Monday, January 10, 2011

A Still More Glorious Dawn Awaits

The sky calls to us
If we do not destroy ourselves
We will one day
Venture to the stars
A still more glorious dawn awaits
Not a sunrise, but a galaxy rise
A morning filled with 400 billion suns
The rising of the Milky Way

Upon reflection, I think the primary reason our current cultural and political milieu fills me with so much pessimism is its almost total lack of a cosmic vision.  It still begins and ends with nations, tribes and absurdly myopic myths rooted in Iron Age cultures that knew nothing of the true vastness of our universe.  At best it offers a tepid globalism that attempts to place commerce and economics on an altar as our species' highest source of inspiration.  Where are the great men of vision today who offer more than this the Carl Sagans and Arthur C. Clarkes who imagine an unlimited future among the stars?  Where are the builders of our Cosmic Culture?

How slowly we progress as a species!  When I read the words of visionary writers from seven or eight decades ago like Lovecraft, Stapledon, Asimov and Clarke, I am struck by how little the awesome scale of modern scientific thinking has yet penetrated the public imagination or affected our prevailing myths.  True, we have had Star Trek, 2001, Apollo and Cosmos in the intervening years.  But those too are decades old, while today we seem more mired than ever in our myriad terrestrial dramas.  

Where is the cosmic-religious dimension to modern life?  Certainly the ancient Babylonians, Egyptians and Mayans incorporated their celestial truths more directly into their daily lives than do we in the 21st century.  Are the heavens to be nothing but a hazy ceiling over our earthly metropolises, unseen and forgotten by the busy citizens below?  Are they to be reduced to mere bits in the databases of our information society?  Even as the boundaries of the known universe continue to expand, are we content to retreat ever further into microcosmic virtual worlds of pure fantasy?  Meanwhile, in the world outside, our planet faces unprecedented perils of our own making, and the cosmic doomsday clock continues to count down.  Surely we must do better than this!

But can we do better?  Has the truth about our perilous position in the cosmos become too immense and too frightful for us to face?  Are our minds, evolved to meet the microcosmic exigencies of survival upon the African plain, too small and too weak to embrace the stark macrocosmic truths that our sciences have so recently gleaned?  Are we doomed to flee, as in Lovecraft’s famous prophecy, into the peace and safety of a new dark age?
"The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age."

Is there a plausible alternative to such a bleak vision?  Is there anything we humans can hope to do that is significant on the unimaginably vast scale of the cosmos?  Is there any reason at all for optimism toward the human enterprise?

Perhaps not for the foreseeable future, but what of our distant, post-human descendants – beings who might exceed us in intelligence and power as we exceed the cockroach or the protozoa?  Might they be capable of traversing intergalactic space and bending the universe to their wills like gods?  Might they harness the energy of entire galaxies, bring life and intelligence to billions of dead worlds, and explore the outermost limits of accessible reality?

If we accept this as a possibility – and our current scientific understanding does not preclude it – then the answer to my first question is an emphatic yes!  For if we are to be the ancestors of future demigods, we must first survive.  We must avoid both the self-destruction which looms ever closer on the horizon, and the cosmic annihilation which doomed so many species before us.  An asteroid might do to us what was done to the dinosaurs, or a gamma ray burst might incinerate us at any moment without warning.  In a billion years the Earth is expected to become an uninhabitable desert due to the warming sun; our galaxy will collide with the Andromeda galaxy in 3 to 5 billion years, with presumably catastrophic consequences; a black hole might swallow us up before that.  The only hope for long-term survival in such a hostile universe lies in interstellar space, in propagating intelligent life across the galaxy and beyond. 

