Monday, January 26, 2009

Deus ex Machina

IEEE Spectrum | Across cultures, classes, and aeons, people have yearned to transcend death.

Bear that history in mind as you consider the creed of the singularitarians. Many of them fervently believe that in the next several decades we’ll have computers into which you’ll be able to upload your consciousness—the mysterious thing that makes you you. Then, with your consciousness able to go from mechanical body to mechanical body, or virtual paradise to virtual paradise, you’ll never need to face death, illness, bad food, or poor cellphone reception.

Now you know why the singularity has also been called the rapture of the geeks.

The singularity is supposed to begin shortly after engineers build the first computer with greater-than-human intelligence. That achievement will trigger a series of cycles in which superintelligent machines beget even smarter machine progeny, going from generation to generation in weeks or days rather than decades or years. The availability of all that cheap, mass-­produced brilliance will spark explosive economic growth, an unending, hypersonic, tech­no­industrial rampage that by comparison will make the Industrial Revolution look like a bingo game.

At that point, we will have been sucked well beyond the event horizon of the singularity. It might be nice there, on the other side—by definition, you can’t know for sure. Sci-fi writers, though, have served up lots of scenarios in which humankind becomes the prey, rather than the privileged beneficiaries, of synthetic savants.