The Technological Singularity, referred to as “the singularity” by transhumanists, signifies a point in time where self-aware self-improving artificial intelligence that could surpass the intelligence of the human brain manifests.
The Coming Singularity
The prior may seem more threatening to most, however artificial intelligence may pose a more immediate risk to humanity.
The singularity culminates a reach towards “smarter systems,” a point where advanced intelligences are able to replicate and improve on each generation quicker than humans. The singularity would be the entry into a new era of transhumanism and transhumanist development. This new intelligence can be human based, relying on improvement technologies to enhance cognition, or machine based, relying on advanced computing devices. This new intelligence would take over production of future advanced intelligences, making enhancements on each generation. Multiple unpredictable outcomes could arise from such transformation, as well as many ethical dilemmas.
Advanced intelligences could take several paths, They might annihilate humanity to eliminate threats to their superiority. They may radically transform social systems on the basis of equity and democracy. They may just sit around making lolcats memes. They could do an unending number of things. It is unpredictable given that we have no experience with advanced, self-replicating intelligences other than our own. This unpredictability can be incredibly dangerous in a world of mechanized nuclear weapons, epidemic diseases held back by computerized security systems, and almost exhaustive Internet access, specifically in industrial and post-industrial capitalist nations.
Capitalism and Singularitarianism
Power determines the distribution and use of technology. The ethics of a technology are dependent upon its use, largely determined by powered classes. Social, political, and economic structures define the relationship between humanity and technology. Corporations, states, and the powered classes control the flow of commodities in a capitalist society. Profit is the first motive of capitalism. Advanced intelligences are likely to be used to forward the search for profit under capitalism, expanding exploitation and oppression.
Human-improving technologies, guided by the capitalist ethics of profit, could be used to speed up production in jobs that must be filled by humans, mechanizing the production line to a greater extent. This would further separate producers from the fruits of their labor and alienate humanity from itself and its value even more. We could be programmed – and I mean this in the literal sense – to accept oppression and believe it as standard.
Some Transhumanists seem very interested in using transhuman technology to improve profit lines. Peter Thiel is a sponsor of the Singularity Institute, one of the major singularitarian organizations. Theil made millions as co-founder and CEO of PayPal and now spends his time managing hedge funds and financially supporting singularitarian and transhumanist causes. Thiel was recently in the news for funding Blueseed – a company that aims to bring workers into international waters where they are not bound to workers' rights laws and can ignore influences by local populations as well as state and federal governments.i
Theil supports other “seasteading” projects similar to this, with the hopes of establishing a libertarian paradise, inspired by his objectivist idol Ayn Rand's book Atlas Shrugged. Seemingly positive promises of lower cost living hide the reality of the workers who will run the infrastructure of such projects and the massive exploitation and oppression they will face without any protections.ii
Assuming the singularity will inevitably change humanity for the better is ignorant and arrogant at best. Singularitarians must be blind to history if their sole focus is to expedite the singularity. Large cataclysmic events occurred throughout history from pre-history to the so-called “civilized” era. There are positive and negative effects of each event, the value determination often dependent on the subjective view of the observer in that time. The advent of capitalism in Europe presents an excellent example.
Capitalism had positive benefits over feudal systems. Capitalist republics brought a greater access to influence power through democratic rights, even though they are moderated and controlled by the bourgeois state. Working people went from being voiceless serfs to attaining some albeit small voices in the democratic process, unless you were female, unpropertied, or a slave/indentured – which still hold true today. Overall, serfs became workers and together they could and do have a collective voice that would not have flourished under the absolute monarchs of feudalism. Together they had and have a power to affect the political positions of the bourgeois state, something unheard of under feudal rule.
The rise of capitalism had negative impacts as well. The rise of capitalism sparked a massive urbanization that continues in burgeoning markets to this day. The factory and production line model of capitalism puts hundreds if not thousands of workers at risk under oppressive conditions. The factory fires in Bangladeshiii and the worker suicides at FoxConn plants in Chinaiv are certainly not a new phenomenon under capitalism and exemplify my point quite well.
The singularity is likely to have similar dichotomous or multichotomous – good, bad, and otherwise - effects on society should it occur as predicted. Singularitarians believe that there can be “perfect conditions” under which the singularity will benefit all of humanity. Such an assumption is based more on their point of view than any historical reality. The oppressed bourgeois in Europe saw the advent of capitalism as beneficial to all of humanity. Singularitarians see the singularity in the same light. They are both subjective assumptions based on the desires and wills of these collective groups and nothing more.
This fanaticism, this arrogance and ignorance of history and the faults of making grandiose assumptions about the future based on a limited and subjectively marginal reality is tantamount to religious proclamations of impending rapture and has similar effects on its followers. The void of self-criticism and lack of understanding the political realities will put the empowered classes at an advantage to capitalize – quite literally – on a possibly world changing event. Singularitarians apotheosize an historical event which may or may not do any good for the majority of humanity, and in doing so may actually make us less prepared to deal with such an event, putting marginalized populations at greater risk of exploitation and oppression.
Artificial intelligences cannot dismantle systems of power through mere existence as their material form can easily be dismantled or destroyed, human or otherwise. It should be no surprise that capitalists like Peter Theil find the singularity desirable as they are likely to profit off such a transformation, to the detriment of most of humanity, workers, and the poor.
Science and technology does not inherently progress towards one point of revelation, bringing the argument behind the inevitability of the singularity into question. It is often a battle between paradigms and models, often swayed by powered interests and structures, and entirely encapsulated within social structures, well illustrated in the works of Thomas Kuhn.v Capitalism is in a serious point of crisis with massive austerity and impending ecological collapse. Drastic impacts on economic markets are likely to affect scientific advancement. Popular movements may also have an impact on the use of technology in society as well as the macro-level ethical principles that guide human interaction with technology.
I am become Death.
The technology we are devising today can be more dangerous than nuclear weapons. Human-improving technologies can also be used as human-controlling technologies. Humanity can be condemned to millennia of techno-slavery under the iron fist of ruling-class technocrats, without awareness of our collective power. We can live on for centuries, maybe forever, but will be devoid of our humanity as long as we are alienated from the fruit of our productive and creative means. We will be alienated from ourselves and each other.
The historical arrogance of singularitarians, the objectivist libertarianism of capitalists like Peter Theil, and the crisis state of mainstream capitalism may combine to form a perfect storm, conceive the singularity, and maintain systems of oppression while numbing working people to their own plight. Theil would likely welcome this outcome. Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity is Near, promotes a more ethical approach to the possible singularity. Kurzweil takes the time to at least recognize the downside of such technologies, the risks posed by the singularity, and the ethical dilemma we are situated in.vi Advanced intelligences can be incredibly beneficial, but they do not exist in a bubble, they are prone to social, political, and economic forces.
We can look to the future with understanding eyes, seeing both our history, present, and future together. Futurism and Transhumanism is about a greater understanding of our history, society, and future possibilities. We can't ignore historical oppression and inequities. We need to develop better methods of understanding the ethics behind advanced technologies and be willing to challenge power structures that seek to use them for oppressive means.
Capitalism will influence every major social event as long as it is the dominant social form. The singularity is not immune to this. No intelligence can out-think the destructive military power of the state. Singularitarians are selling snake oil, just in a shinier container with more free gadgets. The singularity, and advanced intelligences, will not and cannot be a panacea for the systemic oppression and exploitation inherent in capitalism, and as such will never benefit all of humanity.