Me make tool from stone

A whale in deep thoughtIt’s pretty clear to me that we’re currently in a rapid technological development phase, perhaps equivalent to the explosion of art and science seen in the Renaissance. While Ray Kurzweil proselytizes what he and others call the “Singularity”, a moment of time beyond which humanity will become unrecognizable to those who have gone before, I find such a theory distasteful at best. Ray’s theories quite often predict humanity’s progress as some exponential function beyond which some singular moment in time the graph leaps toward infinity. If I recall correctly his guess was this will happen sometime in the next twenty to forty years. I think back to my grandmother who was born in the first decade of the twentieth century and the creations she saw: the airplane, the automobile, the World Wars, radio, television, the transistor, the microchip, men on the Moon and probes to the stars. I think to what I’ve seen: computers go from green-screen phosphorescents to millions of polygons per second in 32 bit color (mind you, that’s more colors than the eye can discern). I’ve seen cell phones and the rise of the Internet. I’ve seen rovers crawl over the surface of Mars. How much more will I see in the 50 or 60 years I hope my life has left?

Roy Batty - Man or Machine?As movies like Blade Runner, episodes of Star Trek, novels by Philip K. Dick and Theodore Sturgeon, and tales like Pinocchio have tried to ask, what makes us truly human? If, as some anthropologists might attest, it is our ability to make tools (i.e. our technology) then we are not alone in this skill. Apes, birds, and other animals have all been observed using and sometimes even making tools. If it is our ability to think abstractly, how are we able to know that the giant cetaceans that swim in the sea do not also wonder about the cosmos as they drift in the sea? (Just because they do not manufacture tools does not mean they lack abstract thought.) No one religion has answered this concretely either (in my recent trip to the synagogue for Yom Kippur, one prayer asks, “Oh Lord, What is Man?”) For if we had answers there would no longer be any question or doubt. So, I ask Ray and others who promulgate this idea, and I ask the scientists, engineers, and capitalists, why should we blindly head toward a point in which humanity becomes unrecognizable when we don’t even know what we are now? Intelligent ape, a little lower than the angels, or something else entirely?

But of course there is always flexible electronic paper to get excited about and add a new data point to Mr. Kurzweil’s graph.

I’m not against technology. I find it to be wonderful in so many ways. But technology, to me, is just a tool, and not an end in itself. Your mileage may vary.

One Reply to “Me make tool from stone”

  1. I think what Kurtzweil is getting at is the phenemonon of exponential technological progress, i.e., the fact that the rate of progress is itself progressing. He discusses this at great length in The Age of Spiritual Machines. Though I would never dare attempt to define human any more than I would define consciousness, it’s at least conceivable to me that at some point technological progress will move so quickly that a human will not be able to catch up within his or her life span. Only those who are on the right side of the singularity will partake of those advances. For a literary example of this, check out Charles Stross’s Accelerando which strands a group of teenagers deep in space and therefore away from the human race which is busy uploading itself into a barely recognizable version of human consciousness.

    Is such a thing conceivable within our lifetimes? Well, that’s just the point. If it is conceivable, then it’s not really a singularity.

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