I've written before about the so-called "Singularity." In a famous essay, Vernor Vinge described the concept this way:
When greater-than-human intelligence drives progress, that progress will be much more rapid. In fact, there seems no reason why progress itself would not involve the creation of still more intelligent entities -- on a still-shorter time scale. The best analogy that I see is with the evolutionary past: Animals can adapt to problems and make inventions, but often no faster than natural selection can do its work -- the world acts as its own simulator in the case of natural selection. We humans have the ability to internalize the world and conduct "what if's" in our heads; we can solve many problems thousands of times faster than natural selection. Now, by creating the means to execute those simulations at much higher speeds, we are entering a regime as radically different from our human past as we humans are from the lower animals.
From the human point of view this change will be a throwing away of all the previous rules, perhaps in the blink of an eye, an exponential runaway beyond any hope of control. Developments that before were thought might only happen in "a million years" (if ever) will likely happen in the next century. (In , Greg Bear paints a picture of the major changes happening in a matter of hours.)
I think it's fair to call this event a singularity ("the Singularity" for the purposes of this paper). It is a point where our old models must be discarded and a new reality rules. As we move closer to this point, it will loom vaster and vaster over human affairs till the notion becomes a commonplace.
Since the publication of Ray Kurzweil's book The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, and to a lesser degree my own book, which has a chapter on the Singularity, the subject has gotten more attention, and lately there has been a bit of singularity backlash. In particular, I've noticed the reappearance of Ken MacLeod's dismissal of the Singularity as "the Rapture for nerds."
This has even produced a bit of backlash-backlash, including this observation:
I'll also note that while Ken MacLeod is sometimes quoted for his 'The Rapture for Nerds!' line in The Cassini Division, the nerds in the book turned out to be *right*.
Well, nerds often do, despite being dismissed.
But I want to focus on a different aspect of MacLeod's comment, because I actually think it cuts both ways. Yes, it's possible to draw parallels between the Christian idea of The Rapture -- and, even more generally, between religious ideas of transcendence generally -- and the notion that, once human technology passes a certain threshold, roughly that described by Vinge and other Singularity enthusiasts, human beings will potentially enjoy the kind of powers and pleasures traditionally assigned to gods or beings in heaven: Limitless lifespans, if not immortality, superhuman powers, virtually limitless wealth, fleshly pleasures on demand, etc.
These do sound like the sorts of things that religions have promised their followers throughout human history. That leads some who invoke MacLeod's comment to contend that because Singularity enthusiasts hope for the same kinds of things that religious believers have hoped for, Singularity enthusiasts are merely adherents to a new sort of religion, the religion of science.
But as Isaac Asimov has noted, the religion of science is distinguished by one chief characteristic: "that it works." I express no opinion on whether science will actually deliver on these hopes. But I note that people once looked to supernatural sources for such now-mundane things as cures for baldness or impotence, only to find those desires satisfied, instead, by modern pharmacology. Yet that hardly makes those who place their faith in pharmacology members of a religion -- or, if it does, it makes them members of a religion that is distinguishable from those dependent on the supernatural.
In fact, rather than serving as a dismissal of the Singularity, it seems to me that the Singularity-as-religion argument cuts the other way. How do we know that people want the kinds of things that advanced technology is supposed to offer? Because they've been trying to get them through non-technological means for all of recorded history. And as history demonstrates, they've been willing to try awfully hard, and in a wide variety of ingenious ways: Jihadists are strapping on suicide bombs today, in the hope of attaining the kind of environment that virtual reality will deliver in 20 years.
So is the Singularity just a new religion? Or is religion just the pre-marketing department for the Singularity?