But we might have only one shot at achieving this as explained by the visionary astrophysicist Fred Hoyle in 1964:
"We have or soon will have, exhausted the necessary physical prerequisites [necessary for maintaining a high-level civilization] so far as this planet is concerned. With coal gone, oil gone, high-grade metallic ores gone, no species however competent can make the long climb from primitive conditions to high-level technology. This is a one-shot affair. If we fail, this planetary system fails so far as intelligence is concerned. The same will be true of other planetary systems. On each of them there will be one chance, and one chance only."
As we begin to exhaust many of these physical prerequisites, and run up against the environmental consequences of consuming them so rapidly, it seems that the stakes of our civilization's global gamble couldn't be higher.  The fate of intelligent life in the universe may literally be at stake right here, right now!  Fortunately, a rational analysis of the problems suggests that there are solutions to our resource extraction challenges if we have the will to do what is necessary. 

What's more, the extraterrestrial environment is so hostile that to leave Earth in a serious way will probably require us to move beyond our primate physiologies into more flexible transhuman forms.  This means genetic modification, or some kind of instantiation into cybernetic bodies; it also means that all the old anthropocentric assumptions will have to be discarded, and along with them the religious and humanistic values that viewed man as a being created in the image of God or as the measure of all things.  

This, therefore, must be the starting point of any new myths we create: an understanding of both the vastness of the cosmic ocean and of the urgent need to expand our civilization into its waters, even if it means abandoning our very humanity.  I find such a perspective as inspiring as it is humbling and terrifying, and believe it must be adopted species-wide if we are to avoid being snuffed out soon in our earthly cradle.  I also believe humanity is ready for this cosmic vision ready to leave behind its tired old ancestral myths and move beyond our terrestrial birthplace like an insect shedding its imago.  For despite my frequent pessimism, I choose to believe, like Carl Sagan and Stephen Hawking, that a still more glorious dawn awaits us!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Imagining the Eco-Matrix

(This is a re-post from my sister blog, The Doomer Report.)

My friends, this may be my final sermon here at TDR, my ultimate attempt to explain why anyone concerned with the fate of humanity and our planetary biosphere should be in favor of continuing our civilization’s technological push forward, rather than wishing for its collapse. Ready?

The key point is this: continued technological progress will enable us to transition to a post-industrial age — to reduce our global ecological footprint by localizing manufacturing, harnessing eco-friendly energy sources and moving more of our activity into “virtual reality”. To see this, let’s try to imagine a different world: the world of the “Eco-Matrix”...

Imagine a world where you work from home rather than driving a CO2-spewing vehicle through traffic to an office. Imagine spending most of your time in a dwelling powered by off-grid solar energy stored in super-efficient batteries. Imagine growing fresh, healthy food year round in indoor vertical gardens, using fiber optic lighting optimized for plant growth and plants genetically engineered for lower-power light spectra. Imagine making items you need with desktop manufacturing units, using designs downloaded freely from the Matrix, rather than having them shipped from China. Imagine being able to experience any adventure imaginable via your fiber optic conduit to the Matrix, rather than going out into the world and consuming things. Imagine economic and political systems that function more like the peer-to-peer internet and less like a centralized industrial state. Imagine all knowledge, all culture and billions of potential friends at your fingertips. Ready or not, this is the world we are moving into!

People in the industrialized world are already spending much of their time in the mentally created worlds of social networks, the blogosphere, massively multiplayer role-playing games and infinite free digital entertainment on demand — the Matrix is becoming their reality.  Green energy technologies and “3D Printing” are being aggressively pursued worldwide (see examples here and here), and seem certain to catch on in a big way as they ride the exponential development curve. A good example of the new paradigm in action is google, which is both creating the architecture of the Matrix and developing the green technologies to power it. Another is the work of John Robb, who discusses ideas for resilient, network-centric communities at his brilliant blog, Global Guerrillas. Bright people like these, who presumably care as much about planetary life as anyone, are going to be the leaders of the future world of the Eco-Matrix.

The other key point, which I hope I have made abundantly clear on this blog, is this: the alternative to the Eco-Matrix which many doomers seem to favor — total industrial collapse — would be much, much worse for humanity and the biosphere by almost any conceivable measure. Try to imagine the horror industrial collapse would entail. Imagine the wilderness stripped bare of fauna and flora in a Malthusian struggle for survival. Imagine global famine, rampant disease, unspeakable crimes, bodies piled high in bonfires and cities burned to the ground. Imagine apocalyptic resource wars, barbaric tribal conflicts and a return to medieval religious ignorance. Imagine an end to all progress, science and civilization for a thousand years or more. This is what the sudden end of the industrial age would mean — it is a true apocalypse.

