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A singular need to play god. June 17, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Our friend Ben recently stumbled upon an article from The New York Times while following a link back to a news article on Yahoo! News. As it was in the Top Ten Most E-mailed in the NYTimes list, I imagine many of you have seen it as well. If not, I urge you to go online and read it (www.nytimes.com). Some of you may find it focusing, perhaps even life-altering; but everyone will find plenty of food for thought, even if, like me, you’re a Luddite* and find 6 pages of high-tech commentary something of a slog.

The article, “Merely Human? That’s So Yesterday” by Ashlee Vance, first appeared in the Times on June 13. From the title, I thought the story would be about cyber-enhancement, and wandered over to see what it had to say. But it wasn’t about cyber-enhancement. It was about the end of the world as we know it, or, as its supporters like to put it, “the Post-Human Era.”

The Post-Human Era certainly has that dinosaur-extinction chill about it, as in nuclear winter or an asteroid striking Earth. But these people are talking about the development of a superintelligent reasoning machine that would usher in what they call the Singularity. And they’re trying as hard as they can to bring it about, preferably in the next two decades.

Say what? Are we talking about insane megalomaniacs a la James Bond villains who are trying to destroy the world? Nope, we’re talking about Bill Gates, the founders of Google, the titans of industry and high-genius inventors. Just your normal, apparently harmless computer geeks.

What’s in it for these people to destroy our world, enslaving or annihilating humanity in the process? In a word, immortality. Or at least a reasonable facsimile. In the article, many of the people interviewed confidently predicted lifespans of 700, 1,000, or even 3,000 years. For themselves, of course, not for the rest of us hoi polloi crawling down here in the dust at the foot of Mount Olympus.

Herein lies the most chilling aspect of the Singularity and its proponents: With absolutely no qualms, they predict a future of Haves and Have-Nots (capitalization theirs), with themselves in the former category and everyone else relegated to the equivalent of livestock. As one interviewee put it, “It is rich people building a lifeboat and getting off the ship.” The ship, in this case, being the common good of humanity and all life on Earth.

Cybergeeks, like pure scientists of all stripes, may be so wrapped up in what it’s possible to achieve that they’re simply oblivious to the consequences of those achievements. But the rich and powerful are not so naive. They see the consequences, calculate the benefits to themselves, and are happy to put everyone and everything else at risk to pursue those consequences.

However, in my opinion, they err. There is a group of people who have concerned themselves with issues like these for more than a century now, and they are a different type of creative genius: writers who envision the outcomes of human behavior in science fiction and fantasy. Many have tackled the subject of man versus the god-machine, and in every case, the future they have seen has shown the machine winning and man losing, at least up to a point. At that point, because it is fiction, often a heroic individual or band of individuals saves the day at the last second. But in real life, I ask you, what are the chances of that?

Let’s look at just a few of these apocalyptic scenarios, without the heroic endings: In “The Matrix,” machines keep humans stacked in trance-sleep, much as we keep factory-farmed chickens, to produce heat to enable the machines to function. In “2001: A Space Odyssey,” HAL the computer takes over the ship. In “The Terminator” series, machine-men are sent to destroy humanity’s future. Even the “Jurassic Park” series feeds into this, with its concept of combining science and greed without calculating the ultimate cost. As does “Avatar.”

Call me a cynic, but I think we’d be fools to count on a hero rising up and saving us and our world from the Singularity, the god-machine. What’s he or she supposed to do, detach the power plug?

And yet, the assumption of the men who are working to bring this about is the same one that has motivated immoral men for all of human history, the assumption of hubris: I can master this. Yes, this machine is all-powerful, but it will answer to me. I can control it. Yeah, right. Could you just stop long enough to ask yourselves this question: Why should it?

Many writers have also addressed this, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein to J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, in which the supposedly wisest of the wizards, Saruman the White, assumes that he will rise with Sauron rather than being enslaved by him, despite all evidence to the contrary. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series addresses this basic flaw in logic over and over again as well.

Our expression, “You’ve/I’ve/he’s/etc. created a monster!” speaks to this. No one can control his or her creation, not even God, who allows free will and weeps to see its consequences. But not being God Creator, who plays in all the universes and in time and space across all worlds, we don’t have the luxury to try a planetary experiment and watch it crash and burn. We have only the one planet and our dreams. If we allow a greedy elite to destroy our only home, we’ll have only ourselves to blame.

