The news has been turning into science fiction for a while now. TVs that watch the watcher, growing tiny kidneys, 3D printing, the car of tomorrow,Amazon’s fleet of delivery drones – so many news stories now “sound like science fiction” that the term returns 1,290,000 search results on Google.
The pace of technological innovation is accelerating so quickly that it’s possible to perform this test in reverse. Google an imaginary idea from science fiction and you’ll almost certainly find scientists researching the possibility. Warp drive? The Multiverse? A space elevator to the stars? Maybe I can formulate this as Walter’s law – “Any idea described in sci-fi will on a long enough timescale be made real by science.”
The most radical prediction of science fiction is the technological singularity. As author and mathematician Vernor Vinge put it in his 1993 essay The Coming Technological Singularity, “Within 30 years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.” Blimey. Sounds a bit serious.
Imagine a graph charting the growth in modern computing power. Place the mechanical calculator at one end and the Cray XE6 supercomputer, capable of analysing 240 full human genomes in 50 hours, at the other. Moore’s law – that computing power doubles every 18 months – means that the curve of the graph grows exponentially steeper until it “spikes” upward.
That spike is the singularity. And for decades now, science fiction authors and assorted types of futurist have been trying to predict what a post-singularity world would look like. Ray Kurzweil has been preaching future utopia for decades and in The Singularity Is Near (2005) made concrete predications about the arrival of machine intelligence, predictions he adapted in his recent interview with the Guardian to claim that machines would outsmart men by 2029.
Today as director of engineering at Google, Kurzweil is developing concrete policy based on those predictions. He is using the tech giant’s vast resources to buy up leading players in robotics and artificial intelligence. Will Google’s robot army soon be fighting Amazon’s drone airforce for dominance of the future? It may sound like science fiction, but people with immense resources are treating the singularity as something very real.
The most successful exploration of the singularity to date remainsAccelerando by Charles Stross, a linked series of nine stories, first collected in 2005. Accelerando follows three generations of one family through a speculative history of the 21st century. But while its predictions of technology are compelling, it’s Stross’s unwavering vision of the human cost of these technologies that sets the work apart from more blithely utopian visions.
Stross begins by rooting the reader in a relatively familiar near future. In the character of “venture altruist” Manfred Macx we encounter an augmented human intelligence, whose interface with computers allows him to outsmart the brutal capitalist reality that Stross depicts. But it’s a temporary triumph of the human spirit, as Stross takes us in to a post-singularity reality where humans survive only as resources to be exploited by the super-intelligences that have eclipsed us.
Stross’s fellow SF author Ken Macleod began the dissection of the singularity as a political vision when he popularised its renaming as “The Rapture of the Nerds”. The singularity has gained a quasi-religious status among transhumanists – those who believe technology can end human causes of human suffering such as poverty, disease and ultimately even death itself. But as Macleod explains in his essay The Ends of Humanity, this utopian vision comes worryingly close to the far-right excesses of fascism and the Nazi vision of a master race.
There’s nothing new in the argument that technology can be co-opted for unsavoury purposes. It’s the same argument we have when protestors highlight inhuman working conditions on iPhone production lines at Foxcon. Or when historians remind us of IBM’s role in computing the Holocaust. The same argument was laid out by Karl Marx when he demanded that the workers should own the means of production, or by the Luddites when they smashed the machines that were disrupting their industry. How do we relate as humans to machines of our own creation when they threaten our humanity?
In this sense at least we are already living in the singularity, and have been living in it since early humans first wielded tools and made fire. The question is not whether the singularity will arrive – it seems certain technological progress will continue – but whether we can continue to nurture human value in the face of inhuman forces. If the imagined visions of science fiction continue to conform to Walter’s law, we need to keep human life front and centre in the equation.