"Each waking is really like a new dawn that's a bit like the commencement of a new person," Chalmers said. "That's good enough. That's what ordinary survival is. We've lived there a long time. And if that's so, then reconstructive uploading will also be good enough."
If the term "singularity" rings a bell, that may be because you've read the 2005 bestseller The Singularity Is Near. Its author, computer scientist and inventor Ray Kurzweil, confidently predicts intelligence will soon cross a profound threshold. The human brain will be dramatically enhanced with engineering. Artificial intelligence will take on a life of its own. If all goes well, Kurzweil predicts, we will ultimately fuse our minds with this machine superintelligence and find a cybernetic immortality. What's more, the Singularity is coming soon. Many of us alive today will be a part of it.
The Singularity is more than just hypothetic milestone in history. It's also a peculiar movement today. Along with spaceflight tycoon Peter Diamandis, Kurzweil has launched Singularity University, which brought in its first batch of students in the summer of 2009. Kurzweil is also director of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, which held its first annual summit in 2006. The summits are a mix of talks by Kurzweil and other Singularity advocates, along with scientists working on everything from robot cars to gene therapy. For its first three years the Singularity Summit took place around the Bay Area, but in 2009 the institute decided to decamp from its utopian environs and head for the more cynical streets of New York.
I was one of the curious skeptics who heeded the call and came to the 92nd Street Y. Writing about the brain and other scientific subjects had given me a strong immune defense against hype. The Singularity, with all its promises of a technorapture, seems tailor-made to bring out the worst in people like me. The writer John Horgan wrote a devastating essay about the Singularity in 2009 called "Science Cult."
Horgan acknowledged part of him enjoys pondering the Singularity's visions, such as boosting your IQ to 1,000. "But another part of me—the grown-up, responsible part—worries that so many people, smart people, are taking Kurzweil's sci-fi fantasies seriously," he wrote. "The last thing humanity needs right now is an apocalyptic cult masquerading as science."
I decided to check out the Singularity for myself. Between the talks, as I mingled among people wearing S lapel pins and eagerly discussing their personal theories of consciousness, I found myself tempted to reject the whole smorgasbord as half-baked science fiction. But in the end I didn't.
After the meeting I decided to visit to researchers working on the type of technology that people such as Kurzweil consider the steppingstones to the Singularity. Not one of them takes Kurzweil's own vision of the future seriously. We will not have some sort of cybernetic immortality in the next few decades. The human brain is far too mysterious and computers far too crude for such a union anytime soon, if ever. In fact some scientists regard all this talk of the Singularity as a reckless promise of false hope to the afflicted.
But when I asked these skeptics about the future, even their most conservative visions were unsettling: a future in which people boost their brains with enhancing drugs, for example, or have sophisticated computers implanted in their skulls for life. While we may never be able to upload our minds into a computer, we may still be able to build computers based on the layout of the human brain. I can report I have not drunk the Singularity Kool-Aid, but I have taken a sip.
The future is not new. By the dawn of the 20th century science was moving so fast many people were sure humans were on the verge of tremendous change. The blogger Matt Novak collects entertainingly bad predictions at his website Paleo-Future. My favorite is a 1900 article by John Watkins that appeared in Ladies' Home Journal, offering readers a long list of predictions from leading thinkers about what life would be like within the next 100 years.