Against The Singularity

Ray Kurzweil’s predictions of the Singularity annoy me sufficiently that I once sat down to write a TechCrunch column attacking them. A brief primer: Singularity theory argues that our exponential technological growth will, several decades hence, culminate in an unimaginable transcendence that redefines humanity, sentience, and/or reality. It is also known as the Rapture of the Nerds

I never wrote that column, because, irritatingly, Kurzweil’s prophesied timeline of technological development is not (yet) actually flagrantly wrong. It’s aggressive; it’s hyper-optimistic; the exponent on its projected exponential curve is too large; but its overall shape is not actually obviously off. He may annoy me, but to date, his portfolio of prognostications is a lot more impressive than that of the average prophet.

So why is it that the Singularity annoys me so?

I think in large part because it seems to me to be a theological belief masquerading as a technological one. It has a proud scientific history — coined by the legendary mathematician/physicist John von Neumann and popularized by the great SF writer Vernor Vinge — but it’s essentially an article of faith.

I certainly agree that we live in an era of exponential growth, and that even as Moore’s Law slows, such growth will continue elsewhere, for a while, due to the lag time during which advances in computational power filter into other fields and become comparable advances there.

Singularity theory, however, argues that the exponential growth of Moore’s Law will be replaced by some new, conveniently unspecified, paradigm. “A new paradigm takes over when the old paradigm approaches its natural limit,” to quote Kurzweil. Even granting his claim that this has happened several times before, that is still a faith-based belief.

A deeply fascinating one, granted; a claim that, in the absence of any (tangible) gods, we will inevitably become gods ourselves. This is a rich and inspiring notion. I really like its spiritual ramifications, e.g. that all of sentience has the potential for godhood. And it may even be true! The Singularity is a plausible religion. But it is still an artifact of belief, not science, and ought to be signified as such.

I don’t think it’s coincidence that most proponents of the Singularity claim it will happen just soon enough that they might live to be raptured up by it themselves. Religion has often tried to assuage the fear of death and promise life afterwards. The Singularity, however, is the first to promise that you will simply be able to live forever. And it doesn’t even require any personal sacrifices or dietary restrictions! The appeal is undeniable.

The religion of the Singularity even gives us angels and demons, in the form of self-enhancing artificial intelligences. And demigods, in the form of humans made transcendent, courtesy of direct neural interfaces to colossal computing power that can make our intelligence superhuman. Again, this merging of plausible science fiction with ancient religious tropes is absolutely fascinating. I want it to be true, too! It certainly makes every other future look boring.

But it suffers from the same downside as any other religion; it screws up reality for the sake of its beliefs. In this case, mostly by opportunity cost. If you believe in the Singularity, then you don’t really worry about poverty, or inequality, or injustice, or climate change, or any other social or physical catastrophes. Not in the long run. You’re confident that once our technological godhood arrives, all these problems will be fruit flies in the face of our transcendent cannon fire.

I don’t think there’s any point in arguing with Singularity believers. (Again, I don’t even think they’re necessarily wrong. My problem is that I don’t think they’re necessarily right, either.) But I do think it’s worthwhile to put to them something like Pascal’s Wager in reverse. Even if you do believe in the Singularity, it’s best to proceed as if it isn’t going to happen. If it happens, what you do doesn’t matter at all; and if it doesn’t, what you do might make every difference in the unexpectedly limited world.