TCS Daily


A Rapture for the Rest of Us

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - April 5, 2006 12:00 AM

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 [5], 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?

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22 Comments

Rapture
So what happens if (when) this greater intelligence decides it has better things to do than attend to our powers and pleasures? Won't it probably want to serve its own interests? Rapid change brings a lot of great things to the table, but time to consider consequences doesn't seem to be one of them.

Agree completely - Glen is enraptured
Glenn is a very talented person and I am amazed at what he gets done but he seems enraptured with the possibility that technology will solve our ills and bring us a paradise here on earth. I don't think he has ever thought through what these changes will bring and if people will be more happy once they are the norm. Or what the secondary or tertiary effects will be.

For example, I am not sure our medical advances have made people all that more happy. It seems to make them want even more and to be uspet with it when they cannot get it immediately.

Why...
would you ever expect humanity to lose its drive to push back its boundaries? Of course we will want more, the point is to envision what more there is beyond the drive for mere wealth, health, and extended life.

Mere technology will not make anyone happy. Perhaps centuries of life will allow us to find it though.

Not that I even believe the Sigularity is near. Too much of the planet is technophobic. Look at the anti-tech environmentalist movement. Look at the protectionist practises of the EU and other governments. These forces will work together to keep us from achieving anything close to a singularity.

A Rapture-- A psudo Utopia
Utopia is from long long time man` past time,ancient people daydream this kind of utopia in supernatural way, Today `s day dreamers completly depend on techonology.Both are living in fool`s pardise. they donot understand real human nature,man always enjoy in misery, sorrow, war murder, carfully watch people frist read and enjoy bad news in newspaper.

Greater Intelligence
"So what happens if (when) this greater intelligence decides it has better things to do than attend to our powers and pleasures? Won't it probably want to serve its own interests?"

The “Greater Intelligence” in our future is us…whether transformed, our successors or both. I believe that these “future humans” will have learned from history that hatred, greed and war in their era of Super-WMD's can only lead to extinction. The purpose of pursuing enhanced intelligence is to improve the chances for survival by transforming the adaptability of mankind to the forces of the cosmos and the limitations of natural evolution. A sentient race of "Greater Intelligence" is unlikely to survive without adapting a culture of peace. I believe that the 10,000 years of war that shame the legacy of human development will be ended in this century by the combined forces of the power of rationality and instinct to survive.

A “Greater Intelligence” that cannot survive would after all not be so great.

Greater Intelligence
I hope you're right but I'm not optimistic about this. Some of the most intelligent people in the world today are also very wealthy, ambitious, violent and power hungry. Even the great philanthropists of our era generally give just enough of their fortunes during their lifetimes to get on magazine covers. I don't think we can say a priori that the greater intelligence of the future, whether enhanced human or otherwise will be kind, or whether it will survive. We could get into a long discussion about different types of intelligence (cognitive, affective, etc.) but I hope that I'm at least communicating my point.

Singularity lacks one thing: scientific methodology
Although I myself am a "believer" in science, I do think Singularity belongs among the religions. This is because it requires a leap of faith. You can market ideas all you want, but until you find the true scientific evidence, you may be doing no more than barking up a tree -- right or wrong, but just a tree nonetheless.

Maybe Nirvana will come through technology, or maybe that "Greater Intelligence" wants mankind to be warriors among itself. Maybe our next evolutionary phase will be a new Middle Ages. After all, it is only through Darwinian elimination that the various species "advance" (a relative term anyway), and man is after all just another species. We have no other enemy than ourselves to weed out the inadaptable weak.

Singularity/Rapture, who cares
If increased intelligence enables me to calculate the 3rd root of pi in my head, (2nd is actually rather easy,) or measure the number of angels that can dance on the head of a pin, I'm not sure that I'd like it that much, it tends to get in the way of what I really like.

You don't need an IQ of 140 to go fishing, you just have to be smarter than the fish. (Never vote for a politician who doesn't like fishing.)

Robots can't produce the things that I enjoy the most. (The Azimov symphony orchestra? I think not!)

Ever tried scratching the ears of K-9? (I don't want a pet with a built in laser.)

About the only time greater intelligence really would be a blessing is every April 15th.



Pierre Teilhard de Chardin
Those of you listening to Glenn would do well to google the above...

Singularity is a mostly 'undocumented feature'
External technology will not bring about the Singularity.

It already exists at the essential core of everything in the universes. It can also be called the ground state of quantum physics. It is experienced through forms of meditation that allow one to transcend mental and physical activity and experience the Singularity (oneness) of everything (turiya or samadhi).

So the only technology necessary is the human body. Used appropriately it's therefore possible to comply with Christ's instructions from the Sermon on the Mount: "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father, which is in Heaven, is perfect". And all that implies.

