GK Chesterton once said that “the first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything.”
The 20th century was to prove him right – and not just in terms of mass market nonsense like astrology or homeopathy. The intelligentsia developed their own batty belief systems, all of which have enjoyed periods of ‘respectability’ despite their lack of any scientific basis – examples include Freudianism, Marxism, post-modernism, macro-economics and geopolitical theory.
None of these are as modish as they used to be, but you’ll find pockets of the academic establishment – some of them quite large – where they’re still taken seriously.
In a typically brilliant piece for the Spectator, Bryan Appleyard writes about the rise of a new quasi-religion for the 21st century – belief in the ‘Singularity,’ which is a big thing among the clever and prosperous citizens of Silicon Valley:
“…the inhabitants of the Valley are in the grip of a religious mania so bizarre, so exotic, that it makes the Prince Philip-worshipping inhabitants of the island of Pacific Tanna look positively mainstream. For the geeks worship a machine that has not yet been built.
“This machine will appear in about 2045 at a moment its worshippers call the Singularity. It will be the last machine we will ever build because, being superintelligent and able to redesign itself to be ever more intelligent, it will do everything we need, including make us medically immortal by curing all our ills, or, perhaps, genuinely immortal by uploading us into itself.”
The basic idea starts from the observation that computers are getting more powerful and we’re getting better at programming them. On the assumption that human intelligence is just a function of the brain and that the brain is just a computer, it is further assumed that artificial intelligence is bound to emerge – and it when it does it will eventually take over the task of making further progress. The first such computer program will produce a more intelligent computer program, which in turn will produce an even more intelligent computer program… and so on.
Once the process gets underway then the evolution of a god-like machine intelligence would be very rapid indeed – and thus could happen not in the far future, but in the next few decades.
It should be stressed that some very serious people really do believe in this:
“The Abraham — or perhaps John the Baptist — of this faith is Ray Kurzweil. Kurzweil has long been the hot gospeller of the future. As with all futurologists, his forecasts have proved more often wrong than right. Yet he is a marketing genius and that has led to him being lauded by presidents and employed by Google to work on artificial intelligence (AI). This genius has also led to the establishment of the Singularity University, the campus of which is inside the mighty Nasa Ames Research Centre in Silicon Valley. It is Kurzweil who chose the date of 2045 for the advent of the Singularity and who has been the final machine’s most effective disciple.”
One can quibble over dates, but is it not the case that we’re already making progress on artificial intelligence?
Actually, no – we’re not. The Deep End features a lot of stories about technology because there’s no doubt that the application of ever increasing computing power is going to have a sweeping impact on our lives. However, it’s important to realise what’s happening here, which is a massive growth in the speed with which computers can mindlessly crunch data according to some pre-programmed algorithm. What’s not happening is the slightest glimmer of anything that resembles true intelligence, consciousness or personality.
No computer has ever done anything that can be described as being in any way creative – and, as such, that leaves an infinite gulf between computers and every single conscious human being on the planet.
Yes, computers can be used as tools for creativity – but take away the human operator and even the most sophisticated computer ever built is no more capable of an independently creative act than is an unused paintbrush.
The starting point for the Singularity and the means of making further progress from that point do not exist.