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?