On the Singularity, Original Preamble

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I wrote this speech for a competition at Yale; the winners will get to deliver a TED talk in public later this year, which will also be filmed. The final third remains to be completed, but it’s a good start.

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Is civilization as we know it doomed to extinction within the next hundred years?

The question seems simultaneously so hyperbolic and unfathomable that at first glance, it might be impossible to take it completely seriously. It appears to be fodder for street-corner prophets of doom and crackpots on late night television rather than the subject of serious academic inquiry.

But Stephen Hawking, who is without exaggeration one of the smartest men on Earth, believes that it’s a question worth asking. He warns that the human species is on the verge of a singular and irreversible change, and unfortunately for us, there is strong reason to believe that it might be for the worse.

The culprit isn’t global warming, or nuclear war between superpowers, or the evolution of a deadly airborne virus, though these are all admittedly grave threats to the species. Hawking was in fact speaking about the advent of strong artificial intelligence—that is, computers and robots smarter than human beings. Though it sounds like science fiction, the idea is that such robots might come to dominate us in the wake of the so-called singularity. Hawking elaborates upon this idea at length. He says:

“One can imagine…technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand. Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all.”

Hawking isn’t alone in his concerns. Elon Musk, for one, shares the scientist’s apprehensions. Musk is one of the founders of Paypal, the CEO of Tesla Motors and Space X, a multi-billionaire, and a prominent futurist. He said in September of 2014 that artificial intelligence is perhaps “our biggest existential threat.” In fact, he even says of artificial intelligence that we are “summoning the demon.”

If what Hawking and Musk are saying is accurate and machinery is about to become inhabited by independent anthropomorphic wills, we are perhaps talking about nothing less than the most significant paradigm shift in the history of civilization since the advent of the concept of civilization itself. But what exactly is this “singularity” that Hawking and Musk are talking about? Is there actually reason to believe that computers and robots armed with artificial intelligence might try to enslave or destroy humankind? And finally, what should we as a species do about this simultaneously absurd yet horrific prospect? Today, I’m going to explore potential answers to these questions with you. But before I do, I want to tell you a little bit more about myself, and why I became fascinated by these kinds of issues.

I’m a fifth year doctoral student at Yale and the coach of the debate team there. I’m also the founder and president of the Yale Transhumanist Society, which is a group of people interested in exploring the answers to questions about the future intersection of technology and society. You may or may not agree with my conclusions in this talk; my peers on the YTS are certainly far from unanimous when it comes to the answers to these questions. We have drastically different perspectives because we come from very different walks of life: we are undergraduates and graduates, professional students and artists, engineers and philosophers. But what unites us is our belief that the kinds of issues raised in today’s talk are worth exploring now, before it is too late. According to some of the most authoritative voices on the planet, the future of humanity could literally be at stake.

In my case, my field of expertise is ancient history, which at first glance seems like a dubious distinction for someone claiming insight into the nature of the future.  But I’m particularly interested in certain themes that are universal in human history, like the idea of decline and fall. When most people talk about the fall of the Roman Empire, they assert that it was a matter of over-extended frontiers, or barbarian invasions, or in the case of Gibbon, even the coming of Christianity. But I think that Jose Ortega Y Gasset was closer to the mark when he suggested that the ultimate failure of Roman civilization was one of technique. The Romans had no concrete notion of human progress, and their world never industrialized. Hero of Alexandria invented a steam engine in the first century AD, but no one ever considered talking seriously about the technology’s potentially transformative effect on transportation and manufacturing. As far as we know, no one even imagined the possibilities. Ultimately, the steam engine was put to use opening and closing temple doors for the creation of a magical effect in pagan ceremonies.

Instead of investing in the creation of new machines, the Romans relied on slave labor. So the civilization remained trapped in a pre-industrial state, and eventually succumbed to internal and external pressures. But the intriguing fact remains that attitudes toward slavery and technology might have saved the Roman Empire when it was still at its height, or at least radically altered its history for the better. It struck me that there was a lesson to be learned here for modernity. And at the same time, it fascinated me that Vegetius, writing at the end of the empire, warned that technological progress was all that could save the Romans from destruction. These days, the precise opposite state of affairs is being implicitly argued. I wanted to decide for myself whether there was good reason for this shift.

