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.