Unlocking the Spiritual and Cultural Potential of Science’s Greatest Idea
Free Excerpt – Chapter 7
Transhumanism: An Exponential Runway
The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself—not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way, but in its entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature.
—Julian Huxley, “Transhumanism,” 1957
“Meat is messy.” That was one of the first things I heard as I arrived at the 2009 Singularity Summit in New York City. The speaker on the stage was Anna Salamon, a researcher at the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and she was addressing a crowd of eight hundred or so (mostly men) on the subject of “Shaping the Intelligence Explosion.”
The conference is about the future, but the setting was decidedly historic. We were sitting in the beautiful auditorium at the 92nd Street Y, a building that has seen, since its founding in 1874, many great figures pass through its doors—cultural icons such as poets T. S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas, dancer Martha Graham, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma; social and economic leaders such as Gloria Steinem and Bill Gates; and political figures such as Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter, and Kofi Annan. On this day, it was playing host to a new species of intellectual known as the transhumanists, who see in the explosion of information technology a new and hopeful future on the near horizon, a future so different from what has come before that it has been dubbed “post-human” or “transhuman.”
The term “transhumanism” was coined in an essay of the same name by evolutionist Julian Huxley in 1957. Huxley, whose humanist convictions ran deep, called for a new exploration of human nature and its possibilities rooted in our understanding of evolution. This new evolutionary adventure, he suggested, might best be labeled “transhumanism.” But even Huxley might have raised an eye- brow at the statement I heard as I walked into the auditorium that day. Meat is messy. Its meaning, however, is revealing. “Meat,” for those not schooled in cyberpunk slang, means simply the biological body and all of its strange and bothersome whims and weaknesses. The body is meat—squishy, biological stuff. In contrast to digital worlds and virtual realities, the body is relatively stationary, hard to change, easy to damage. In a word: messy. Sure, it might seem a crude term to describe something so intimate as our living, breathing bodies, but for those who see the future in the bits and bytes of digital information, the body, as currently constructed, is part of evolution’s past. The future is altogether different—free, open- ended, and unconstrained by the physical and temporal limitations of the flesh.
William Gibson, science-fiction writer and hero to nerds everywhere, popularized “meat” as a term for the biological body. In the 1980s, his book Neuromancer was an instant classic, presaging the themes of the movie The Matrix by well over a decade, and Gibson became a prophet to the first tech-savvy generation in history.
In the book, the main character, Case, steals from his employers and they respond by destroying his ability to enter virtual reality, prompting this passage describing his fate:
They damaged his nervous system with a wartime Russian mycotoxin. . . . The damage was minute, subtle, and utterly effective.
For Case, who’d lived for the bodiless exultation of cyber- space, it was the Fall. In the bars he’d frequented as a cowboy hotshot, the elite stance involved a certain relaxed contempt for the flesh. The body was meat. Case fell into the prison of his own flesh.
Notice the religious language. Gibson’s use of “the Fall” and his hero’s “contempt for the flesh” calls to mind religious condemnations of bodily desires. Of course, religion itself is far from the mind of most transhumanists, many of whom are materialists to the core, but there is a religious flavor to their conviction that the march of technology is telling us something critically important—not just about human culture but about life, the universe, and the evolution- ary tendencies of both. You will never meet people more passion- ate about, and in some cases concerned with, the possibilities of the future.
Looking around at the people gathered for this annual event, which featured top researchers and theorists in fields such as artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, biotechnology, robotics, life ex- tension, genetics, space travel, and computational theory, the mood was clearly one of excitement and anticipation. As the next speaker took the stage and began to explain the ways in which science is attempting to create a whole-brain emulation that will allow us (theoretically) to transfer our consciousness out of the physical body and into other substrates, I noticed that many of my fellow attendees were paying close attention—but not to the speaker. Their eyes were transfixed by the screens on their laptops and mobile phones. No doubt the subject matter preselects for technophiles, but I’ve never seen so many people listen to a speaker while engrossed in the digital devices in front of them. If the future of evolution is about human-machine integration, about “the marriage of the born and the made,” as Kevin Kelly puts it, then this audience was definitely breaking new ground. As soon as any of the speakers said something even remotely striking, a small army of tweeting techies would post it, discuss it, correct it, contextualize it, and even fact-check it online for all to see. In fact, I confess that soon I was engrossed in my own small screen (well, not my own rather dated handset but my more tech-savvy colleague’s), finding it almost easier to follow the content of the presentations by reading the Twitter feed from the audience than by trying to keep up with the sometimes convoluted PowerPoint slides on the stage.
Some of the presentations were fascinating, like one on computer-controlled vehicles. Others were incomprehensible—one on quantum computing comes to mind. A discussion of the future implications of artificial intelligence was among the more thought- provoking sessions, but there were many others that seemed bizarrely abstract and futuristic to the point of absurdity. For example, one presenter went to great lengths in exploring the philosophical implications of replicating brains and transferring them to different bodies. What would the new John Doe think of the old John Doe whose brain he had just replicated?
