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Why you shouldn’t fear the Singularity (if it ever happens).

Cyber Dante Photo credit: The PIX-JOCKEY (photo manipulation) / / CC BY-NC

The Singularity is near, transhumanists say, and it’s inevitable: that moment in history when we give birth through our creativity and technology to something greater than us. The Singularity heralds an entirely novel plateau in mankind’s evolution. How much time do we have? Some futurists say as little as a generation.

The question then isn’t when or how. The question is: what then? And should we panic?

There are two broad types of Singularity projections. The first is creating a conscious, self-propagating AI orders of magnitude more complex and intelligent that its creators that will evolve and expand in ways wholly unknown. Will the AI be friendly and constrained by fail safes or willingly benevolent, or will it be malevolent, sharing none of our goals and beliefs? I can’t say, and for that reason this road in the fork won’t be explored here.

The second – and the one I’ll take – is the transition of mankind from sausage casings of lipids, carbohydrates, and amino acids to entities existing in virtual environments inside future computers. This is what I mean by a transhumanist Singularity: the joining of man with machine to augment and expand our abilities and experiences. I see it as man’s consciousness being translated to the digital realm.

Despite my misgivings about simulated reality and translating said consciousness from neurons to electrons, I’ll go along for the sake of argument.

So: what then?

If you’re my friend Keith, post-Singularity will be a bad time to remain a fleshy human. From an accessibility viewpoint the Singularity’s benefits will never trickle down. Instead the Singularity will end up monopolized by the ultra-wealthy, that top slice of society with the influence and resources to be the first – and last – to benefit from the momentous occasion. It will be the end of history, but not of the democratic Fukuyamaesque type. Rather, it will be a Marxist’s nightmare, with the chasm of economic inequality ballooning to a cosmic divergence of form and ability. The proletariat will be left far, far behind.

I’ll bite. Modern innovation has almost always come top-to-bottom, even if the lag has been barely perceptible. That’s the way economics works. Things start out out expensive, affordable to few. The higher-ups in the food chain will get first dibs.

But the rules that dictate supply and demand also allow for the solution to the problem of exclusivity. Capitalism aims at getting the maximal utility for its buck, and this means it will be in the company’s interests (I’m assuming it will be corporate sponsored)  to refine, improve, and make it more accessible to a larger purchasing base. Like any technology, it’ll start off expensive and become more affordable. I’m not saying it’ll become corner store cheap, or made from do-it-yourself backyard items. It’ll stay pricey because people will be willing to shell out big bucks to have it.

The bigger question will be what these Singularity personalities will do once they’re ushered past the Perl-y gates. According to said friend Kieth, this new elite (or, rather, the old elite in a new guise) will promptly begin to lord over the rest of us from their binary thrones.

I think where we disagree is in predicting how man will act when the ordinary constraints of man are eliminated. Pessimists think that by wiping death from the list of terminal human conditions, and throwing out all the wants and petty concerns we have to negotiate with in everyday existence, the only human desire worth acting upon shall be one’s will – or, for that upper slice of humanity, the achievable act of dominating and ruling. Humanity will have given birth to Nietzschean ubermen, will to power and all. To free humanity from the constraints of life – the fight for procuring  and keeping shelter and resources and allies and mates – will unleash our worst desires for control, rather than, as I believe, eliminate them outright. We’ll end up as the play things of (hopefully enlightened) cyberdespots.

I consider myself a cynic and a realist. History has shown that the upper crust of society – exceptions excepting – have never cared much for the common man unless something is in it for them. It’s only been the ability of mankind to increase the pie through technological innovation that’s allowed progress to be made; we’re as unwilling to share our own slice now as at any other time. Nor do revolutions work: one elite is replaced by another, a revolving door that maintains the water-and-oil of have and have not’s. So I won’t disagree in the last bit to the supposition that the first to see the benefits of this technology will be those sitting at the pointy tip of the social pyramid. But I, pessimist though I am, have a rather optimistic view of this future.

