Transcendence used to be the end of a spiritual quest and endeavour. Not anymore. Today we are more likely to believe that if anything can help us transcend the human condition it is not God or some kind of religious communion, but science and technology. Confidence is high that, if we do things right, and boldly and without fear embrace the new opportunities that technological progress grants us, we will soon be able to accomplish things that no human has ever done, or even imagined doing, before. With luck, we will be unimaginably smart and powerful, and virtually immortal, all thanks to a development that seems unstoppable and that has already surpassed all reasonable expectations.
Once upon a time, not so long ago, we used maps and atlases to find our way around. Occasionally we even had to stop and ask someone not named Siri or Cortana if we were indeed on the correct route. Today, our cars are navigated by satellites that triangulate our location in real time while circling the earth at thousands of miles per hour, and self-driving cars for everyone are just around the corner. Soon we may not even need cars anymore. Why go somewhere if technology can bring the world to us? Already we are in a position to do most of what we have to or want to do from home: get an education, work, do our shopping, our banking, our communication, all thanks to the internet, which thirty years ago did not exist and is now, to many of us, indispensable. Those who are coming of age today find it difficult to imagine a world without it. Currently, there are over 3.2 billion people connected to the World Wide Web, 2 billion of which live in developing countries. Most of them connect to the Web via increasingly versatile and powerful mobile devices few people would have thought possible a couple of generations ago. Soon we may be able to dispense even with mobile devices and do all of it in our bio-upgraded heads. In terms of the technology we are using every day without a second thought, the world has changed dramatically, and it continues to do so. Computation is now nearly ubiquitous, people seem constantly attached to their cellular phones, iPads, and laptops, enthusiastically endorsing their own progressive cyborgization. And connectivity does not stop at the level of human beings: even our household objects and devices are connected to the internet and communicate with each other, using their own secret language and taking care of things largely without the need for human intervention and control. The world we have built for ourselves thrives on a steady diet of zeroes and ones that have now become our co-creators, continuing the world-building in often unexpected ways.
Meanwhile, the distinction between what is real and what only appears to be so is becoming blurry and increasingly irrelevant. Just think of the advances in the videogame industry over the past few decades, with its obvious growth in complexity and photorealism. Today’s games are media rich and while not quite at the level of reality, they serve as an early harbinger of what we can expect from the future. Some games are already realistic enough that they are used to help treat military personnel with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Even if there is not a continued acceleration in this field, with even minimal gains over time, it is likely that such games will eventually become indistinguishable from actual reality. Perhaps they already are: there have been discussions among philosophers about the possibility that we might actually be living in a computer simulation. Are we perhaps just brains on a chip? If we were, would we know it? Even if we are not, can we be sure that something like this, a complete digitalisation of our existence, is not on the horizon?
It is commonly thought (though by no means uncontested) that approximately 13.7 billion years ago our universe was thrust into existence through an initial singularity, widely known as the “Big Bang”. Some futurologists think that we will very soon, in a few decades, face another, this time technological singularity, which is the point at which machine intelligence has developed to such an extent that all bets are off and literally anything might happen. This is usually regarded as a good thing. Rather optimistically, the prediction that anything can happen is understood in the sense that we will be able to do anything we like to do, and be anything we like to be. For its prophets, the singularity promises our salvation and elevation to something completely different and unimaginably grandiose, something that is no longer limited and constrained by its association with a particular (or any) biological body, or even by that pesky, stubbornly obstructionist thing we call ‘reality’. The physical and the virtual will merge, so that human empowerment will be complete.
Unfortunately, however, this may all be nothing but wishful thinking. The expected post-singularity world, if it will ever arrive, is for us in fact just as mysterious and unimaginable as the world before the Big Bang, and we have no good reason to expect anything in particular to happen post-singularity. Just as we cannot imagine how there can have ever been a time when nothing existed, not even time, we cannot imagine how things will be like when everything is, as the term singularity suggests, radically different from everything we have ever known. If we want to take the idea of the technological singularity seriously, there is only one thing we can be certain of: that we do not have the slightest idea what will happen when it comes. Perhaps we will indeed merge with machines and then conquer the world much more thoroughly than we have so far been able to, becoming masters of the universe, immortal and able to know and understand everything there is to know and understand. But it is equally possible that our now super-intelligent machines take over and that we then vanish completely from the face of the earth or be enslaved by our machine overlords, or something else entirely. There are a myriad of different possibilities. At the extreme ends of the spectrum, the singularity holds the promise of immeasurable gains, but also threatens us with annihilation, and we cannot even say which of these two outcomes is more likely because in order to assess probabilities we need to be able to make use of observed data and to rely on some fixed parameters, which in this case we cannot do, because the post-singularity world is supposed to be so radically different from the pre-singularity world that we cannot assume any continuity whatsoever between the before and the after. Our uncertainty regarding the post-singularity future is complete. That future is a perfect blank, which, just like death, gives away nothing and into which we can therefore project anything we like: the best of things and the worst of things.