I had come to this gathering of the digerati to reflect upon the evolutionary implications of life in the midst of the “Technium,” as Kelly calls the sum total of all of our culture and technology. Increasingly, thoughtful observers of the information-technology revolutions of the last decades are noticing an important truth— these technological innovations, with all the tremendous promise and peril they bring to our lives, do not represent an aberration from human cultural evolution but rather an intensification of the process.
And this process, they argue, has been well under way for millen- nia. Some even claim that the basic principles we find in the midst of today’s rapid technological change are not novel at all, but have informed the processes of biological evolution and cosmic evolution since the beginning of time. Whatever the case, it has long been clear to me that an evolutionary worldview that can genuinely help us to make meaning in the twenty-first century must also help us to contextualize the information revolution in the arc of the larger evolutionary story. It must somehow connect seemingly disparate things—like chemistry and consciousness, Darwin and digital technology, qualia and quantum computing, cellular automata and subtle layers of spirit.
THE REVENGE OF THE NERDS, SQUARED
So what exactly is the singularity? Well, some have called it the only hope for humanity’s future. Others are convinced it’s the natural culmination of biological and cultural evolution. I like to think of it as the ultimate revenge of the nerds.
The term “singularity” means different things to different people, but in the broadest sense it means the union of humans and machines, the born and the made. But more specifically, it refers to a time in the near future when an important technological threshold will be crossed. The exact timing of this event varies depending on the theorist. Some think of it as the moment when computers’ raw processing power will exceed the processing power of the human brain. Others use it to refer to the moment when artificial intelligence will recognizably transcend human intelligence, and various measures are suggested for judging that milestone. But however one defines the term, the idea is that at some point in the not-too-distant future, change will be happening so fast that a threshold will be reached beyond which it will become increasingly difficult to recognize human culture as clearly “human.” We will be augmenting and altering our bodies and lives to such a degree that we will begin to lose the sense of clear continuity with who we have been. Our tools of prediction, these theorists tell us, cannot account for this level of cultural dislocation and unpredictability, as fundamental categories of human life are challenged and changed by the accelerating powers of our emerging technologies. It will be, in the words of author Vernor Vinge, “an exponential runway beyond any hope of control.”
If there is a hint of dystopia in that statement, don’t be surprised. That is the reason why so many sci-fi novels of the last decades, including Gibson’s, present a rather ambivalent vision of the future. After all, transhumanism really does mean that we’re going to be transcending the long-established categories that make us human. We’re going to be messing with our genetic code, altering our minds and memories with tiny nanocomputers, radically upgrading our sensory apparatus, dramatically extending our life spans, and according to some, eventually transcending the biological body altogether, not to mention creating artificial life and intelligence that may surpass or even supersede our own.
But while it’s understandable that there is more than a little angst about the outcome of such radical experimentation, the mood among those in the audience in New York reflected the overall mood of the transhumanism movement: a powerful faith in the future. It is a conviction in the redemptive potential of technology and an optimistic belief that the more we embrace the coming changes, the more power we will have to positively shape the inevitable ups and downs of this “exponential runway” we are about to taxi down. After all, they tell us, our evolution is all about technology. It al- ways has been, since the first human fashioned the first Stone Age tool millions of years ago. And so the technological changes coming down the pike aren’t an aberration from nature; they are nature! They are evolution in action. After all, we are meant to transcend ourselves. And now the technological means to our own transcendence are at hand. All aboard; our post-human destiny awaits. And there is no point in trying to stop the train, the transhumanists shout from the conductor’s seat, for it has already left the station.
It is not a mystery why transhumanists get accused of being naïve and even dangerous utopians, playing God without the necessary wisdom or knowledge. And this criticism is only fueled by statements like one from AI researcher Hugo de Garis, who once told an interviewer: “The prospect of building godlike creatures fills me with a sense of religious awe that goes to the very depth of my soul and motivates me powerfully to continue, despite the possible horrible negative consequences.”
But whatever naïveté they embody, whatever wisdom they lack, whatever values they are missing, the transhumanists are also keepers of a truth that most of humanity is ignoring. These technologies are coming. Genetics, robotics, nanotechnology—“GNR,” as that triumvirate is often called. Sooner or later, they are coming, and they are going to change everything. I think of the transhumanist movement as a kind of evolutionary wake-up call, an early-warning system for a sleeping culture. The marriage of the born and the made is in our evolutionary future. In fact, increasingly, it is in our present. So how do we make meaning in that world? How do we take responsibility for the consequences of that world? Religion, as we’ve known it, can’t answer those questions. Neither can science. Philosophy is struggling with them. And New Age paeans to the wisdom of indigenous cultures are certainly not going to help. Only a new kind of worldview could possibly meet the spiritual, moral, and philosophical demands placed on us by a post-singularity world, whenever and wherever such a cultural moment might appear.
