Reading the recent Mother Earth News, I encountered an editorial article by publisher Bryan Welch entitled Raymond Kurzweil and a Vision of Living Forever. Mr. Welch has many valid points, though I feel that his piece is deeply flawed in that he acts as if Mr. Kurzweil’s technological singularity is avoidable. Barring a major global shakeup, one that would lead to countless deaths and immeasurable suffering, the “Rapture of the Nerds” will take place, probably within this century.
What both Mssrs. Welch and Kurzweil ignore, either intentionally or out of a lack of awareness, is that people around the world are also seeing signs of a different kind of singularity– a spiritual singularity. While some people interpret this solely in the sense of Christian eschatology (the Rapture, for instance), there are numerous other traditions and interpretations of what such an event horizon might mean. Without going too far afield into froo-froo New Age ramblings about Mayan calendars, let it simply be said that there are many long-held eschatologies that posit a significant transformation in human civilization as a result of some awakening in human consciousness.
In the context of two simultaneous and converging singularities- the technological Accelerando (apologies to Charles Stross) and the spiritual Awakening (apologies to Jordan Weisman), we cannot analyze either in a vacuum. To assume that human mindfulness can neither influence, nor benefit from superhuman intelligence and/or longer lifespans seems naive in my opinion.
After all, Mr. Welch’s nightmare of countless centenarians who never leave their jobs seems simplistic and utterly ignorant of human nature- both the good and the bad. His editorial envisions only the extension of human physical youthfulness without any of the increased intelligence predicted by Kurzweil, Vinge, and other transhumanist thinkers. If Mr. Welch were to attempt to stay on as publisher of Mother Earth News, even in the body of a healthy young man, he would quickly be replaced by someone else if he did not take advantage of intellectual augmentation as well.
Such augmentation would better permit (and perhaps require) people to examine the “ripple effects” of their actions (think Paul Atreides in Dune). Such an awareness is akin to the descriptions of ecstasy given by monks, yogis, and shamans who have undergone profound religious experiences of universal connectedness. In a world where more and more human beings are voluntarily pursuing spirituality not as a pabulum but as a personal quest, would not longer lives and improved mental abilities help more people understand those truths in a single lifetime?
Countless traditions, including the major religions of Hinduism and Buddhism, hold that people are born into this world over and over and over again in order to learn certain lessons. How is it more moral to require people to wait ten births and deaths to learn a lesson when our technology could allow them to do so in one?
While I disagree with Mr. Kurzweil’s assertion that death is somehow universally bad, I must also disagree with Mr. Welch’s assertion that death is somehow universally good. Is not the Shinto concept of death as an undesirable interruption a more balanced and moral one? After all, if a divine spirit manifests physically as a human being to undertake some work, how is halting that work mid-process beneficial? The extension of human life through technological means is not necessarily bad- rather, like any tool it is our use thereof that is positive or negative.
Of course, the Accelerando does have a dark side, as referenced by the pejorative nickname “Rapture of the Nerds”. For a long time, futurists have postulated the possibility that human beings could upload their minds into machines. While computing devices, like anything else in our world, do have a spiritual side, they are by no means as elaborate and subtle as biological systems. Our bodies are complex analog computers operating in a vast field of quantum entanglement, intuition, and predictive instincts. Our silicon computers might be very, very fast, but their underlying binary logical hardware likely lacks the level of non-physical connectedness (spirituality) possessed by biological bodies.
As such, persons who upload their personalities into computers will likely find themselves at a spiritual dead-end, forever cut off from the Awakening. Some of these “Uploads” will probably be very, very, very smart. Most, though, will probably have mental faculties quite similar to their “meat body”. This is because the vast majority of Uploads will choose this “life” as a form of suicide, an escape from a life of boredom, stress, and suffering. They will enter into a world of endless computer games, producing nothing valuable, and having their processing resources slowly syphoned off bit-by-bit to support the few stronger Uploads. In the end, the plebian Uploads will slow down until they stop, at which point the elite Uploads will erase the poor unfortunates in order to make “better” use of computer system resources.
Is this fate not similar to the “eternal death” that so many religious traditions associate with a failure to be spiritually enlightened at the time of their apocalypse (revelation of hidden truth).
Sadly, this is the answer to Mr. Welch’s question about population control. The vast majority of our human family is likely to submit to Uploading and thus to a more complete disconnection from our spiritual selves. Such beings are likely to grow little, if at all, except within their chosen games.
Contrast this with those who remain behind in the world. On them will fall not only the task of maintaining and growing human civilization, but of healing the world vacated by the billions upon billions of Uploads. Would not long-lasting youthful vigor and mental prowess be valuable to such persons? Might not a bodhisattva appreciate the opportunity to teach for centuries without major interruptions? Imagine the good that an talented or enlightened person could do if old age was not a concern.
Of course, there is always the possibility that such persons might be afraid of death, though I expect such behavior would be far more common in Uploads. After all, just because your body can’t get sick doesn’t mean you can’t get hit by a truck and die of massive trauma before the nanomachines can repair your tissues. Those who are afraid of living will eventually choose death as Uploads- if not initially, then as their unnaturally long lives become less and less meaningful. Those who have embraced death as a part of life will ultimately be the only people capable of living in meat bodies.
These people will bear the ultimate responsibility for humanity’s purpose on Earth- the survival of life. Without a sapient species, capable of long space voyages, life on Earth is doomed, sooner or later. Because we are the only species capable of even conceptualizing such a task, it falls to us- specifically to the human beings who are brave enough to inhabit a meat body, but smart enough to insist that their bodies and minds function at their maximum potential.
Without them, without advanced human beings made possible by a balanced dance between Accelerando and Awakening, life on Earth will face eternal oblivion at the hands of the very universe which spawned it. With such people, hope survives.