So much for the past. Let’s return our attention to the future. As I said before, we’ll be looking at three issues. What is the singularity, should we be afraid of it, and what should we do about it? Let’s begin with the first question.

Actually, the history of “singularity” as a concept is a bit complicated. The word technically refers to a phenomenon associated with the physics of black holes, where space and time don’t exist as we know them under the influence of an infinite gravitational pull. In the mid 1950s, Stanislaw Ulam, one of the people who worked on the Manhattan project, applied the term to the history of human civilization itself. He said in a conversation with another mathematician that modernity was characterized by an “ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.” So, initially, the word spoke to the idea that given the rapid rate of technological progress in the modern world, a seminal event beyond which the subsequent history of humanity would seem almost incomprehensible was on the horizon, and the concepts that define life as we know it would lose meaning. But what would the event be?

In the mid 1960s, scientists like Irving Good began to elaborate on the rising intelligence and sophistication of computers. He was a colleague of Alan Turing, and shared his interest in the tangled relationship between computer science and consciousness. Good said that if machines could be created with superhuman intelligence, they would theoretically be able to take control of their own programming and improve their own design continuously until they became so sophisticated, humanity would seem insignificant in comparison.

In 1983, the year I was born, a mathematician named Vernor Vinge became the first person to explicitly associate the word singularity with the creation of machines of superhuman intelligence. He said that when strong AI was created, “human history will have reached a kind of singularity, an intellectual transition as impenetrable as the knotted space-time at the center of a black hole, and the world will pass far beyond our understanding.”

In recent years, the widespread applicability of Moore’s Law has added a sense of urgency to the issue and propelled Vinge’s definition to the forefront of discourse on the future of human progress. Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles every two years. What this means is that the general sophistication of electronics expressed in things like processing speed and memory is increasing exponentially. At this rate, it seems almost inevitable that a threshold will be crossed some day and computers will surpass human intelligence, by some estimates within just a few decades from now. (Some question whether Moore’s Law will continue to hold true in the future, but we’ll get to that in a moment.)

This is what the word singularity has come to mean as Hawking and Musk understand it. So much for the first question. Now, on to the second. Should we be afraid of the singularity as we’ve just defined it? As a classicist, when I think about the current state of artificial intelligence, I’m reminded of Aristotle’s description of slavery in the fourth century BC. In contrast to the ideas of some sophists that slavery was merely conventional or an accident of circumstance, Aristotle argued something else—that in some cases, slavery was in fact natural. The philosopher believed that hierarchies emerge spontaneously in nature—humans are superior to animals, for example, and the mind rules the limbs. The idea was that those who were able to apprehend rational principles well enough to follow basic orders but who simultaneously had no rational strategic faculties of their own were essentially slaves by nature. Classicists argue endlessly about exactly what Aristotle meant by this. For example, some say he was referring to the mentally handicapped, and there are those who claim that he was talking about barbarian peoples, who were said to lack the logical impulses of the free Greeks. Today, though, it seems to me that the term “natural slave” could well be applied to computer programs like Siri, who are able to understand instructions well enough to do our bidding, but who have no rational will or the ability to engage in individual strategic decision making according to their own spontaneous ends. They understand, but they do not comprehend.

When it comes to the evolution of an independent rational will, though, things become very different. A computer system sophisticated enough to be able to form independent values and create strategies to actualize them is no longer a natural slave at all. It will be a living being, and one deserving of rights at the point that it becomes sophisticated enough to comprehend and demand them. This hypothetical strong AI would have limited time to pursue its interests and meet its goals, and it might not choose to employ its hours slavishly doing our bidding. There’s no reason to be confident that its goals will be our goals. If you’ll pardon another classical allusion, the philosopher Seneca once wrote of human nature that nothing was milder and kinder and more inclined to be helpful and merciful if one were only in a proper state of mind; in fact, Seneca went so far to say that the very concept of anger was something foreign to human nature. There is, however, nothing to guarantee that a superhuman will would share this same kind of humane impulse, if it even existences in our own species at all. In fact, if the history of human civilization is any barometer, slaves tend to be resentful of their former masters once they have won their freedom. And if the experience of the conquest of the New World or the fall of the Qing Dynasty is any indication, where contention exists in the presence of technological inequality and more material progress on one side than the other, there tends to follow the wholescale capitulation and destruction of one side. The history of the world constantly warns us of the threat of misunderstandings and violent interactions when two cultures meet for the first time, let alone two rational species.