It is not entirely clear who first used the term “singularity.” Some have traced it back to the mathematical genius Jon von Neumann, who is said to have used it in the 1950s in conversations about the future of technology. In our own time, Vernor Vinge was perhaps the first to publish the term in the context of technological change. In a 1993 essay entitled “The Coming Technological Singularity,” he predicted that humanity was “on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth. The precise cause of this change is the imminent creation by technology of entities with greater than human intelligence.”
In the last two decades, the person most associated with the term “singularity” has been futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil. In his 2005 book The Singularity Is Near, Kurzweil made a powerful case for the notion that technological change is advancing at such a rate that we will soon reach a point where it will transform “every institution and aspect of human life, from sexuality to spirituality.” Under Kurzweil’s influence, the singularity has become not only a more popular concept but a more flexible one as well. These days, if one is interested in the singularity, it tends to mean that one is interested in all of the many ways—genetics, nanotechnology, robotics, artificial intelligence—that human-created technology is promising to revolutionize what it means to be human. “The singularity,” Kurzweil writes, “will represent the culmination of the merger of our biological thinking and existence with our technology, resulting in a world that is still human but that transcends our biological roots.”
For Kurzweil and other transhumanists, there is nothing new about our brave march toward the transcendence of biology. In fact, one could argue that humans have been trying to transcend their biology from the moment they became aware that there was such a thing. Starting with the prehistoric clubs used to augment the strength of our blows, every tool humans have ever used could justifiably be placed into this category. And yet our powers are increasing at a frightening rate, producing a world that is no longer changing lifetime by lifetime or generation by generation but year by year and even day by day. This technological change gives us the visceral sense that time has a directional arrow, that we are headed somewhere, that the future will be demonstrably different from the past, that history is not merely moving the pieces around on an al- ready existing chessboard but is creating new games with new rules on entirely new playing fields.
In the 2000 documentary No Maps for These Territories, William Gibson reflects on the realities of our fast-changing technological lives, noting, “The truth-is-stranger-than-fiction factor keeps get- ting jacked up on us on a fairly regular, maybe even exponential, basis. I think that’s something peculiar to our time. I don’t think our grandparents had to live with that.”
I couldn’t agree more with Gibson, whose insights into the effects of technological change on human psychology always ring with authenticity. He is an ambivalent but prescient forward observer of the transhumanist parade. But the truly interesting word in Gibson’s quote is “exponential.” It is in the meaning of this term that we find the connection between the techno dreams of the trans- humanists and the emerging insights of an evolutionary worldview. And it was Kurzweil who made the critical link—with one insight that is shaking up futurists, challenging technologists, and chang- ing the way we think about the path of human evolution.
WARNING: THE FUTURE MAY BE CLOSER THAN IT APPEARS
Legend has it that Albert Einstein was once asked what the greatest power in the universe was. His answer? Compound interest. Now, whether or not the great physicist ever actually said these words is a question we’ll leave for the historians, but the power of the insight should not be doubted. I found myself contemplating this thought recently as I sat in the lobby of Kurzweil Technologies in Wellesley, Massachusetts, waiting to speak with the man who put the term “singularity” on the lips of the intelligentsia.
The power of compound interest is based on a simple formula—that the interest obtained is added to the original principal, thereby becoming part of the calculation for the next iteration of interest. The amount accumulated doesn’t just change by regularly adding a fixed amount to the original principal. Rather, it builds on its own momentum, so to speak. That is why all retirement planners beg twentysomethings to save money while they are young, even if only a little, because of the incredible advantages gained by those additional years of accelerating returns. This principle is key to what Kurzweil likes to call exponential growth—it accelerates as it moves forward. And it keeps accelerating . . . and accelerating.
As a young inventor, Kurzweil came across this principle in the process of trying to create timelines for his projects. “When I finished many of my projects, three or four years after the original idea, invariably the world was a different place,” he explained. “Most inventions fail not because people can’t get them to work, but because their timing is off. And so I became an ardent student of technology trends, and this interest has taken on a life of its own.”
When I say Kurzweil is an inventor, I’m not kidding. His office is covered with the many national and international awards his creations have garnered over the years. And there are pictures of him with artists (Stevie Wonder is prominent), politicians (one has Bill Clinton shaking his hand), and luminaries of all kinds thanking him for his work. All of his inventions have the same theme—they showcase the power of new kinds of technology, often for humanitarian causes. For example, he is the inventor of the first text-to- speech synthesizer device that allows the blind to read, making him something of a hero to visually impaired people around the globe. He is also the creator of the ubiquitous Kurzweil keyboard, which allows electronic synthesizers to create sound that is indistinguishable from a grand piano as well as other orchestral instruments.
Kurzweil Technologies is Kurzweil’s mother ship, a technology incubator that takes bright new ideas all the way from the depths of his intuition through the stages of prototype and experimentation and then finally to market, at which point they are generally spun off into separate companies. These include FatKat, a hedge fund based on innovative pattern-recognition software, and Ray and Terry’s Longevity Products, a company that produces life-extension supplements. His offices are also the home of his technology team, who keep close tabs on the important technology trends of the day.