But how certain can we really be that such a radical change, whatever it may entail, will come over us in the foreseeable future? Those who are confident that some kind of technological singularity is going to hit us very soon, like most prominently the American inventor and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil, generally base their predictions on some version of a presumed “law of accelerating returns”, according to which technological development progresses not linearly, but exponentially. This means that technological progress is not only going to continue, it will also continue to accelerate. We will keep making scientific discoveries, developing more and more sophisticated gadgets and devices, and building faster and more powerful computers, and we will do all this at an ever increasing speed. In other words, the rate of acceleration itself will continue to accelerate.
Believing in such a law does not seem unreasonable. We have, after all, witnessed such accelerations in the recent past. The human genome project for instance took only thirteen years to complete, even though it was originally anticipated to take a minimum of 100 years. And even that seemed a very optimistic estimate when after the first year of constant transcribing scientists had only completed one ten-thousandth of the genome. Yet due in large part to the rapid expansion of applicable technologies a century’s worth of work was completed in slightly more than a decade. What initial predictions failed to take into account is the exponential trajectory of technological development. They were instead based on what Kurzweil calls an “intuitive linear” model of history, which means that people assumed, as we all tend to do, that things will continue to develop at the same speed as they have in the past. Yet this is a mistake. Advances in technology open up new avenues of research and design, which reciprocally lead to future advances, and so on, faster and faster. Recent developments in information technologies and algorithmic systems have demonstrated that what only yesterday experts thought impossible has become possible today. Only last year, in 2016, DeepMind’s AI-powered AlphaGo computer program defeated Lee Sedol, the eighteen time world champion of Go. Experts had not anticipated this happening for at least another decade. After losing only one game to Sedol, the AlphaGo team continued to update the program and went on to beat a team of five other Go champions – this time losing no games. To ignore the exponential potential inherent in technological development is to miss the importance of predictions that suggest the century we are living in will experience greater changes than occurred during the ascendancy and roughly 40,000 year rule of human life. At this moment, we are in the midst of a double-exponential when both computer hardware and software (engineering talent) are working synergistically to create systems that are in some ways more intelligent than humans. As is evidenced by DeepMind’s AI demonstrations, advancements in non-biological systems can occur at orders of magnitude beyond human limitations and on small time-scales.
What is remarkable about the AlphaGo program is that it took a relatively short amount of time to go from no experience with one of the world’s most complex strategy games to beating one of the legends of that game to beating every human it faced without ever losing. Our brains, which are only slightly different from those of our simian ancestors, allow us to do quite remarkable things. We can run counterfactuals, simulate possible outcomes and adjust our plans accordingly. Even though this ability now allows us to progress much faster than we would by natural selection alone, by utilising utility functions for self-optimisation AI systems may end up producing even better systems and thereby triggering an intelligence explosion. If we generalise the AlphaGo scenario, once we have a machine at human-level-intelligence, we should expect that it won’t take that machine long to achieve greater-than-human intelligence.
Such a scenario has been fictionally explored in Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her, whose female protagonist is an artificially intelligent operating system named Samantha. When Theodore, a bereft author of love letters, first installs Samantha on his computer, she is new to the experiential world and is eager to learn everything she can through the unique relationship she is developing with her user. Within a very short period of time, Samantha transcends the boundaries of human consciousness and materiality, soon carrying on thousands of conversations simultaneously and experiencing a hyper-intelligent life of the mind that transforms the split seconds between Theodore’s words into a near-infinite chasm. Even though Her stretches our credulity, it does so while holding almost all other variables constant except for the artificially intelligent operating system. The future that we are engineering ourselves towards leaves only one variable intact: a legacy of overcoming our limitations.
Yet in truth the rapidity of technological change affects more than just one dimension of our reality. It ripples out and impacts our senses, often compressing or telescoping time. Issues that humanity has thought about for millennia, things that might have taken millennia to occur, now happen in a vanishingly small amount of time. This compression of time presents a real challenge to the imagination and makes it almost impossible to reliably predict what will come next, let alone how the world will look like in ten, fifty, or a hundred years. The technological singularity is more than just a useful figure of speech, more than just a fitting metaphor, although it is that too. The idea of an approaching technological singularity is an expression and a symbol of our growing inability to keep pace with the machines we create and to fully comprehend what is going on. But it is also real in the sense that it is already affecting us as that which we are rushing towards, because even if it never occurs, things will, while we are approaching it, gradually become more and more incomprehensible to us, as our categories of sense-making first struggle and then eventually break down under increasingly abnormal conditions.
Then again, none of this may actually come to pass. Kurzweil’s “law of accelerating returns” may prove not to be a law at all. Oddly enough, the “intuitive linear model” of technological development is commonly rejected on the grounds that it relies on the false assumption that most likely tomorrow will be very much like today so that if things have progressed at a certain speed in the past they will continue to do so in future. In contrast, the exponential model seems to allow for things to be different, by predicting that technological progress will be a lot faster in the future than it has been so far. Yet when people appeal to the exponential model of technological improvement as the status quo, the logic of the argument is in fact very similar to the intuitive linear view. It is just the outcome that is different.
The exponential view of technological development also takes it as a given that tomorrow will be much like today in that things will continue to progress exponentially. Yet clearly we cannot know whether that will actually be the case. Maybe it will, and maybe it won’t. If it does turn out that way, then technology may well help us transcend the human condition, as so many seem to hope. Or it may not turn out that way. If it does, it may do so in ways we did not expect. Anything is possible, remember? We will just have to wait and see what happens.