02 October 2005

The way of the future. The way of the future. The way of the future.

In Michael Tolkin's brilliant, underseen film The Rapture, directory-assistance operator and bored swinger Mimi Rogers gradually becomes aware, via hushed whispers and mysterious tattooes, of a group of people, from all walks of life, who are quietly preparing for an imminent world-changing event. The movie ultimately goes on to tackle, with arresting bluntness and courage, the very foundation of theology, but for the first half hour or so it plays more like a conspiracy thriller, deriving suspense from the notion that most of humanity exists in a state of blissful ignorance. There are other films, in other genres, that do likewise—They Live and The Matrix, for example, are both predicated on a similar paradigm shift—but The Rapture differs in that it emphasizes What Is To Be rather than What Actually Is. And so the epiphany, when it arrives, doesn't (indeed, cannot) inspire a frenzy of activity involving shackle-breaking and whatnot. It's simply a matter of waiting. The only difference is: now you're aware. And the idea that most other people remain unaware is kind of bizarre. But at the same, you feel like a lunatic trying to explain it to anyone.

About six weeks ago, I accidentally stumbled onto a secret roughly as momentous as the ones cited above, except that it's real. Of course, it's not actually a secret. People have been talking about it for roughly 20 years now. Books have been published. There are whole organizations devoted to this idea. But most people, at least to judge from my own tiny, statistically insignificant survey of fairly well-read New Yorkers, have never heard of it. They have no idea. I had no idea, until mid-August. Since then, it's consumed more of my waking hours than anything except film and poker, my twin sources of income. "To truly understand it," writes one of the idea's architects, "inherently changes one's view of life in general and one's own particular life." I found that to be true even before I read that sentence, and the new book containing it. And I'm not sure that I truly understand it yet, frankly.

It sounds like I found God, doesn't it? And I suppose that, in my own uncompromisingly secular way, I have.

What it is, is this: The world as we currently understand it is going to end in our lifetime. (And I Feel Fine.)

Here's a thought experiment, just very quickly before I finally get to the point. Picture the world of, oh, 150 years ago. A world before the airplane, before the telephone, before the automobile, before television, before cinema, before the computer, before the Internet—pretty much before almost everything that we currently use and do and depend upon. I think there might have been milk. And pants. Anybody see Polanski's new version of Oliver Twist? Picture that world. Then compare it to today's world. Kind of a before and after sort of deal. Create a mental diptych that emphasizes the vast, overwhelming, museum-enabling difference between what life was like then and what life is like now.

Got it? Okay, now dump the Oliver Twist picture, shove the 2005 picture over to the left, and make the right side of the diptych your own conception of a future that's as alien and inconceivable to us as the contemporary world would have been to Dickens. What that will look like will vary from person to person, but the thing is that it shouldn't resemble, say, Blade Runner, i.e. basically today's world with a few superficial modifications (taller buildings, funkier flying machines, androids). You need to imagine something radically different. On the one hand: Writing a letter to someone halfway around the world, posting it, waiting weeks for it to arrive and then that many weeks again for the postman to deliver the reply; on the other hand: A quick e-mail exchange with someone equally distant, in which the same information (let's say you're exchanging the textual equivalent of two novels) takes place in about ten seconds. Try to imagine the future equivalent of that gigantic leap forward. Then apply it to, oh, every walk of life.

Got that? Of course you don't. It's inconceivable. That's the whole point. You can probably come up with a few sci-fi chestnuts, like teleportation or Tom Cruise shunting image-data around with little wrist-flicks, but really we're talking about a world that's beyond our comprehension. H.G. Wells and Jules Verne had prodigious imaginations, and made some tentative predictions that sort of panned out, but neither one of them could have come up with the Internet, or genetic engineering. There was simply no context for those innovations at that time. As per Clarke's third law, the technology was sufficiently advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic.

Okay, so now you've got a diptych with today on the left panel and some murky blur on the right panel. Here's what I just found out. The right panel? It's not 150 years away. It's maybe 30 years away. Maybe less. If you have a small child, the world that child lives in as an adult will be as foreign to you as the world of today was to Dickens. Probably much more foreign. And you'll still be around to see it. In fact, you may be around for a lot longer than you think.

