Thinking Well: Christianity and Singularity (Part 1: Why it Matters)
I still do not know how to answer the question, “Who am I?” When pressed, one method is to describe some of my salient characteristics or interests – and, there are certain ones I am not eager to share. In my life two of the salient characteristics/interests/values are my faith (in Christ) and my technological inclinations.
Today, I’d like to talk a little bit about the intersection of Christianity and the Technological Singularity. There is much that has been said and is being said about the Technological Singularity – but very little (that I am aware of) being said about how Christianity and the Technological Singularity can, should, or cannot coexist.
Let me close my introduction by simply acknowledging my feebleness in approaching this task. While my knowledge on this topic may be significantly more than many, it is also significantly less than all who work within this realm. I apologize for any misrepresentations or misunderstandings that I may make or propagate in this article and look forward to the opportunity to refine this article and (more importantly) my thinking through ongoing discussion and learning.
To the Christian (or Why the Technological Singularity Matters):
I am sure I have already lost a significant percentage of those who visited this posting. Technological Singularity? What is that? There Dave goes talking his geek-speak again. I see it every day when I try to explain technological concepts to others – their eyes immediately gloss over. If you have read this far, please bear with me for a few moments more as I explain why the technological singularity is applicable to the non-geek.
Simply put, the technology singularity (in theory or actual existence) may become the single largest challenge to Christianity in the near-term future.
The technological singularity will allow for the self-improvement of mankind to the point of perfection. Tom Foremski, a technology journalist writes perceptively on this topic in his article, “Is ‘The Singularity’ The Elite Geeks’ Version of ‘The Rapture’?”
Christianity revolves around the central tenets that (a) man is irretrievably broken and (b) Christ is God’s way of fixing the irretrievably broken. Yet, the Technological Singularity offers an alternative. Salvation (fixing) is available not (only?) through God’s grace but also through technological progress. This removes the necessity of a other-natural process for redemption.
Other religions – as we traditionally conceive them – will not be our greatest challenge. Rather, we now face a challenge which will provide a secular alternative to redemption which seems provable and actually occurring
To the Technologist (Or Why This Isn’t an Anti-Tech Rant)
At this juncture I am sure many of my technological readers are also beginning to close this page and navigate to some other, less spiritually adventurous blog posting – I would ask you to bear with me as well.
While I view the technological singularity as one of the largest challenges to the Christian faith this does not mean that I am opposed to idea or the pursuit of a technological singularity (necessarily). Rather, I am attempting to discuss in what framework (if any) the singularity may be discussed without abandoning a theological context. I hope (in part) to demonstrate that Christians are not and need not be Luddites, but rather should be amongst the foremost advocates of technological advances – when placed within a correct framework.
Does Anyone Really Believe in the Singularity?
I am not a fan of abstract debates, and am oftentimes frustrated when discussions move towards the theoretical too heavily or consistently. I try to be a person who lives in the “real world” and deals with the issues and dilemmas of today. I want to be more concerned about the issues of my own wickedness and apathy than about topics which I cannot do anything more than hypothesize about.
When I talk about the Singularity, for many this will be their first introduction to the topic. It seems like the stuff of science fiction (and surely, much has been written in this vein on the topic), but I firmly believe that it has a much more practical and present application – and is and will genuinely impact our lives.
Perhaps one of the easiest ways to demonstrate the importance of the Singularity is to note some of the individuals and organizations associated with the movement. This does not prove the theory correct, only that it has support and finances behind it – and is likely to garner a growing following in the near future.
The Singularity theory has a number of proponents, one of the most vocal and important is Ray Kurzweil, author of the massive work, The Singularity is Near. While best known for his ideas about the future (the singularity) he is not an ivory tower philosopher. Among his accomplishments were the invention (in high school!) of a “sophisticated pattern-recognition software program that analyzed the works of classical composers, and then synthesized its own songs in similar styles.” He went on to invent a software application that matched high school students to colleges (while a sophmore at MIT), innovations in Optical Character Recognition (OCR), Text-to-Speech synthesization, musical synthesizers, and speech recognition. Seriously, Kurzweil has been involved with some of the most significant inventions of recent times – read the Wikipedia article for more information. Kurzweil co-founded The Singularity University which is located at NASA’s Ames Research Center. This University is backed by corporate funding from Google, ePlanet Ventures, Autodesk, Kauffman Foundation, Nokia, FIAP, 23andMe, Canon, LinkedIn, WordPress, X Prize Foundation, Cushing Academy, International Space University, among others!
If you want to find a list of some of the great intellects today in technological and scientific realms – take a look at the faculty and advisors page of the Singularity University: Neil Jacobstein (Stanford), Dan Barry (NASA), Jason Lohn (Carnegie Mellon), Dharmendra Modha (IBM), Peter Norvig (Google, NASA, Sun Microsystems), Sebastian Thrun (Stanford), Raj Reddy (Carnegie), Daniel Kraft (Stanford), Jim Karkanias (Microsoft), Ralph Merkle (Institute for Molecular Manufacturing), Peter Diamandis (X Prize Foundation), George Smoot (2006 Nobel Prize in Physics), Pete Worden (NASA), Bob Metcalfe (Co-Founder, 3Com), Vint Cerf (Google), Will Wright (Electronic Arts), Brad Templeton (Electronic Frontier Foundation), Tim Ferriss (The 4-Hour Workweek), Matt Mullenweg (WordPress), and Dave Tosh (Elgg). Some of these are academic types you won’t be familiar with (neither was I…), some will be more familiar to those in the tech industry (see bolded), and some may be familiar either by name or affiliation to most readers (italicized). I only listed a few – and didn’t spend any significant amount of time picking out the most important or respected…
End of Part I:
I had hoped to write my entire article on this topic, but I have only introduced the reason this discussion is important…I hope to write some continuing articles on the topic in the near future…
I’ll close by suggesting some reading for those who are interested. The Wikipedia article on Technological Singularity is a good place to start for a brief introduction. The ‘definitive’ text on the topic (which I am currently plowing through) is Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near. Once one has a basic understanding of the technological singularity I’d recommend looking at some books that cover where this science fiction is becoming reality and the nature of feedback loops. These books are not about the singularity directly, rather they provide insight into the current and future state of technology and help provide concrete examples of how science fiction is becoming reality. Peter D. Kramer’s Against Depression is an excellent read on the biological and physiological nature of depression and mental illness (and worthwhile, even without its implications for singularity) and Fritjof Capra’s Web of Life is an excellent resource in understanding chaos theory, systems theory, feedback loops, and other concepts that play directly into the singularity philosophy.
- Kudos to Foremski for choosing to place his punctuation (?) outside of his quotation marks. This is against traditional English grammar but evolving into acceptability due to technological requirements where punctuation can change the meaning of commands for input/output to a technological device.↩
- I prefer the term other-natural to super-natural. I find super-natural to be too closely identified with the ethereal and unbound, despised by the intellectual. Yet, the spirituality to which I refer and I believe that Christianity teaches is not an unreality but rather a greater or other reality. It is as real, more real, than our reality – it simply is beyond our current comprehension or scientific measurement in many facets and aspects.↩
- More on this later.↩
- This will come as a surprise to many, as I participate in discussion on what many would consider abstract topics…↩
- Wikipedia. Ray Kurzweil↩