Readers of this blog will know that I am a great believer in the singularity. It’s one of those fun concepts to think about and comes with the fundamental paradox that science triumphs over all, but perhaps we should be careful what we wish for. Of course, it is a bit like Alexander Pope’s “Man never is but always to be blessed.” Part of the charm of the singularity is that it is ever near but not quite here. We may consult Ray Kuzweil himself on the matter of when the singularity will actually arrive, or more accurately be achieved. “”I set the date for the Singularity—representing a profound and disruptive transformation in human capability—as 2045.” Still comfortably distant – right?
I have followed the macabre metamorphosis of manikins with interest. The have become more alien and more machine-like. They have ever been so anthropomorphic – like veiled denizens of a world not quite real. Yesterday I was struck with the dark thought that perhaps they are shells of robots waiting for the day that men become machines and machines become men. The great silver manikin or womanikin of Figure 1 struck me in this way. What is she really?
But there is another point that has been on my mind lately. Technology plummets us forward. All things accelerate. While afraid of it, we are also impatient with the singularity. Shouldn’t it have come already? And part of what we have evolved – or perhaps degenerated – to is an impatience with how long things take.
A common event in my life is to resolve to study some subject. I think it through carefully. What is the best way to acquire, or reacquire, some body of knowledge? Is it to read a book, to read it online, or to watch videos? But no sooner do I decide on my path then I calculate how long it will take? There are x chapters in this book; so if I read a chapter a day it will take x days. Can I accelerate the process of assimilation? I read three times faster online then on carbon. But which modality brings the most delight to the mind? What is the hurry? It took Michelangelo four years to execute the Sistine Chapel. Medieval cathedrals took centuries to complete. Building a cathedral is an act like that of planting a tree. We do not do it for ourselves.
The danger of the singularity does not lie in the dissolving distinction between man and machine, but rather in a failure to recognize that the whole point of these transformations is to exceed and magnify what we can accomplish. Some have gone so far as to suggest that the singularity signals the end of mortality. Again be careful of what you wish for. But if it be so then perhaps we will finally have a response to Andrew Marvell’s marvelous poem “To his Coy Mistress:”
“Had we but world enough and time,
This coyness, lady, were no crime.
We would sit down, and think which way
To walk, and pass our long love’s day.”
And all of this from a chance encounter and photograph of a futuristic womanikin in a store window display.