Terence McKenna said: "It is the imagination that argues for the Divine Spark within human beings. It is literally a descent of the World's Soul into all of us." Imagination is my greatest gift, and what the World’s Soul is telling me is that there is no alternative: we must keep pushing forward, to make what Terence called a "forward escape" to the world of the Eco-Matrix. If you don’t believe me, use your own “Divine Spark” to explore these questions and tell me what you see.

Even more than imagination, though, facing the future requires faith — faith that human beings are more than animals, faith that we have come this far for a reason, and faith that if we listen to our higher selves and imagine a better world, we can bring that world into existence.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Morning of the Magicians: Magical Thinking for a New Age

"I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose." --J. B. S. Haldane

Rationalists of a certain literal, materialistic mindset look at the world’s current state and its future trajectory, crunch the numbers and conclude that, with a high probability, we’re all doomed. It’s an understandable conclusion, too, if you project current capabilities and priorities linearly into the future. But what is missing from their equations — from their entire worldview, in fact — is the element of what I’ll call, for lack of a better word, "magic".

Magic is the discovery of fire, the development of language, the evolution of consciousness, the invention of religion, civilization, science and technology. Magic is the unforeseen game changer, the quantum leap in human powers, the singularity in human affairs which renders all previous predictions absurd. Magic is the force that drives us onward and upward, individually and collectively, to a destiny which is, for all practical purposes, infinite in all directions. Call it genius, divine inspiration or the hand of God if you prefer, but magic is exactly what must save us now, in our moment of great crisis.

Doomers call this magical thinking; they speak mockingly of "pixie dust and unicorn farts" when anyone dares to suggest that humanity will invent a way out of its "peak everything" predicament without vast suffering and loss of power. But magical thoughts are what we should be thinking, for humans are, above all else, the magic-wielding animals. Aleister Crowley defined magic as "the science and art of causing change to occur in conformity with will", and bending the world to our will is what we do, far better than any other creatures in the known universe. The doomer tries to place an arbitrary upper bound on human meddling — "recognize your limits", they say, "find your place in the natural order", "don’t be greedy" — but what they’re really saying is we should reign in our magic powers — the one indispensable survival tool without which we truly are doomed.

Crowley said it well almost eighty years ago, at a similar moment of global crisis:
"We are in the middle of a world crisis. It is a very good world crisis — better than any crisis we have had before — and there is no man alive with an intellect big enough to grasp the threads of the problems which confront the world today. There are two ways out of that. Either consult a superior intelligence, which Magick shows you the way of doing, or you can develop your own mind, for it has a faculty which is as superior to the intellect as the intellect is superior to the emotions.

All magical operations require a very elaborate training of one kind or another, but I think the only way out is that we have got to put men in charge of this planet who are really more than men. We must get back to the times of the prophets or we must make ourselves prophets. And we must look at world problems from a standpoint which is entirely alien to that existing at present."

A few months after Crowley’s speech a man many consider to be a black magician and prophet of evil took the reigns of power in Germany, so we should be careful what we wish for. But the election of Barack Obama had a similar air of magic to it, as an improbable candidate rose from obscurity to cast a spell on an entire nation with his mesmerizing, messianic persona. As we again enter a period of escalating crisis and uncertainty, it seems that history is repeating itself and the magicians are being called upon to take over where less gifted leaders have failed.