“I have a team of people who gather data, measure different aspects of different technologies, and then develop mathematical models of them,” Kurzweil explained. “The most significant trend that this investigation has uncovered is that the pace of change is itself accelerating.”
He points out that it was only in recent centuries that people began to realize that technology was even changing, or that there was such a thing as technology at all. The industrial revolution changed our perception, and today people relate to change as a constant. But for Kurzweil, change is not a constant at all. It is growing exponentially. “According to my models,” he explains, “we’re roughly doubling what I call the ‘paradigm-shift rate,’ which is the rate of progress, every decade. So that means that the twentieth century wasn’t a hundred years of change at today’s rate of change, because we’ve been speeding up. It was actually twenty years of change at today’s rate of change. Exponential change is quite explosive, so in the next century we’ll make about twenty thousand years of change at today’s rate of progress—about a thousand times greater than the twentieth century, and that century was no slouch for change.”
Did you get that? Twenty thousand years of change in the twenty-first century? Talking to Ray Kurzweil is a little like entering a reality-distortion field in which the normal perceptions of evolutionary change suddenly speed up dramatically. Again, exponential change is the critical concept here. There is a world of difference be- tween linear change and exponential change. And the human mind, to the extent that it considers change at all, is wired to think in linear terms. Futurists fall into the same trap. They project the future based on a reasonable extrapolation from the present of linear growth over time. Makes perfect sense—it’s just wrong. At least, according to this particular pied piper of the singularity.
“Most technology forecasts and forecasters ignore altogether this historical exponential view of technological progress,” Kurzweil writes in The Singularity Is Near. “Indeed, almost everyone I meet has a linear view of the future. That’s why people tend to over- estimate what can be achieved in the short term (because we tend to leave out necessary details) but underestimate what can be achieved in the long term (because exponential growth is ignored).”
Perhaps the best part of Kurzweil’s presentation of the significance of exponential change is his demeanor. He is totally unfazed by it all. Kurzweil could tell you about the most wild, outrageous prediction for the future with almost zero emotion. His voice keeps dropping to lower registers toward the end of his sentences, keeping everything very straight and free of hype. The message conveyed is: “I’m looking at data; others are going with their gut.” The contrast between the dramatic nature of the message and the purposefully understated style of the presentation creates a cognitive dissonance in my mind—like Ben Stein reading Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” Some might find it off-putting, but there is something endearing about it as well. And as we talked, I found Kurzweil to be warm, curious, and even quite funny at times—albeit in a quiet, introverted way.
It’s worth noting that he may very well be the first person in history to fully appreciate the profound distinction between exponential and linear growth, a distinction that many feel applies well beyond the evolution of computing technology. In fact, Kurzweil has reams of data, chart after chart after chart, showing how the evolution of any information technology follows an exponential curve. We’ve all heard the famous example of “Moore’s Law,” in which Gordon Moore, the founder of Intel, noted that the number of transistors that can fit on a microchip doubles every eighteen months. It is something of an article of faith now, and whole design and production cycles in Silicon Valley are based on it. But according to Kurzweil, Moore’s Law is really a reflection of a much larger principle. In fact, he points out, the microchip paradigm was already the fifth generation of information technology, and exponential growth runs through every generation since 1890.
“It’s amazing how smooth these graphs are,” Kurzweil says. “Look at wireless communications from Morse code a century ago to 4G networks today—smooth exponential growth for a century. It’s surprising how predictable it is, when you consider that what we’re measuring is the overall output of human innovation, creativity, and competition. You’d think it would be unpredictable, and indeed, specific projects are, but the overall result is not.” Kurzweil points out that these historical trends of exponential growth continued, even given the drastic effects of the two world wars, the Great Depression, and many other disastrous cultural events. None of them significantly altered the curve of change. It reminded me of what Robert Wright noted about cultural evolution—unpredictable in the micro, but clear progressive trends in the macro.
To listen to Kurzweil is to take a journey into a world of technological accomplishments that seem like magic, existing in the far-off future, and then to compress them into the next few decades, if not years. Take the energy crisis. According to Kurzweil, the future has answers. Solar panels combined with nanotechnology should do the trick. “Solar energy production is doubling every two years,” he tells me. “And it’s only eight doublings away from meeting a hundred percent of the world’s energy needs. And we have ten thousand times more sunlight than we need. We’re awash in energy.” Water shortage? The future has answers. “We’re awash in water—most of it is just dirty or salinated,” he says. “But we can convert it into a usable form with new technologies.” Food? “We can create food that is safe and inexpensive with no ecological impact using hydroponically grown plants and in-vitro cloned meat without animals. Even PETA endorses that idea.” Medicine? How about robotic red blood cells that are a thousand times better at holding oxygen than our own red blood cells? “You could sit at the bottom of your pool for four hours without taking a breath, or take an Olympic sprint for fifteen minutes without breathing.” Or perhaps you’d prefer some robotic white blood cells, which are “dramatically more powerful than our ordinary white blood cells. They can download software from the Internet and destroy any kind of pathogen.” The list goes on and on.
