Preparing for a future we can’t yet imagine
Some believe that the capabilities of the human brain have a threshold; although we’re seeing continual and accelerating technological progress, we’ll soon reach the limits of the basic human brain. Therefore, the thinking goes, humans must begin to rely more and more on artificial intelligence (AI) to keep making progress. Underlying the theory of the Singularity, eventually AI will surpass human beings in intelligence and bring about the end of the human race as we know it. This could mean either a high degree of biological integration with computers or AI taking over the world and making humans their subordinates. (If I had to choose? Option 1, please!). Either way, humanity wouldn’t be the same.
Humans of the modern world are already used to a high level of integration with computers and AI, and we’ve experienced a high degree of advancement over a relatively short period of time. Have any teenager ask their grandparents if they would have ever thought that one day humans would be “posting” and “sharing” their lives on a global network of interconnected computers (like on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc), using a handheld device that functions as a camera, telephone, and information retrieval apparatus. Or if they could have conceived of being able to ask a question out loud and have a computer voice provide them with the answer (Google Assistant, Alexa, or Siri).
These sorts of technologies are becoming more and more commonplace and accepted, but they don’t always start out that way. Rather, they often see slow integration into people’s everyday lives as they become more normal. Remember the epic failure of the first generation Google Glass? The common refrain is that people weren’t ready for them yet, that they were creepy. Yet there were a lot of people who were on board with them and viewed them as a step toward the future.
Oftentimes it is hard to predict just how much of an impact certain technologies will have on people’s everyday lives. Sometimes the changes can be so dramatic that it is hard to imagine living any other way; that the world that existed before is somehow alien. This is the essence of the singularity; that there is a theoretical point in future history when AIs exceed the power of the human mind, become self-aware, and dramatically change the balance of power on the planet while simultaneously transforming the very nature of humanity itself.
“We will soon create intelligences greater than our own. When this happens, human history will have reached a kind of singularity, an intellectual transition as impenetrable as the knotted space-time at the center of a black hole, and the world will pass far beyond our understanding.” Vernor Vinge (1993), who originated the concept of the technological singularity
We’ve seen many approaches to the Singularity in pop culture already. Admittedly it’s an interesting theoretical problem to explore. Often, technological advancement in these fictional worlds is conveyed as a double edged sword. Take Ghost in the Shell, for example. Technological advancements improve society but also serve as a means for control in the hands of the shadowy government. In the story, Project 2501 is a government project created to hack people’s brains to manipulate their thoughts and memories. Through the sheer volume of information it processes on a daily basis, 2501 develops self-awareness and eventually escapes from inside the computer and into the chassis of a cyborg shell. Contrast this with the journey of the protagonist, Motoko Kusanagi, a cybernetic cop created to bring criminals to justice (and keep society safe), who questions her “humanity.”
Some approach the Singularity after it has already occurred. The Matrix trilogy and the Terminator movies are great examples of this. In The Matrix, the AI has fully subjugated humans and keep them alive only to power their own great machines. In the Terminator, Skynet was originally developed as a global protection device. When Skynet appeared to have gained sentience, the creators attempted to destroy it but were unsuccessful. Skynet viewed this as a threat to its first directive, as its own destruction would prevent it from protecting the world. Since humans were trying to destroy it, Skynet must destroy all humans to save the world. Oops!
What all of these movies illustrate is that humanity’s drive and desire for technology and advancement may lead us to a place we don’t want to go. But there are many who are optimistic about a possible Singularity: that it will lead to a better society, where humans are able to transcend their limitations and become entities we never thought possible. So-called transhumanists believe that technology can and should be integrated with the human body and mind in order to improve lives and create better humans.
One could view the X-Men in terms of transhumanism, but on a genetic level. Consider that the X-Men are super-humans; evolutionarily different because of random genetic mutations. A constant struggle with the X-Men is their acceptance by average humans. There are three camps: those who support mutant integration recognize that mutants are still humans, albeit different; those who support mutant subjugation view mutants as inferior, dangerous, and need to be destroyed; and those who support mutant subjugation of humans, as mutants are the superior version of the human race. In X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014), the year is 2023 and robotic Sentinels have almost taken over the world, hunting down and killing mutants and mutant sympathizers. This storyline explores a possible future if those who viewed mutants as inferior and dangerous were the ones in charge, and ironically, the Sentinels were created using mutant powers as inspiration.
The question at the crux of the Singularity is “at what point does humanity end?” How far can humans progress before they are no longer human? Battlestar Galactica and West World are two popular television shows that explore this topic in depth. In both, robots are utterly indistinguishable from real humans, and the robot characters go through their own ruminations on humanity. Black Mirror is another show which frequently addresses the issue of at which point does technology utterly change what it means for us to be human?
For some, the idea of the Singularity is supremely frightening, and yet others are optimistic for the advanced future we will enjoy because of such advancement. Where do you stand? Which sort of technological improvements do you think are putting us on the path to the Singularity? Let us know in the comments below!