During the 1950s, the mathematician John von Neumann was describing how technology and the mode of human life were both accelerating towards a single point "beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue." This point, appearing to approach an "essential singularity" when artificial intelligence will have surpassed human intelligence and changed civilization with it, if not human nature as well, was more recently popularized in books like "The Singularity is Near" by futurist Ray Kurzweil, the current Director of Engineering at Google. (image)
So when might this convergence and emergence of artificial intelligence and biological enhancement occur? Although some predict the Singularity occurring as soon as 2017 or possibly as far away as 2112, Kurzweil's (educated...as in MIT) guesstimate is around 2045. (image)
And with recent advances in Brain/Computer interfaces where robots can be controlled with the mind and advances in prosthetics are moving so quickly that the only problem with Kurzweil's estimate is that it might not have been bold enough. Which has people worried. "The real question will come in our society when someone says, ‘well, it’s not just the people who’ve already lost those limbs; I want faster legs so I’m going to cut the legs that I have off and get these faster legs," notes Dr. James J. Hughes of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. “I think when it comes to our bodies, the danger is we might change what it means to be human and create a new species," adds Professor George Annas, Bioethics and Human Rights, Boston University. "And it may turn around to bite us. Similar to that Frankenstein myth where the creature, let loose in the world becomes destructive and uncontrollable.”
Scholars aren't the only ones who find the implications of the Singularity worrisome. The Futurenetics fashion tribe in particular is exploring the ramifications, like South Korean artist Lee Bul and her "Cyborgs" with their voluptuous feminine curves in luscious hues, smooth silicone exteriors and missing limbs. When she was in the very crowded city of Hong Kong recently, she gave an interesting interview in which she mused on what things might be like "after" humans. "Here, yesterday night at around 6pm I was walking around and it was so noisy and I felt very pressed (by the crowds) and then I started thinking about the opposite scenario: without humans, what will it be like? I suddenly felt that it was hard to breath. I cannot figure it out right now, because only humans can imagine (human society). I can imagine, after humans, it may be something kind of like sounds, it’s not a visual, but some kind of very sharp sound that stays forever..." (image)
Although Bul's work is overtly concerned with the melding of woman and machine, it nonetheless brought to mind for me the recent - and I think wonderful - project by Pro Infirmis, a Swiss organization for people with disabilities. To mark the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, they commissioned four mannequins who used as their models people variously suffering from a curved spine, shortened limbs and a woman in a wheelchair. The mannequins were then dressed in stylish ensembles and displayed on Zurich's main shopping strip, the Bahnhofstrasse, along with a four-minute YouTube video that went viral, exploring the theme "Because who is perfect? Get closer."
Here's the podcast I recorded about this - I hope you enjoy!
Music: "Laid Back Guitars" by Kevin MacLeod, Incompetech.com
- Lesley Scott