One of Kurzweil’s common examples for illustrating exponential growth is the Human Genome Project, the international scientific effort to sequence the human genome. Started in 1990, the project, which was supposed to last fifteen years, was initially met with strong skepticism. Critics felt it was a ridiculous goal; that it would take generations, if not longer, to fully accomplish the ambitious task. Halfway through the project, doubts remained. Only one percent of the genome had been successfully accounted for. Surely the endeavor was doomed to failure. But in Kurzweil’s exponential universe, things were actually right on track. As he explained to me, with exponential growth “you start out doubling tiny numbers, and by the time you get to one percent you are seven doublings away from a hundred. The project finished ahead of schedule.”
I was taken with Kurzweil’s optimism, impressed by his data, and moved by his dedication to making technology serve human advancement. But I was particularly interested in how he saw all of his work in the context of an evolutionary narrative. “My thesis is a theory of evolution,” he told me, outlining a whole perspective on evolution that incorporates the idea of exponential change. For Kurzweil, exponential growth is not some temporary aberration from our evolutionary trajectory; it is practically the defining principle right from the start. One of the ways in which evolution has proceeded on Earth, he explained, is that it has tended to evolve whole new “technological platforms” on which evolution could occur. Theorists call this the evolution of evolution. “As an evolutionary process evolves a capability,” he explains, “it then adopts that capability as part of its methods for evolution. So the next stage goes more quickly. And the fruits of the next stage grow exponentially.” Exhibit A for this principle is DNA. “Evolving that took a billion years, but then biological evolution adopted it, and has used it ever since. The next stage, the Cambrian explosion, went a hundred times faster.” Kurzweil points out that people tend to think of the Cambrian period, when all the body plans of the animals evolved, as a very special period of creativity. But from his perspective, it isn’t special. It was just the natural result of a new capability or “technology” becoming available to the process. Eventually, through a series of such exponentially faster stages, the process produced a species that could create technologies itself, which was a further exponential leap. “So human technology and cultural evolution is a continuation of the process that created the technology-creating species in the first place,” Kurzweil concludes.
Given Kurzweil’s background, it is hardly surprising to hear him describe the universe in such technological terms. However, it was fascinating to me, in talking to Kurzweil, that he also had a conviction in the deeply spiritual nature of the process. “In my mind,” he told me, “evolution is a spiritual process.” Of course, he came to that conclusion through a very logical deduction:
What happens during evolution? Entities get more complicated. They become more knowledgeable and more creative, more capable of higher levels of emotions, like love. What do we mean by the word God? God is an ideal meaning infinite levels of all of these qualities. All-knowing. Infinitely beautiful. Infinitely loving. And we notice that through evolution, entities move towards infinite levels, never really achieving them, staying finite but exploding exponentially to become more and more knowing, more and more creative, more and more beautiful, more and more loving, and so on—moving exponentially towards this ideal of God but never really achieving it.
THE DESTINY OF THE EARTH AND THE COSMOS
Ray Kurzweil is certainly not the only thinker to point out that the rapid spread of information technology is not an aberration from evolution’s trajectory but an integral part of it. Indeed, some say that we are in the midst of the greatest leap forward in the proliferation of information since Gutenberg started his printing press in the mid-fifteenth century, or even since the earliest writings in Egypt and Sumer and the original cuneiform tablets. It does seem almost a given that the emergence of our new digital landscape constitutes a remarkable moment in cultural development. Kevin Kelly recently compared the significance of our age, and the birth of the Internet to that of the historical inflection point 2,500 years ago known as the Axial Age, when four of the world’s major religions and several other influential philosophical systems were all born in the space of a century.
“There is only one time in the history of each planet when its inhabitants first wire up its innumerable parts to make one large Machine,” Kelly writes, with the breadth of vision common to thinkers with transhumanist persuasions. “Later that Machine may run faster, but there is only one time when it is born. You and I are alive at this moment. We should marvel, but people alive at such times usually don’t.”
While Kelly and Kurzweil have been critical of each other’s work and their timelines of the future vary, they do share the contagious optimism of fellow techno-evolutionaries. And maybe, like them, we should marvel. But perhaps we should also feel a hint of caution. After all, there are, to use William Gibson’s words, “no maps for these territories.” There is no user’s manual for our newly awake “Machine” as it grows in knowledge and power.
Indeed, what exactly is this “machine” we are creating? What is its ontological status? Is it conscious? Is it alive? Is it a new form of intelligence? This birth is an event that has truly launched a thousand philosophical questions, not to mention spiritual and existential quandaries—as we try to come to grips with the fast-unfolding implications of our own creation. Where exactly is this digital daemon headed in the years to come?
In the first part of the twentieth century, Teilhard de Chardin had his own prescient thoughts about the evolution of our collective intelligence. More than half a century before the formation of the Internet, he wrote, “No one can deny that a network . . . of economic and psychic affiliations is being woven at ever-increasing speed which envelops and constantly penetrates more deeply within each of us.” Gibson added his visionary voice to the mix in 1984 when he wrote, again in his classic novel Neuromancer, of a future digital matrix that was a “consensual hallucination” with “rich fields of data” where one could observe “bright lattices of logic unfolding across that colorless void.”