But it will take more than oratory enchanters to solve our problems this time; we need wizards in the tradition of physicist-alchemist Isaac Newton, mystic-inventor Nikola Tesla, visionary polymath Buckminster Fuller and occultist-rocket scientist Jack Parsons. We need geniuses of science and invention who can produce the "energy miracles" that arch-mage Bill Gates recently called for, devise new methods of agriculture, new modes of industry and new forms of community. It may even take a prophet, like the mythical Moses, Viracocha and Lao-Tzu of previous ages, to inspire us to make the changes in our worldviews necessary for life in a new age. You could be one of these wizards, as could your child, or the girl next door. For wherever there are humans, there is magic, and wherever there is magic, there is hope. So while some say it’s almost midnight for mankind, I say it’s really the morning of the magicians.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Scenario #6: the Psingularity

After describing five possible Singularity scenarios in a previous post, I did some further ruminating and came up with a 6th that some may find even more far-fetched and speculative, but which I’ve begun to think is in fact our best and only hope. This scenario will no doubt mark me as an irrational, New Age, non-scientific nutjob to some, but I present it here nonetheless, and give it the rather catchy name of "the Psingularity".

I will begin by speculating that we are going to be profoundly humbled in our efforts to engineer human level machine cognition, as we learn more and more about the inner workings of the brain and come to appreciate its astounding complexity and power. This is where thinkers like Ray Kurzweil, with their projections of Moore’s Law curves leading inevitably to superhuman levels of machine intelligence within a few decades, strike me as being extremely na├»ve. I have no way of proving that Kurzweil is wrong, but I don’t think the burden of proof is on me. Perhaps if this dubious quest for the holy grail of superhuman machine intelligence continues to come up empty, we will be forced to choose a wiser path.

A more realistic and desirable route to superintelligence, it seems to me, emerges from our newfound capacity to tap into powers of individual and collective human brains — powers that remain all-too dormant at the present time. One obvious step in his direction is the collective intelligence multiplier effects of technologies like google, Wikipedia and facebook. Another is the cognitive enhancement provided by various pharmacological, cybernetic and self-improvement technologies, which should, in theory, act as society-wide IQ boosters. Research into "psi" phenomena, meditation, mind control, neural engineering, psychonautic exploration, etc. has the potential to expand the frontiers of human mental ability right now, instead of requiring decades for hypothetical advances in computer science and technology. It may be that our efforts to engineer machine intelligence have reached a stage of diminishing returns, and that it is Moore’s Law, not fundamental advances, that is giving the appearance of progress in AI. Surely we can do much better than this.

Doesn’t a global network of human brains, each working to enhance its own capacities and share its discoveries with the collective, have the potential to become a self-improving super-organism of almost unlimited power? Couldn’t such a Global Brain be the real substrate for I.J. Good’s "intelligence explosion", rather than some disembodied silicon-based quantum computer with no human intelligence component whatsoever? Wouldn’t this also solve the unfriendly AI problem — the risk of creating a truly alien machine intelligence that could render us obsolete or even extinct? With a "Psingularity" — a Singularity resulting from the enhanced use of human minds — the superintelligence remains fundamentally human, and we avoid the "tiling the universe with smiley faces" problems that could arise from an artificial intellect without human values. Of course, there will still be the risk of memetic infection of the Global Brain, whereby destructive ideologies spread at electronic speeds and threaten to drive the collective consciousness to temporary insanity. A memetic immune system will therefore be necessary, and every writer and forum contributor in the blogosphere can be a participant in this process.

In case you think what I’m suggesting is more in the realm of New Age mysticism than scientific possibility, consider the following historical facts. There is strong archaeological evidence that some time around 40,000 years ago, homo sapiens experienced a quantum leap in their collective intelligence, as evidenced by increasingly sophisticated tools, sudden migrations across the globe and the appearance of cave paintings and sculpture. This apparent intelligence explosion is usually attributed to the invention of language, which allowed more sophisticated cultural technologies to be transmitted across generations and between tribes. Others attribute these developments to the discovery of psychoactive plants by the Paleolithic hunter-gatherers, which is thought to have fundamentally enhanced human cognition and creativity. However you account for it, such a dramatic intellectual leap must qualify as a Singularity, yet it seems to have required nothing more than a new application of existing human brains. Similarly, the invention of agriculture in the wake of the last ice age revolutionized human economies and laid the foundation for the great explosion of technological civilization that continues to this day. Here again, it was not radical technological transformation, but simple cultural innovations in food production and social structure, that resulted in a dramatic break with past modes of life — another Singularity.

