Is the future here yet?


Went to see a fascinating film at the Tribeca film festival called Transcendent Man, which is a documentary about Ray Kurzweil and his attempt to achieve a sort of immortality. I won’t try to describe Kurzweil’s complex belief system here (you can read the wiki article and other sources for that), but in  a nutshell he believes that the exponential growth of technology will take us to a point in the very near future (which he calls the singularity) in which it will overtake us and (with the creation of artificial intelligence that surpasses human intelligence) direct itself. He believes (and hopes) that at this point we/he  will merge with and/or be replaced by this super-intelligence and direct our future evolution. I tend to think this will happen as well, albeit in a somewhat different manner. As I have written before, I think our technological path is leading us to a point in the future where we will be completely linked and borg like, for both good and ill (or neither if you prefer). We will at some point cease to be separate, individual entities, and will shed our humanity as we evolve into something else. I see this as a long term process that we are already well down the path towards, but I doubt there will be some single moment in time that we can point to and say, aha, this is it. Boom, we are no longer human. I believe this will happen gradually over time, as we make ourselves more interconnected, replace our body parts with bionics and such, and enhance ourselves. People will not go kicking and screaming towards this future, they will welcome it step by step, bit by bit, for convenience sake. Already when you talk to young people today about how exposed they are to the world on facebook and the like, they stare at you blankly. Why is my generation (and older ones) so bothered by our loss of privacy while they are not, for example? There are certainly all kinds of questions to be sorted out between the technical haves and have nots and the social order, and there is and will be great social upheaval, but the writing is on the wall if you ask me.

The most interesting aspect of the film however deals with Kurzweil’s body obsession and fear that he was born just a little too soon to make it to this point in time. He is obsessed with taking care of his body long enough to be able to “upload his mind”, long enough to achieve this “immortality”. It is the driving obsession of his life, as well as recreating his father (who died of a heart attack  at a fairly young age) in some new virtual world. He clearly wants to experience this new world of human evolution, and yet he uses terms like “upload” or “backup” his consciousness, which always leads me to want to ask the teleport question about what happens to the original. Does it just get destroyed but that is ok b/c the copy continues on? I don’t know about you, but it would be small comfort to me to be destroyed even if a replica was continuing on with all my memories…

Or maybe it is more like the darned sock analogy. I’ve got a hole in my sock, which I get a patch for. Then another, with another patch, and so on until there is no material left of the original. Is it the same sock? In reality, over many years our bodies’ cells have replaced just about everything that we were born with anyway, so what is the difference? The difference is, in Kurzweil’s (and admittedly our) future, the sock will no longer resemble the thing it started out as at all. It will have transcended sock-ness completely. And we will have transcended humanity for something else, something unknown.