Carole Cadwalladr of The Observer just published a piece on-line in the Guardian: Are the robots about to rise? Google’s new director of engineering thinks so... The article begins with a naked terminator, and of course brushes with the fiction of Skynet while describing the reality of Ray Kurzweil’s recent move to Google as one of their engineering directors. The article is an education because it depicts a worldview that I describe in Robot Futures and which, of course, has both books, articles and adherents a-plenty. The computers are accelerating in their abilities very rapidly indeed, and the result will change our identity as a species: they will not dominate us, but rather become our evolutionary descendants, and if we play our cards right, we melt with our robo-progeny in a new super-species. Technological optimism and striving for immortality is, of course, as old as mortality itself. But rational technology has replaced medieval alchemy as the new yellow brick road that leads to a new plane of existence. But it is also fascinating to see how, in interview format, Kurzweil mixes his personal thoughts regarding religion into the ascent of modern technology and his hoped-for advent of immortality. He characterizes religion as a response to the finality of death; in doing so, I believe he greatly oversimplifies the role religion plays in the lives of many. By the same token, I believe we oversimplify the role of accelerating technological progress in the lives of the new Innovator Class when we suggest that they strive for immortality a few decades hence. As this article rightly points out, Big Data is just as much a target of massive computational power as any organic romance. Here is my favorite excerpt from the article:
Google will know the answer to your question before you have asked it, he says. It will have read every email you’ve ever written, every document, every idle thought you’ve ever tapped into a search-engine box. It will know you better than your intimate partner does. Better, perhaps, than even yourself.
This is exactly where the concept of our future espoused by Big Data + Singularity proposes a new, speculative form of personal identity that I find ethically questionable: what does it mean for a massive AI network to know what you want and need better than yourself? How does this redefine the sense of individual, free will and autonomy that we all strive to realize? It is ironic that immortality itself can also have a massive shift on the meaning of personal identity, were it to come to pass. It seems to me that the threesome at the heart of this new technological optimism all enjoy the exact same three potential curses: economic inequality; crumbling personal autonomy; concentration of power.