Talking Singularity at Cambridge

So the Cambridge week of the Oxbridge 2008 conference is underway (since Saturday), and it has been a marvelous experience thus far. The weather is cool and rainy (in a British sort of way) but the energy is high and all of our heads are spinning from the various lectures and stimuli being thrown at us.

A few highlights of Cambridge thus far include a stunning Evensong service at Ely Cathedral on Sunday, a dinner/dance at Chilford Hall (basically a barn-like structure in Kansas-like wheat fields), and some great lectures from the likes of Colleen Carroll Campbell, Bill Romanowski, and Nigel Cameron, the latter of which I found particularly provocative.

Cameron, Director of the Center on Nanotechnology and Society and Research Professor of Bioethics and Associate Dean at Chicago-Kent College of Law in the Illinois Institute of Technology, gave a talk entitled "Stewarding the Self: A Human Future for Humans?" Essentially the talk asked the question, "what does it mean to be human?" in an age (the 21st century) when all efforts seem to be moving toward a reinvention of the human project itself. He talked about three ways in which the human as we know it is being redefined: 1) taking life (abortion, euthanasia, stem cells, etc), 2) making life (test tube babies, cloning, etc), and 3) faking life (cyborgs, chips in human brains, robots, etc).

It's interesting because just about a month ago I wrote a blog post about many of the things Cameron talked about. Actually, my review of Bigger, Stronger, Faster also fits into the discussion, as does my post about Iron Man. In each of these pieces I point out the increasing sense in our culture that the human being is becoming more machine-like... We conceive of our bodies not as carriers of a transcendent soul but as a material objects which can be manipulated, botoxed, pumped up, and enhanced in whatever way that pleases us. Cameron pointed out various technologies being developed that will make this sort of "faking life" all the more prevalent... such as BMI (Brain Machine Interface) which will allow our brains to work with embedded computer chips in them... so we can just think a webpage or some digital computation rather than go to the trouble of using a computer hardware external to our body.

He mentioned that the computing power in the world will likely increase by a factor of a million within a generation, which means we have no concept now of just what the future will look like. He pointed to a government study released in 2007 entitled "Nanotechnology: The Future is Coming Sooner Than You Think," which featured some pretty remarkable assessments from noted futurists and nanotech scholars about what the future might hold. For a government study, it's pretty sci-fi. Take this section which poses the potential of "The Singularity" happening within a generation or two (and for those unfamiliar with "The Singularity," read about it here)...

Every exponential curve eventually reaches a point where the growth rate becomes almost infinite. This point is often called the Singularity. If technology continues to advance at exponential rates, what happens after 2020? Technology is likely to continue, but at this stage some observers forecast a period at which scientific advances aggressively assume their own momentum and accelerate at unprecedented levels, enabling products that today seem like science fiction. Beyond the Singularity, human society is incomparably different from what it is today. Several assumptions seem to drive predictions of a Singularity. The first is that continued material demands and competitive pressures will continue to drive technology forward. Second, at some point artificial intelligence advances to a point where computers enhance and accelerate scientific discovery and technological change. In other words, intelligent machines start to produce discoveries that are too complex for humans. Finally, there is an assumption that solutions to most of today’s problems including material scarcity, human health, and environmental degradation can be solved by technology, if not by us, then by the computers we eventually develop.

Pretty crazy stuff, eh? Who knew the government actually thought that The Terminator was going to come true? As Cameron pointed out, it's as if the forecasts of Mary Shelley, Aldous Huxley, and C.S. Lewis (in The Abolition of Man) were all coming true. It means that Christians will need to address science and technology along with theology and postmodernism in the coming decades, raising questions that perhaps no one else will, such as: how do we reconcile a theology of suffering with a world that is trying its hardest, through technology, to rid us of all suffering?