It’s been a trope in science fiction for years: someday the computers will become self-aware and take over. But in 1993, the computer scientist and science fiction author Vernor Vinge wrote a serious academic paper in which he predicted that we were only a few decades away from that scenario, which he named “The Singularity.”
In science fiction, this usually turns out badly for the human race, but Vinge and a large cadre of influential minds in computing say what happens will be beyond anything Hollywood can imagine. Vinge tells Kurt Andersen that we shouldn’t see it as us against them: we just need to merge our brains with computers. “A slightly more human-centric terminology would be, we use them simply as amplifications of our own intelligence.” After that, the Singularitarians believe, progress will jump at warp speed — we’ll be able to cure diseases and solve the vexing problems of human life. When our bodies fail, we’ll upload our minds and live forever.
Vinge’s prediction inspired a cottage industry of Silicon Valley gurus to create the Singularity University, where you can spend $12,000 a week to hear lectures from Google’s director of engineering Ray Kurzweil and others on how to prepare for your bio-tech upgrade to super brilliance. (Watch a lecture below.)
But Vinge’s optimism is a bit more nuanced. “In a way I regard the situation that we’re facing here as scary because it is sort of the radical end point of optimism,” he says. This defense against death might not be the Heaven we imagine. “It’s what happens if you sit down and think seriously about wanting the things that humans and the human condition has always cried out for the most over millennia,” he argues. “If you think seriously about overcoming some of those barriers, and what that would mean, that actually is scary.”
Video: Ray Kurzweil at Singularity University
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