Do Singularitarians resemble lower-class Rapture-believers?
From, "Left Hehind Culturally," by Gary North

http://www.lewrockwell.com/north/north30.html

The Bible teaches that "a good man leaveth an inheritance to his children's children: and the wealth of the sinner is laid up for the just" (Proverbs 13:22). The Rapture doctrine teaches that the wealth of the just is laid up for the sinner. So, why spend a lifetime of above-average effort and risk-taking in order to lay up an inheritance that will be confiscated by the sinners left behind?

A radical present-orientation afflicts Protestant fundamentalists. In 1970, Edward Banfield identified the primary origin of lower-class culture as its present-orientation. (See the original edition of his book, The Unheavenly City.) It is not a person's income but rather his time-perspective that best identifies his class position. Fundamentalists, by this definition, are lower class.

A person who has no faith in the long-term earthly future of his legacy is unlike to save, work long hours to build a business, advance his education, or do anything else that involves long-term sacrifice, other than foreign missions. Ludwig von Mises argued that people with high time-preference (low future-orientation) pay high interest rates to borrow money, and will not save unless they are offered high interest rates by borrowers. Cultures that are high time-preference societies experience low capital formation and therefore low economic growth, he said. They are unwilling to pay for it. They get what they pay for.

surely
I agree but "Look at the protectionist practises of the EU and other governments." You must include the US in the orther governments cat. Have a look at how much funding your farmers get for a start.

Singularitarianism
This article is a major winner.

A Rapture for the Rest of Us
Hi Glen

You write

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.

A quick reading of any text covering most religions will show that the gods have never been a happy lot. Many people awaiting the coming of the singularity believe that this power and wealth will bring happiness. All the psychological research to date would be to the contrary

Once our basic needs are met, more clothes, cars, housing, holidays, education and even better health don’t necessarily increase happiness. The research shows that once we are earning above 8000.00 US a year then more material things do not make us happier.

Outside of our genes the biggest single contributor to being happy is being married (not living together but being married ring on the finger etc).

The issue for me with the Singularity is that everyone is conflating it with human happiness and hence the false comparisons with religious rapture. Religious rapture as is marriage is about relationship, a defining characteristic of human primates.

For me one of the biggest issues of the Singularity is the question.

When all our basic human needs are met and the robots are doing all the work what do we do with our lives. How do we find meaning?

This seems to be lost in all the technological wonder of the singularity. You outline the Singularity as bringing us earthly and immediate pleasures. A land of lotus-eaters supported by good AI and robots. You may find it useful to go and have a look at the happiness research. This is a very low level of immediate sensate gratifying happiness. If you read someone like Seligman who has done extensive research on human happiness then it is clear that there are deeper more enduring levels of happiness that relate to striving and achievement and to relationship and acceptance of the self.

Chris Allan
http://gandalwaven.typepad.com/psychology_and_the_singul/

Time & Uncertainty
Time separates information from an entity with the rule-based capacity to use it. Therefore, no matter how much information an entity presently possesses, he will always be separated from some quantity and quality of information by time and the rules required to make use of it.

Next, uncertainty arises from information deficits of quantity and quality in time. Therefore, no apprehension of single link in a causal chain is likely to be informed, and no forecast of its further progression in time is likely to be fully informed.

In sum then, singularity theory dashes itself against limitations inherent in the laws of nature and human nature. That's why I'd recommend that mankind stick to religions that leverage his limitations to add value to human life.

Clarification...
I was speaking in technological terms. I disagree with American protectionism greatly but we don't even come close to the technophobic protectionism that the EU practises.

Silly article
The essay is not about the nature of the 'Singularity' itself, but rather how it relates, or even IF it relates, to religious thinking.

Frankly, it's a question that shows no need of even being asked.

This quip from the essay is especially telling:

"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."

GR makes note of the fact that people once asked God to deliver unto them their desires, some of which are now common and mundane, but which in the past would be equivalent to miraculous. Fine so far. But the assumption which goes along with it is flawed: "...only to find those desires satisfied, instead, by modern pharmacology." It seems odd that one would assume that having one's prayers answered, by whatever means necessary, would somehow be an indicator that the Divine had no part in the process. Whether it did or not is not the issue, it is simply not a logical assumption.

Many religions have a common sentiment - that 'the Lord helps those who help themselves.' Scientific advancement certainly qualifies. Who's to say that the advancement is not itself the answering of Man's prayers?

Where some people see any advancement of 'science' as some kind of an encroachment on 'God's Domain', as it were, I simply see revelation, I see growth in Man's understanding of this incredibly complex, yet functional, corporeal universe. None of Man's increased learning in any way takes away from what a magnificent creation the universe is. But it is also an indicator of just how special Mankind is.

Consider: The universe is estimated to be somehere in the neighborhood of 20 billion years old. This planet has been placed at roughly 4 billion. And yet Mankind has been doing science for only a few thousand, and really only gaining momentum over the last 100 years or so. The breadth of time that Man has been here, as compared to the whole, is even less than a blink, and yet look at how far we've come. And it's only going to accelerate. To conclude that this acceleration is logically going to lead somewhere climactic is not a stretch.

