YouTube VideoThe Singularity Movement: Why the Singularity Won't Be Coming Any Time Soon
by Rich Deem

Introduction

By 2045 the human species will end and human beings will become human/machine cyborgs - godlike hybrids capable of nearly infinite intelligence and immortal existence. At least these are the beliefs of numerous Silicon Valley CEOs who are actively pursuing the fulfillment of this prophecy through what has been called the "Singularity Movement." Leaders of the Movement believe that the advances in computational power, genomics, and medicine will allow them to live forever in a techno-utopia—if they live long enough to get there.

The players

Vernor Vinge, a science fiction writer, computer scientist, and math professor, wrote a research paper in 1993 called "The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era," which kicked off the Singularity Movement. However, the current promoters of the Singularity Movement reads like a Who's Who of Silicon Valley's "finest" - Peter Thiel, a former CEO of PayPal, is the advisor for Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, in San Francisco, Andrew Hessel, a former research operations manager at Amgen, Sergey Brin, a co-founder of Google, Larry Page, another Google co-founder, who helped set up Singularity University in 2008. Google has supported Singularity University with more than $250,000 in donations.

The primary spokesperson for the singularity movement is Raymond Kurzweil, a millionaire inventor, who has been trying to sell the idea to young entrepreneurial types for a number of years. Kurzweil has written the book, The Singularity Is Near, and gives up to 60 lectures per year, including his cross-country multimedia road show to promote Transcendent Man, a documentary about his life and beliefs. Kurzweil is co-founder of Singularity University, which charges $25,000 for a 10-week course in Singularity philosophy and "science." He takes up to 200 pills and supplements a day, developed a line of health supplements called Ray & Terry's, along with health books, Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever and Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever. He hasn't been shy about stating the reason for his ardor - he simply wants to live forever. At age 65, Kurzweil's time is rapidly running out based upon the current rate of "progress."

Computing power

The idea that computers will become intelligent enough to achieve true artificial intelligence is based upon an exponential rate of increase in computational power. According to Kurzweil and others, these miniscule supercomputers will be implanted inside human brains to produce a human-machine cyborg capable of almost unlimited intelligence. Kurzweil writes: "Once nonbiological intelligence gets a foothold in the human brain (this has already started with computerized neural implants), the machine intelligence in our brains will grow exponentially (as it has been doing all along), at least doubling in power each year."1 Moore's law stated that the number of transistors on a chip would double about every two years. This law has held for the last 40 years. However, doubling transistors does not result in a doubling of computational power (expressed as million instructions per second, MIPS). During the 1980's and 1990's computing power doubled every two years. The assumption was that it would continue to do so indefinitely. A widely publicized graph of computational power was done by Hans Moravec in 2002. The graph is reproduced to the right, with the updated MIPS added for 2011. As can be seen, the latest point has fallen off the exponential 1995 trend, down to the 1985 trend. If computational power had remained exponential, the current value should be ~1 million MIPS per thousand dollars, instead of ~70,000 MIPS/$1000 currently available. My prediction is that it will fall off the 1985 curve to the 1975 curve by the end of this decade. Why can't computational power continue to increase exponentially indefinitely? It's called physics. It is not possible to shrink transistor size less than atomic scale. According to the Intel website, "Physical limits of atomic structures or power density could be reached by 2020."2 This means computational power based upon transistor density will stop increasing altogether by 2020. The only way to increase computational power after that point (barring development of some, as of yet undeveloped, technology) will be to make the devices larger by adding more processors. This may result in linear increase of computational power, but certainly not exponential, as Kurzweil predicts.

Artificial intelligence

One of the main goals of the Singularity Movement is to produce a computer that exhibits true artificial intelligence (AI). Deep Blue was a chess-playing computer developed by IBM in the late 1980s and 1990s. On May 11, 1997, the machine won a six-game match against world champion Garry Kasparov. However, Deep Blue was not an example of artificial intelligence. It was merely good at playing chess, being able to analyze hundreds of thousands of moves. In 2011, Watson, another IBM invention, consisting of 90 servers and a massive database was able to beat Jeopardy champions by ranking answers by probability. It was able to understand simple English well, so answered all the straight-forward questions correctly. However, it wasn't as good at complex sentence structure and idioms (although many of those were included in its database). A human can understand even a new idiom based upon some recognizable analogy. Watson cannot do that - just like Lieutenant Commander Data on Star Trek had difficulty with idioms. So, throwing raw processing power and lots of data at the AI problem does not reproduce the human brain. Maybe the main problem is that we have no idea how the human brain stores and retrieves information. Yes, we know that certain areas of the brain are primarily involved, that the process involves generating synapses between neurons, neurotransmitters, and protein synthesis, but exactly how this is done remains a profound mystery. Memories are not stored within single neurons,3 so the system is in no way analogous to volatile or non-volatile information storage in computer systems. Henry Markram of the Brain Mind Institute of the Ecole Polytechnique in Lausanne, Switzerland, is attempting to create a neuron-by-neuron simulation of a mammalian brain, using IBM's Blue Gene super-computer. According to Ray Kurzweil, "We will successfully reverse-engineer the human brain by the mid-2020s."4 However, since we don't really know how those neurons work to store memories, I am doubtful the final simulation will resemble anything like a real brain.

