New Emperor, Still No Clothes

In an apt follow-on to yesterday’s post, computer scientist Jaron Lanier contributed an Op-Ed piece to today’s Times on what he sees as a budding secular religion — a kind of soteriology-by-Singularity that has taken root, he argues, amongst our technological elite. We are far too quick, Lanier writes, to see a kind of transcendence in our gadgets, and to impute to them qualities — foremost among them genuine intelligence and autonomous intentionality — that they simply do not possess, and are not, in his opinion, likely to possess anytime soon.

Lanier is quite right that we technorati, who are godless heathens almost to a man, still cannot help but yearn for transcendence. We are only human, after all, and the notion of the Singularity, based as it is on an apparently accelerating pace of progress and the extraordinary triumphs of Western science, does cause a stirring in some of our breasts that traditional religious myths no longer do (for many of us, they never did). Might we really, in our lifetimes, conquer Death itself? Might we soon read the book of Nature’s innermost secrets? Might we be the ones, finally, to lift the veil of mystery that has vexed and confounded Man through all the sorrowful ages since he first lifted his eyes to the stars?

Well, it would certainly be nice. And for an awful lot of people these days — those of us who grew up reading Foundation and Childhood’s End rather than the Bible — man-made salvation is the only game in town.

Lanier argues that all this is nothing more than the same hope and faith that animates the more conventionally religious. It’s like the bubble under the contact paper: press it flat over here, and it reappears over there. But our computers aren’t transcendent, not at all — as a programmer I certainly know that well enough — and as magical as they may seem, they don’t do anything more than what we humans, with an intelligence that still defies simulation, let alone replication, tell them to do.

This has been a persistent theme of Lanier’s, and while I think he presses too hard on it sometimes, there is much truth in what he says, and it’s important to have people like him around.

One quibble: in Lanier’s essay he mentions the Singularity University (of which my friend Salim Ismail is the director) as a temple of this new “religion”. He describes it as follows:

The influential Silicon Valley institution preaches a story that goes like this: one day in the not-so-distant future, the Internet will suddenly coalesce into a super-intelligent A.I., infinitely smarter than any of us individually and all of us combined; it will become alive in the blink of an eye, and take over the world before humans even realize what’s happening.

But this really isn’t a fair description of Singularity U., I think. From what I understand it has very little to do with any sort of visionary Omega Point, and nothing whatsoever to do with “preaching”; its purpose is to get a lot of inordinately smart and creative people, of divergent backgrounds, to spend a few weeks together in intensive cross-disciplinary workshops, working on difficult, practical problems, and to see what comes out. Its aim is to promote what William Whewell, and later E.O. Wilson, called “consilience“, and from what I understand it has been doing a very good job of it.

That aside, though, Lanier’s essay is worth your time. Read it here.

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  1. jimmy haslip says

    just wanted to say hello . . . .
    Too long . . No communicado !!

    Listening to BANG ZOOM !!
    You Rocked it !

    wishing you and your family well . . . .
    Hoping to catch up someday !!!!

    Peace . . .

    Posted August 10, 2010 at 9:17 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Jimmy! How wonderful to hear from you.

    Making Bang! Zoom! was one of the most enjoyable experiences I’ve ever had in a recording studio, and I am awfully glad to have shared it with you. I’ll never forget it.

    I hope you are well, my friend.

    Posted August 10, 2010 at 10:46 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm,

    Thanks for the commentary – as usual, you’ve rather nailed it. Our key objective is to leverage some of these accelerating technologies to address grand challenges because we believe they can scale. We’re in week 8 of our 10-week summer program, so some interesting solutions will be birthed at the end of it…

    Posted August 11, 2010 at 5:22 am | Permalink