AIs, Wintermute and Neuromancer merging. This is implied to create an AI so powerful that it will essentially control anything it wants. Throughout the book, the AIs are shown to already be very powerful. Furthermore, Wintermute routinely controls people such as Armitage and Case, and uses them to act on its behalf. Humans and machines have already become indistinguishable, not through a mutually beneficial symbiosis, but through a hostile takeover. The novel clearly considers this to be a bad event. Not only are the AIs controlling everything and not giving any benefit to humans, but the humans have realized their fate and are vainly fighting back through such entities has the Turing Police.

He, She, and It [neutral view]

It is difficult to find a strong view towards the singularity in He, She, and It. Through the story-within-a-story of the Golem of Prague as well as Yod the cyborg, it depicts both benefits and pitfalls to the creations of part human, part machine intelligences. Overall, the view of the novel is that they are an occasionally necessary evil. However, the view is far from dystopian, as in Neuromancer. The main reason is that this novel, unlike the others, does not depict the singularity as inevitable. The merging of human and machine intelligence is shown to be something that not only should be avoided, but one that can be avoided. Both Yod and the Golem are easily deactivated when their usefulness is past.

The Wealth of Nations [neutral view]

The main conclusion that can be drawn from the text is that increasing compounded technology in capitalistic states catalyze the Singularity much more quickly than in communist or trade-restricted states. Capitalist systems have inbuilt mechanisms that accelerate technological growth and production. In communist systems, trade is restricted and production is controlled by the state, leading to less production but more economic equality for the proletariat. The Wealth of Nations proposes that the implementation of the "division of labor" and "the invisible hand" makes an economic system more competitive and efficient. Smith believed that these policies would gradually increase per capita income. Modern capitalism has given some credence to this view because prices keep falling and GDP keeps rising in industrialized countries. In addition, Smith enumerates three main benefits caused from the division of labor. First, worker dexterity increases. Secondly, there is much time saved from task subdivision. Lastly, The platform of the division of labor allows for rapid technological advance. With this logic, technology keeps going into a rapid cycle of compounded improvement. Each time a new technology is created, more technologies combine together to form a cross layered interface. Hence, the power of capitalism to promote recursive technological improvement will eventually cause a rapid exponential climb in technological capability. The time when technology becomes so complex that it allows for humans to transcend their biological limitations will be the era of the Singularity.

The Machine Stops [dystopian view]

The Machine Stops provides a dystopian view of the advancement of technology. It paints the picture of a society wholly interdependent on a technology called "the Machine." The Singularity occurs when there is no clear distinction between real reality and virtual reality. The Machine blends virtual reality with real reality, producing the effect of enslaving mankind from direct experience. In relation to the world economy, the Machine also becomes intelligent enough to eliminate many jobs completely. Lastly, the Machine facilitates man's every action to the extent where universal isolation becomes possible.

The short story allows for us to look for signs of a dystopian Singularity emerging from technological development. The story is the apotheosis where technology is misused and misguided, so technological advancement inevitably leads to the downfall of humanity. In other words, The Singularity becomes an event where technology wholly directs human actions and thoughts (the book is the only means to aggrandize knowledge). Thus humanity must battle technology like in the movie The Matrix, but in a more indirect way. The technology is embedded in the social framework, and is not the primary revolutionary opponent.

In the end, the story has a didactic purpose. It serves to forewarn humanity against the power of technological materialism. A universal machine should not be able to perform all of humanity's daily tasks because an aspect of culture is eliminated. Also, there is the threat of artificial intelligence getting to the point where it no longer needs humanity to function. As Kuno says in the text, "It has robbed us of the sense of space and of the sense of touch, it has blurred every human relation and narrowed down love to a carnal act, it has paralysed our bodies and our wills, and now it compels us to worship it... We only exist as the blood corpuscles that course through its arteries, and if it could work without us, it would let us die."

Appearances of this Trope in Other Media

Bibliography

  1. The Singularity Is Near. (20 January 2010). The Singularity is Near. Retrieved January 20, 2010 from http://singularity.com/aboutthebook.html
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