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Monday, December 22, 2014

Singularity is coming faster than we think

opinion@dailylobo.com

The human race stands on the brink of a profound transformation — one that could signify the end of civilization as we know it. We are fast approaching a time when computers will be more intelligent than human beings. The singularity is a hypothetical moment in time when artificial intelligence will finally surpass that of humans. When that day comes, our society will be utterly transformed. The singularity will radically change civilization, and perhaps enhance human evolution. More importantly, our humanity — both body and mind — will be completely and irreversibly altered. In some ways, we’re already there.

Noted author and futurist Raymond Kurzweil is positive that singularity is not only inevitable, but imminent. A few years ago, Kurzweil studied existing trends and concluded that the moment would occur around 2045. “We will successfully reverse-engineer the human brain by the mid-2020s,” he recently told Time magazine. “By the end of that decade, computers will be capable of human-level intelligence.”

Computers are getting much faster, and the rate at which computer technology is advancing is increasing exponentially. They will continue to progress until they’re far more intelligent than people. Their rate of development will also increase because they will be able to appropriate their own development from their slower-thinking human creators. The question is this: will this be a good thing, or will it turn out to be more like the dystopian nightmare depicted in so many science fiction films?

The line that separates man from machine is becoming more blurred every day. Virtually everyone on campus is attached to some sort of mobile device. Studies have indicated that people actually suffer from physical withdrawal symptoms akin to heroin addicts when separated from their electronic masters for short periods of time. Yet, none of this technology even existed twenty years ago. In a world that is changing so rapidly it’s impossible to predict the ramifications of even more advanced technology, or the impact of society’s increasing reliance on it for work, for entertainment and for our very survival.

New generations of smart apps represent the first steps toward the future of human-machine interface, where we can have conversations with our computers. As they get to know us they will learn how to suggest things, solve some of our everyday problems and eventually go out into the world to do chores for us.

A slick new series of promotional videos produced by multinational communications-technology provider Ericsson endorses an overly optimistic view of our plight in relation to technology. The networked society presents a rosy picture of mankind’s future, with insights from tech industry leaders such as David Rowan, Editor-in-chief of WIRED UK; Ola Ahlvarsson, founder of Keynote Media; Eric Wahlforss, co-founder of Soundcloud; technologist David Weinberger and Don Tapscott, author of “Growing up Digital.” Predictably, each of them advocates the wondrous new opportunities facilitated by emerging technologies as we enter this pioneering era. They speak of global communication, empowerment, a new golden age and a bright future for young people.

But mostly, they want to sell products. It turns out the shiny new networked society that all those experts spoke so glowingly about will be so awesome because — surprise, surprise — it will allow companies to get products to consumers more efficiently than ever before. In spite of all that hifalutin talk about empowerment and personal freedom, all they really want to do is create new markets for their products. That is the real significance of the networked society that awaits us: consumers will be able to buy and sell stuff more conveniently. That’s about it. It all comes down to the miracle of globalization.

The tech gurus aren’t particularly interested in dispensing any sort of knowledge or enlightenment — or feeding anyone, for that matter, unless you’re willing to pay for the privilege. Those pie-in-the-sky platitudes ignore valid concerns that this super-high-tech network is already being used, not for the good of humanity, but to monitor, manipulate and control us. Just ask the NSA.

David Rowan calls this generation the last dumb society in which things are stupid and uninteresting. I sincerely hope that’s true, but I sure don’t see people getting any smarter. We now have cars that can drive themselves, automatic spellcheck and electronic sensors that send you texts when it’s time to water your plants. Am I the only one who thinks it’s wrong that soon people won’t be able to spell, drive cars or water their plants? That sounds more like the movie Idiocracy than utopia to me.

When citizens control the flow of information, society flourishes. When corporations control the flow of information, it gets stifled. An ignorant population doesn’t know its rights, does not seek a greater understanding of important issues and it does not question authority. It simply follows trends. It’s time to take responsibility for our own transformation.