[This article was originally a final paper I wrote for one of my classes. I've split the paper into two parts and added relevant hyperlinks. This is the first half, with the second half coming shortly. Enjoy!]
This paper is a thought experiment, one that intends to examine what may at first glance appear to be disparate subjects. On the one hand we have the ancient teachings of Mahayana Buddhism, which trace their roots back to between 100BCE & 100CE. ((Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Taye, Creation & Completion, Translated by Sarah Harding (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1996), 3.)) From this tradition there comes the ideal of the Bodhisattva, or a being who vows to help all beings wake up to the truth of things, otherwise known as Ultimate Reality. On the other hand is the radical futurist and technological genius Ray Kurzweil, who Bill Gates hails as “the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence.” ((Ray Kurzweil, The Singularity is Near (New York: Viking, 2005), 656.)) His theories concerning the nature of technology and the way that its growth and coming ubiquity will affect every aspect of our lives has been on my mind since reading his most recent book, The Singularity is Near. Of course I’ve just given myself away by mentioning that his theory concerning technology, what he calls “The Law of Accelerating Returns,” affects every aspect of our lives, including the spiritual life and therefore the path of awakening. It is here that the Bodhisattva meets the Singularity, and as we will see where the Bodhisattva uses all means necessary to bring about the awakening of sentient beings, including the means that emerge as a result of technological progress.
What, then, is the Singularity? It’s a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed. Although neither utopian nor dystopian, this epoch will transform the concepts that we rely on to give meaning to our lives, from our business models to the cycle of human life, including death itself. Understanding the Singularity will alter our perspective on the significance of our past and the ramifications for our future. To truly understand it inherently changes one’s view of life in general and one’s own particular life. – Ray Kurzweil ((Kurzweil, 7.))
According to Kurzweil we are on the very edge of this Singularity, and most humans alive today will in fact be around to feel the impact of its unfolding. In terms of understanding it practically, it’s important to understand that Kurzweil is using a methodology to predict this event horizon, namely the observation of specific patterns within technology, patterns related to the change in processing speed, price-performance, reduction in size, and increase in storage capacity, among many others. He has observed, and this is the aforementioned Law of Accelerating Returns, that technology is itself progressing in an exponential manner. The rate of change of technology then is exponential! ((It’s interesting to note that Moore’s Law is one contemporary observation of this change, specifically in regards to the exponentially increasing complexity of integrated circuits, measured in terms of transistors per integrated circuit.)) With exponential growth curves, the beginning of the curve looks much like a linear line, but at a certain point, at what’s called the “knee” of the curve, there is an explosion of growth.
Hardware with Human Capabilities
One of the results of this exponential growth in technology is that it won’t take long before we see computer hardware that can in every way match our biological hardware in terms of complexity and speed (measured in CPS or calculations per second). In fact Kurzweil predicts that by 2020 it will be possible to buy hardware that could match the computational abilities of an average human with a mere $1000. By 2050, and this is where the exponential growth comes in, $1000 of hardware will be able to exceed the computational ability of all human beings on earth. ((Kurzweil, 126-127.)) Needless to say this is a staggering possibility, one that any reasonable human being after having looked at Kurzweil’s reasoning and methodology, would want to understand further. ((If you’re interested in this, I would suggest checking out The Singularity is Near. It’s basically impossible for me to show all of the evidence that he draws upon and give you a reasonable idea of how he weaves together a multiplicity of ideas. Even if he’s wrong, his ideas are worth understanding.))
But if you’re at all familiar with computers, then you might know that having powerful hardware doesn’t necessarily mean that one has equally capable software to run on that hardware. And in a certain sense you’d be right. Isn’t it after all our human software, with all of the capabilities and skills we’ve learned over time, the evolution of our genetic code, and the increase in our social complexity that has made us who we are? Granted we have some pretty cool hardware, but what makes us human isn’t merely that. Or is it?
Kurzweil’s response to these possible criticisms, which he calls the “criticism from software” ((See Kurzweil, “The Criticism from Software,” 435 – 442 for a more detailed look at his response to critiques from this area.)) is that science is currently in the process of reverse-engineering the human brain.
Our ability to reverse engineer the brain—to see inside, model it, and simulate its regions—is growing exponentially. We will ultimately understand the principles of operation underlying the full range of our own thinking, knowledge that will provide us with the powerful procedures for developing the software of intelligent machines. – Kurzweil ((Kurzweil, 144.))
The idea then, is that once we’ve understood what makes us tick we’ll be able to use that knowledge to turn around and help make nonbiological entities function with a full-range of intellectual and emotional subtlety. The question of whether or not we are creating a ticking bomb is to me still in question, but according to Kurzweil our future ability to create “intelligent machines” will not be in question once we’ve harnessed the understanding of our own biological intelligence.
Read Part 2