Towards A Singular Ecosystem

In the news. Ray Kurzweil joins Google as director of engineering: The famed futurist will focus on machine learning and language processing, he says on his Web site.

Never heard of Ray Kurzweil? Google has this to say about him: “Ray’s contributions to science and technology, through research in character and speech recognition and machine learning, have led to technological achievements that have had an enormous impact on society,” Peter Norvig, Google’s director of research, said in a statement. Norvig cited the Kurzweil Reading Machine, used by Stevie Wonder and others for having words read aloud to them. “We appreciate his ambitious, long-term thinking, and we think his approach to problem-solving will be incredibly valuable to projects we’re working on at Google.”

Very good stuff, however there is a wacky side. We’ve covered Ray Kurzweil in the pages of Salvo before, in regards to his ideas on The Singularity. See here:

According to inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, the Singularity is “a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed.” The nature of this transformation, in case you were wondering, is the complete and permanent fusion of humans with computers, an event that Kurzweil deems the next stage in evolutionary development and one that will result in immortality for all.

As the subtitle of one of his books (“Live Long Enough to Live Forever”) makes abundantly clear, it’s not like we’re looking at a whole lot of wait time either. Indeed, Kurzweil sets the Singularity’s start date at about 2020, which means that most of us living today will experience it. And as one might expect, the author, already age 58, is doing everything short of freeze-drying his head to guarantee he’s around when that first brain wave is downloaded.

Why is Kurzweil so confident that we sit at the threshold of such a monumental occurrence, especially since we haven’t even managed to reverse-engineer a dust mite, let alone create the seamless interface between technological mechanisms and biological components required to merge man with his machines? It all has to do with what he calls “the law of accelerating returns.”

To put the matter as simply as possible, Kurzweil believes that we have reached the moment in technological progress when not only the number of innovations grows exponentially but the rate at which such innovations occur likewise increases with each passing advancement. Thus, what took 20 years to accomplish back in 2000 will only take 14 years in 2004; extrapolate this phenomenon to the end of the 21st century, says Kurzweil, and we will have made 20,000 years of progress in just 100 years.

Think of it this way: Each time we improve the processing power of a computer, we can then use its amplified capabilities to create another computer that’s even more powerful and do so in less and less time. Eventually, argues Kurzweil, this process will no longer require human input; rather, our hyper-intelligent machines will do it for (to?) us, constructing ever smarter machines at an ever faster rate until that point—which, apparently, is soon—when the distinction between man and machine has pretty much disappeared.

That is, of course, as long as everybody plays by the rules. The main flaw in Kurzweil’s optimistic projection is that he completely discounts man’s capacity for mischief. Smarter and more robust machines also mean a greater aptitude for evil and destruction. Should one of us—or one of our machines, for that matter—ever decide to do away with humanity rather than proceed with the augmentation, that job is only going to get easier with time. Indeed, it may be that instead of verging on the glorious moment “when humans transcend biology,” as Kurzweil’s most recent book (The Singularity Is Near) puts it, we are actually on the cusp of total and abject biological extinction.

I’m more of a Marshall McLuhan man, myself. Caution and reflection on the effects of new technologies are always prudent. From another issue of Salvo: Welcome to the Jungle–Marshall McLuhan, Media, and the Ecology of the Digital Age

. . .

McLuhan’s great insight was to see media in its broadest sense: as ecology. The word “medium” (from which “media” was derived), refers to “an intervening substance through which something else is transmitted or carried on.” And that’s the key. McLuhan’s claim was that the intervening substances we use—phonetic letters, radio broadcasts, YouTube videos, blogs, and whispers—are just as important as the messages they convey.

As McLuhan famously put it, the medium is the message; and if, as he claimed, all media are extensions of man, then we are not just the passive recipients of media but a critical part of media itself. This makes media an ecosystem—like a marsh, savannah, or swamp—that surrounds us, consumes us, and works us over in every imaginable way. McLuhan writes, “Environments are not passive wrappings, but are, rather, active processes which are invisible. The ground rules, pervasive structure, and overall patterns of environments elude easy perception.”

And the advent of electronic media in the twentieth century may be the biggest shock to that ecosystem in at least 500 years. McLuhan comments, “The new media are not ways of relating us to the old ‘real’ world; they are the real world and they reshape what remains of the old world at will.”

Whereas the printed word is just an extension of the eye, and the spoken word an extension of the ear, McLuhan claimed that electronic media are an extension of man’s central nervous system—all inclusive and limitless, interactive and multi-sensory. Their nature—light, electricity!—grants them power to impact not simply individual locales, but entire nations in real time, transforming the world from a mass of separate villages to one global village with shared experience and imagery.

Obviously, McLuhan’s volumes of work are too extensive and nuanced to treat comprehensively in one essay, but his basic analysis forces us to ask questions. What are our environments and their boundaries? How do we identify these complex interactions and view our ecosystem in new and interesting ways?

6 thoughts on “Towards A Singular Ecosystem

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