Eternal Life on Earth: “It’s not that I’m afraid to die,” Woody Allen writes. “I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”[i] The Atheist has always dreamed of eternal life. Just like nearly everyone else, he has his mythology for that too. Futurist Ray Kurzweil has boldly predicted that by the year 2045, man will be capable of uploading his brain to machine. This abandonment of the mortal body is called the “Singularity,” where man and machine will supposedly become one. The Atheist believes that if he can survive until 2045, he will be able to catch the Singularity train and live forever.
“The nonbiological intelligence created in that year will be one billion times more powerful than all human intelligence today.”[ii] The goal is to make a digital version of the individual’s human brain by copying it into a computer, neuron for neuron. This is called “whole brain emulation.”[iii] It’s a goal for creating artificial intelligence.
While many scoff at these ideas, some are intrigued by it, including Bill Gates, who called Kurzweil the best person he knows at predicting the future of artificial intelligence.[iv] Kurzweil believes that “we need a new religion. A principal role of religion has been to rationalize death, since up until just now there was little else constructive we could do about it.”[v] He calls those who subscribe to this religion “Singularitarians.”[vi]
The Exponential Pace of Human Progress: While Kurzweil’s optimism regarding technological advancements may seem exciting, his ideas of eternal life are farfetched. In his book The Singularity Is Near, he notes the “ongoing acceleration of technology” as “the implication and inevitable result of what [he calls] the law of accelerating returns.”[vii] He shows how technology is getting exponentially faster. That is to say, it is getting faster faster. He notes the difference between the “intuitive linear” view of history and the “historical exponential” view.[viii] The intuitive linear view is when people look back at the past twenty years and then think that society will make an equal amount of progress over the next twenty. The historical exponential view takes into consideration how progress leads to faster progress.
For example, from the 5th to the 15th century, the plow as an agricultural tool remained largely the same. It was a primitive machine that was dragged by man or domesticated animal. Romans then developed a plow with an iron blade called a share, which was drawn by oxen. During the middle ages, the heavy wheeled plow was developed, making a deeper and wider incision as it dragged. Furthermore, it had a moldboard at the backend of the share to lift the broken topsoil, and a tongue at the front end that could be attached to a team ranging from two to eight oxen. But it remained substantially the same from the 5th to the 15th century.[ix]
Likewise, the earliest known printed words are found on the Phaistos Disk, circa 1700 B.C. Developments in both printing and papermaking occurred very slowly in both Europe and China, until the 15th century.[x] Of course, the man who is most associated with innovating western printing would be Johannes
Gutenberg of Mainz, Germany, and the most celebrated text was the Gutenberg Bible. While the Bubonic Plague tormented the Europeans a century earlier during the time of the aptly titled Dark Ages, the Gutenberg Press acted as a contrast, serving as a beacon of literature throughout all of Europe. With the dueling Catholics and Protestants during the Reformation, paper was in high demand. Within fifty years of the first printing of the Bible, over 6,000 separate works were printed. Venice, in 1469, hosted about four hundred printers within the next thirty years. Within this short period, Milan printed a Greek grammar book while Soncino printed a Bible entirely in Hebrew. Printing then spread to England via William Caxton, to Mexico City via Juan Pablos, and to Massachusetts Bay via a professional locksmith named Stephen Day, helping to establish the Cambridge Press. Considered by many to be the first printer of New England, Stephen Day’s works include the Whole Book of Psalmes or the Bay Psalm Book, published in 1640. Understandably, the early presses were quite slow, producing only about 250 impressions an hour.
Then the Industrial Revolution changed everything faster than anyone had ever known. Upon reaching the beginning of the 19th century, the heavy soils of the North American Midwest demanded a more industrious piece of equipment. An American blacksmith named John Deere invented the steel plowshare, triggering the recognition of the need for improvement. The American Civil War saw the invention of the two-wheeled sulky plow, hosting a seat for the rider, and by the 1890s, steam-powered tractors were beginning to replace animals on large farms. Within a decade, cheaper gasoline-powered tractors appeared on the market. With the introduction of the small and versatile tractor in 1924, and low-pressure rubber tires in 1932, the modern tractor-drawn plow soon made an appearance. Sometimes, it hosted as many as five sets of hydraulically adjustable plowshares and moldboards, disk plows, rotary plows, or subsoilers, the latter consisting of steel pointed shanks that can grind down nearly three feet deep.
By the 17th century, springs were added to the printing press in order to help lift the platen (i.e., the metal printing plate) more rapidly. By the 19th century, the wooden press was replaced with the iron press. These models produced about 300 impressions an hour, and larger forms could be made. Within a few years, the press evolved from steam-power to cylinder press, and then to the rotary press, which printed on both sides of the paper simultaneously. In 1863, American inventor William A. Bullock patented the first web-fed newspaper press, printing from rolls of paper rather than sheets. In 1871, another American printer, Richard March Hoe, perfected the continuous roll press, printing an astonishing 18,000 newspapers in one hour.
In 1790, 75% percent of Americans relied on agriculture; by 1900, only 40% did. From 1860 to 1900, urban areas in America grew 20%. With Carnegie steel and Rockefeller oil monopolizing industries, efforts were made by the government to actually slow the industry, with laws like the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, preventing monopolies and limiting the maximum workday to eight hours respectively. Samuel Colt declared that, “There is nothing that cannot be produced by machinery.” [xi] The sentiment of that statement would echo throughout the world. This is the “historical exponential” view of progress, where progress occurs faster faster.
