This is part of IEEE Spectrum’s SPECIAL REPORT: THE SINGULARITY
Illustration: Bryan Christie Design
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.
But the singularity is much more than a sci-fi subgenre. A lot of smart people buy into it in one form or another—there are versions that dispense with the life-everlasting stuff. There are academic gatherings and an annual conference at Stanford. There are best-selling books, audiotapes, and videos. Scheduled for release this summer is a motion picture, The Singularity Is Near, starring the actress Pauley Perrette and a gaggle of aging boffins who’ve never acted in a movie. (Without any apparent irony, the picture’s producers call it “a true story about the future.”)
There’s also a drumbeat of respectful and essentially credulous articles in the science press. Unlike stories about UFOs or zero-pollution energy sources, singularity stories don’t exact from editors a steep payment in self-respect. That’s because of the impressive…
Continue reading: https://spectrum.ieee.org/waiting-for-the-rapture