Today, it is in the transhumanists’ milieu that we find some of the most interesting, provocative, and generally outrageous predictions of what might be coming our way in the years and centuries ahead. Indeed, there have been plenty of people to notice that our global communications networks, taken together, seem to be constituting a collection of connections that has eerie similarities to the structures that make up a human brain. So, is the Internet the equivalent of a global mind? And even more relevant, if it were becoming conscious, would we even know it? The speed at which this new global mind has been born understandably emboldens the prophets.
But even if we stop well short of declaring the Internet to be a global brain, something of evolutionary significance is happening in the marriage of technology, biology, and matter. When I reflect for a moment upon the power of my latest smart phone, it is as if the matter in the phone itself has come alive with intelligence and power. Is there an analogy to life? Consider the difference between the matter in a rock and the matter in a living organism. The matter in living organisms has achieved a sort of freedom, autonomy, mobility, and intelligence that nonliving matter never approaches. So, does the difference between a smart iPhone and a dumb rock amount to the same sort of evolutionary leap? For some transhumanists, this is the essence of the evolutionary process: waking up matter by infusing it with intelligence and information.
As usual, Kurzweil has a thoughtful and radical take on the idea. “In my mind,” he told me, “we will ultimately saturate the whole of the matter and energy in our area of the universe with our intelligence, and then it will spread out at the fastest speed with which information can flow to the whole universe. Eventually the whole universe will essentially wake up. Ultimately all of what I call the dumb matter and energy in the universe will be transformed into sublimely intelligent matter and energy. That is the ultimate destiny of the universe.”
Such statements may seem grandiose and speculative, but remember that Kurzweil has based much of his career on the well-informed extrapolation of current trends into the future, and he isn’t willing to abandon ship just because the time frames are getting cosmic and the conclusions unconventional. Indeed, he has been one of the very few, with the possible exception of a rare physicist or spiritual visionary, to point out a fact about the future evolution of the universe that is both completely sensible and completely remarkable as well. He points out that most speculations about the future of the universe don’t take into account the evolution of intelligent life. The majority of theorists completely ignore its influence. But that makes no sense. If you just consider our own evolution over the last ten thousand years, not to mention the evolution of whatever other forms of intelligent life may be out there, and then extrapolate that process forward several bil- lion years, it would seem reasonable to suppose that we (meaning whatever form of intelligent life we have evolved into) may have advanced to such a degree in our intelligence, sophistication, and technology that we have a say in the cosmic destiny of the uni- verse. It’s quite a notion to wrap one’s mind around, but as Kurzweil points out, in his typically matter-of-fact style, it is simply a reasonable conclusion to draw from the data:
The implications of the Law of Accelerating Returns is that intelligence on Earth and in our solar system will vastly expand over time.
The same can be said across the galaxy and throughout the universe. . . . So will the universe end in a big crunch, or in an infinite expansion of dead stars, or in some other manner? In my view, the primary issue is not the mass of the universe, or the possible existence of antigravity, or of Einstein’s so-called cosmological constant. Rather, the fate of the universe is a decision yet to be made, one which we will intelligently consider when the time is right.
If we see intelligence as being merely the furthest result yet of a long, linear evolutionary process that will simply continue in a future trajectory, unperturbed by the consequences of its creations, then perhaps there is no reason to consider the role of intelligence in shaping the destiny of the Earth or the solar system, much less forces at a cosmic level. However, if intelligence is an emergent property in an exponential curve, another game-changer in evolution’s long history of game-changing creations, then trusting the blind forces of physics to determine the future of the universe may be no more reliable than trusting that purely “natural” forces will determine the future shape of an alpine glacier. As we are learning, the power of
intelligence, for better or worse, plays a powerful role in the latter, and believe it or not, may someday play a role in the former. The only difference is scale.
AN INFORMATION ONTOLOGY
In his 2009 book The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves, economist W. Brian Arthur explores the parallels between biology and technology and comes to the conclusion that they are becoming more and more synonymous over time. He points out that as our technology gets more and more sophisticated, it is beginning to look less mechanistic and more organic, taking on many of the functions and properties that we associate with living organisms. And he also points out that the more sophisticated our understanding of biology is, the more we grasp the extraordinarily subtle and complex mechanisms that make up the processes of our biological lives, the more we appreciate the essentially mechanistic nature of all of the interacting parts and processes. He writes:
Conceptually, at least, biology is becoming technology. And physically, technology is becoming biology. The two are starting to close in on each other, and indeed as we move deeper into genomics and nanotechnology, more than this, they are starting to intermingle.
