Along with a lot of other baby boomers, I bet, that was my instant reaction to the TIME magazine cover that shouted out "2045 The Year Man Becomes Immortal" at me when I opened the mailbox a few days ago.
Even before I read the cover story, I figured that (1) almost certainly I'll be dead by 2045, and (2) even if I wasn't, living forever in a worn out body/brain wouldn't be very appealing.
But last night I read about futurist Raymond Kurzweil's prediction of the coming Singularity, and what he's forecasting is quite different from our usual conception of immortality. The story, by Lev Grossman, starts with a definition of "singularity."
The moment when technological change becomes so rapid and profound, it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history.
Well, that sounds interesting. I'd like to be around for it. And in a way, all of us already are -- the beginning stages at least.
Because Kurzweil is looking toward the day when computers develop artificial intelligences that dwarf ours, a trend that seems inevitable considering the rapidity of technological change.
Here's what the exponential curves told him. We successfully reverse-engineer the human brain by the mid-2020s. By the end of that decade, computers will be capable of human-level intelligence. Kurzweil puts the date of the Singularity -- never say he's not conservative -- at 2045.
In that year, he estimates, given the vast increases in computing power and the vast reductions in the cost of same, the quantity of artificial intelligence created will be about a billion times the sum of all the human intelligence that exists today.
Facebook. Twitter. Google. iPhones.
These and so much more are early signs of ever-more powerful artificial intelligences that at first will merely be an adjunct to our own, yet eventually could become conscious beings in their own right.
When the big questions get answered, a lot of the action will happen where no one can see it, deep inside the black silicon brains of the computers, which will either bloom bit by bit into conscious minds or just continue in ever more brilliant and powerful iterations of nonsentience.
This is what I found most interesting about the "singularity" story -- whether the super smart computers that are around the technological bend are going to become as human as we are, minus our bodies, of course.
The Big Question being: what makes us who we are?
Though difficult to imagine how this could happen given our current state of neuroscientific knowledge, Singularitarians (yes, that's a word, and yes, there are many of them) enjoy envisioning a future where the amazingly complex human brain has been mapped, neuron by neuron, connection by connection, into an artificial intelligence.
If each and every aspect of my brain were to be perfectly mirrored by a computer, what difference would there be between that machine "consciousness" and my own consciousness?
If the answer is none, then the quotation marks I put around the first "consciousness" wouldn't be needed, because the mental states of the machine and me would be identical.
Hence, I could achieve immortality by transplanting the contents of my psyche into a robot, computer, or other form of artificial intelligence. Which, seemingly, wouldn't appear to be any different from my current consciousness, leaving aside the not so minor detail of "me" existing within a mechanical, rather than biological, form.
Whether this sounds creepy or appealing to you probably reveals a lot about your philosophical and spiritual inclinations. Those who consider that people have a soul which constitutes their essence won't accept that a human could be transmuted into a machine.
The TIME story addresses such questions.
Suppose we did create a computer that talked and acted in a way that was indistinguishable from a human being... Would that mean that the computer was sentient, the way a human being is? Or would it just be an extremely sophisticated but essentially mechanical automaton without the mysterious spark of consciousness -- a machine with no ghost in it? And how would we know?
Even if you grant that the Singularity is plausible, you're still staring at a thicket of unanswerable questions. If I can scan my consciousness into a computer, am I still me? What are the geopolitics and the socio-economics of the Singularity? Who decides who gets to be immortal? Who draws the line between sentient and nonsentient?
And as we approach immortality, omniscience and omnipotence, will our lives still have meaning? By beating death, will we have lost our essential humanity?
Singularitarians are confident that fairly soon these questions will be more than academic. However, my favorite godless science blogger, P.Z. Myers, is deeply skeptical that Kurzweil's vision of the future is going to become reality.
How to make a Singularity
Step 1: “I wonder if brains are just like computers?”
Step 2: Add peta-thingies/giga-whatzits; say “Moore’s Law!” a lot at conferences
Step 3: ??????
Step 4: SINGULARITY!!!11!one
Since Myers is a biologist, I respect his view of how the human brain works, which isn't at all how a computer works.
He's [Kurzweil] guilty of a very weird form of reductionism that considers a human life can be reduced to patterns in a computer. I have no stock in spiritualism or dualism, but we are very much a product of our crude and messy biology — we perceive the world through imprecise chemical reactions, our brains send signals by shuffling ions in salt water, our attitudes and reactions are shaped by chemicals secreted by glands in our guts. Replicating the lightning while ignoring the clouds and rain and pressure changes will not give you a copy of the storm. It will give you something different, which would be interesting still, but it's not the same.
Well, time will tell. I just hope that if Kurzweil is correct, the Singularity happens sooner than expected, rather than later. Since I no longer believe that I have an immortal soul, I'll take immortality in any other fashion that presents itself.
Option 2: embrace bad spelling. I liked comment #12 on Myers' blog post.
I'm already immortal.
wait... that's a 't'?
Immoral, that's what I am.