Tuesday, March 15, 2011


In 1982, "Blade Runner" , a strange film combining elements of sci-fi and film noir, and directed by a relative unknown, Ridley Scott, was released. It received generally lukewarm reviews and garnered some underwhelming recognition and reviews. Since it's initial release, "Blade Runner" has become something of a cult classic, and is now generally recognized as one of the finest films ever made, placing on many "top film" lists. It was based on a quirky and difficult-to-read novel with one of the most bizarre titles: "Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep" and was written by sci-fi kingpin Philip K. Dick.

One of the most haunting aspects of the film is its depiction of a future world involving "replicants" or machines with human qualities and superior capabilities. Replicants were manufactured by the fictional Tyrell Corporation, whose corporate motto was "more human than human." Replicants were seen, in this future world, as being a threat to humans, and were employed in "off-world" colonies doing tasks that humans would not or could not easily do. They were kept in check by the fail-safe mechanism of a four year life span.

The concept of artificially created intelligence, of course, is not new to literature or movies. A list would include such classics as Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" and films such as "2001: A Space Odyssey", "The Matrix" series, and "The Terminator" series. Television shows such as "Star Trek" ( original, Next Generation and others ), "Battlestar Galactica", "Knight Rider" and even "The Jetsons" would make that list. It is a genre of sci-fi which fascinates us. The story of creating life forms that imitate and even exceed us can trace its roots back as far at the Old Testament, when Adam and Eve acquired knowledge that was forbidden to them, and then through literary history to "Paradise Lost", where Lucifer leads an almost successful rebellion against God, and to the legend of Doctor Faustus, who attempted to acquire knowledge that would equal him to God. Simon Magus in the New Testament's "Acts of the Apostles", and Maurice Conchis in John Fowles' "The Magus" complete this partial list.

As students of such works, we find the characters both horrifying and fascinating. They attempt to do the impossible, to attain lofty heights of achievement hitherto reserved for deities. They usually fail in their attempts, or, if successful, are plagued with curses beyond imagination and suffering. Immortality, perfect knowledge, and supreme physical beauty and accomplishmet are the goals: regret, revulsion, pain, and guilt at unleashing forces beyond control are often the rewards.

Science fiction is often the precursor to science fact. We all know of Jules Verne's predictions of submarines capable of traveling the depths of the oceans, and voyages to the moon. We know too, of Leonardo da Vinci's fanciful sketches of tanks, helicopters and other strange devices. Undoubtedly, they were greeted by derisive laughter when their ideas and stories were first made public. But, in the fullness of time, science caught up to creative imagination, and such devices are commonplace.

Ray Kurzweil writes, in his landmark book "The Singularity is Near", that all knowledge is exploding exponentially, especially in areas such as genetics, nanotechnology and robotics ( the new "GNR" ) to the point that the creation of a new type of life form, the "Singularity" is coming soon. This life form will be the completion of all technological work done to this point: computer science, biomechanics, genetic engineering, energy creation and other disciplines, and will outstrip all the creations and intelligence of the entire history of humanity on the planet.

Scary stuff.

To be fair, much of what Kurzweil writes about is perhaps wishful thinking, but so much of what he covers in his massive book is already present, or is quivering on the horizon. Kurzweil says that not only is the amount of knowledge growing exponentially, so to is the pace of acquiring this knowledge. It is staggering to contemplate that, at present, technical knowledge doubles every two years: very soon, it will double every year, then every six months , then ..... you get the picture.

Will the Singularity be a benign entity, co-existing with we humans? Or will it be so powerful, so quick in its intelligence, that it will see no need of us any longer and work against us. Will machines ultimately control us, keeping us as bright and entertaining pets, as the band Porno for Pyros once suggested about aliens coming to earth? Or will they finally destroy us, either deliberately as in "The Terminator" series, or accidentally with some new genetically engineered form of nano-life that would grow out of control in our environment, becoming toxic to us when it infests us ?

At present, there are a multitude of non-governmental organizations who are discussing the advent of the Singularity. To my knowledge, however, no governments have actively become involved in the discussion. What is needed is a summit of world leaders to discuss this issue. The discussion will not, and should not, be about whether to go ahead with the research: that has already gone ahead, and cannot be stopped. Instead, a debate is needed at the highest political levels as to how to utilize the new technologies, to control them, and to prevent the opening of a Pandora's Box from which the human race may never recover.

Far-fetched science fantasy? Do you really want to bet your children's or grandchildren's lives on it? The Singularity will be here, according to Kurzweil, in 2045.