Most organized religion works with the promise of an eternal resting place, an afterlife where man may live in harmony with his Creator. This description of heaven, Nirvana, varies with each religion, but is more or less consistent in terms of its general significance.
For those who have devoted their life to science, this idea of immortality in Heaven, or a spiritual after-life, is difficult to believe in absent any empirical evidence or sound logic. So it was only natural for some brilliant scientists and inventors to want to create a Heaven that is actually real.
Meet Ray Kurzweil and the Singularity movement.
Kurzweil is an inventor, computer scientist and prodigal graduate of MIT. He has gone on to create many important inventions and has helped to advise on multiple projects within his field of computer science. In fact he is currently employed with Google in such an advisory/research role.
After the death of his father, he became obsessed with the idea of being able to talk to him again. You see this emotional side of him in the documentary Transcendent Man — or what has become the video-bible to his vision. Unfortunately, Kurzweil does not believe in a Judeo-Christian version of Heaven where he may speak to his father again, and so he’s tried to find a scientific solution to where this may be possible.
Kurzweil gets blood tests frequently. He takes massive amounts of pills and supplements every day, all in the hopes of living long enough to see out his predictions for a man-made afterlife (which he claims will be in 2045). He’s even wrote a book on how best to diet to improve your chances of reaching the year of his prediction. Why? Because as a human, he like all of us, fear our own mortality. It’s this constant idea we will not have enough time, and that unlike religious people who believe in an afterlife, those who don’t realize our time in existence is too short. So what Kurzweil is ultimately trying to do is invent a technological Heaven for those who don’t believe in the traditional version of it. He like centuries of men before him are using their life on earth to try and beat death. This existential crisis is thousands of years old, and so far death has held an upper-hand. Kurzweil, like many before him, believes he will be the one to beat death once and for all.
The Singularity, as envisioned by Kurzweil, is religion for those who do not believe in God or and afterlife. It is the idea that in spite of no traditional heaven, if we invest enough in technology, the core idea of Heaven, or immortality, can be attainable.
Kurzweil as a Jesus-figure for this movement is a complicated, but noble man in his intentions and beliefs. Some may even say obsessive in his quest for real immortality, or as he and his followers have come to call it “technological singularity.” The technological singularity (TS) is the idea that through even-increasing computing power and technological innovation, man will be able to augment his body to overcome mortal biological defaults. Taking this idea a step further, Kurzweil argues we will be able to implant computer chips in our brains which will be able to upload our conscious into a computer. This he argues will happen by the year 2045, the all significant year of when this Heaven through technology will be complete according to a rather flawed interpretation of Moore’s law.
The year of Singularity, 2045, is referred to as a singularity, because much like the physics term it borrows from, we cannot know what happens after the point of singularity. That does not stop either Kurzweil or his disciples from trying to predict after this moment anyhow.
In order to make this prediction even feasible, it will take billions invested into technological innovation. The Singularity must go beyond books, and into venture capitol pitches in order to have any shot at success with its vision.
Singularity University was launched in 2008 by Kurzweil, and Silicon Valley titans Peter Diamandis. The goal was to create not so much a formal university, but an executive retreat where silicon valley entrepreneurs would be given the chance to hear about all of the benefits of investing in the vision of singularity and of how to find funding and start projects of their own. The “university” is today supported by NASA Goddard, Google and countless other esteemed organizations and individuals such as Google’s Larry Page and PayPal’s Peter Thiel, thus lending it legitimacy within the Silicon Valley community.
The problem with this pseudo-religious technological goal is that not all Kurzweil’s followers are as noble in their intentions as he is. Kurzweil is notoriously optimistic about our future, promising an abundance of resources, human immortality, conscious uploading and no problem technology cannot solve. Those who invest in these visions have a different goal: money, and to make more of it.
Ultimately our resources are finite. If people could live forever, the earth can only hold so many people. As long as money is king of controlling resources, like say the technology to grant immortality, it is unlikely the average citizenry will stand to benefit much from Kurzweil’s visions. In fact, the plot-line to Elysium seems more likely than the utopia he envisions, as sad as that might make him.
Peter Thiel himself is a Far-Right Libertarian, and major donor to Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. Not only does he believe in an every man for himself, pick yourself up by the bootstraps vision of American success, he also wants to insulate himself and his allies form the consequences of when this rose-colored vision fails. Recently he pitched the idea of an sea-steading island colony of technological entrepreneurs where a handful of well off billionaires and millionaires could invest toward a Singularity free from government regulation and interference from average citizens. Basically, an oceanic version of Elysium (at least until they can move it into Space I presume).
The differences in vision for its outcome is precisely why Singularity as religion is troublesome. Like Christ, Kurzweil is not a bad person — his followers however leave his visions open to exploitation. On the one hand you have Kurzweil who wants this technology for everyone. On the other hand, you need venture capitol to make this a reality, and those investors do not want this available to everyone because scarcity creates more profit. Where this technology is scarce, only the rich will be able to afford it.
The main problem however is that the word Singularity has become rather loosely define over the years — moving further and further from Kurzweil’s definition as more entrepreneurs take their stab at bringing it to reality. As many scientists doubt the occurrence of this Kurzweilian prediction within our lifetime, believers (those in a serious existential battle against death) try and find loosely correlated examples of Singularity’s existence in every day life.
Much how like religious people share stories of miracles and unexplainable phenomenon in every day life to justify their belief in God without any empirical evidence, Singularity believers try and loosely attach everyday technological gains and inventions to prove that “the singularity is near” — a common utterance by those convinced of its inevitability.
While Kurzweil’s is a very noble goal, one which even may usher in important technological inventions, it’s imperative to remain skeptical of such utopian claims. Ultimately, this movement is a profit center for venture capitalists, and even the media empire Kurzweil has built around himself with books, documentaries, TV shows and speaking engagements. Also, it is entirely convenient how like many prophets before him, the year of reckoning will occur within his lifetime (provided he reaches almost 100).
While I do not believe Kurzweil to be a narcissist the way many prophets before him were, I don’t believe he is capable of being critical of his own predictions — which is essential as a matter of scientific hypothesis and prediction. In fact I believe he is a man who never dealt with the psychological consequences of his fathers death, and so he has set out a goal for himself to remedy this problem of death and afterlife through science. To make this goal a reality, he has had to pursue the money and resources of those who may not share his utopian vision of the future, leaving open the chance for this technology to be abused or harvested solely for the economic 1%. I hope those who support the important goal of technological innovation and progress do not put too much stock into any one prediction of the future. Kurzweil plays an important role in encouraging investment in technology and how technology can if done properly make our world a better place. When a religious undertone is involved like it is with Singularity, the prospect of critical thinking is reduced and the chance for abuse of a movement is born.