A documentary film entitled The Singularity will be released tomorrow. It is the latest in a line of works from recent years to examine the near future of technology and its implications: a convergence of biotechnology, ever-increasing computing power, and molecular nanotechnology means that we will become capable of engineering ourselves to much the same degree as we presently choose to engineer our surroundings. Why would we stick with the flaky, error-prone, and short-lived evolved version of human biology when far better and more cost-effective replacements can be built?
Here is a short review:
Doug Wolens' latest documentary, released 1 November, captures the argument between the two sides. The Singularity takes the form of a series of intercut interviews, with animations illustrating various points (intentionally or not, they're a little reminiscent of how entries in the fictional Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy were depicted in the classic BBC television adaptation).
Wolens' subjects include, unsurprisingly, people like Kurzweil himself, roboticist Cynthia Breazeal, and gerontologist Aubrey de Grey. But Wolens also interviews people not normally associated with the speculative edge of artificial intelligence and biomolecular engineering, such as Richard A. Clarke, the former chief counterterrorism advisor to the U.S. National Security Council, and the current U.S. secretary of defense, Leon Panetta.
While The Singularity doesn't cover a great deal of ground that's new to anyone already familiar with the concept, it does provide crisp snapshots of the current state of the debate and many of the main players.
The most vocal proponents of the technological singularity as a concept tend to focus on artificial intelligence and machine capabilities rather than advances in biotechnology. This is fair enough: the original definition is one of recursively self-enhancing artificial intelligence rather than any other technology. When biology does become involved, the picture that is often brought to the table is one of blurring the line between biology and machinery, between a living entity and its tools. We will merge with our machines - but again, the view there is very much focused on expanding the boundaries and capabilities of the human mind.
In past years, I've pointed out that the likely timescales here put reverse engineering the brain by brute force simulation as a contemporary to meaningful progress in the first true rejuvenation biotechnology - of the sort envisaged in the Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence. Development of both will be underway in earnest in the late 2020s through the 2030s: the key to that timing is the minimum level of processing power needed for brain simulation on the one hand versus an optimistic hope for the future of SENS funding on the other. What this suggests is that we'll be a fair way down the road of working out how to repair aging and better maintain the biology we have long before we can enjoy any of the myriad potential economic and research benefits of strong artificial intelligence - such as the ability to create legions of cheap, tireless knowledge workers to order.
One can argue about whether the 2030s will see significant man-machine mergers, such as engineered protein machinery and nanorobot swarms in the body for medical applications, such as surrogate immune systems - though by now it is becoming clear that any future nanoscale robot stands a good chance of being an artificial cell, bacterium, or cell component rather than a tiny device made of precision-placed carbon atoms. Brain interfaces driven by similar nanomachinery don't seem likely to be out of the laboratory by then, however: understanding the structure and mechanisms of the brain sufficiently well at a low level to accomplish this task will be a research effort still in full swing two decades from now, and no doubt consuming many multiples of present levels of funding.
The past few paragraphs were a long-winded way of saying that work on the more machine-focused side of technologies envisaged for the technological singularity is not as important as straightforward biotechnology, or at least not to my eyes. First things first: building the first generation of therapies to repair and reverse the damage that causes aging needs to happen the old-fashioned way. No waiting around for strong AI and mind enhancements to make the research happen faster - that technology isn't going to arrive in time for us.