Firstly, nobody will be stupid enough to let this come about (famous last words?). The networks and systems will be made resistant, though perhaps not invulnerable, to tampering from the inside. Humans won’t just hand over authority, transfer their factories,  and bury their tanks and guns. (On a sidenote, it would be interesting to speculate to what degree persistent lines of sentient computer code could manipulate and hack their environment.)

Secondly, there’ll be the personality safety guard. This refers to the fact that the most powerful people, like the least powerful people, all share the same emotional makeup, the same propensity to goodness. To demonize them in to virtual psychopaths once the switch flips ignores them for the people they are. Though, I will admit it would be hard to predict how their psychological makeups would evolve post-Singularity.

Thirdly, and more importantly, the difference between all earlier stages of history and the Singularity will be one of scope. It won’t be a conventional transition, an exchange of bronze for iron or feudal rights for financial derivatives. Nor will it be like the abandonment of slave power for oil power or the theology of paganism for the theology of monotheism. In all these previous cases something, sometimes better, replaced something, sometimes less better, but things were still operating under the same dynamics. Iron gave you the advantage over bronze, but it did not free you from the tasks of feeding and clothing yourself.

The Singularity will be completely different. I don’t think anybody can appreciate that enough. The pillars that support the gears that run the world – resource scarcity, limitations of space and time, the fragility of the body – will become obsolete. I believe there’ll be no more reasons to fight, to steal, to kill. There will be no opportunity to do so.

Free from all the mundane concerns of existence, humanity will transcend its petty psychoses and turn to other, higher pursuits. Maybe these pursuits will be ones of knowledge, exploration and the creation of art in all its myriad forms. I suspect religion will be the biggest monkey wrench in the machine. Some individuals might sink in to religious apathy or atheism, but others will bring it along, even cling to it all the firmer if they see their transition as a validation of their faith. With religion comes the dogma,  prejudices, and morals for motivation independent of material conditions. They could end up as saints or devils.

So how will things be after the technological singularity? For flesh and blood humans, life will go on. Perhaps Singularity technology will become the virtual equivalent of real-estate, with families making it their main financial investment, a nest-egg for the future and one hell of a retirement package. I think a sizable percentage of mankind will persist in clinging to the flesh, because of economic, religious, or philosophical reasons.

As for Singhumanity ( see what I did there?), I don’t see it as running rampant, but neither do I see it as segregate itself from lowly humanity, either. The technology that maintains their existence will exist in the here and now . It will be vulnerable to acts of nature, man, and time. It will have to be upgraded, repaired, and maintained. Thus, there will always be a need to keep contact with the material world and this unavoidable dependency could conceivably become the last link between a hyper evolved humanity and its predecessors.

All these very important individuals – business magnates, cultural superstars, politicians and religious figures – will have to be integrated in the legal and economic frameworks of society and state. There would be many thorny legal issues to navigate and clarify. What happens to the property of individuals that have made the transition: their houses, cars, bathmats, goods, bank accounts, stock portfolios, multibillion dollar corporations?  It’ll be a field day for the new generation of Singularity lawyers.

Initially there will be a chaotic and less than romantic integration of these new types of citizen in to the social and legal framework of society. Important questions will be asked about their status under the law. For example, how will the laws of citizenship, with its associated responsibilities and privileges, apply to them?

These concerns might not come up. Nobody can say how Singhumantiy will react.  Will they keep their possessions  or renounce them? Will they hold their previous assumptions about the nature of citizenship or, say, privacy laws? Will they think they could do a better job of things and push to have their way? I don’t know. But I do believe an equilibrium will be reached, and apocalypse averted.

What do you think?

(Side note: In the long term, being a part of the Singularity would bring about an existential crisis of ultimate proportions. After all, what’s the point of anything if mortality banished, and there limits extended beyond the horizon? Not to overly philosophize, but is life satisfying if you can get almost anything you want for zero risk? After the novel nature of this new existence wears off – say, in a few centuries of millennia – will you be able to keep existential ennui and boredom at bay?)