Repent, for the Singularity is Near? Has Ray Kurzweil Started a Secular Religion?

In a recent New York Times profile of Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity Movement, I can’t help but see parallels with religion. Indeed, it appears to be an atheist eschatology cult led by a gnostic elite. Based on the New York Times piece, here are just some of the parallels that jumped out at me between the Singularity Movement and religion:

  • The Singularity Movement has its Noah’s Ark on which the Chosen Few will ride:

Some of the Singularity’s adherents portray a future where humans break off into two species: the Haves, who have superior intelligence and can live for hundreds of years, and the Have-Nots, who are hampered by their antiquated, corporeal forms and beliefs. . . .

“The Singularity is not the great vision for society that Lenin had or Milton Friedman might have,” says Andrew Orlowski, a British journalist who has written extensively on techno-utopianism. “It is rich people building a lifeboat and getting off the ship.”

  • The Singularity Movement’s central vision is an echo of the Nietzschean overman—a transcendence of all human limitation—and it includes belief in a literal resurrection (of some people) from the dead:

“We will transcend all of the limitations of our biology,” says Raymond Kurzweil, the inventor and businessman who is the Singularity’s most ubiquitous spokesman and boasts that he intends to live for hundreds of years and resurrect the dead, including his own father. “That is what it means to be human — to extend who we are.”

  • The Singularity Movement has its savior God figure—its deus ex machina: the coming computer superbrain that recalls (to my mind) the creepy Hegelian computer in Alphaville:

Some of Silicon Valley’s smartest and wealthiest people have embraced the Singularity. They believe that technology may be the only way to solve the world’s ills, while also allowing people to seize control of the evolutionary process. For those who haven’t noticed, the Valley’s most-celebrated company — Google — works daily on building a giant brain that harnesses the thinking power of humans in order to surpass the thinking power of humans.

  • The Singularity Movement has its John the Baptist cum guru (Ray Kurzweil):

In late August, Mr. Kurzweil will begin a cross-country multimedia road show to promote “Transcendent Man,” a documentary about his life and beliefs. Another of his projects, “The Singularity Is Near: A True Story About the Future,” has also started to make its way around the film festival circuit.

Throughout “Transcendent Man,” Mr. Kurzweil is presented almost as a mystic, sitting in a chair with a shimmering, circular light floating around his head as he explains his philosophy’s basic tenets.

  • Like any prophecy obsessed religionist, Ray Kurzweil has an elaborate eschatology with charts and diagrams that visually arrest and dazzle the imagination:

His fascination with exponential trends eventually led him to construct an elaborate philosophy, illustrated in charts, that provided an analytical backbone for the Singularity and other ideas that had been floating around science-fiction circles for decades.

As far back as the 1950s, John von Neumann, the mathematician, is said to have talked about a “singularity” — an event in which the always-accelerating pace of technology would alter the course of human affairs. And, in 1993, Vernor Vinge, a science fiction writer, computer scientist and math professor, wrote a research paper called “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era.”

“Within 30 years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence,” Mr. Vinge wrote. “Shortly after, the human era will be ended.”

  • The Singularity Movement has it’s own cultural reproduction system—an elite seminar-style “university”—and a youthful vanguard that is not trying to decipher a religious code (like the Bible) but is, instead, fiddling with another coded message, and trying to read it  in the service of The Cause. Can you guess what code that is?:

Executives in the spring program also heard that some young people had started leaving college to set up their own synthetic biology labs on the cheap. Such people resemble computer tinkerers from a generation earlier, attendees note, except now they’re fiddling with the genetic code of organisms rather than software.

  • Before Ray Kurzweil’s Nietzschean-elite-inhabited New Jerusalem arrives, a decisive conflict between the Singularity Movement and its enemies is anticipated:

Richard A. Clarke, former head of counterterrorism at the National Security Council, has followed Mr. Kurzweil’s work and written a science-fiction thriller, “Breakpoint,” in which a group of terrorists try to halt the advance of technology. He sees major conflicts coming as the government and citizens try to wrap their heads around technology that’s just beginning to appear.

“There are enormous social and political issues that will arise,” Mr. Clarke says. “There are vast groups of people in society who believe the earth is 5,000 years old. If they want to slow down progress and prevent the world from changing around them and they engaged in political action or violence, then there will have to be some sort of decision point.”

Mr. Clarke says the government has a contingency plan for just about everything — including an attack by Canada — but has yet to think through the implications of techno-philosophies like the Singularity.

  • The Singularity Movement, akin to an insular religious group, has its outside skeptics and debunkers puncturing the premises on which the group derives its motivating energies:

Despite all of the zeal behind the movement, there are those who look askance at its promises and prospects.

Jonathan Huebner, for example, is often held up as Mr. Kurzweil’s foil. A physicist who works at the Naval Air Warfare Center as a weapons designer, he, like Mr. Kurzweil, has compiled his own cathedral of graphs and lists of important inventions. He is unimpressed with the state of progress and, in 2005, published in a scientific journal a paper called “A Possible Declining Trend for Worldwide Innovation.”