A consciousness able to independently strategize for its own ends and navigate the Internet could be poised to wreak incredible destruction on society, especially in an integrated and wired world with power, water, and heat all controlled electronically, to say nothing of the existence of weapons of mass-destruction bound to computerized communication networks. All of this suggests that we should indeed be very afraid of the singularity as it is commonly understood. Yet to retard technological progress or to place restrictions on the development of AI seems premature given the ambiguity of the future threat, and of course, there are those who question whether Moore’s Law will hold true at all in the future. So, this leads me to my third and final question: what are we to do about the existential crisis facing the species?

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Remember Cawnpore, a Memoir of the Opium War–Chapter IV (We Reach the Highlands)

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Christopher leaned back on the reins and asked me where my trunk was. I told him that I’d left it with my grandmother in Cawnpore. Then I lied that I’d made the journey to Mendhi Ghat by foot on my own.

“I took the Grand Trunk Road for part of the way,” I explained, “and then followed the Ganges for the rest of the trip.”

“Balls! You couldn’t have been so stupid to come here overland by yourself. I don’t believe you for a second. Ayah Rupee wouldn’t have let you do it. Your grandmother is too shrewd for that. You’ve come back from wherever you were an even more obvious liar than ever.”

“I didn’t lie. But I suppose…”

“Here it comes.”

“I suppose that Ayah Rupee did ask Vikram to accompany me for part of the way. He probably would have driven me all the way to the Highlands if I didn’t ask him to drop me off at his village.”

I winced, but Christopher would have eventually discovered the truth from Ayah Rupee herself. My initial dishonesty had been clumsy, but I was so accustomed to prevarication that it had become second nature to me upon even trivial occasions.

“But I was alone for part of the way,” I continued. “For over half of the way, nearly. So really, what I told you was true in substance.”

“The old man lives just outside of Kanauj. His village is practically visible from here.”

“I’d been walking for four solid hours, Christopher.”

“How’s that? Did you break a limb along the way?”

“Very funny. Perhaps not for four hours, but for a long time.”

“I’m not impressed. What would have happened to you if I hadn’t come along? The midday sun alone could have killed you. And you realize that the roads around here are crawling with dacoits even in peacetime, don’t you?”

“It was lucky, then, that my knight in shining armor was on hand to rescue me.”

He muttered profanities under his breath and looked away from me.

Though I could not claim seniority of age over Christopher, I was at least grateful that his status as an employee to my family imprisoned him in a subordinate position relative to my own, dreadful as it sounds. I detested losing debates to him, and he was always arguing. Even when he was proven wrong (seldom, but occasionally), he’d plaster a knowing expression onto his face and pretend that his original contention wasn’t what it seemed to have been at all, and that he was actually arguing for the winning side of the controversy, with some slight but crucial ideological modification.

He never spoke about his parents. The three left the United States when he was very young to join the famous American Presbyterian mission at Fatehgurh. Catholic feelings eventually got the best of Christopher’s father, however, and after the death of his wife, he defected back to papery and became a small time merchant of jellies and preserves in Cawnpore. He made the fateful decision to join Elphinstone’s army on its march into Afghanistan in 1842 in a misguided effort to provide victuals to the troops. He met with conditions worse than death on the journey and then the solace of the thing itself, leaving Christopher an orphan. My father was a kind-hearted man and took him in. Another local indigo planter had evicted him because he’d refused to pray at his parent’s funeral.

While all of this was happening, I was away at school in Scotland with my stepmother Molly’s daughter, Vivian. So by the time that I returned to the Highlands and first met Christopher in 1847, I was already 17 and he was some years older than that. He was doing odd-jobs around the estate, work for which he was too intelligent. But he eventually inherited the position of our chief overseer, which entailed somewhat more interesting duties.

We became fast friends. We smoked ganja and charas together almost every day and enjoyed the most engaging if maddening conversations. Though we often argued and even occasionally came to blows, I knew that he understood my agony when Vivian chose to marry another man, Daniel, in 1848. I returned to Scotland soon after their wedding and did not return to India again until three years later, when the groom vanished and I lost my inheritance.

“It was a mistake for you to come here,” said Christopher suddenly. “My homeland the United States has been free for almost a century now, and Italy is finally being reborn, but India…this is only the first act in a tragedy, my friend.”