After reading the main NYTimes article, our friend Ben clicked on the embedded links, as I urge you to do also. One was to a paper by the mathematician and science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, who is credited with first defining the Singularity in its modern sense. One was to a website, www.SingularityHub.com, that supports the work of the founder of Singularity Univeristy, the man who is the chief proponent of the Singularity as envisioned by today’s elite, the genius inventor Raymond Kurzweil. This website included a link to Kurzweil’s own website, www.kurzweilAI.net, which featured a 2007 followup piece by Vernor Vinge called “What If the Singularity Does NOT Happen?”

Okay, our friend Ben thinks that only widespread, creative speculation on our future and our world, be it scientific or fictional, can help us move safely foreward. Perhaps that’s because, growing up, our friend Ben daily saw a framed 18th-Century French print in my parents’ hallway depicting a blindfolded, obviously reckless, sensuous young woman with the comment (rough translation): “She does not see the precipice.” The reckless young woman is not the only one. We do not see the precipice, either.

That’s because we need to involve historians, moralists, philosophers, ecologists, artists, and high creatives of every type and stripe in our deliberations, not just the rich and powerful, not just the politicians, not the corrupt of every kind, to shape our own and our world’s future. We need the young and old, the poor and rich, the innovators, priests and priestesses and shamans, from every culture and every continent, to come together to envision a future for humankind and all life on Earth. Would you really entrust the future of life on Earth, including your own, to a bunch of suits on Wall Street or PACs in Washington? Gods, I hope not.

Picture for a second the tough gang of Kung-Fu thugs beating up the tiny, fragile hero of the new version of “The Karate Kid.” Sadly, the little hero is our world, and the big, tough thugs are us.

It’s not hard to understand the thugs’ payback: Who wouldn’t want to live forever? I would, because I love the beauty of the world; I’d want to enjoy it for endless time to come. But who’d want to rule the world? Not me. Not anyone I know. But unfortunately, there are apparently enough people who would, who’d forsake the world of nature and interlocking creation to ascend the throne of power, the Darth Vader paradigm. Is this the future anyone (else) would want?

Proponents of the Singularity would dismiss me as an ignorant hick whose fears are pathetic and whose backwards, slow-witted ideas stand in the way of (their) progress. The scariest thing of all the things I read about the Singularity was a reader comment on Vernor Vinge’s 2007 essay. Another reader had raised some objections to the Singularity, and the reader who scares me attacked him, telling him to get out of the way and “Let the ones who know what’s best decide what to do, and let them act as they see best.”

Couple this with the cynical realism of every major Singularity player, all of whom say that, whatever the cost to humanity, whatever the consequences to our world, well-funded research will continue apace because no government is willing to let another government get their hands on this much power first. This was just the mentality that brought us the nuclear bomb, a weapon now in the hands of insane dictators and other leaders who are eager to earn glory in the afterlife by annihilating the present one.

But in the end, it is not governments who create bombs and other horrors. It is the people who invent them, the brightest, “the ones who know what’s best.” People whose intellects are of such an isolating order of magnitude that they lose touch with the greater issues and simply do things because they can, never considering the consequences. Like a computer hacker who wreaks untold damage, not because there’s anything in it for him, but because he thinks he sees how it can be done and is curious to know if he’s right, these masterminds are missing something far more valuable than sheer intellect: a sense of the whole, a sense of connection to all life, a sense of obligation to work for the good of all life, a need to see, not just the next step or the next mile, but clear to the end of the road.

Again, our friend Ben can sympathize. There is nothing in life as exhilarating as the experience of pure thought. When your brain hits that wavelength, it is a high that leaves all others in the dust. To curb free thought, to stop this amazing process, would be more immoral than to create the god-machine.

What is needed instead, in my opinion, is to insert a full stop between thought and action, to say not “I think I can do this” but “What will happen if I do this? Will it lead to good or bad?” To pair the creators with the far-seers, the wisdom keepers, the moralists and philosophers, the historians, and all people who are caretakers of our world. The people who know enough of our past to foresee future consequences. These people have historically been known as “the Wise” for a reason. They fully understand the interconnectedness of all life, the ultimate meaning of Hippocrates’ great law: “First, do no harm.” It is they, the “see-ers” (thus, seers), not the doers, who are and have always been “the ones who know what’s best.”

In some cases, as with our hero and blog mentor, Benjamin Franklin, and (ultimately) Albert Einstein, the two roles can combine in the same mighty person, the epitome of all we can strive for. But in our pragmatic, fast-paced world, too often, the Wise have been marginalized while the movers and shakers have been exalted.