Let's look at human brain function to see why reproducing it in a computer is going to be extremely difficult. Human beings possess high resolution video input that is "played" in the human brain in nearly real time. The brain is able to process the images performing pattern recognition, also nearly in real time. Take a typical teenager playing a computer game. The brain is able to continuously process the video signals to detect the bad guys from all the other bits, while receiving audio input revealing an unseen sniper off screen to the right. The brain almost automatically sends neural signals to the extremities to produce fine motor movements to shoot the virtual threats. The person doing all this raw processing doesn't really have to think about how to perform any of these skills. They have already been "hardwired" into the brain through repetitive training of the brain. Computers don't work that way (at least not yet). The computer runs a program that performs exactly the same steps it has been programmed to do. In response to the same question, the computer will perform the same steps the same way over and over again. Computer programmers have yet to figure out how to program software that rewrites itself over time, improving its performance. As an amateur programmer, I have constructed some pretty complicated code that does wonderful things. However, the idea making code that rewrites itself and "evolves" is beyond my ability to construct in practice. Obviously, this is what needs to be done in order to make a machine that has true artificial intelligence. Throwing raw processing power, no matter how fast the computers get, will never equal intelligence.

Biological immortality

Creating Life in the Lab: How New discoveries in Synthetic Biology Make a Case for the CreatorBesides artificial intelligence, one of the main goals of the Singularity Movement is immortality. Despite the widespread biological evidence that human beings are fundamentally designed to be mortal, Singularitarians believe that once we get smart enough through neural implants we will be able to "fix" our tendencies to fall apart with old age. According to Aubrey de Grey, head of Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence:

"People have begun to realize that the view of aging being something immutable - rather like the heat death of the universe - is simply ridiculous. It's just childish. The human body is a machine that has a bunch of functions, and it accumulates various types of damage as a side effect of the normal function of the machine. Therefore in principal that damage can be repaired periodically. This is why we have vintage cars. It's really just a matter of paying attention. The whole of medicine consists of messing about with what looks pretty inevitable until you figure out how to make it not inevitable."4

The main reason for aging is that differentiated cells are capable of only a limited number of cell divisions before they are unable to divide any more. Once they reach this limit, they are unable to divide and damaged cells are no longer able to be replaced. This is actually a design feature that results from the way DNA is replicated. Because DNA is replicated in only one direction, although the two strands are complementary (going in opposite directions), it must be copied in pieces. However, the ends of the DNA strands (called the telomeres) can never be fully copied. This results in a shortening of the telomeres until, at some point, the telomeres completely disappear and parts of adjacent genes are shortened, resulting in gene loss. At some point, gene loss results in the death of the cell. Some cells are able to get around this problem by producing an enzyme called telomerase, which adds bases to the ends of the telomeres before DNA replication, preventing their shortening. Although all cells contain the gene to produce telomerase, it is turned off in most cells. Singularitarians think that this is a bad design and say that by turning on telomerase in all cells, the cells will become immortal, and, by extension, so will we. The problem is that turning on telomerase is part of the mechanism by which normal cells become immortal cancerous cells. During embryonic development telomerase and other genes are turned on to allow rapid cell division under the control of developmental control genes. As cells differentiate to their final forms, these genes get turned off. Otherwise, continuing cell replication would result in grotesque growth. By turning on telomerase in all cells, mutations to turn on developmental genes results in the formation of cancerous cells, which reproduce uncontrollably without the limitations of the genes that produce differentiation (to cease further replication). So turning on telomerase to "solve" the aging problem will actually result in a much worse cancer problem. Selectively targeting cancer cells for destruction is still an unsolved problem in medicine. A life that required one to be on chemotherapy all the time would probably not be one that most people would choose.

Solve all problems?

Singularitarians think that all this technology is going to solve all the world's problems. According to Ray Kurzweil, "We will transcend all of the limitations of our biology."1 What Mr. Kurzweil hasn't counted on is that some of the people possessing this technology will likely use it for personal power and the oppression of others. Just think what Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin could have done with all that knowledge and power! According to C. S. Lewis, "Education without values, as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil." Fortunately, the "progress" in bringing all this ability to the despots of the world is many years off, and most of us will be dead by then. However, some of our children may end up dealing with the repercussions of unlimited technology.

The other problem is allowing machines to reach sentience. What kind of decisions will an extremely intelligent, soulless machine make? What if they decide that there are way too many human beings on the planet and that the world would be a better place without many (or maybe all) humans. It might make logical sense for a machine to kill excess human beings, but it is not the kind of decision that a rational, living soul would ever make.

