“The Singularity,” he tells me, “is all about our capturing intelligence and then amplifying it. That process is already under way. I am smarter today then I was five years ago or 10 years ago, because of all the brain extenders I have, like Google and Wikipedia. When Wikipedia went black for one day, I felt like part of my brain was going on strike.”
This is music to the ears of the vanguard information-era companies looking to nuzzle up to your neocortex. Indeed, the vast majority of these entities either tacitly or overtly support Mr. Kurzweil’s vision of the future. Bill Gates endorsed The Singularity Is Near, and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos recently talked about keeping customers on “the upgrade treadmill,” the consumer equivalent of “exponential growth.”
The hive, the cloud, big data, permanent connectivity – more and more popular buzzwords seem to evoke Mr. Kurzweil’s vision, not to mention the business plans of countless tech companies, from start-ups to global titans.
No wonder the Singularity seems less and less outlandish. In many ways, we’re already there, living in an age of endlessly customizable virtual extensions of the self. Welcome to the 21st century; welcome to Singularity Lite.
But what’s good for Silicon Valley is not necessarily good for humanity (or even post-humanity). Yes, we have more information instantly at our disposal; yes, we are in increasingly permanent connection with our technology; but no, that doesn’t necessarily make us smarter and certainly not more content.
In North America, rates of depression and anxiety remain high and continue to grow. Mr. Kurzweil often references Moore’s Law, the axiom that the amount of memory a computer chip can hold is basically doubling every two years. Our rates of anxiety and depression are like some kind of inverse Moore’s Law – the more we can fit on a chip, the more anxious we get.
While there is no evidence to suggest that near-constant interface with technology is making us happier, there is a mounting body of evidence showing that our brains are changing in new ways as we merge with Singularity Lite. One study out of Harvard University showed that people were less likely to remember facts they were given if the Internet was mentioned at the same time. Our minds reflexively fall back on the easy solution: Search the Web.
This may seem inconsequential, but consider the words of a couple who followed GPS instructions into a snowy back road and were stranded for three days: “We thought it was strange,” they told reporters afterward. “But then we just figured it knew something we didn’t.”
This is one legacy of the Singularity so far. Increasingly, we are deferring to technology, to the hive in the cloud. As psychologist Daniel Wegner, the senior author of the Web memory study, wrote for The New York Times, “We become part of the Internet in a way. We become part of the system and we end up trusting it.”
This might actually cause the opposite of the advertised effect: We don’t get smarter or more creative; we become more prone to passivity and manipulation.
Consider what I’m starting to think of as the innovation trap: Polls taken in Canada, the United States and Britain over the past three years, for example, suggest an increasing indifference to environmental issues in general and global warming in particular. Much of this is ascribed to the current prominence of economic concerns. But I think it also has to do with the increasing prominence of Singularity-like ideas.
More and more, we are ascribing godlike powers to technology. Surely the same forces of science that are inexorably leading us to eternal life will, along the way, solve comparatively minor problems like global warming. And anyway, won’t we soon be disembodied and living in virtual realities, free at last from the corporeal confines of the planet?
Unfortunately, Mr. Kurzweil tells me that he has to go before he can answer my questions about the innovation trap. He has another interview scheduled. He is in demand. But a 2011 headline from The Guardian nicely sums up his likely response: “Climate change no problem, says futurist Ray Kurzweil.”
Apparently the law of accelerating returns does not apply just to data technology and mapping the brain. It applies to all technological advancement. Which means that, according to Mr. Kurzweil, the planet will be weaned off fossil fuels in a few short decades no matter how apathetic we might become.
The world is increasingly fascinated with the radical vision that Mr. Kurzweil presents. But we have been chasing the ultimate narcissist’s dream of eternal life for millennia: El Dorado lies ahead, in pie chart and nanobot.