What I stumbled onto was the concept of the technological singularity. That link will lead you to a wealth of information, but it boils down to this: Our ability to process information is growing at an exponential rate, such that we are now only two or three decades away from creating an artificial intelligence more advanced than the human brain. What will happen then? We have no idea. Hence the term "singularity," which in astronomy denotes the point at which conventional models of space-time break down (as at the edge of a black hole). All we know for certain is that the first stage of human evolution will end. Let me note again: This is likely to happen in our lifetime. I don't have the time or the brainpower to get into the evidence here, but if you choose to explore further on your own, you'll find that it's pretty convincing.

In an odd coincidence, Mike Leigh's Naked was just recently released on DVD. (Aside: Holy crap is this movie awesome.) I was watching the famed "666" sequence the other night, and was startled to hear Johnny more or less describe the Singularity, though he never uses that word. No doubt Thewlis was reading some of the books I've only just discovered.

JOHNNY: Do you think that the amoeba ever dreamed that it would evolve into the frog?* 'Course it didn't. And when that first frog shimmied out of the water and employed its vocal cords in order to attract a mate or to retard a predator, do you think that that frog ever imagined that that incipient croak would evolve into all the languages of the world, into all the literature of the world? 'Course it fucking didn't. And just as that froggy could never possibly have conceived of Shakespeare, so we can never possibly imagine our destiny.

BRIAN: I know what my destiny is.

JOHNNY: Yeah, but what you're experiencing, as far as I can gather, with all these manifestations of regression and precognition and transmigratory astral fucking chatterings, is just the equivalent of that first primeval grunt. Because evolution isn't over. Man isn't the be-all and fucking end-all. Look, if you take the whole of time represented by one year, we're only in the first few moments of the first of January. There's a long way to go. Only now we're not gonna sprout extra limbs and wings and fins, because evolution itself is evolving. And whereas you, through some process of extrasensory recall, might imagine that you were some, I dunno, some 17th-century little Dutch girl living in a windmill in old Amsterdam, one day you'll realize that you've had not just one or two past or future existences but that you were and are everybody and everything that has ever been or will ever be.

BRIAN: Hang on a minute. You just contradicted yourself.

JOHNNY: Oh, and how do you make that out?

BRIAN: Downstairs you were predicting the end of the world. Now you're talking about the future. How do you explain that, eh?

JOHNNY: Easy. When it comes, the Apocalypse itself will be part of the process of that leap of evolution.

BRIAN: Yeah. Well. Whatever happens, mankind will not cease to exist.

JOHNNY: It must. By the very definition of "apocalyse," mankind must cease to exist, at least in a material form.

BRIAN: What do you mean, "in a material form"?

JOHNNY: Well, he'll evolve.

BRIAN: What into?

JOHNNY: Into something that transcends matter. Into a species of pure thought. Are you with me?

BRIAN: Yeah. Like a ghost.

JOHNNY: No, not like a fucking ghost, you big girl's blouse! Into something that's, like, well beyond our comprehension. Into a universal consciousness. Into God. Who is, by the same principle that time is.

In the context of the film, this whole semi-monologue plays like the ravings of a very smart lunatic. Take out all the "fucking"s, though, and it's basically a condensed version of Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, which was published less than two weeks ago as I write this. (I'm about halfway through it.) Granted, Kurzweil doesn't foresee universal consciousness until about the end of the century; nonetheless, the key word in his book's title is Near. He makes a persuasive case that events we intuitively think would have to happen centuries in the future are in fact going to take place extremely soon. In particular, he believes that people who are currently under about 40 are not going to die—that at our current exponential rate of technological progress, we will soon have the ability to more or less "back up" the individual human brain, the same way we currently make backup copies of files we know we don't want to lose should the machine that they reside in (read: the human body) break down.