New religion

If you think the Singularity Movement sounds like it has taken on a form of religious fanaticism, you are not alone. According to Andrew Orlowski, a British journalist who has written extensively on techno-utopianism, "The Singularity is not the great vision for society that Lenin had or Milton Friedman might have. It is rich people building a lifeboat and getting off the ship." Mr. Kurzweil thinks that human "wisdom" will take over the universe, saying, "Ultimately, the entire universe will become saturated with our intelligence. This is the destiny of the universe." What Kurzweil seems to have forgotten from his physics courses is that intergalactic space travel is simply impractical. Even interstellar space travel would take hundreds to thousands of years, at minimum. Humans aren't going to filling the universe anything any time soon. Dark energy and the accelerating expansion of the universe guarantees that Kurzweil's prediction will never happen. Science tells us that the only certain thing about the universe is that all sentient life is ultimately doomed to eternal destruction. Writing in the Astrophysical Journal, Lawrence Krauss and Glenn Starkman conclude:

"The picture we have painted here is not optimistic. If, as the current evidence suggests, we live in a cosmological constant dominated universe, the boundaries of empirical knowledge will continue to decrease with time. The universe will become noticeably less observable on a time-scale which is fathomable. Moreover, in such a universe, the days - either literal or metaphorical - are numbered for every civilization. More generally, perhaps surprisingly, we find that eternal sentient material life is implausible in any universe."5

Besides being able to live forever, Mr. Kurzweil hopes to bring his dead father back to life.4 Rather than believing in the power of God, Kurzweil believes in the "power" of ideas, stating, "That was kind of the religion of my family: the power of human ideas."1 Kurzweil has fallen for the oldest lie in the world, presented by the serpent in the Garden of Eden, that humans could become like God.6 It is the idea from the Tower of Babel - that human effort could reach heaven.7

Other players

Technological change is not the only goal of the Singularity Movement. Related movements, such as the Zeitgeist Movement, the Venus Project, and Exemplar-Zero seek to completely redefine how world societies operate. Movements such as the Zeitgeist Movement and the Venus Project seek to replace capitalism and free trade with a society based upon a "resource-based economy" in which machines do all the work, all resources are shared equally, and people can do whatever they want with their time. The problem with such movements is that resources are not infinite and somebody has to work to produce the products we use. The idea that all resources should be shared equally has been tried before - it is called Communism. Of course, it did not work because people and greedy and the ones in power always manage to get more than those who are subordinate. In addition, if all share equally, there is no incentive to be productive at all. In the Soviet Union under Communism, productivity went way down and alcoholism went way up. Any society that does not reward productivity is prone to failure through the human propensity for selfishness.

Christianity!

All that Mr. Kurzweil seeks and more is offered by Jesus Christ:

"For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

Not only does the soul who believes in Jesus Christ achieve eternal life, but is changed into a morally-perfect being with an imperishable, spiritual body that will never wear out.8 That body won't need to be repaired, ever, since it would be perfect. In our current universe, which is governed by the laws of thermodynamics, perfection is impossible.

Conclusion Top of page

The Singularity Movement is an attempt by people with way too much money to achieve immortality through technology. Since they don't believe in the existence of God their only chance is to put off death as long as possible. However, their assumptions that computing power will increase exponentially past 2020 are flawed, since transistor size is necessarily limited at atomic scale dimensions. Based upon our understanding of the human brain, computers neither store nor access information in the same way brains do. It seems unlikely that contemporary software programming will ever achieve real artificial intelligence, since brains adapt their programming in response to training, whereas computers do not. A computer that were able to reprogram itself so as to evolve might achieve such a distinction. However, it might also achieve an inflated sense of worth that would subsequently prompt it to eliminate those of lessor worth. As history has shown, the development of innovation has always been used by evil men to further their evil agendas. That immensely powerful machines would never be used for evil ends seems extremely unlikely. The Singularity Movement will never lead to a universe that becomes "saturated with our intelligence," since intergalactic travel is not possible because of the laws of physics, and recent cosmological studies show that the universe's destiny is permanent heat death with the extinguishment of all sentient life throughout the entire universe. Singularitarians seek eternal life, which is only possible through faith in Jesus Christ. The eternal life offered through Jesus is superior to any kind of "eternal life" claimed through the Singularity, because life in heaven will be enjoyed by morally-prefect beings housed in perfect spiritual bodies.

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  1. Ashlee Vance. Merely Human? That's So Yesterday. New York Times, June 12, 2010.
  2. Moore's Law Made real by Intel Innovations, retrieved 2/24/2011.
  3. Experiments in rats have shown that even when parts of the rat's brain is destroyed, the memory persists. The assumption is that memories are stored scattered throughout the brain.
  4. Lev Grossman. 2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal. Time, Thursday, February 10, 2011.
  5. Krauss, L. M. and G. D. Starkman. 2000. Life, The Universe, and Nothing: Life and Death in an Ever-Expanding Universe. Astrophys. J. 531: 22-30.
  6. "For God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil." (Genesis 3:5)
  7. They said, "Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven, and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth." (Genesis 11:4)
  8. See What Will Heaven be Like? for more information.

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Last updated September 30, 2013

 

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