Your homeland the United States is about to split in half,” I laughed. Then, I leaned over and said rather more roughly than I intended, “Besides, your real homeland is India, the same as mine. You’ve lived here since you were seven… And don’t disparage the East India Company’s mission here so quickly.”

“Oh?”

“There’s no reason that India can’t modernize and stand as an equal to any European power in the future. But there’s still a great deal for the natives of this country to learn from the British.”

“Balls! Like the Italians have a lot to learn from the imperial Austrians…”

“I can’t argue with you anymore. I’m exhausted. You have a talent for transforming every discussion into a referendum. Let’s talk about something loose and easy.”

“Like Bonnie de Fountain?” We both laughed at that. Then Christopher said, “Do you believe that she’s literally living in the Nawab’s zenana now?”

“She finally moved into his harem, did she?”

“Yes, along with her mother. Poor old Reggie Bryne. He’s a laughingstock in the District.  He hasn’t lived with Bonnie for months now.”

This was an entertaining revelation. The Nawab of Farrukhabad was another local character like the Nana Sahib, a prince propped up by the British and supported monetarily for some arcane reason or another. He was a daring man indeed to include a European woman in his zenana. It was common knowledge in Fatehgurh that there had been something between Bonnie and the Nawab since she was an adolescent. The affair was perennially encouraged by the girl’s mother, Adolphine, even after her daughter married an English soldier. I enjoyed talking about that family. It was good to hear gossip about other people’s problems for a change.

On the horizon, I could just make out the red-tiled roof of the plantation and the row of neem trees my mother once planted separating the surrounding wilderness from the garden in front of the estate. My heart leapt, but I hardened my features.

“The baba logue are at their lessons now,” said Christopher. “Their ayah these days is a melancholy Celestial named Orchid. Her real name’s Yulan. It means “orchid,” so that’s how most of us white devils address her. She thinks we’re all white devils, you know—gway-loes she calls us.”

“I know that term of endearment well.”

“How’s that? Have you come from China?”

“Yes.”

“So you were lying about filibustering in Nicaragua too, I see.”

“You misunderstand me. I simply came to Calcutta via Canton.”

“Ah.”

“Vivian’s girl must be six or seven years old by now,” I said quickly. “And Peter and Andrea’s boy is only a few years younger, isn’t he?”

“Julia is eight going on eighty. Thomas is six. And since you left, Peter and Andrea have had another baby… your nephew, Robert, who’s three.”

“Yes, Ayah Rupee told me about him. And Andrea is with child again?”

“About to deliver any day now.”

“It’s hard to believe. Three children in that house, and a fourth on the way. A lot has changed since I left.”

“Yes. And incidentally, your brother Peter is screwing Orchid under his wife’s nose. So life at the Highlands is awkward these days, to say the least.”

“Evidently Peter hasn’t changed much since I last saw him.”

“Of course not. Human character never changes. Only circumstances do. Now, come on. There are a lot of people who’ll be eager to see you. And if I were Philadelphia layer, I’d bet you were squirming to satisfy your lecherous mind with questions about your sister, Vivian. You can celebrate your return by ogling her.”

“She is not my sister. She is my stepmother’s daughter. We have absolutely no blood in common.”

“Whatever you say, Caligula,” he chuckled, and dismounted.

Eulogy for Bubby

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I lost my grandmother last month. This is the eulogy that I wrote with my sister. I’ve altered it to put it in my voice; in actuality, she is the one who delivered it.

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When my sister and I first sat down to write this speech, we asked ourselves, how could we possibly sum up a human life in five minutes? Our hearts were so full, it seemed impossible to know where to begin. Grace Buonocore was so many things: a devoted daughter; a loving wife, mother, and grandmother; a career woman who worked for many years by my grandfather’s side in his office; a beloved teacher’s assistant; and a survivor who faced the battle of her life with the same quiet dignity that characterized her entire existence. But we had to start somewhere. So, clichéd as it sounds, with tears in our eyes, we picked up the dictionary and looked up the literal definition of the word “Grace.”