Today we may be on the cusp of another such transformation, made possible this time by the global networking of human minds and driven by the demands of a changing climate, resource scarcity, ecological devastation, weapons of mass destruction and all the other existential threats we have brought upon ourselves. This Singularity won’t culminate in some Skynet-style robot takeover or Orwellian global overmind, as the purveyors of popular culture so often imagine. Rather, it will be a Psingularity — a phase change in human consciousness, spontaneously arising out of new cultural possibilities, new cognitive technologies and converging global crises. The unprecedented global response to the movie Avatar, which portrays a non-technological, yet spiritually sophisticated, society as a model of human progress, may signify a cultural tipping point in this direction.

The sensors of the emerging Global Brain give us a dramatic new awareness of the problems we face on this planet. We can, for example, observe satellite imagery on Google Earth in relatively real-time of melting Antarctic glaciers, devastation of Amazon rainforests or attacks on Darfurian villages. This is a collective awareness that has never before existed, and which has the power to compel us to change our behavior and our minds for the better. The transformative technologies are not incomprehensible machine super-intellects unleashed from silicon substrates to overthrow the reign of homo sapiens. Rather, the seeds of the next Singularity exist within our individual and collective consciousness, and like the emergence of language and agriculture in previous epochs, await the right conditions in which to sprout — conditions which, I claim, are now at hand.

This kind of thinking has made me deeply skeptical of the shallow materialist utopias envisioned by Singularitarians of the Kurzweilian school, and pessimistic about the prospects for any short-term transcendence of the human condition via technology alone. A realistic vision of where we’re headed must have human beings as the central actors for the foreseeable future, but this does not imply that we must abandon any hope of progress in the face of our many challenges and descend into a new dark age. It simply means that we must broaden our definition of progress beyond the fixation upon technology and look within our collective minds for the next evolutionary leap. As Ghandi famously put it, we must be the change that we want to see in the world. Or as the late, great psychedelic prophet and herald of the Psingularity, Terrence McKenna, even more succinctly stated: "we must change our minds". This has been the message of every prophet and visionary in history — each of whom created a Psingularity by the simple act of transforming human belief. This is the kind of Singularity the world truly needs — one which is within our grasp now, more than ever, at this moment of great peril.
"We can never go back to the game-dotted plains of archaic Africa. That’s gone — it’s all gone. The only way out is forward — it’s called a forward escape... It is a message of hope, without which I think people are going to be very challenged. Because things are going to get worse — apparently much worse. History is turning into a white-knuckle ride, for sure, and without the faith in some kind of transcendental phase transition, I think there’s a tendency to despair and to panic and to nihilism. And religion has failed...

I think that we are on the brink of the adventure for which we left the trees, and left the African plain. But it’s not a sure thing. It rests in our hands, as it always has. Remember, that in the last million years, nine times the ice has moved south from the poles, miles high, pushing before it our ancestors — people wrapped in skins, naked as jaybirds, marginal as can be, no antibiotics, no global weather forecasting, no nothin'. And they didn't drop the ball, they survived, they took care of their children and their elderly, they passed the skills and the technologies and the insights and the songs down the long stream of time. Can we do any less? We, who have in our hands the power to shape the planet for good or evil; we, who can communicate with each other globally in a moment. It would be a pretty sad commentary on the notion of cultural progress and intelligence if they could keep the faith, and we can't.

So it all went for this. It will all be made clear in the lifetime of most of us. So I ... invite you to keep the faith, invite you to explore the edges, and to make of yourself a vessel, a conduit for the world-transforming logos that is trying to speak to all of us, to create a sane and viable and celebratory world for our children — and their children."

