Recently tens of thousands of activists from around the world gathered at the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in Brazil. Meanwhile, the global elite gathered in Davos, Switzerland, at the World Economic Forum. Albeit from different and mostly contrasting perspectives, both gathered to address the problems facing the future of the planet. Both however failed to address the technological tsunami facing humanity, the tsunami of technological singularity.
The Second Genesis
Technological singularity is the coming together, the convergence of four technologies that promises to alter the form, substance, and direction of human nature and civilization forever. All four technologies have the capability of creating impacts even more profound than those historically unleashed by the industrial revolution. All claim to advance the quality of human existence and consider dangerous side effects to be manageable.
Nanotechnology is engineering at the scale of a molecule, or one billionth of a meter. The objective is to re-create matter, the non-living world, molecule per molecule, in order to have, so they claim, stronger construction materials and better delivery of medicines. Nanotechnologists speak of creating self-assembling and replicating molecular machines that will put to shame any existing industrial manufacturing process that we currently have. Unanswered are questions as to what would happen should the nano self-assemblers mutate and restructure the fabric of the material world.
Biotechnology, especially radical forms of genetic engineering, seeks to re-engineer all living organisms, including human beings, through genetic recombination, cloning, and other techniques. It finds the current state of natural creation inefficient for serving human needs. It is a de facto second genesis, one based not on Divine wisdom, but on the short term design criteria of materialistic scientists, government regulatory agencies, and corporations seeking to reorganize the planetary gene pool on the basis of profitability, power, and utilitarianism.
Information and communication technologies – the use of computers, cell phones, the Internet, seek externalize the workings of the human nervous system and to augment the products of our consciousness. They do not seem as threatening as nanotechnology and genetic engineering and activists use the products of information and communication technologies without much hesitation. However, the emergence of supercomputers, artificial intelligence, and sophisticated computer networks, has led to a deep concern about the possibility of mechanizing human consciousness and achieving greater control of human societies.
Cognitive technologies seek to use the findings of cognitive science to mimic human creativity and expertise. In the search for better diagnosis and therapeutic action, an increasing wave of expert systems, software designed to replace the medical doctor, lawyer, and other professionals, are finding their way into the market. Aside from massive unemployment, the relevance of human expertise is increasingly placed into question. Even human creativity itself, a prized expression of the human spirit, is under attack.
The Goal of Technological Singularity
The impacts of any of these technologies on nature, humans, and society are already profound. But their convergence towards the creation of machine-human chimera (the cyborg) and super intelligent machines (SIMs) is starting to raise alarm bells.
Imagine a super-strong artificial intelligent machine that is able to replicate itself thanks to the marriage of nanotechnology and biotechnology. The creation of computer chips based on DNA is already on-going, with some initial, albeit primitive successes, already being reported in the scientific literature. The cyborgs raise the prospects of super-intelligence, even if only of one kind, super-strength, and physical immortality (so their makers believe) for a price in the market.
No wonder Steven Spielberg produced the movie “AI” because he wanted society to have a debate on the wisdom on the current efforts to produce super intelligent machines. No wonder Bill Joy, former senior scientist at Sun Microsystems, wrote an article in Wired Magazine warning entitled “Why the Future Does Not Need Us”. He warned that the current explosion in technological advances is similar to the advances that were made in nuclear science which gave us the atom and hydrogen bomb, the utterly devastating explosive power that defined the logic of the Cold War.
Within Our Lifetime
Critics say that the concerns of Joy and Spielberg are overblown. They say that it would take hundreds, if not a few thousand years, before human cyborgs and super intelligent machines will dominate the human landscape. And since these concerns will not materialize in our lifetimes and there is no afterlife anyway, these materialistic scientists say that there is no cause for concern.
However, we get a different picture from the reports coming out from the frontiers of science and technology. One scientist noted that, at the rate of current advances in science and technology, human beings in the 21st century will experience the equivalent of 100,000 years in evolution in a period of just 20 years. Some of these scientists see the advances coming so rapidly that they already see the demise of the human species in the horizon and are welcoming the prospect of the emergence of super intelligent machines as the next apex of natural evolution.
The estimate for significant technological singularity is somewhere between 2030 to 2050. That is barely 25 to 45 years away. It is within the lifetime of most people in the world today who are under 40 years of age. And given this short time horizon for the possible demise of the human species, concerned individuals and groups have to act now to address this unprecedented challenge of technological singularity. For one, our current educational system which prepares us all for materialism has to be overhauled, otherwise the advances of technological singularity will be welcomed with joy and will be greeted as gifts to humanity.
Activism in the 21st Century
But activist action will have to be of a radically different nature than the world has ever seen before. Technological singularity, at its core, is a profound spiritual challenge. Therefore materialistic conceptions of social movements will be totally impotent before the challenge of technological singularity.
Einstein has stated the case very succinctly and powerfully. He said that we cannot solve the problems by the very same form of consciousness that created the problems in the first place. In other words, a materialistic worldview and identity is the driving force of technological singularity. Mobilizing a materialistic response to technological singularity is like adding fuel to the fire. It will be totally impotent to address the profound challenge that the cyborg and super intelligent machines are hurling towards humanity.
If we, as Marxists, believe in historical materialism, and if, we, as activists, believe in the materialism of neo-darwinian evolutionary theory, then, we can only welcome the advent of technological singularity. There is no need to be concerned about human dignity because there is none if we are all simply complex biological machines. As such, it is just fine and natural that we be altered, cloned, and patented just like any complex biological machine. There are no questions about violation of universal human rights unless machines have no rights.
Activism in the 21st century will therefore have to be profoundly spiritual to even have the ambition of stemming the tide of technological singularity. This means immediately, among others, that activists will need to explore more seriously and understand more intimately the spiritual dynamics that animate the core of their being. In addition, activists will also have to learn the vocabulary of the new, more spiritually-oriented sciences that are, not surprisingly, starting to emerge in our midst.
Out of these two spiritual resources, activists will need to develop new and more spiritual approaches to mobilization, beginning aspects of which can be seen in the World Social Forum in its defense of its free cultural and spiritual space uncompromised by any form of political maneuvering. Out of these deeper spiritual experiences, will also come the creation of new social forms that will have the power to advance human evolution despite the headlong rush towards technological singularity. And as we seek to create a more profound human future, we will need to learn to mobilize out of the future, instead of an over-reliance on past approaches which will increasingly become obsolete in the new realities of the 21st century.
True, humanity faces many daunting challenges today. True, there are many pressing and urgent issues to address. But from the perspective and time scale of human evolution, failing to address the challenge of technological singularity will make all the challenges we are currently facing pale in comparison. For, to paraphrase Francis Fukuyama, we will face the end of human history because humans, as we know them, will no longer exist. In the place of Homo sapiens will be SIM, the super intelligent machine, harnessing humans as resources, if at all, to sustain a totally different trajectory of evolution, one that will obliterate humans and their history from this planet. Only new spiritually inspired forms of activism will be able to transform the juggernaut of technological singularity.
We all need to begin this urgent spiritual journey and begin it now. For we will surely need access to our spiritual depths as the years and decades of the 21st century, unfold. For, if we fail, we will not be around to regret it. But if we succeed, we will have used the challenge of technological singularity to continue the flow of human evolution, which has been pulsating for millions of years, and usher in a new and more profoundly spiritual phase in human existence.