The singularity is not near: The intellectual fraud of the “Singularitarians” | Spanlish


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Monday, May 14, 2018

The singularity is not near: The intellectual fraud of the “Singularitarians”

Getty/Henry Holt and Co.

Getty/Henry Holt and Co.

Excerpted from “Live Work Work Work Die: A Journey into the Savage Heart of Silicon Valley” by Corey Pein. Published by Metropolitan Books. Copyright © 2018 by Corey Pein. All rights reserved.

Technology was identified as the true official religion of the modern state more than seventy years ago by the late Christian anarchist philosopher Jacques Ellul. A remarkable man, and a leader of the French underground resistance who sheltered refugees from the Holocaust, Ellul survived a global catastrophe that was enabled by scientists and engineers only to find that these same technicians, these false priests, would rule the century. And how he loathed them. “Particularly disquieting is the gap between the enormous power they wield and their critical ability, which must be estimated as null,” he wrote.

If, as Ellul has it, technology is the state religion, Singularitarianism must be seen as its most extreme and fanatical sect. It is the Opus Dei of the postwar church of gadget worship. Ray Kurzweil may be the best-known prophet of this order, but he was not the first. The true father of Singularitarianism is a sci-fi author and retired mathematics professor from Wisconsin named Vernor Vinge. His earliest written exposition of the idea appeared in the January 1983 issue of Omni, an oddball “science” magazine founded by Kathy Keeton, once among the “highest-paid strippers in Europe,” according to her New York Times obituary, but better known for promoting quack cancer cures and for cofounding Penthouse with her husband, Bob Guccione. In this esteemed journal, amid articles on “sea monkeys, apemen and living dinosaurs,” Vinge forecast a looming “technological singularity” in which computer intelligence would exceed the comprehension of its human creators. The remarkable exponential growth curve of technological advancement was not about to level off, Vinge proclaimed, but rather to accelerate beyond all imagining. “We will soon create intelligences greater than our own,” Vinge wrote. Unlike later writers, he did not see this as necessarily a positive development for humanity. “Physical extinction may not be the scariest possibility,” he wrote. “Think of the different ways we relate to animals.” In other words, our new robot overlords might reduce humans to slaves, livestock, or, if we’re lucky, pets.

Like many creative types, Vinge lacked the business savvy to fully exploit the market potential of his ideas. That task fell to Ray Kurzweil. A consummate brand builder, Kurzweil turned Vinge’s frown upside-down and recast the Singularity as a great big cosmic party, to great commercial success. Douglas Hofstadter, the scientist and author, derided Kurzweil’s theses as “a very bizarre mixture of ideas that are solid . . . with ideas that are crazy.” Nevertheless, it was a winning formula. By 2011, Time magazine named Kurzweil one of the one hundred “most influential people in the world” and endorsed the Singularity sect in a cover story. While seemingly “preposterous,” the magazine declared, the prospect of “super-intelligent immortal cyborgs” deserved “sober, careful evaluation.”

Even though it sounds like science fiction, it isn’t, no more than a weather forecast is science fiction. It’s not a fringe idea; it’s a serious hypothesis about the future of life on Earth.

This is absurd. Science begins with doubt. Everything else is sales. And Kurzweil is more salesman than scientist. In his writing and speeches, he has recycled the same tired catchphrases and anecdotes again and again. His entire argument hangs on two magic words: Moore’s Law, the theory that computer processing power grows exponentially each year. The theory, which was first conceived of by Intel cofounder Gordon Moore (and later named after him), doubles, incidentally, as a kind of advertisement for Intel microchips. Moore’s Law also inspired Kurzweil’s own Law of Accelerating Returns, which encapsulates his belief that the pace of all technological innovation is, over time, exponential. Within decades, Kurzweil figures, the unstoppable evolution of gadgetry will bring about the Singularity and all it entails: unlimited energy, superhuman AI, literal immortality, the resurrection of the dead, and the “destiny of the universe,” namely, the awakening of all matter and energy.