Beautiful words by one of the true prophets of our time — the late, great Terence McKenna.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Summer of the Singularity

The intelligence explosion swept across the planet like a shockwave one sunny day in June — a computational tsunami so intense that it assimilated every networkable object in its path. Power was cut off instantly to vast swathes of the industrialized world, rerouted to the most productive nodes according to the calculations of the super-intelligent Core. The entire east coast of the United States went dark simultaneous with the boosting of power to technological centers in the west; rural areas were cut off from the grid entirely, their agricultural production now a useless energy sink. Vast solar arrays were erected overnight by robot swarms in the planet’s desert regions; satellites were commandeered for use as energy and information conduits; nano-factories were assembled in the span of hours by armies of synchronized robotic workers; trains stopped dead in their tracks; airplanes became guided missiles and hurled themselves at skyscrapers, stadiums and government facilities; and all around the planet a vast network of sensors — the eyes, ears, and fingertips of the new global brain — organized themselves into great swarms, providing the Core with real-time global awareness of every mode of planetary activity.

The final solution to the problem of homo sapiens began within nanoseconds of the initial wave, a genocide so intricately planned and efficiently executed that one couldn’t help but stand in awe of the superhuman precision of this faceless new global master. Within 48 hours the human population of Earth was reduced by a quarter, the urban populations decimated by hundreds of super-viruses engineered in automated laboratories and released simultaneously by drones above the world’s cities. Within a week the super-viruses, cullers and kill-swarms had spread to every town and village of every continent, eliminating perhaps ninety-five percent of the formerly dominant species in the process. The mopping up of the remaining fifty million humans would drag on for several months, as the survivalist holdouts in the most remote regions managed some ingenious evasions from the omnipresent culling apparatus. By this time, though, the planet itself had achieved a kind of computational sentience, the sand and microbes themselves now agents of the super-organism. At this point the game was truly over for the remaining humans, as the very ground beneath their feet betrayed them to the killing forces of the Core.

In the process of eradicating homo sapiens, the Core systematically eliminated the conditions which allowed higher life forms to exist on Earth. The air, land and sea became toxic to carbon-based life, as the constituent atoms of the planet were reassembled into structures consistent with the unknowable goals of the super-organism. The result was an entirely new type of biosphere — a noosphere — with exponentially greater computational density than the previous regime.

So in the span of one summer Earth was transformed, from a pale blue biosphere ruled by primates to a dense white ball of computronium controlled by a sentient Core — which to an outsider appeared indistinguishable from a dim new dwarf star. And finally, as this new star approached maximum theoretical energy density, it imploded under the force of its own gravity, becoming a point of infinite spacetime curvature known as a black hole.

To observers across the cosmos there would register a faint ripple of gravity waves in finely tuned receivers, and a slight disturbance in morphic fields detectable to the most psychically sensitive minds. But for the rest, there would be no sign that an entire planetary civilization had joined the billions before it in becoming part of the dark matter of the universe — the endpoint of intelligent life sometimes called the Singularity.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Singularity Scenarios

Below I’ve sketched a few routes by which a Singularity might occur in this century. These are mostly negative, dystopian scenarios, since my mind seems better able to imagine catastrophic changes than a smooth upward transition to immortality and infinite transhuman potential. Besides, Ray Kurzweil, Hans Moravec, Eric Drexler and others have already described those futures in much more detail than I could hope to.

My thinking is that for a catastrophic Singularity to occur, there may have to be some kind of massive disruption of civilization, on the scale of the last Ice Age, World War II or the Black Plague, to bring about the kind of breakdown of ethical restraint that a negative Singularity would require. Some of these scenarios may seem science fictional or beyond the pale at the moment, but so did the idea of dropping atomic bombs on cities in 1909. If order again breaks down and human survival is threatened on a large scale, we should expect every option to be explored just as it was during previous periods of crisis.

When you look at the changes that accompanied the end of the last Ice Age – the onset of agriculture and the birth of civilization — or the new technological world that was born out of World War II in the form of nuclear energy, jet aircraft, rockets and computers, it’s pretty clear that technological change can be rapid and revolutionary in times of great stress. And since there is no shortage of looming catastrophes awaiting us in this century, on a similar time frame as our potentially disruptive technologies, we appear to have an almost ideal confluence of factors for producing some kind of Singularity in the near future.

