John Horgan Criticizes Kurzweil and the Singularity…We Need Better Critics

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If you believe in the concept of the Singularity, does that mean you belong to a techno-cult? Is Ray Kurzweil your quasi-worshiped leader? John Horgan might have you think so. In his blog on Scientific American, Cross-Check, the author strongly criticized the New York Times’ recent coverage of Kurzweil and the concept of the Singularity. Often straying from criticism to outright ridicule, Horgan’s blog post may not be the most carefully structured argument against the Singularity, but it raises a few issues that have to be addressed: techno-enthusiasts may or may not be realistic in their expectations for the next decade, and any community needs to careful not to be represented by a single voice.

First, let’s take a look at Horgan’s criticism of the New York Times article by Ashlee Vance. (We already discussed the article itself if you need a primer). In Horgan’s words, this is an “enormous puff piece”. He critiques Vance, claiming the article makes the simplistic argument that “because smart, accomplished people believe in the Singularity, it should be taken seriously.” He goes on to critique Kurzweil’s analysis of scientific trends, saying his stated beliefs are out of sync with reality – that research shows increasing levels of complexity in understanding systems like the brain, and implying that technology is far from accelerating in these fields. He even questions whether or not Kurzweil actually believes what he says in his lectures:

“Maybe [Kurzweil] believed it once and now he’s just spouting it to peddle his books, lectures, consulting, health food supplements, university courses and films. But whether or not he takes himself seriously, no one else should.”

Horgan hammers home his point of view by throwing in jabs against those who believe in accelerating trends of technology. The Singularity is “the rapture of the geeks”. Transcendent Man, Ptolemy’s documentary discussing Kurzweil, is actually Kurzweil’s “vanity film”. (To those who have seen that film or read my review, this critique is rather absurd – the documentary explores Kurzweil’s negative and obsessive qualities rather well.) The Singularity Summit is “a revival meeting for the faithful.” Those who believe in Kurzweil’s philosophy are part of the Singularity “cult”.

So…yeah, not really a complimentary picture of the New York Times, Ray Kurzweil, or Singularity enthusiasts. But this response isn’t that big of a surprise. John Horgan is one of the more critical voices that discusses topics like the Singularity and techno-optimism. Cross-Check regularly examines and deconstructs recently published scientific research. Horgan even wrote a book, The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age, in which he reveals an ongoing (and future) retardation of scientific advancement.

Surprising or not, is Horgan right? Is Kurzweil deluding himself and/or us in regards to the progress of science? Maybe so. Maybe not. I’m still trying to figure that out.

Every day I write about emergent technologies that have the potential to make large changes in our lives. I report on scientific research that probes into some of the most basic and exciting principles of nature. In any given week I probably see three or four developments that could, one day, completely revolutionize our global civilization. Yet these advancements have no guarantee of producing the change they promise. There is no evidence that reveals the Technological Singularity as a 100% certainty.

Which is why we need critics, deconstructionists, and nay-sayers. I’d just like for them to produce arguments a little more precise and thoughtful than Horgan’s review of the New York Times article. Horgan picks out a few complex scientific problems (reverse engineering the brain and genetic cures for illness) quotes experts in the field who believe little progress is being made and then just seems to wash his hands of the issue. This stuff is too complicated, he seems to say, we’re never going to get to the bottom of it all. Ergo, Kurzweil is a nut.

That’s far too simplistic. Yes, Horgan is right that Kurzweil’s beliefs in reverse engineering the brain seem too optimistic. Michael Anissimov of the Accelerating Futures blog addresses this topic well in his own post reviewing Horgan’s article. Yet we can’t just point to complexity as an insurmountable obstacle and claim that this negates some of the fundamental premises behind the Singularity.

Why must we look deeper? Let me use one of Kurzweil’s tried and true talking points: exponential growth. In the early stages of development, results can double and still not seem very large. Whether you’re talking about 1 base pair sequenced or 2 base pairs sequenced or 4 base pairs sequenced, you still have just a tiny fraction of the billions of base pairs in the human genome. Yet that same exponential growth will quickly consume a problem in a relatively small number of steps – just 30 to go from 1 to 1 billion.

As humans we tend not to notice the early doublings, but we can’t help but stand amazed at the later doublings. The trend stayed the same the whole time, but we think it arrived out of nowhere. There’s some threshold above which we start to become aware of accelerating science/technology. Below that threshold the advancing trend is ‘in the noise’ – we can’t distinguish it from the chaotic mix of successes and failures we see in general human activity. Much like you can’t distinguish someone’s moving words if they’re given in a crowded room full of background sounds.

I think advancements in reverse engineering the brain and genetics (to take Horgan’s examples) are still ‘in the noise.’ Yes there are accelerating trends in these fields (the Hub points to them quite often) but it’s hard to discern whether progress is being made when the successes are (typically) very tiny compared to the overall goal.

When I see critics like Horgan bemoan the lack of real-life benefits from scientific research, I always come back to the concept of exponential growth and the noise-threshold. No, genetics has yet to produce a pharmacopoeia. Yet research hasn’t stopped. As we mentioned in our coverage of the 10 year anniversary of the Human Genome Project, we have already reaped benefits from this work. The monumental changes, the doublings above the noise-threshold, have yet to be seen. But that doesn’t mean they won’t ever arrive. I’m pretty sure they will.

But I could be completely wrong.

There are parts of techno-enthusiasm and belief in the Singularity that need to be looked at very critically. Foremost among these is whether or not general beliefs in accelerating trends in technology are actually based in sound evidence. Since Kurzweil is one of the chief proponents of exponential growth, we most often examine this belief when we discuss his predictions. We also need to explore those forces which could work against scientific advancement (such as techno-phobia, restrictions in funding, and stifling bureaucratic regulation) and understand their effects. They may be stronger than the accelerating trends themselves.

Another big area of the Singularity that needs to be examined: the negative aspects of technological growth. For every field of science that could bring great rewards there is the concern for great destruction. Automation (via robotics and narrow AI) could provide a utopia of cheap labor and goods. It could also lead to economic collapse. Genetic research could provide an end to diseases and illnesses. It could also produce a genetic class system. The shadow of synthetic biology is bio-terrorism. The downside of nanotechnology is the possibility of environmental disaster. We need to address these possibilities and work towards preventing them, or our own pursuit of technology could lead to the collapse of global civilization.

There are many other parts of the belief in progressive technology that could stand to use some careful and critical evaluation. Such evaluation is a healthy part of understanding how science is changing and will change in the years ahead. I welcome anyone who wants to examine the concept of the Singularity in these terms rather than with Horgan’s ridicule and ad hominem disbelief.

Which brings me to my final point: the discussion of the Singularity is bigger than any one individual, and it’s pretty silly that Kurzweil and the Singularity seem to have become synonymous. Don’t get me wrong, I really admire Kurzweil, his overall vision, and the work he’s done. But he’s just one futurist. There are many advocates and researchers who deserve as much, if not more, attention – Craig Venter, Aubrey De Grey, Peter Diamandis, Catherine Mohr, David Pearce, Andrew Hessel…and many many more. Those of us who are interested in accelerating technology and the Singularity should cast our net wide, and spread our praise, lest we present ourselves as a cult of personality.

In the end, tech-enthusiasts should take on more responsibility for examining and critiquing our own beliefs. The more we police ourselves the better chance we have at avoiding the mediocre criticism that John Horgan presented.

[image credits: WikiCommons]
[source: New York Times
, Scientific American]