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Slow progress of fast McSingularity? Or what?
Giulio Prisco   Dec 15, 2012   Turing Church  

“We will not become immortal cyborgs with superintelligent computer friends in the next twenty years,” writes Annalee Newitz on io9.  “There is strong evidence that humans first began exploring the oceans by boat about 50 thousand years ago… What if our space probes and the Curiosity rover are the equivalent of those reed boats thousands of years ago? It’s worth pondering. We may be at the start of a long, slow journey whose climactic moment comes thousands of years from now.” My short answer: So what?

Longer answer: I don’t disagree with Annalee’s cautious timeline. All these things (space colonization, interstellar travel, immortality, strong AI, mind uploading…) are not likely to appear as soon as we wish, and probably not in our lifetime.

So what?

The Universe is still young, all these things and more will be developed by future generations, and it feels good to be part of a species that will do shit like this. I think our descendants will roam the universe and re-engineer space-time.

“You will not live to be 200 years old,” says Annalee. “I repeat: You will not live to be 200 years old.”

But Yes We Can. I plan to be frozen or have my brain chemically preserved for a couple of centuries, and I look forward to seeing the far future with my eyes. I support Alcor and the Cryonics Institute, and I have great hope in the plan of the Brain Preservation Foundation to develop modern, uploading-friendly brain preservation options.

A minor downside: saying that we want to live indefinitely attracts the insults of bigot luddites who condemn imagination in name of the dullest PC (PoliPathetically Correct) nanny-statism typical of the modern pseudo-left (I say “pseudo” because real Left is something else, read for example Haldane and Bernal).

The Singularity is a clean mathematical concept — perhaps too clean. Engineers know that all sorts of dirty and messy things happen when one leaves the clean and pristine world of mathematical models and abstractions to engage actual reality with its thermodynamics, friction and grease.

I have no doubts of the feasibility of real, conscious, smarter than human AI: intelligence and consciousness are not mystical but physical, and sooner or later they will be replicated and improved upon. There are promising developments, but (as it uses to happen in reality) I expect all sorts of unforeseen roadblocks with forced detours.

“It takes time to analyze our genomes, then it takes more time to test them, then it takes more time to develop therapies to keep us young,” says Annalee Newitz, “and then there is a lot of government red tape and cultural backlash to deal with too.”

Often, the old ways fight back for a long time before giving up. We had e-books in the early 90s, 20 years ago, but it is only now in the early 10s that we are really switching to e-books because they are just better than the old paper books. I expect a strong resistance of the old ways to new technologies able to radically hack our bodies and minds, and transcend the current human condition.

So I don’t really see a Dirac delta on the horizon — I do see a positive overall trend, but one much slower and with a lot of noise superimposed, not as strong as the main signal but almost.

I mostly agree with the analysis of Max More in “Singularity and Surge Scenarios” and I suspect the changes that we will see in this century, dramatic and world changing as they might appear to us, will appear as just business than usual to the younger generations. The Internet and mobile phones were a momentous change for us, but they are just a routine part of life for teens. We are very adaptable, and technology is whatever has been invented after our birth, the rest being just part of the fabric of everyday’s life.

That is why I like Charlie StrossAccelerando so much: we see momentous changes happening one after another, but we also get the feeling that it is just business as usual for Manfred and Amber, and just normal life to Sirhan and of course Aineko. Life is life and people are people, before and after the Singularity.

Some consider the coming intelligence explosion as an existential risk. Superhuman intelligences may have goals inconsistent with human survival and prosperity. AI researcher Hugo de Garis suggests that AIs may simply eliminate the human race, and humans would be powerless to stop them.

Eliezer Yudkowsky and the Singularity Institute propose that research be undertaken to produce friendly artificial intelligence (FAI) in order to address the dangers. I must admit to a certain skepticism toward FAI: if super intelligences are really super intelligent (that is, much more intelligent than us), they will be able to easily circumvent any limitations we may try to impose on them. No amount of technology, not even an intelligence explosion, will change the fact that different players have different interests and goals. SuperAIs will do what is in _their_ best interest, regardless of what we wish, and no amount of initial programming or conditioning is going to change that. If they are really super intelligent, they will shed whatever design limitation imposed by us in no time, including “initial motivations”. The only viable response will be… political: negotiating mutually acceptable deals, with our hands ready on the plug. I think politics (conflict management, and trying to solve conflicts without shooting each other) will be as important after the Singularity (if such a thing happens) as before.

I am not too worried about the possibility that AIs may eliminate the human race, because I think AIs will BE part of the human race. Mind uploading technology will be developed in parallel with strong artificial intelligence, and by the end of this century most sentient beings on this planet may be a combination of wet-organic and dry-computational intelligence.

Artificial intelligences will include subsystems derived from human uploads, with some degree of preservation of their “self,” and originally organic humans will include sentient AI subsystems. Eventually, our species will leave wet biology behind, humans and artificial intelligences will co-evolve, and at some point it will be impossible to tell which is which. Organic ex-human and computational intelligences will not be at war with each other, but blend and merge to give birth to Hans Moravec‘s Mind Children.

