There’s been a huge amount of worldwide press coverage of the news that Ray Kurzweil has launched a “Singularity University”, to promote his vision (not to mention his books and forthcoming film) of an exponential growth in technology leading to computers more intelligent than humans and an end to aging and death. The coverage is largely uncritical – even the normally sober Financial Times says only that some critics think that the Singularity may be dangerous. To the majority of critics, though, the idea isn’t so much dangerous as completely misguided.
The Guardian, at least, quotes the iconic cognitive science and computer researcher Douglas Hofstadter as saying that Kurzweil’s ideas included “the craziest sort of dog excrement”, which is graphic, if not entirely illuminating. For a number of more substantial critiques, take a look at the special singularity issue of the magazine IEEE Spectrum, published last summer. Unsurprisingly, the IEEE blog takes a dim view.
Many of the press reports refer to the role of nanotechnology in Kurzweil’s vision of the singularity – according to the Guardian, for example, “Kurzweil predicts the creation of “nanobots” that will patrol our bloodstreams, repairing wear and tear as they go, and keeping our bodies perpetually young.” It was this vision that I criticised in my own contribution to the IEEE Singularity special, Rupturing the Nanotech Rapture; I notice that the main promoters of these ideas, Robert Freitas and Ralph Merkle, are among the founding advisors. At the time, I found it interesting in the responses to my article, that a number of self-identified transhumanists and singularitarians attempted to distance themselves from Kurzweil’s views, characterising them as atypical of their movement. It will be interesting to see how strenuously they now attempt to counter what seems to be a PR coup by Kurzweil.
It’s worth stressing that what’s been established isn’t really a university; it’s not going to do research and it won’t give degrees. Instead, it will offer 3-day, 10-day and 9 week courses, where, to quote from the website, one could imagine, for example, that issues such as global poverty, hunger, climate crisis could be studied from an interdisciplinary standpoint where the power of artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, genomics, etc are brought to bare in a cooperate fashion to seek solutions” (sic). Singularitarianism is an ideology, and this is a vehicle to promote it.
Among the partners in the venture, Google has succeeded in getting a huge amount of publicity for its $250,000 contribution, though whether it’s a wise cause for it to be associated with remains to be seen. As for the role of NASA and space entrepreneur Peter Diamandis, I leave the last word to that ever-reliable source of technology news, The Register: “There will be the traditional strong friendship between IT/net/AI enthusiasm and space-o-philia. In keeping with the NASA setting, SU will have strong involvement from the International Space University. ISU, founded in 1987 by Diamandis and others, is seen as having been key to the vast strides humanity has made in space technology and exploration in the last two decades”