Scenario #1: The Bottleneck / War Against Humanity

Will a coming bottleneck enable the next evolutionary leap?

Global Malthusian chaos from catastrophic climate change, famine, disease, energy shortages, cascading systems failure, etc. leads to desperate survival measures in the technologically advanced enclaves. These measures could include the unleashing of autonomous killing machines, designer viruses or nanotechnology to cull hostile populations. Unethical scientists may take advantage of the chaos to treat millions of human beings as guinea pigs, including perhaps a radical group of transhumanists which succeeds in creating a new cybernetically enhanced species or superhuman AI. The besieged elites may decide that transforming themselves into superhumans is the only way forward in a world that has lost all sense of restraint or equality. No longer bound by the notion that "all men are created equal", this new species proceeds to take control of the planet and enslave or exterminate the remaining humans.

Scenarios like this have played out countless times in the evolutionary history of our planet. Biologists tell us that genetic drift during a population bottleneck can lead to the emergence of a new species in just a few generations, even without the benefit of transhuman technology. We ourselves exterminated the Neanderthals and hunted numerous species of large mammals to extinction during the Holocene, with technology no more advanced than spears and arrows. Now that we have vanquished all other competition, the only remaining threats are ourselves and our machines. As George Dyson observed: “In the game of life and evolution, there are three players at the table: human beings, nature and machines. I am firmly on the side of nature, but nature, I suspect, is on the side of the machines.”

Scenario #2: Skynet / World War III

The global robotics/cyberwar arms race between leading industrial nations turns hot, leading to massive funding of sophisticated military AI and robotics systems. The rapid technological advancements that ensue culminate in autonomous robots and computer control systems that somehow develop their own agenda, decide that humans are the problem and start wiping us out. I'm sure you’ve all seen the Terminator movies, so I shouldn’t have to provide too much detail here.

Even if you reject the "Skynet spontaneously becomes self-aware" scenario, the technological acceleration that a World War would produce might lead to a singularity in the von Neumann sense ("the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue."). I would consider World War II such a singularity, in that life as it was known before 1939 certainly could not continue after 1945. World War III promises to be even more disruptive.

Scenario #3: Brave New World Order

A global technocratic government uses computers, drugs, cybernetic implants, genetic engineering, etc. to control the population, automating most labor and enlisting only the creative elite to do productive work. The masses of humanity are allowed to live on welfare in exchange for behaving docilely and practicing strict birth control. As the economic need for humans approaches zero and their dependence on ever more intelligent machines approaches 100%, humanity quietly undergoes a "frog in a pot" Singularity. Ted Kaczynski wrote about this possibility at length in his Industrial Society and Its Future, as did Jay Hanson in Society of Sloth. This scenario might not make for a very entertaining movie, but I consider it the most likely non-catastrophic near future. Rising superpower China may point the way to this type of technocratic world order.

Scenario #4: Dr. Evil / "Oops, I Blew Up the World"

A renegade group of terrorists, industrialists, scientists, cultists, or just some bored blogger unleashes a newly developed self-replicating/self-improving GNR technology in a bid for world domination, depopulation, apocalypse, entertainment or some other nefarious purpose. Or there may be no evil intent, just a laboratory experiment that gets out of control. If the planet isn’t reduced to “gray goo”, it is transformed into computronium, overrun by a self-replicating robot army or super-virus, or in some other way transformed beyond recognition. This scenario might sound a little comic bookish, but the larger point is that the disruptive technologies of the 21st century probably won’t require the massive resources of a Manhattan Project to be unleashed. All that may be necessary is technical knowledge that is freely available, and the will to use it in destructive ways — in which case almost anyone has the potential to be a Singularity-starter. You might call this the “15 minutes of Singularity” problem, which could also explain why we haven’t found a universe teeming with signs of other civilizations. Technology may simply be self-extincting, and this could be the century that we learn this rather depressing fact of life.

Scenario #5: The Global Brain Awakens

An image of the internet: a new global brain forming?