When you're first exposed to this idea, it sounds incredible. But it isn't. It's essentially a mathematical argument, and if you examine the data closely, it makes perfect sense. You can get a sense of what's possible, however counterintuitive it may be, by considering the rate of progress of other media—for example, music storage. (This is my own example, unless Kurzweil addresses it later in the book; to judge from the index, I don't think he does.) When I first started buying music, in 1981, an album was available primarily on a vinyl platter that could hold a maximum of about 50 minutes on both sides. The long-playing record, or LP, had been the primary storage medium roughly since my parents had been born; the vinyl platter, of course, dated all the way back to Edison. Along the way a few alternatives were invented—the laughable 8-track cartridge (hey kids, I actually owned those suckers); the somewhat more successful cassette tape, which could hold up to two hours of music if the tape were stretched so thin that it was almost certain to break pretty quickly—but the state of the art remained fundamentally static until the advent of a digital storage medium in the mid-1980s. The compact disc, with its greater durability and random-access capability, quickly made vinyl and tape all but obsolete. But the CD still only held about 80 minutes of music (allegedly because Philips and Sony felt that the entirety of Beethoven's Ninth should fit on a single disc; snopes questions this, however). Over a period of 20 years—I was an early adopter, bought my first player in 1985**, back when most stores devoted only one small aisle to the medium—I accumulated close to 1200 album-length CDs. Today, I have literally all of that music (minus a handful of "bonus tracks" I didn't ever want to hear again), nearly 1200 albums, stored on a device that fits comfortably in my front pocket. And that device (a 60GB iPod) is only about half full. And one year after it was introduced, it's already virtually obsolete. (I have no doubt that within a few years a device even smaller than this will have a storage capacity of well over 60GB.)

So here's the timeline, greatly simplified:

1877: Phonograph
1948: LP
1982: CD
2001: iPod (5GB)
2002: iPod (20GB)
2003: iPod (30GB)
2004: iPod (60GB)

I didn't include the tape-based technologies, which turned out to be blind alleys and never succeeded in supplanting vinyl. I also omitted the early battle between platters and cylinders, and some other niceties. But you can clearly see the exponential growth curve: 71 years from the "eureka!" discovery to a commercially viable long-playing format; 34 years from analog to digital; 19 years from discrete to file-based, and now storage capacity is doubling more or less annually (with prices remaining more or less constant). In less than a decade, the current iPod is going to look quaint. And what's happened with music storage is happening, at a similar rate of speed but over a much longer timescale, to the evolution of mankind (which, to the diehard materialist, is nothing more than an incredibly complex information-storage system): 4 billion years from the origin of life to multicellular organisms; 1 billion years from the Cambrian explosion to primates; 10 million years from quadrupeds to bipeds; 100,000 years from modern man to agriculture; 1000 years from civilization to the Industrial Revolution; about 120 years from practical electricity to the mapping of the human genome. The next major milestone is coming very soon, and it will make our present way of life look quaint.

Kurzweil and others embrace the idea of the Singularity, claiming that superhuman intelligence will solve all of mankind's problems. Others are considerably warier, since the dystopian flipside is the very scenario envisioned in The Matrix, The Terminator, etc.: Sentient computers enslave and/or annihilate mankind, and we're powerless to stop them. There's also the philosophical question of whether merging with technology would somehow destroy or diminish what we think of as our humanity. If you believe in the soul, I suppose this is a legitimate concern; since I'm quite comfortable with the idea that consciousness resides solely in the human brain, and that the human brain (or any other brain) is basically just a very sophisticated computer (though not as sophisticated as the ones we're on the brink of inventing), that doesn't worry me overmuch. The threats to our species from hostile AI or runaway nanotechnology are much more credible.

But the debate about whether the Singularity is desirable can wait. What freaks me out is this: It's coming. This is not some remote sci-fi future that we can let our descendants fret about. It's going to happen to us. Our world is going to radically change. Life as we currently understand it is going to end, to be replaced by we know not what, beyond dim speculation.

This should be a bigger deal than it seems to be, it seems to me.

* The amoeba didn't actually evolve into the frog, any more than human beings evolved from chimpanzees, but never mind. Poetically it makes sense.

** It was a Sony, I forget the model number, but let me say this for the good people at Sony: They build a reliable fucking product. I finally tossed that machine last year, when I moved to Park Slope—in fact I basically tossed my entire stereo system, for reasons I'm about to address in the main text—but it still worked perfectly, having only been serviced once in 19 years.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Terrifying. Have you read the Unabomber's Manifesto, Mike ?