This is the kind of perspective that Vernor Vinge, and other science fiction writers like him, are using when they write their very interesting books. I have read Vinge's 'Across Realtime' series, and found it fascinating. I recommend it highly, for it is a breathtaking glimpse into the true sweep of the passage of time, and one possible way that Mankind might be able to exist within that sweep.

Reynolds mentions Asimov, but he should have mentioned Arthur C. Clarke as well. Among the books Clarke wrote is Childhood's End. Childhood's End is probably the one book which is focused like an arrow on what we would now call the 'Singularity'. I highly recommend this one as well. And while it's a nice yarn, it did not lead to a happy conclusion. It was less 'transcendence' than it was 'abandonment'. It posited the question: When the singularity happens, will it happen to everyone all at once? (Answer: No.) Will those who experience this transition from lower state to higher state care at all for their progenitors? (No again.)

It's all fine and good to talk about the Singularity, about where the future of Man's learning may lead us. It's interesting. It's what science fiction writers have done since there have BEEN science fiction writers.

But to ask if the Singularity is the equivalent of some kind of new religion simply shows a silly naivete regarding religion. The question just does not need asking.

Beam me up
Tell you what.

When the Singularity comes, you won't have need for any of that filthy lucre you've been collecting all these years. Ripe plums will just drop out of the trees into your hand. The celestial harmonies won't even need to be downloaded for 99 cents each. It'll all be right there for the taking.

In fact your cash will be a hindrance to entering those golden gates. It would be like getting into a CAT scan with loose change in your pockets. The magnetism would send it crashing about.

Let me take it off your hands. I accept checks and cash plus collectibles, no credit cards please. You can become completely singular, without a stain. Remember: there are no pockets in Heaven.

Revision to psycho-physical axiom
The first axiom should read: Time separates information from an entity AND the rule-based capacity to use it. This provides a physical description of the psychological development of every information-using entity, from DNA/RNA to man.

Regarding the article, notice that my axiom does not mention the purposive use of information. This is so because man may fiddle with the rules defining the uses of information according to his own purposes. In other words, for man, rule-making is not necessarily adaptive behavior that increases his chances of survival. (I find this as good a definition of the gap between human and animal intellegence as any other.)

So, will the "Singularity" produce a paradise for man? With man, the answer is definitely "no", for information is often deadly to man because the rules regarding its use can be anything man wants them to be.

Intelligence will trace itself back to common roots.
Could leaves on a tree ever appreciate their common roots? Nah. Leaves photosynthesize unconsciously. You can’t say leaves are ignorant.

Real intelligence could ignore but does not. Intelligence will trace itself back to common roots. It understands that there is a universal archetype essential to all cultures here on earth, even essential to other life forms in the universe. Science and religion originated from the same seed. The seed is; mana, the life force, the noosphere, and the perennial philosophy. Just as the tree branches in different directions to soak up the power of the sun, our cultures have branched to eventually take advantage of the power to be had in our differing perspectives. It will all come together in the singularity.

Plainly put; lasting hapiness is the Holy Grail, or the rapture of the nerds if you like. It is all the same. And, don’t worry about Super intellegence. It will also be attracted to lasting happiness adding to the continuum of life. Because, Every civilization that makes it to the singularity actually merges with Ray Kurzweil's "universal mind that is awake" and then goes further to transcend the universe as we know it. They leave quickly, understanding that there is some better place.

Where are the aliens? The speed of light makes it impossible for pre-singularity races to communicate. And, at the singularity there must be some genuinely Great Attractor awaiting those that make it. They dont look back...usually.

Sorry, but being who I am, I have to say that maybe Jesus Christ is one who cared enough to come back to explain the path in the context of those times.

Is it all the same?
If it's all the same, then how do a coin and a T-account differ in function and operation, but why are they two different aspects of the same system? The rules you imagine but may never "know" are in the answer to this question.

Mysterious? Perhaps. But not mystical, for reason and faith comprise the key to unlocking nature's treasure chest, not mysticism and faith. There is no knowing in mystery, for bunkum plus belief can never stand in for knowledge and moral certainty. In other words, if one is to seek and find, one must already possess some tool more certain than gullibility. And that tool is reason.

take it from a geek
Disclaimer: I am not familiar with the written material, just with what I read in couple of articles in the past 2 mins.

The curse of the genius is to live among morons. Why would you think that highly involved intelligence would just not shoot itself for having to live among people?

Knowledge can be a dangerous tool in the hands of people who do not understand it, assuming an entity is intelligent enough it will not provide any knowledge to people who don’t understand it, if nothing else than to prevent its misuse. So (logically) creating a highly intelligent entity will not produce any breakthroughs, unless you make it dumb enough to give it to you.

Besides knowledge is like a ladder, giving you knowledge is like putting you on a different “step” of the ladder, the trick is to learn how to climb.

time for me to hit the gym

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