Kurzweil may not be much of a scientist, but he is an entertaining guru. His fake-it-till-you-make-it approach seems in good fun, except when he uses it to bluff through life-or-death problems. What’s worse, powerful people take him seriously, because he is forever telling them what they’d like to hear and zealously defending the excesses of consumer capitalism. Like techno-utopians such as Peter Thiel, Kurzweil has long argued that corporate interests should be calling the shots in the “new paradigms” of the future. Such views are unsurprising coming from a longtime corporate executive and salesman. Fossil fuels wrecking the planet? No worries, Kurzweil declares. We’ll crack the problem of cold fusion soon, and nanobots—always with the nanobots!—will restore the ruined environment. As America’s fortunes and prospects faded through the aughts, Kurzweil’s sanguine reveries sold more copies than ever, and the author insisted that things were better than ever and soon to be even more amazing.

For every conceivable problem, there is a plan, and it’s always the same plan: Someone in the future will invent something to solve it. Kurzweil has delivered the one true American faith the people were always waiting for, and it turns out to be an absurdly optimistic form of business-friendly millenarianism, which could pass for a satirical caricature of the tech worship Jacques Ellul identified.

The trick will be to survive a few more decades, until the inventions of atom-scaled medical nanobots and digital backups of human consciousness. “We have the means right now to live long enough to live forever,” Kurzweil writes. “But most baby boomers won’t make it.” This led to his other scammy obsession— life extension. To help his own rapidly aging generation survive until the arrival of the technological tipping point when they might upload their memories and personalities to a Google cloud server—around 2045, he figures—he promotes a program of diet, exercise, and unproven life-extending supplements. If all else fails to ward of the Reaper, one can always have one’s body or brain frozen for later resuscitation, a process known as cryonics, which Kurzweil endorses as a last resort.

Kurzweil’s morbid obsession with disease and death led him into the depths of tech-abetted unconventional medicine, where many a Singularitarian followed. He received a diabetes diagnosis at age thirty-five. Displeased with insulin treatment, he set out to find a better way. The result was an idiosyncratic and ever-changing menu of herbal medicine, plus hundreds of daily nutritional supplements and a custom fitness regimen. The details are laid out in two books that Kurzweil co-wrote with his doctor, Terry Grossman: "Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever" and "Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever." The latter includes sixty-nine pages of recipes, including one for carrot salad sweetened with stevia, yum yum. Skeptic magazine slammed "Fantastic Voyage" as “the triumph of hope over evidence and common sense” and suggested that some of its advice might actually be harmful.

Kurzweil and Grossman shamelessly cashed in on their presumed authority by selling loosely regulated supplements to credulous consumers under the label of “Ray and Terry’s Longevity Products—where science and nutrition meet.” The authors’ website shills dubious formulations including an $86 “Anti-Aging MultiPack” that promises a one-month supply of “smart nutrients.” As proof of efficacy, Kurzweil offers himself. Although he is seventy at this writing, he has long claimed that his true “biological age” was twenty years younger. The lens suggests otherwise. In 2014, Kurzweil began sporting a new hairdo—longer, straighter, and several shades darker than before. The sudden change worried some commenters on his website, Was it a hairpiece? An unfortunate dye job? Or maybe Kurzweil had finally stumbled across a real miracle pill?
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I am by no means the first to label Singularitarianism a new religion or a cult. Kurzweil himself has said the comparison was “understandable,” given the preoccupation with mortality. However, he rejects the argument that his sect is religious in nature, because he did not come to it as a spiritual seeker. Rather, Kurzweil writes, he became a Singularitarian as a result of “practical” eforts to make “optimal tactical decisions in launching technology enterprises.” Startups showed him the way!
Being a Singularitarian, Kurzweil claims, “is not a matter of faith but one of understanding.” This is a refrain Singularitarians share with Scientologists, for L. Ron Hubbard always marketed his doctrines as “technology.” This tic makes Singularitarians impossible to argue with. Because they believe that they have arrived at their beliefs scientifically, anyone who disputes their ludicrous conclusions must be irrational. If this sect did not have the ears of so many powerful men in business, politics, and military affairs, its leaders might seem clownish. But they are serious, dangerously so.
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Corey Pein's new book, "Live Work Work Work Die: A Journey to the Savage Heart of Silicon Valley," is available now from Metropolitan Books. Read Salon's review here

Source: The singularity is not near: The intellectual fraud of the “Singularitarians”

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