Bring on the Cyborgs: Redefining the Singularity

Here is the final version of my speech “Bring on the Cyborgs: Redefining the Singularity.” I presented it at as a TED talk at Yale. The audition video can be seen in my posts from earlier this year.

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Stephen Hawking, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk are afraid. Afraid of our computers turning on us. Afraid that Siri will go from botching directions to taking over and crashing our cars. This is what they call the singularity.

The smartest and most powerful men on Earth are right to be concerned about the future. But in this speech, I’m going to propose a solution to save our species. It involves rethinking the concept of the singularity and reimagining our destiny as human beings. Without exaggeration, this topic might be the single most important one on Earth.

I’m a doctoral student at Yale in Roman history and the founder of Yale Students and Scholars for the Study of Transhumanism. It might seem strange that an ancient historian has an interest in studying the future. But don’t be so surprised.

Ancient historians are interested in the beginning of things like drama, democracy, and the idea of equality before the law. I’m interested in the singularity—and transhumanism—because today we are once again at the beginning of something new. And new beginnings are when we need to pay the most attention to the lessons of the past.

Historians know that technology has not always advanced in a straight line forward. At the Great Library of Alexandria, two thousand years ago, a scientist appropriately named Hero invented the first steam engine. The first computer in history, the Antikythera Mechanism, was developed over a century earlier. Both, however, were toys for the wealthy instead of tools to improve the lives of the masses.

Everyone asks me why Rome fell. I ask a different question. I ask, what could have saved Rome? And then I remember the steam engine and the computer, and I say: technology.

What is the singularity? Technically, it refers to the point inside a black hole where space and time don’t exist as we know them. But the word’s meaning has been expanded over the years.

In the 1950s, mathematican John von Neumann, applied the term to the history of human civilization. The singularity, he thought, was a point in history after which human affairs themselves would become fundamentally unrecognizable. Then, about the time when I was born in Israel in 1983, mathematician Vernor Vinge, defined the singularity as the point when artificial intelligence would create a world “far beyond our understanding.”

Neumann and Vinge had something in common. They imagined human progress escalating and accelerating as we approached the singularity. Today we have a parallel concept: Moore’s Law. Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles every two years.

This means that computers are becoming more powerful, exponentially, and data since the 1960s has backed this up. Now, some question whether Moore’s Law will continue to hold true in the future, and I’ll get to that critique in a moment.

But if it does hold true, you may understand why so many brilliant people might be scared. One can easily imagine computers becoming so powerful – so fast – that they take control over their own programming and come to overpower us.

Mankind has often feared the conscious wills which it enslaves. As a classicist, I’m reminded of Aristotle’s “natural slaves.” The idea was that those who were able to apprehend rational principles well enough to follow basic orders but who simultaneously possessed no rational strategic faculties of their own were essentially slaves by nature.

Classicists argue about the people that Aristotle might have had in mind—a professor once even told me that he was really talking about the mentally handicapped: people like my brother Dinh. Today, I’d argue, it sounds like we’re talking about Siri. Siri can understand my directions and execute them, but has no strategic ends of her own. Computers like Siri understand us, but they don’t really comprehend us.

But what happens when a computer is sophisticated enough to form independent values? It certainly wouldn’t be Aristotle’s “natural slave” anymore. But here’s why people like Hawking are worried: its values might not be our values; its goals might not be our goals. Over the course of human events, slaves have tended to resent their former masters.

And if the conquest of the New World and the fall of the Qing Dynasty are any indication, where contention exists in the presence of technological and material inequality, there tends to follow the wholescale destruction and capitulation of one side of the struggle.

But I have hope for a different future. A future of which we can be proud. A future toward which we can work together. A future in which humans and machines are not enemies at war, but are one. This is where Transhumanism comes into the picture.

Transhumanism means using technology to enhance human capabilities. People already have pacemakers, hearing aids, and artificial limbs. This is just an elaboration. But why is the idea of transhumanism important to the singularity?