Now, Arthur is both an economist and a complexity theorist, and so the idea that biology is ultimately just technology, that life is essentially a function of very complex material processes producing higher forms of order, is one he is naturally comfortable with. But whatever we ultimately conclude about the nature of life itself, the idea that biology and technology are growing closer and closer has some very important implications. How are they connected? Here we come across a conviction that is very important to understand when it comes to transhumanism: Everything is information.
In order to appreciate the insights of transhumanism, one has to understand just how critical a role information plays in the transhumanist understanding of reality. Spiritually inclined individuals may dismiss these techno-futurists as being materialists, but I’ve come to believe that this is an inaccurate characterization. They are neither materialists nor spiritualists; they are informationalists. They have an information ontology, we might say. Down at the foundations of reality, where some see spirit and some see matter, they see information. It’s the building block of their worldview. As Kurzweil explained at one point during our conversation, “Living creatures are information. Biology is an information process.” In Kurzweil’s universe, what is ultimately evolving is not life or matter or beings or even consciousness but the complexity and sophistication of information.
Physicists have long tended to think of the universe in terms of the most complex machines of their day. Remember when the universe was like a clock? It makes sense that scientists today would think that it’s a giant information processor. Our emerging understanding of the role of information in all kinds of physical, biological, and evolutionary processes represents a significant move out of the billiard-ball universe of science’s past, where everything could be reduced to tiny particles that collect together and crash into one another. And because information as a concept is much more closely related to the idea of intelligence, when we talk about the evolution of information processing it naturally places a higher premium on the role of intelligence in the evolutionary process. Was human-level intelligence an inevitable, or at least likely, outcome of the evolutionary process? In an information-laden universe, the answer would surely have to be yes.
An information ontology gets even more rich when we consider the work of philosopher David Chalmers, founder of the aforementioned Tucson consciousness conference, a maverick but highly respected academic who has introduced a theory of consciousness that places information in a central role and suggests that both matter and subjective experience are “double aspects” of information. He suggests a “conception of the world on which information is truly fundamental, and on which it has two basic aspects, corresponding to the physical and the phenomenal features of the world.” In other words, Chalmers suggests that both consciousness (phenomenal) and matter (physical) are, in some sense, the result of a world built out of information. It is no accident that when I queried him, Kurzweil cited Chalmers as his favorite philosopher.
My point is not to endorse Chalmers’s view, or to say that it represents the exact way in which Kurzweil and other transhumanists see the evolutionary universe. Rather, it is to show that there are powerful ideas at the leading edge of science and philosophy that take us beyond the easy dualisms of the past and confound the polarized categorizations of science, technology, and spirituality. They encourage scientists to not dismiss consciousness as the concern of feeble-minded romantics. And they encourage the spiritually inclined to resist their Luddite urges and the all-too-common association of the mechanisms of technology with a cold, indifferent material universe. An information-rich view of evolution need not be reductive or spiritless. Even theologians have noted this truth, pointing out that if God or Spirit works in mysterious ways, one of those mysteries might have to do with that hard-to-categorize power of information in the evolutionary process. “The quiet, unobtrusive way in which information insinuates itself into the chemistry of life,” writes evolutionary theologian John Haught, “serves to demonstrate that there can be a kind of influence operative in nature that is not reducible to sheer material force.”
LIVE LONG ENOUGH TO LIVE FOREVER
There are some rather interesting implications that flow from a worldview based on information. The first, and perhaps most significant, is captured in the title of one of Kurzweil’s books, Live Long Enough to Live Forever. Consider this: If the essence of what makes a human being is neither the physical body or brain, nor some immaterial soul, but information, then it would theoretically be possible to remove a human being from the physical substrate—remove the human software, in other words, the patterns of information that make up the self, from the physical hardware. Indeed, perhaps it would be possible to move a human being from body to body without doing fundamental damage to that person—damage such as, well, death.
“Ultimately, we can and will transcend our biological limitations,” says Kurzweil in his usual deadpan voice. And it must be said that he has put his money and body where his mouth is. He takes a couple of hundred supplements every day, has essentially cured himself of diabetes, and has embarked on an extraordinary health regimen, which he has chronicled in several of his books on the subject. The hope— and it is a hope he shares with many transhumanists, including English scientist Aubrey de Grey—is that we can discover ways to radically slow down the aging process in order to “cure aging,” as de Grey explains it. The timeline they are looking at is years and decades, not centuries. It won’t be long at all before we have people living to 120, maybe 150. And given exponential growth, who knows what the term “senior citizen” will mean once the singularity kicks in. “The first thousand-year-old is probably less than twenty years younger than the first one-hundred-and-fifty-year-old,” de Grey says.
