Singularity Clarity Ain't Near

Here’s a historically informed  piece by Analee Newitz over at io9 which takes to task low church singularity enthusiasts. She points out that radical new technologies such as 19th Century Factory Production (the steampunk singularity) always generate new, unanticipated problems. They don’t leave us in problem free super-productive paradises. So we should induce the same about any future technological transformations which might owe to the NBIC suite (Nano, Bio, IT, Cognitive Science).
They’ll enable us to do unprecedented things, but they will generate anticipated and unanticipatable problems. Intimations of secular paradise derive from  a naive view of technological complexity.
Up to this point, I’m with Analee. Still, I’m bothered that her analysis replicates a conceptual confusion  which I’ve tried to disentangle elsewhere. Transhumanists and technoprogressives persistently mix up descriptive with normative understandings of the singularity.
To claim that a singularity is possible in the descriptive sense is say that a process of technological change resulting in the emergence of some kind of posthuman life is possible. This is the sense that Virnor Vinge uses the term in ‘The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era’.
The normative sense holds that this technological transcendence would be wholly beneficial state; that posthumans would be better and happier beings than humans.
By contrast the first kind of singularity is compatible with posthumans being more miserable than the most miserable human. Think of Charlie Stross’ Economics 2.0 – depicted in his novel Accelerando – an economic system so virulently productive that conscious labour is of negligible value to it.
The first claim is metaphysically defensible, I think, but, as Virnor Vinge pointed out in his seminal paper on this topic, it is compatible with the claim that posthuman life would be quite alien and difficult to evaluate in terms of our public ethical systems. A massively augmented posthuman intelligence might, for example, not be a subject or person as we understand it. Primate notions like autonomy or immortality might just not apply to it.
So, I buy the critique, as far as it goes, but, when thinking in the large about our possible successors, we need to be wary of humanist preconceptions.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s