The Coming Light Ages
The Coming Light Ages

nd now, for a massive infusion of optimism—and a great reason to take your supplements—consider the thesis of The Singularity Is Near. In this new book (Viking, New York, 2005), artificial intelligence practitioner, technologist, inventor, and futurist Ray Kurzweil predicts a near future in which all of our present socioeconomic problems will be solved. In this thrilling future, human aging and pollution will be reversed; world hunger will be solved; our bodies will be transformed by micromachines to overcome the limitations of biology, including death; and virtually any physical product will be creatable from information and elemental matter alone. How in the world will this be accomplished?

According to Kurzweil’s Law (stated below), this will happen by a convergence of the exponentially accelerating (read “runaway”) revolutions taking place in genetics, information technology, robotics, and nanotechnology (what he calls the “killer app”). Together these will bring about exponential increases in human intelligence that will radically and irreversibly transform everything, from sexuality to spirituality to our ability to live as long as we want. How fast will this happen? Metaphorically and, to some degree, literally, this transformation will happen at the speed of light—in about 40 years, by the year 2045.

The Special Laws of Exponential Growth

As full of science fiction as this appears to be, on the surface, many of us are already familiar with—and look favorably upon—special cases of the law that will bring the revolution of accelerating returns to fruition. As an example, consider Moore’s Law, an exponential law created by one of Intel’s founders in the 1970s, which correctly stated that computer chip power and value would continually double every 18 months. Moore’s prediction has remained true to this day, and it has become an accepted tenet of the dot-com world that we have embraced. Another law, governing the acceleration of key events in biological and technological evolution from the Big Bang to the Internet, again demonstrates the exponential nature of accelerated growth. In the words of Kurzweil,

A billion years ago, not much happened over the course of even one million years. But a quarter-million years ago, epochal events such as the evolution of our species occurred in time frames of just one hundred thousand years. In technology, if we go back fifty thousand years, not much happened over a one-thousand-year period. But in the recent past, we see new paradigms, such as the World Wide Web, progress from inception to mass adaptation (meaning that they are used by a quarter of the population in advanced countries) within only a decade.

While there are questions about the ultimate endurance of Moore’s Law and other special cases of exponential growth, Kurzweil answers these criticisms with the concept of paradigmatic shifts in which one paradigm replaces another paradigm, thereby allowing acceleration to continue, not affecting the exponential path. In Moore’s Law, examples would be the jumps from punch cards to relays to vacuum tubes to transistors to integrated circuits. As each paradigm saturates its utility, another comes along to puncture the equilibrium, and it comes so fast that the exponential curve is maintained. Given this acceptance of these and other special laws, it may well be that many of us are already soft-core “singularitarians,” without even knowing it.

The General Law of Accelerating Returns

Addressing the bigger case, Kurzweil’s Law states that an analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change in general is exponential, not linear, as it is often portrayed. Therefore, he claims—hold your breath—“we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century; we will experience something more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).” This is because the “returns,” such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially. In other words, the curves are self-seeding. Thus, there’s even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth. Consequently, within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to The Singularity—technological change so rapid and profound that it represents what appears to be (from this side, at least) a rupture in the fabric of human history. The implications include the merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultrahigh levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light.

How great and fast will human intelligence become? Initially, about a million times more intelligent and a million times faster! Eventually, future minds will be trillions of times more powerful than they are today, birthing a new civilization based on the transcendence of biological limitations and radically amplified creativity.

Will Humans Transcend Their Biology?

While readers of Life Enhancement understand that the use of supplements can help achieve and maintain good health, the more dedicated users are motivated by the goals of functional enhancement and life extension, the historical dream of achieving indefinitely longer life without health deterioration. Well, here at last is the optimist’s road map that many of us have been waiting for. As Kurzweil states in both The Singularity Is Near and Fantastic Voyage, another recent book, if you succeed in living longer, you may live long enough to be able to determine exactly how long you live.

Anticipating a lot of flak for his thesis, Kurzweil devotes two chapters to responding to the possible perils of a genetics/nanotechnology/robotics age as well as to a wide variety of brickbats thrown by critics. He handles these hypothesized challenges with alacrity, including my biggest concern, the likelihood of government regulation.

Out of the Dark and into the Light

Will The Singularity and human biological transcendence happen on schedule? Will they ever happen? Who knows … but what is truly stunning about Kurzweil’s spectacular vision is the degree to which it seems totally plausible.

Vision has been heralded as our most important sense, yet reproducing it has been to date one of the stumbling blocks of artificial intelligence and robotics. But vision involves light, which, ironically sets the upper limit for both speed in the universe and speed in computers (and ultimately, according to The Singularity Is Near, nonbiological brain speed). So if The Singularity is to succeed, we must tap into the speed of light. For as much as our past civilization has dwelled in the dark, the future belongs to the light.

For life and light,

Will Block

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