Kurzweil believes that by the 2030s and 2040s we will already be well on our way to transcending the many limitations of our biological bodies. “There is not a single organ of the body that is not being augmented already. It’s just at a fairly early stage. People say, ‘Oh, I like my biological body,’ but we’re not going to be limited to one biological body; we’ll have multiple biological bodies.” This prediction depends on more than exponential growth; it depends on a metaphysical leap of faith. Yes, if the essence of Carter Phipps or the essence of Ray Kurzweil is information and the kind of information that can be captured by human technology, then it could actually make sense, as outrageous as it sounds. If our identity can be stored in bits and bytes of highly organized data, then surely it can be moved around into different biological substrates. But let’s not mince words—that is a giant, massive if. It’s the kind of sliver of possibility, however, that has already inspired a great deal of enthusiasm. Indeed, this scenario has been referred to as “the rapture of the nerds.” And so whether or not we biologically “cure aging” in the long term is a moot point to singularity enthusiasts. What matters is that we survive long enough for technology to allow us to upload ourselves into immortality, that we live long enough, as they say, to live forever in the “bodiless exultation of cyberspace.” After all, meat is messy.
My colleagues and I have often remarked over the years that one of the by-products of adopting an evolutionary worldview is the temptation to embrace the idea of immortality. We have particularly noticed this tendency among spiritual Evolutionaries, and have speculated that there is something about the power of a deep evolutionary optimism, a genuine sense of almost incredible possibility and potential at the level of consciousness, that can lead to the misguided conclusion that evolution is destined (in the near future) to give consciousness power over matter itself. We see this in many of the esoteric Western spiritual traditions, where the “light body” is often bandied about as a sort of ultimate spiritual goal—the idea that the highest levels of evolution involve a transfiguration of the flesh. Similar ideas can be found at the esoteric edges of Christianity and the yogic tradition of Hinduism. Immortality also makes an appearance in the evolutionary philosophy of Sri Aurobindo, whose work was in turn influential in Michael Murphy’s focus on new physical capabilities appearing in the human species, a subject he carefully researched and investigated in his impressive book, The Future of the Body (though Murphy makes no claims to immortality). Clearly, there are less credible and more credible expressions of this basic impulse.
So it is perhaps not so unexpected to see the subject of immortality turn up on the technological side of the evolution revolution as well. Does that mean we should discount all such speculations as baseless fantasy? Admittedly, prolonging our biological life indefinitely still seems far-fetched to me, and dramatically transforming our bodies with our minds even more so. But in a world where life spans are ever-increasing and the science is advancing day to day, far be it from me to establish any definitive limit on what’s possible. We shouldn’t forget that we have added thirty years to our life expectancy in the course of the last century. But whatever we ultimately conclude about such notions in science or spirit, the most striking thing is to note the common source—evolution. To embrace the power and potential of an evolutionary worldview, and to embrace the faith in the future that it represents—whether that faith is associated with technology or consciousness—is to embrace a future with radically expanded limits.
Uploading our consciousness to computers is certainly a wild science-fiction scenario to speculate about over a good Bordeaux (after all, components of wine have been shown to have potent anti-aging properties). But we can appreciate the evolutionary challenges and potentials of these new technologies and their ambiguous effects on our humanity without assuming such radical scenarios. I often find it humorous how much intense concern there is in the singularity community over the eventual impact of completely unproven, nonexistent technologies. Indeed, transhumanists are particularly good at engaging in hypothetical moral dilemmas that may be getting a bit ahead of the technology. Hugo de Garis is a poster child of this tendency, as he has stirred up considerable consternation that we are heading toward an inevitable “artilect war” before the end of the twenty-first century between those who embrace artificial in- telligence (cosmists) and those who reject it (terrans). In fact, he dedicated a whole book, The Artilect War, to the subject. It is a war that will kill billions, he insists. I appreciate the insistence that we face up to the coming technological changes with some measure of honest concern, foresight, and deliberation, but there is also a limit to how much emotional energy we should invest in hypothetical moral dilemmas that depend entirely on unknown technologies that themselves depend entirely on metaphysical leaps of faith! In other words, don’t lose sleep over the coming artilect war . . . for now.
Nevertheless, the transhumanists have several important pieces of this evolutionary worldview we are forming. They have embraced the material, or informational, side of evolution’s advance with a vengeance. They are making an important case that human-created technology, with all its wondrous promise and dangerous potential, is not an aberration from nature but an essential expression of nature’s handiwork. Yes, they may take that point to its logical extremes, but if we are to form a worldview that does not retreat from the future, which can face the reality of life on the edge of some sort of singularity head-on, whenever it may come and whatever it might look like, then we cannot hide from the future and the consequences of our technological revolutions. To again paraphrase Stewart Brand, humanity is already playing God, and we had better get good at it.
Becoming good at playing God, I suspect, will mean a much deeper and more profound understanding of the evolution of human culture, human values, and ultimately human consciousness itself. Indeed, if there is an Achilles heel to the transhumanist movement, I would say it is their tendency to oversimplify the nature of mind and consciousness, and to over-conflate consciousness with informational complexity. It is an ontological sleight of hand that, once employed, allows a whole host of imagined outcomes that might otherwise be difficult or even off-limits. But I will also say that in my conversations with Kurzweil, he expressed an authentic, open- minded interest in the subject of consciousness. Of course, consciousness is a difficult subject for any theorist, and Evolutionaries are no exception. And so, having explored the outer limits of material and technological evolution, it is to this inner dimension of life that we now turn.