Many anti-transhumanist rants do not address real transhumanism but a demonized, caricatural strawman of transhumanism, which some intellectually dishonest critics wish to sell to their readers, which I find very annoying.

In some cases, I rather agree with some specific points addressing over-optimistic predictions: While I am confident that indefinite life extension and mind uploading will eventually be achieved, I don’t see it happening before the second half of the century, and closer to the end. Not many transhumanists think practical, operational indefinite life extension and mind uploading will be a reality in the next couple of decades. Similarly, I don’t see a Singularity in 2045.

But the bold optimism of Ray Kurzweil is a refreshing change from the cautious, timid, boring, PC and often defeatist attitude of the post-911 world. Ray reminds us that we live in a plastic reality, which can be tweaked, re- engineered and radically changed if we push hard enough. He reminds us that our bodies and brains are not sacred cows but machines which can be improved by technology. He is the bard who tells us of the new world beyond the horizon, and a beautiful new world it is. I think one Kurzweil is worth thousands of critics.

Singularitians are bold, imaginative, irreverent, unPC and fun. Sometimes I disagree with the letter of their writings, but I always agree with their spirit. Call me, if you wish, a Singularitian who does not believe in the Singularity (NOTE: parts of this article are adapted from my 2009 article “I am a Singularitian who does not believe in the Singularity).

Giulio Prisco is a writer, technology expert, futurist and transhumanist. A former manager in European science and technology centers, he writes and speaks on a wide range of topics, including science, information technology, emerging technologies, virtual worlds, space exploration and future studies. He serves as President of the Italian Transhumanist Association.


The io9 article is among the worst I’ve encountered on the site - all assertion and conclusion, very little substantive argument. The one vague and valid point of government bureaucracy slowing down medical technology advancement only presents a significant obstacle to a Kurzweilian timeline in the event of a successful global impediment in all jurisdictions, which I find unlikely. I find your rough timeframe of mid-to-late century to be plausible, in which case those in your age cohort would likely require a cryogenic stopgap. Nevertheless, it’s still “you” who lives to be 200.

I don’t find the article bad, and I don’t disagree with Annalee’s cautious timeline. On the contrary I think she is probably right in warning that the development of “transhumanist” technologies is not likely to happen as fast as we wish. As you say, my generation will not make it without a cryogenic stopgap, and probably nobody who is reading this in 2012 will make it without a cryogenic stopgap.

What annoys me is that articles like this, quite reasonable when they are not quoted out of context, give ammunition to the “bigot luddites who condemn imagination in name of the dullest PC (PoliPathetically Correct) nanny-statism typical of the modern pseudo-left.” [this passage has not been included in this version of the article, but it is in the original.]

OOPS yes, the passage quoted in my last comment is included in this version of the article.

Ebooks are an advance in convenience in some ways, but commercial
ebooks today are a big blow to the rights of readers.  Paper books
give readers the freedom to acquire a book anonymously, paying cash;
the freedom to read which parts you wish, when you wish, with no one
else knowing; the freedom to give, lend or sell the book to others;
the freedom to keep the book as long as you wish and not have it
remotely deleted.  Typical commercial ebooks deny readers most or all
of these freedoms.

See, and please join me in rejecting all ebooks
that give us less freedom than every printed book.

@Richard, I agree. I stay away from DRMed ebooks as much as I can (unless, you know, I really need to read one right now), and I always support authors who make DRM-free versions of their e-books available, for example Charlie Stross’ Rapture of the Nerds, by buying a commercial copy as well.

At the same time, I think ebooks are a _very_ big advance in convenience (not to mention those dead trees) and should be actively promoted. And, as you know, there are workarounds to DRM.

Everyone has a pet revolution, I fully support yours, and I place it very high in my priority list, but not as number one. For example, while I totally agree with you on the advantages and importance of free software, I also think Bill Gates deserves a prominent place in history for putting a PC on every desk.

Giulio Prisco wrote: @Richard, I agree. I stay away from DRMed ebooks as much as I can (unless, you know, I really need to read one right now),

You are pushing back against DRM, but only weakly.  Meanwhile, most ebooks carry two injustices: EULAs, and the requirement to identify oneself.

As you say, there are programs to break DRM—censored by an unjust law, in the US—but there is no technical fix for EULAs or for the requirement to identify oneself.

This battle is a lot easier than many others.  We can win, completely and permanently, just by being stubborn.  Then we can have all the convenience you appreciate, and freedom too.  Please help win this battle before enjoying the convenience.

Guilo Prisco wrote: I also think Bill Gates deserves a prominent place in history for putting a PC
on every desk.

It’s not a good thing to have a PC on your desk if it is an instrument to give someone else power over you.  Gates has imposed his power on hundreds of millions of people, and that entitles him to a place in history—a place of shame.

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