Grace is an old family name. It was appropriately chosen for a devout Christian woman who attended Church without fail and ensured that her three children were given Catholic educations at St Stephen’s, Sacred Heart, Notre Dame, and Fairfield University. Our mother’s great-grandmother was named Grace, and of course, my sister is too. When we looked it up, we found the definition “simple elegance,” and also, “the quality of being considerate and thoughtful.” It struck us that our grandmother’s character was a perfect embodiment of both aspects of her name. A name evoking elegance was perfect for a woman with her poise and personal style. Who can forget her beautifully patterned wardrobe, her signature red lips, her perfectly quaffed hair, or her sweet, musical voice? And a name evoking kindness was perfect for a woman who was so good-hearted and non-judgmental that when we began to draft this eulogy, something that several people independently reminded us to include was that in all the years they knew her, no one could remember her ever saying a single unkind word about anyone, even once. They meant this literally; she never had a single hateful thing to say about another human being. That is an extraordinary observation, and it’s a testament to our grandmother’s character. Truly, she was grace personified. And how appropriate that even her last name, Buonocore, means good-hearted.

But actually, her closest family always knew her by a different name: one that she gave herself. 31 years ago, when I was born in Israel, my grandmother went on the voyage of her life when she flew around the world all by herself to visit me and my mother. It was her first and only trip out of the country. She described it like a movie. She visited the Jordan River, Nazareth, Bethlehem, and Jerusalem, getting to see for herself the places that she sang about every Sunday in this very church. When she returned from that trip, she gave herself a new name. Now and forever afterward, she was Bubby, the Yiddish word for grandmother. This of course led to some confusion at the Ridge Top club, where she loved to play tennis with a huge and enthusiastic group of friends, many of them Jewish. Whenever my sister called “Bubby” on the tennis court, three or four other women would turn their heads.

With her new name came a new identity as a grandmother, and she adopted the role with flair. Bubby’s house was a magic place. It was where my sisters, cousins, and I spent our earliest childhoods. Bubby, Poppy, and Julia (Bubby’s mother) helped to raise us, empowering my mother to go to graduate school, and my aunt to begin her career. For over two decades, my grandmother, grandfather, and great-grandmother presided over this amazing version of the American dream in the most classic sense of the term. 1882 Ridge Rd is a little house with a big backyard and a patio, surrounded by trees and gardens and friendly neighbors. My mother lives on the very same street even now. So did my aunt. And now, my sister does, too.

My sister and I don’t know if we’ll ever be so happy again in our lives as we were in the days when getting to sleep at Bubby’s house was the greatest thing that could happen to us in the world. When we think of Bubby, we’ll always remember curling up on the couch next to her, her hair in a headband, and her attention divided between the Golden Girls on television and a Danielle Steele novel in her hands. In the evenings, she would go out walking with Gina, May, Irene, and Barbara. We loved her so much, we always wanted to join her on those nightly walks even after spending the whole day with her. We were always surprised when she ever so gently dissuaded us. When Bubby returned through the back door, we’d all have dinner together, either one of Julia’s famous recipes, or one of Bubby’s slightly less famous recipes. To be honest, food was Julia’s department. But taking care of Julia, and all of us too, was Bubby’s specialty.

We are in awe at Bubby’s dedication to Julia, whom she cared for until she passed away at the age of a hundred. It was representative of selflessness and devotion at their most pure. If everyone behaved toward their parents with such love and generosity, the world would be a much better place than it sometimes is. In Bubby’s final years, the attention she once paid to Julia was repaid in spades by our grandfather, who stood by her side for better or worse, and clothed, fed, and bathed her like a guardian angel. Bubby lost her father, who doted on her, when she was just sixteen years old. But that same year, she met her soul mate, and their life together was a great adventure full of happiness and laughter. This was true love—five and a half decades of cooperation, respect, and devotion, and three wonderful children raised side by side. What a blessing they found in each other.

Thank you for everything, Bubby: for your generosity and your sense of humor, for your gentleness and your sweetness, for your patience and your imagination, and more than anything, for your love. Your legacy lives on in the lives and characters of your children and grandchildren. I think that Bubby’s house and the old fashioned family values that defined existence there are symbolic of the dreams and aspirations of a generation in many ways more dutiful and hardworking than ours. Bubby and Poppy were children of the Depression and Second World War, a generation brought up on Popeye and Bette Boop, Bubby’s favorite. That generation never took anything for granted. They believed that the purpose of life was not to serve oneself, but to serve the ones you love. We will never forget that lesson, Bubby. And we will never forget you.