Measuring the number of innovations divided by the size of the worldwide population, Dr. Huebner contends that the rate of innovation peaked in 1873. Or, based on the number of patents in the United States weighed against the population, he found a peak around 1916.

I confess to enjoying reading Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity book when it first came out (about five years ago). And as an agnostic, I find it hard not to be drawn to techno-utopianism. If you think that God is dead (or at least silent), who wouldn’t like to be comforted with the notion that a deus ex machina  is nevertheless hovering, just a few decades hence, in the wings of our global theater?

The world is a dangerous place. Things look bad. Technology seems to be the only thing left that might really, really save us. 

Join us, for the Singularity is near?

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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9 Responses to Repent, for the Singularity is Near? Has Ray Kurzweil Started a Secular Religion?

  1. andrewclunn says:

    What’s really disturbing is that some of the panelists on “The Skeptic’s Guide TO The Universe” (Who are usually some of the most level headed people in the skeptical movement) seem to believe this crap. The moment anyone tells you that you can conquer death, that’s when the “crazy bullshit” alert should start going off in your head.

    • Snowyrails says:

      Of course you can conquer death, it’s not a big deal even. Living cells are nothing but advanced chemistry. they have a mechanism in place that make the living body age over time as cells are reproduced. This mechanism can be turned off, and it’s just a matter of 20-30 years before we know how. But of course death exists for all living creatures for a reason. It is the necessity for evolution. If we do decide to turn it off, there’ll be no space for new generations, and we’ll stop evolving biologically. We won’t need to of course, if we can evolve digitally, but we won’t be able to by the time we learn how to switch off aging… what a nightmare.

  2. Pingback: Leon Wieseltier on Roger Rosenblatt’s Journey into Hell Mouth « Prometheus Unbound

  3. Nausherwan Awan says:

    Nausherwan Awan 7G The Singularity Movement

    It was a memorable Tuesday, this week in Calafornia when Dr. Raymond Kurzweil, introduced a human machine.Dr.Kurzweil said that ” By making machines smarter-than-human intelligence …”, or by equipping humans with devices better than their brains, and, ultimately, transferring human intelligence to artificial devices.This is artificial intelligence , but hold you horses, because this technology cost 25,000 USD for a week and permenantly it will cost more than half a million USD and that doesnt include maintainance and remember the fact that unlike your mobile or your laptop if you dont charge yourself up everyay, you are going to face death.There is one thing I have to say though, from a child’s point of view.Do you remember watching the animated movie called “Nine” in which robots take over the human world and the human race goes extinct?So, what I think Dr.Kurzweil is doing here is making a device that is by far more powerful than man which means that that device has the power to cause extinction of mankind but this device has it’s advantages too such as you can live your normal life and when you reach 60 and think I’m close to the end, you can live another 150 years by using this device but you have to be some sort of a Russian billioniare or Bill Gates to actually buy this and maintain this machine because the organs alone cost half a million USD.Dr.Kurzweil had started this project in the 1960’s.This has always been Dr.Kurzweil’s secret and back then in the 60’s nobody would have guessed it either.This invention is new, for sure but the idea isnt because in 1965 the British mathematician I.J. Good described something he called an “intelligence explosion” .He said:
    “Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an “intelligence explosion,” and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.”
    Well, the British mathematician I.J. Good is right but think about it, think about the negative effects.First of all the human race will be wiped out because these machines are far more powerful than man so first, the human race is wiped out and then charging your body isnt going to be cheap and neither is is going to use a tiny amount of electricity.There will be an energy crisis because of the amounts of electricity this uses.I think this creation is going to be more popular than the invention of the car and more dangerous than the nuclear bomb because this invention is more powerful than man and has more intelligence than a supercomputer.Goverments from around the world are going to order millions of these devices to be fitted into the brains of their army force.So forget the nuclear bombs, think of this.The lifestyle of the human will change, there wont be any heart attack, no cancer no disease you will have a sheild against diseases as small as the comman cold.Just one question, Mr.Kurzweil,if you get this devices, and you have kids, will they be robots too?
    Even with the simplest of machines, take a calculator for example, malufinctions at one point of it’s life so immortal, I think not.War and accidents combined together make up 20 % of the world’s deaths so you arent really immortal then are you?I think this machine is brilliant but like any other machine, not quite perfect.

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  5. Pingback: Repent, for the Singularity is Near? Has Ray Kurzweil Started a Secular Religion? (via Prometheus Unbound) « nausherwanawan

  6. whatintheworld says:

    “Measuring the number of innovations divided by the size of the worldwide population, Dr. Huebner contends that the rate of innovation peaked in 1873. Or, based on the number of patents in the United States weighed against the population, he found a peak around 1916.”

    Are you serious? You call that “puncturing the premises”?

  7. I see that all accusations of elitism, mysticism, etc. are based on things that people other than Kurzweil are saying about Kurzweil. For instance, “it includes belief in a literal resurrection (of some people) from the dead.” Why the parenthesis? When did Kurzweil say it would only be for (some people)? He didn’t.

    Bah. I find few people refuting what the man has to say, but only a lot of people knocking down trans-strawmen.

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