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Grand Rapids, MI

Embarking Blog

...on the journey towards restoration of all things

Kurzweil, Joy, and Singularity

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So, if you're not used to me changing subjects mid-sentence, here goes. Nothing like going from the poetry of Rilke to Ray Kurzweil and Wired Magazine. It's been a year or two since I've paid attention to Ray, but tonight he came back on my radar. While driving back from a Japanese steakhouse, I heard an interview with Ray on the NPR show On Point with Tom Ashbrook [he was also on Science Friday on December 23]. Ray K. just published a book entitled "The Singularity is Near: when humans transcend biology" (click the link to read excerpts.) Kurzweil (and others) are positing that because of the rapid rate of information technology and change, things like reverse engineering of the brain, nanotechnology, and other coming inventions, there will be a wedding of the biological human with non-biological intelligence that will lead to a new kind of human merged with the powers of machines and artificial intelligence. Kurzweil argues that because information technology is growing exponentially and because the application of information technology is rapidly spreading a new evolutionary creature - a merging of man and machine - will eventually emerge. He goes as near as speaking about the ability to remove our mortality (which seems quite far in itself, of course) to as far as managing the universe in a way that we are able to manipulate our environment in whatever way we want. He takes current trends, technologies, rates of doubling technology and information, and predicts that this merger of man and machine will occur as early as 2045. I would 78 then... a prime candidate for considering immortality!!

In any case, this has reopened my mind to concerns over technology, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, mapping the human genome (by the way, I was also disturbed today when I heard some of the results of the chip genome and its relationship to the human genome), etc. It reminded me of an essay in Wired that I've discussed with many people (engineers and computer scientists, mostly) by Bill Joy written back in 2000 that rocked the technology world into rethinking the place of ethics and morality in the science of technology. The essay is entitled "Why the Future Doesn't Need Us" and argues why the triple technologies of robotics, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology threaten the future of humanity. It's a must read for anyone interested in these types of issues, and particularly interesting because the "uni-bomber" was a key player in Bill Joy's revelatory experience. It'll be interesting to see how Joy responds to Kurzweil's new book, and even more interesting to see what happens with these technologies.

Lastly, I've said for years (and this was my argument on the roof of Phi Alpha Kappa in 2000 with an old friend who now works in biotechnology at John's Hopkins) that one of the reasons the church is so often impotent in the culture is because we do not and often seemingly cannot engage our world on the real issues of our day. This issue may seem remote, but many, if not most of Kurzweil's predictions from 20 years ago have come true today. Note that he's not like Nostradamus predicting the future ex nihilo, but instead, he's looking at current technologies, rates of change, the direction of these technologies, and current abilities, ie. micro-chips in the brain for Parkinson patiens, to predict how the future will most likely look given those current trends. In fact, that's one of the roles of "prophecy," biblical or secular - to read the times and see where we are headed when walking in this particular direction. The prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures were often merely saying, "Given where we are, where we're headed, and the way we're walking, this is where we will end up. Unless we turn and change course (the visual of "repent"), that's our future." Bill Joy and Ray Kurzweil, among others, are being prophetic in a generic sense. The questions are these:

  1. Where are the Christians who are analyzing and commenting on these issues?
  2. Since the future is never neutral, if this is the direction we're headed, what value judgments can we make about what we're doing today as we place one foot in front of the other?
  3. Someone always createse the future. When Christians are not playing a dominant role in speaking into the culture, creating culture, and leading into the future, someone else will lead us.

'Nuff said. I'd love to know what you think.


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