Silicon Valley Prophets

Most organized religion works with the promise of an eternal resting place, an afterlife where man may live in harmony with his Creator, provided he is a faithful person. While the description of Heaven varies with each religion, it is more or less consistent in terms of its general definition: the promise of eternal life after death.

For those who have devoted their life to science, the idea of immortality in Heaven, or a spiritual after-life, is difficult to believe in absent any empirical evidence. 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. He is currently employed with Google in an advisory/research role where he has significant input on futurist projects, presumably under the program Google X.

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 — which has become the video-bible to his futurist vision. 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 is he doing this? Simply, as a human, he like all of us, fear our own mortality. There is a constant worry that we will not have enough time in our mortal lives to accomplish all we desire. Unlike religious people who believe in a spiritual afterlife, individuals like Kurzweil see our time here as limited and finite. What Kurzweil is ultimately trying to do is invent a technological Heaven for those who don’t believe in the religious/spiritual version of it. He, like centuries of men before him, is using his life on earth to try and beat death. However, this existential crisis is thousands of years old, and so far death has held an upper-hand. Of course Kurzweil, also like many before him, believes he will be the one to beat death once and for all.

The Singularity, as envisioned by Kurzweil, is a sort of religion for those who do not believe in God or an afterlife. It is the idea that in spite of no spiritual 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 ” the technological singularity.” The technological singularity is the idea that through ever-increasing computing power and technological innovation, man will be able to augment his body to overcome mortal biological defects. Taking this idea a step further, Kurzweil argues we will be able to implant computer chips in our brains which will then be able to upload our conscious into a machine. 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 a singularity. Yet, that does not stop either Kurzweil or his disciples from trying to predict after this moment anyhow.

In order to make this prediction even remotely feasible, it will take billions invested into technological innovation. Naturally, the Singularity must go beyond books and documentaries, and into venture capital pitches in order to have any shot at success with its vision.

Singularity University was launched in 2008 by Kurzweil, and Silicon Valley investor and inventor, Peter Diamandis. The goal was not to create 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 how to find funding and start projects of their own in accordance with its vision. The “university” is today supported by NASA Goddard, Google and countless other esteemed organizations and individuals such as Google’s Larry Page and PayPal investor Peter Thiel, thus lending it legitimacy within the Silicon Valley community.

The problem with this pseudo-religious technological goal is that not all of 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 would naturally only be able to 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 citizen will stand to benefit much from Kurzweil’s visions. In fact, the plot-line to the SciFi film 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 America, he also wants to insulate himself and his allies form the consequences of when this rose-colored vision of Darwinian determination fails. Recently he pitched the idea of a 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 (presumably until they can relocate into Space).

The difference 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 capital to make this a reality, and those investors do not want this available to everyone because scarcity creates more profit. Additionally, where this technology is scarce, only the rich will be able to afford it.

Another problem is that the word Singularity has become rather loosely defined over the years, moving further and further from Kurzweil’s definition as more entrepreneurs take their stab at bringing it into 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 everyday life.

Much how like religious people share stories of miracles and unexplained 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 may even usher in important technological inventions, it’s imperative to remain skeptical of such Utopian claims. Ultimately as is, 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 also don’t believe he is capable of being critical of his own predictions — which is essential as a matter of scientific hypothesis. 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 his mastery of 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 elite. 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 in turn the chance for abuse of a movement is born.

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