I’ll tell you. Transhumanism holds out the possibility that we will heal not only our hearts and our bodies, but also our minds. In the future, it may be possible to replace parts of the brain with computers—curing diseases like my late grandmother’s Alzheimer’s, and radically empowering us to shape our own dreams, metaphorically and literally.

If Moore’s Law continues to apply, we need the enhancements of transhumanism to stay one step ahead of our machines before they become smart enough to take control over their own programming and become more powerful than we can even imagine.

Machines may not share our passion for the preservation of civilization. But enhanced human beings will still have human experiences like that of membership in a community and feelings of pleasure, pain, and love.

If Moore’s Law does not hold true, however, as many computer scientists have argued, the need for transhumanism will be even greater. Our ability to create smaller and smaller microchips will eventually run into intractable barriers at the frontiers of our knowledge of quantum mechanics.

At that point, which could be no more than a decade away, new ideas will be needed. The time will come when we will need better materials than silicon, and the best alternative will be genetically engineered cyborgs.

The advantage seems clear: why reinvent the wheel when the human brain possesses great technology shaped by millions of years of evolution? Why reverse engineer what a human brain can do when it can be enhanced by robots?

Transhumanist technology can cure diseases, enhance intelligence, allow us to shape our dreams, and empower us to control our destiny as a species. But it must be available to all, and not only a chosen few. Its free choice or rejection must be a human right.

When access to the technologies associated with Transhumanism becomes a human right, our hopes and dreams will be transformed. When the brain is augmented by technology, and we understand the electrochemical foundations of consciousness, barriers to communication and understanding will come crashing down.

We will have the power to decide the content of our nightly dreams—anyone can feel like an NBA All-Star, the world’s most attractive movie star, or literally one of the stars of the Milky Way. Without the need to fight over resources, our ecological crisis will be solved and our Earth will be protected and healed, halting the destructive race to the bottom of industrialization.

As a historian, I can even imagine accessing the lives of our ancestors as experienced through their eyes. Life will be a blank canvass and a paintbrush for all of us. And we will all be equals in a fellowship of artists.

Given all that is true about transhumanism and the singularity, we are all obligated to bring that future closer. Each moment of delay means countless pain, suffering, and death. But each step of progress brings us one day closer to the dream and the promise of Transhumanism.

What must be done to bring that future closer? First, we must deal with the panic about the singularity. Fear of the singularity stems from its old definition. I want to redefine singularity to mean the point in technological progress when our relationship with machines becomes a seamless, shared consciousness.

The singularity will occur when we have the power to jump out of our bodies and into a cloud of pure imagination. The singularity will allow our imaginations to reach the boundaries of the universe.

This speech is a challenge: A challenge to all people who share my hope for humanity’s future. To bring humans and computers together, we as humans must come together and agree upon our shared purposes. As human beings, we are all enslaved to the genetic and circumstantial wheel of fortune. On Earth as it is, where you are born, and who you are born to, matter more than the content of your character. This must change.

To believe in transhumanism we need to believe in human progress again. Since the horrors of the twentieth century, we have retreated from such confidence. But Transhumanism is not tied to any single culture or broken ideology of the past. It is bound to our essential attributes—what makes us human—our imaginations, our feelings, our hopes, our dreams.

As a student of ancient history, I see the traces of transhumanism in the earliest records of human thought. When Cicero used the word humanitas to symbolize the noblest aspects of our species’ character, he showed that he believed something fundamental separated human beings from all other types of beings—the inculcation of our rational faculties and our ability to apply those faculties over time to the development and preservation of our civilization.

The only thing that we should fear is delay. We need more than a transhumanist society. We need transhumanist departments at every university. We need interdisciplinary study—in the humanities and the sciences—in order to probe the nature of our own natures in ways unprecedented until now. We need the courage and the legitimacy and the vision to undertake the research that must be done.

The most powerful men in the world are afraid of the future. But I am ready to face it. Are you?