Rapture of the Nerds

Note: I began this post several weeks ago when I first ran across the linked article, then let it drop for some reason. I responded to it, I think, because of my visceral reaction against all forms of messianism & scientism.

Ray Kurzweil has taken over from Marvin Minsky, but the computopians are still peddling the same tired bullshit. Via Three Quarks Daily I see that there is a powerful critique of the “singularitarian” fantasy at the IEEE website. What I liked best about the analysis — & hadn’t thought of myself, explicitly — is that this “singularitarianism” represents a utopian religious movement.” The article is not unsympathetic, but it highly critical of the naive utopianism of the true believers. (It also offers statements in support of the coming rise of the machines.) The Singularity — almost always capitalized — is that moment in the future when machine intelligence surpasses human intelligence, or when machines become conscious, or when humans will be able to upload their minds into computers. Never mind (for starters) that we have barely adequate definitions of intelligence, consciousness, or mind. I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of perception during my month out here in the country, not that one can’t think about perception elsewhere; but I’ve had time to think about thinking, one of my favorite hobbies. [The IEEE link above leads to a symposium in which the

All these fantasies are based on the literalization of the metaphor the brain is a computer. Taking metaphors literally leads to all kinds of logical confusions. The brain, let’s say, is an organ — & it organizes experiences. (Far more useful to think with puns!) But here’s the crux: human experience does not exist “inside” the brain, but is the result of the the human body (including the brain) being alive in the world.

Notably, singularity enthusiasts tend to be computer specialists, such as the author and retired computer scientist Vernor Vinge, the roboticist Hans Moravec, and the entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil. Intoxicated by the explosive progress of information technologies captured by Moore’s Law, such singularitarians foresee a “merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence,” as Kurzweil puts it, that will culminate in “immortal software-based humans.” It will happen not within a millennium, or a century, but no later than 2030, according to Vinge. These guys—and, yes, they’re all men—are serious. Kurzweil says he has adopted an antiaging regimen so that he’ll “live long enough to live forever.”

For a realistic assessment of current neuroscience’s ability to track specific brain functions — to say nothing of consciousness — to localized regions of activity, I recommend Matthew B. Crawford‘s report on the state of the art, which also contains a good deal of basic philosophy of science that the singularitarians are either ignorant of or ignore. [See also: The Singularity Summit at Stanford University.]