Problems for Singularitarians: However, while human progress often occurs at an exponential rate, it is still farfetched to say that immortality is near. The first problem is that, sometimes, progress occurs faster than it should. Nuclear power stands as a prime example. The Economist published an article in 2012 titled The Dream that Failed. It noted how, at the beginning of the 20th century, some believed nuclear power would soon transform the whole world into “one smiling Garden of Eden.” However, instead of regaining paradise, nuclear power was used militarily. Also, while optimists believed that “it might redress the balance, providing a cheap, plentiful, reliable and safe source of electricity for centuries to come,” instead, “it has not. Nor does it seem likely to.” In 1986, The Economist claimed that nuclear power was “safe as a chocolate factory,” only to be embarrassed by Chernobyl’s massive failure one month later. Twenty-five years later, just as some were claiming that we were on the cusp of a “nuclear renaissance,” it happened again. After surviving an earthquake and a tsunami, Japan faced a nuclear meltdown in Fukushima.[xii]
The second problem for human progress is the total depravity of man. There are many people in the world who are looking to exploit opportunities for personal gain, and they use things like nuclear power or the internet in a destructive manner. For example, computer viruses are small software programs that are designed to spread from one computer to another and interfere with computer operation. Some computer viruses corrupt or delete computer data while others use an email program, especially attachments or instant messaging, to spread to other computers. Another popular form of the electronic virus spreads through internet downloads, hiding in illicit or corrupted software. Sometimes viruses erase everything on a hard disk. The common reason for such malicious software, often called malware, is to retrieve personal user information and to make financial profit.
So while some are optimistic about the Singularity, others remain skeptical. Stephen Hawking warns, “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” Elon Musk, entrepreneur and inventor, fears that the development of artificial intelligence may be the biggest existential threat to humanity. He speaks of artificial intelligence as if we are “summoning the demon,” or a rival to human intelligence. Nick Bostrom, an Oxford philosopher, ranks artificial intelligence as one of the biggest potential threats to humanity, alongside giant asteroid strikes, and world wide nuclear warfare. And Bill Gates, while believing Kurzweil to be the best at predicting the future of artificial intelligence, warns people to beware of it.[xiii]
The third problem is that, even if all of these farfetched goals are met and risk is mitigated, Kurzweil’s meaning of eternal life is really just a prolonged dream. “Dreams are real while they last,” Havelock Ellis, the English essayist and physician, once said. “[C]an we say more of life?” Kurzweil talks of how people read textbooks and watch television. Meanwhile, they surf the web with a homework tab, an email tab, and an instant messenger tab open. Some even prefer the online world to the face-to-face world. For Kurzweil, real life is just one more window.[xiv] To me, this does not sound like paradise, but a depressing existence. So many people have forgotten that technology is merely a supplement to give us time to enjoy real life more often. To have a whole brain emulation is to be stuck outside of reality.
Other Singularitarians believe that, if the copy thinks it is the individual, perhaps that would be good enough.[xv] However, such a dream is like wishing to be a committed mental patient who is content thinking that his empty cell is really a posh apartment, much less an entire world. Singularitarians can keep their singularity. When they speak of eternal life, they are speaking of life much separated from reality.
Tower of Babel: The Tower of Babel has appeared in many forms. During the French Revolution, it was the Cult of the Supreme Being. During the 20th century, it was Communism. Today, it’s the Singularity. There is a difference between adapting to technology and relying on it. It’s the duty of man to innovate, and perhaps even to obsess. But we must refrain from madness.
In direct opposition to the law of accelerating returns stand the stubborn failures of technology, and the law of diminishing returns. When Kurzweil talks of eternal life, he’s actually talking about the mere indefinite length of human consciousness within a fragile computer.
It can hardly be said that anyone on this planet is offering eternal life, as we know it. Kurzweil and other Singularitarians take the perspective that the cyber world is equal to the real world. For them, uploading memories to the cyber world is a sufficient existence. Based on the above three reasons, I believe that we will not reach eternal life by 2045. Nor would I want to live in Kurzweil’s version of eternity. Raging against the dying of the light can be a good thing, but not if one’s only hope is to live in fantasy-land.
[i] Woody Allen, Without Feathers, 106 (Random House) (1975).
[ii] Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, 136 (Penguin Books) (2006).
[iii] Tim Wu, How to Live Forever, The New Yorker (Feb. 22, 2015), http://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/live-forever?intcid=mod-yml.
[iv] The Singularity Is Near at Back Cover.
[v] Id. at 374.
[vi] Id. at 7.
[vii] Id. at 35.
[viii] Id. at 11.
[ix] Encarta Encyclopedia.
[x] Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel, 239-40 (Norton & Co.) (2003).
[xi] Encarta Encyclopedia.
[xii] The Dream that Failed, The Economist (Mar. 8, 2012), http://www.economist.com/node/21549936.
[xiii] Artificial Intelligence: The Promise and the Peril, the Economist, 11 & 18, (May 9th-15th, 2015).
[xiv] The Singularity Is Near at 338.
[xv] How to Live Forever.