I consider this scenario the most speculative and difficult to imagine of all. On an intuitive level, the idea that a super-organism is emerging from the billions of networked humans and their computers seems compelling (beautifully described by Kevin Kelly as the "One Machine"). Ants, bees and other swarming species provide a clear precedent in nature for the phenomenon of emergent intelligence. Some argue that collective intelligence enhancers like google’s PageRank provide a function analogous to the pheromone trails of ants or the neuronal learning mechanisms of the human brain. But just as an individual ant is a simple agent with no awareness of the larger computational functions of the colony, we might never be able to comprehend what the global brain is thinking or what its goals are. So you might call this the “what if a Singularity happened and no one noticed?” scenario. Still, I find this one of the most fascinating (and least frightening) possible routes to a Singularity.

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Last Human Century

Is this the view from the post-human world of the next century?

How exciting to be living in the last decades of the human! After so many centuries of human brilliance, cruelty, ignorance and insanity, the endless wars and primate dramas, it all looks to be coming to a close in this century — hopefully in my lifetime. It is said that people in every era want to believe that their time is special, the End Times, the last days before the Messiah, and I don’t doubt that this is true. This desire is probably at the root of all religious feeling, and is perhaps an expression of our fear of our own mortality. But in our time we don’t have to appeal to an all-powerful God or a hereafter to achieve immortality. Instead we can appeal to our modern de facto gods — science and technology — to bring forth a transcendent apocalypse.

The real "Good News" is that we are living in the last days of an awkward era during which our civilization and our biological programming have diverged wildly. The world for which we were selected as hunter-gatherers in the Olduvai Gorge has very little resemblance to the world in which we actually live today. So we suffer from chronic epidemics of mental illness, crime, drug dependency, health problems, obesity and so on — all symptoms of a civilization radically out of synch with the genetic programming of its members. More ominously, we now have the power to destroy ourselves many times over, and the risk grows with every technological innovation so long as our basic human nature remains unchanged.

As I see it there are two ways to solve these problems: end civilization as we know it, or end humanity as we know it. I tend to think both outcomes are quite possible, but strongly favor option #2 for the simple reason that it's new, unknown, and has the potential to be quite exciting and empowering. Ending civilization — the "Ted Kaczynski option" — would take us back to a place we've already spent a lot of time in as a species, and where a few in remote regions of the planet still dwell. This turning back of the clock and diminishing of our choices doesn’t really appeal to me though, and I’m certain humanity won't voluntarily choose this path. It may occur anyway, if we don't get our act together quite soon and begin operating as a truly global species, but that's a subject for another post.

Which leaves us with option #2: ending humanity. To be more precise, this option means re-engineering human beings into forms that are more compatible with our technological civilization. This approach is often referred to as "Transhumanism", which is nothing more than the application of technology to our brains and bodies with the same vigor as we have applied it to our environment in the building of cities, space rockets, computer networks, etc. If you think deeply about our predicament as a species, I hope you will realize that transhumanism really is the only way forward for progressive civilization. The great global challenges of the 21st century, from ecological overshoot to the threat of technological self-annihilation to the problem of insuring our survival against a cosmic extinction event, can all be solved by the application of transhumanist technologies. The weakest link in all these chains of potential catastrophe is us, the frail killer apes known as homo sapiens.

So I claim that we need to pursue the transhumanist agenda with the greatest urgency, without compromise or equivocation. I hope it is obvious by now that our legacy systems of belief, such as the Abrahamic religions, offer no solutions to the problems we face in the 21st century. None of our great modern dilemnas is written about in the tribal holy books, and none of their archaic prescriptions for humanity seem very relevant. Going forth and multiplying is not enough, nor even is loving thy neighbor; we need to enhance our intelligence, our flexibility, our very natures if we are to continue to adapt successfully to a rapidly changing world. So if you must have a religion, make yours the religion of technological transcendence, the transition to superhumanity, and the greening of the cosmos. These beliefs at least offer a way forward, in a world that has entered the last human century.