Fall 2017–Winter 2018

Theologies of Information

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Ray Kurzweil, and the coming singularity

Chris Wiley

If the past is a foreign country where people do things differently, as L. P. Hartley’s adage would have it, the future is something akin to another galaxy, whose denizens’ doings remain maddeningly shrouded in almost total mystery. That, at least, is the common conception. For a growing number of technologically minded prognosticators, however, the future’s track has never appeared clearer, and the endpoint of progress’s rainbow never more certain.

Chief among these modern-day soothsayers is Ray Kurzweil, a renowned inventor, author, futurist, and advisor to the US military. His book The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (2005) has become something of a bible for a cadre of techno-utopians who believe his claims that by the middle of this century—as early as 2030, he states in the book, though he has recently revised the date to 2045—we will cross the threshold into an era in which the development of consciousness in machines will precipitate an explosion of intelligence that will irrevocably alter the fabric of existence. Leading up to this tectonic evolutionary shift, Kurzweil asserts, exponential increases in computing capability will spur a vast array of sci-fi-sounding advances. These range from fully immersive virtual reality to machine-facilitated immortality, the latter of which he has sanguinely trotted out as inevitable science fact in his numerous television and film appearances and in many of his books. However, once his predicted paradigm shift occurs and superintelligent machines begin to spawn ever more intelligent progeny at exponentially increasing rates of speed, the character of the projected future becomes harder to adumbrate, owing to the almost total incomprehensibility of both the scope and pace of its rate of change. As such, this shift has been aptly dubbed “the singularity,” a term borrowed from physics that is most commonly used to refer to the infinite curvature of spacetime predicted to lie at the center of a black hole.

The hazy nature of this new era has by no means prevented Kurzweil from speculating in grand fashion about its ultimate endpoint. In The Singularity Is Near, he outlines a progression of six evolutionary epochs, advancing from the emergence of basic physics and chemistry (Epoch 1), through the development of biology (Epoch 2), the emergence of brains (Epoch 3), and the advent of technology (Epoch 4), which leads, penultimately, to the singularity (Epoch 5). In the sixth epoch, he foresees that the efflorescence of superintelligent life, which began at the singularity, will expand throughout the universe—either at speeds approaching the speed of light or, if a way can be found around it, much faster—until it becomes saturated with sentience, or, in Kurzweil’s words, “wakes up.”

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