Unless a far-seer like the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Krishnamurti, Thich Nhat Hanh, Mahatma Gandhi, Chief Seattle, Albert Schweitzer, Helen Keller, Hildegard of Bingen, St. Francis, or Eckhart Tolle inadvertently gains some kind of celebrity, they are viewed as irrelevant. Sure, they’re great souls, but could you please move the line along so I can get my Starbucks? And even the Wise who make it onto the public radar are usually dismissed with a mental pat on the head. After all, these guys are talking about world peace, respect for all beings, partnership with nature. Let’s get real!

Our friend Ben says, we’d damned better get real before our final reality is mass enslavement or a mass grave. Before we end all life on Earth, not through our own ignorance and abuse of resources, but through a single deliberate invention. We must reintegrate with our world, end the alienation, before it’s too late.

“The Earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.” It is not for a few greedy men, and the power-mad governments that pay them, to play god in God’s place.

* What is a Luddite, you ask? No, it’s not some obscure cult, but rather someone who is technologically challenged like yours truly. Say, someone whose eyes roll back in his head when a friend attempts to explain the thousand steps necessary to upload a photo or export text, and who believes that such machines as are necessary should be here to serve us—simply, with minimal input on our part—rather than vice-versa.



1. mr_subjunctive - June 17, 2010

I’m not worried. The article is long on huge claims and very short on specifics. The idea that all we need to do is build a big enough computer and then we’ll become something other than people strikes me as not just wrong, but painfully naive. I’m not real keen on the idea of dying either (and have in fact become considerably more morbid lately, for reasons I can’t exactly explain or even identify), but for the first time I’m kind of glad that I don’t have the kind of money that would permit this kind of self-delusion. These people all seem to be assuming that because a thing has continued in an exponential fashion for a hundred years or so, it is therefore going to continue exponentially forever. How smart are they, again?

Things will certainly change. They always do. But this talk about a Matrix-like future is, I suspect, a distraction so we won’t notice that we already live in a world where the rich and powerful can do whatever they like — cut the tops off of mountains, write their own regulatory laws and then ignore them anyway, kill and steal and abuse children and torture — and the rest of us are expendable. Therefore Deepwater Horizon, and BP being able to hire security people to keep reporters away from the beaches that are being cleaned up, to tell the people doing the cleaning not to wear the safety equipment needed to keep them from becoming sick from the fumes of the stuff they’re cleaning. Therefore health insurance companies that can take your money and then not cover you when you get sick. Therefore the Mormon Church can buy the Prop 8 election in California for $30 million and, when caught lying about it, only gets fined $5538. Therefore the husband and I pay for internet service that goes out 1-3 times a day for 5-30 minutes at a time, which our ISP doesn’t fix or even seem that terribly concerned about. Therefore the Pacific Garbage Patch. Therefore known child-molesting priests being rotated from parish to parish. Therefore if your eye doctor doesn’t want to worry about passing his certifying exam, he can just create his own certification board, write his own test, and then pass it. Therefore wholesome, organic, children’s juices that contain so much lead that the state of California would require a warning label on them.

I don’t have the luxury of worrying about what the rich might do in thirty years with a really powerful computer. I’m too worried about what they’ve done already, without.

Excellent points, Mr. S.! And thanks for putting a name to that giant island of floating trash in the Pacific. That really makes me furious, but until now, I didn’t know it actually had a recognizable name. From now on, Pacific Garbage Patch it will be, though “patch” certainly has a homey sound for such an atrocity. And what’s up with your internet service? Even we get reliable 24/7 high-speed here in the middle of nowhere, PA. That’s just disgraceful! Hopefully enough people will keep complaining until they force change, sadly about the only way any real progress happens…

2. Elephant's Eye - June 17, 2010

Dear Mr Luddite, had to search for that. Here is a direct link to the article


Then there are terminator genes in GM crops, and FIFTY years of oil spills in the Niger Delta.

Thanks for the direct link, Diana! And yes, the terminator genes, the non-plant genes, the herbicide-resistant genes, and oh joy, we’re ingesting them all, either directly or through meat and dairy products. How wonderful to be involuntarily involved in an experiment of such a huge and potentially horrific scope! Speaking of horrific and scope, I was reading about the oil spills in Nigeria just this morning. Collectively speaking, what on earth are we thinking?!

3. Steve - June 28, 2010

nice work gang!

Thanks, Steve!

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