When a twentieth-century Jesuit priest, the prophet of the Singularity and Elon Musk reach similar conclusions there is probably something to it. Each reached a similar and startling conclusion. Humans will be superseded by something greater than them in a relatively short time. In this moment of Brexit, Trump, trade-wars, impending recessions and global warming it sounds crazy. However, given the three got to the same place from three different angles it is something worth examining.
The Ironman route: Elon Musk
Elon Musk is famous for a lot of things, among them world-changing startups and unfiltered comments. His most unfiltered comments are about the future of humanity. Musk is deeply worried about artificial intelligence. He rightly states that we are very slow compared to silicon-based artificial intelligence. Consequently, AI will quickly make us irrelevant when it comes. He uses the Fermi paradox (the paradox that there are no space aliens contacting us even if there are billions of stars and planets) as a proof point that something quite dramatic seems to happen in evolution before galactic space travel. He hopes our new AI overlords will be kind and is trying to at least join the party by creating Neuralink, a way for the human brain to interface directly with technology. He even thinks that all of this might already have happened and that we might be living in a Matrix-like simulation controlled by such overlords.
Musk might sound weird and disjointed when he tries to put together his thoughts (Jack Ma and Elon Musk on AI). However, his logic is impeccable, as usual. If you believe that AI can develop, silicon is a much faster substrate than a carbon brain for processing. So his notion that life might be a “bootloader” for true consciousness on silicon might not be as far-fetched as it seems. That is why Musk believes that AI is the most important topic confronting humanity right now.
Of course, AI might also take much longer than expected. So Musk is trying to save the planet through EVs with Tesla and make humanity multi-planetary through SpaceX. Just in case we manage to destroy ourselves before we finish our bootloader work.
The Singularitarian route: Ray Kurzweil
Ray Kurzweil is also quite a character. A distinguished scientist and inventor, he has successfully created a multibillion-dollar corporation (Nuance) and is now the head of engineering of Google, the church of engineers. This makes it particularly remarkable that he has been able to create a completely new ideology (some might even say religion) in his spare time, Singularitarianism.
Singularitarinism is the belief that a singularity in evolution is near. This singularity will come once AI is able to design more AI making itself progressively better and faster at increasing speeds. Through this virtuous cycle, it will achieve escape velocity from human time scales and creates total change in a single moment in time. Like a black hole (a physical singularity), we cannot predict what is on the other side of the Singularity, so we are left guessing. The key engine behind the Singularity is Moore’s law. It states that computer power roughly doubles for the same price every 18 months. This has created an exponential explosion of information processing capacity. Kurzweil also believes that humans will be immortal relatively soon thanks to technology and that we will be able to upload our brains into the cloud, echoing Musk’s desire to join the party.
Again, Kurzweil’s thoughts seem otherworldly and impractical at first glance. However, like Musk (who seems at least slightly indebted intellectually to Kurzweil), his logic is impeccable. Change has been accelerating almost since the universe was created (stars in billions of years, minerals in hundreds of millions, life in tens of millions, humans in millions, civilization in thousands and technology in tens of years). Moore’s law is just the latest stage in this change. If we project the trend line of change acceleration we should be getting to the Singularity in the 21st century.
Of course, something could change or delay it. So Kurzweil, like Musk, is preparing for the worst. In his case trying to extend his life as much as he can with a variety of tactics which he covers in his book, Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever.
The Christian route: Teilhard du Chardin
Father Teilhard du Chardin was one of the most disruptive Christian thinkers of the 20th century. A French Jesuit palaeontologist who worked in China, South East Asia, USA and Europe, he represented globalization before globalization was a buzzword. He had a unique combination of influences that led him to unique ideas. Not surprisingly these ideas were not welcome by the church and were only published after his death. The posthumous publication of his work made a big splash in the 1960-80s and he even inspired an award-winning series of science fiction books by Dan Simmons (Hyperion Cantos). Today he is much less known, but his thought resonates more than ever.
Teilhard’s view was that the world was moving towards an Omega, the ultimate goal. A reversal of the traditional Aristotelian view of the world coming from a first mover, an Alpha. He saw evolution as a palaeontologist from atoms to molecules to minerals to life and finally to consciousness with human beings at the apex. “Cefalization”, the increase of consciousness in living beings was the most important trend in evolution for him.
He projected the path ahead as an observer of early globalization. Humankind according to him was converging and being compressed into a smaller and smaller world. This compression would eventually lead to a post-human stage in which consciousness was compressed into the Omega point. He believed in the Omega point as a Christian. The endpoint was Christ and God, the divine parusia, the second coming that had been prophecized in the bible. He put everything forward by combining the prevailing creeds of his time. Religion moving humans upward to spiritually and grace. Marxism and Capitalism moving humans onward to material progress. Teilhard said a new religion was needed for our age that goes upward and onward at the same time. Moving onward towards material prosperity to move upward spiritually and towards God.
Teilhard’s vision of evolution has been confirmed over the ensuing decades. His vision of human compression has proved prescient and materialized even beyond what he could have expected. He died before the start of the electronics revolution, so he didn’t have AI and Moore’s law in his toolbox. This makes his posthumanism very much AI-free, even if he identified “machinism” and “scientifism” as two key trends along with globalization.
The three routes put together: God at the end of evolution
The language of the three thinkers is very different, but they share a remarkably similar story. Evolution gradually leads up to life and consciousness, and eventually AI. Consciousness accelerates and compresses on Earth in an accelerated fashion. Eventually, consciousness compresses into a single point, the Superintelligence, the Singularity or Christ. This process is close to completion, continuous and unstoppable. At the end of the process, there is something so much beyond human consciousness and capabilities that we are at a loss to explain it or understand it. Something that could be said to have all the characteristics of God.
The three visions together form a compelling whole. We need something new to believe in. It can be Teilhard’s new religion, onwards with technological and material progress to move upwards towards God. This gives meaning to the Singularity’s disquieting unknowableness and to Musk’s biological “bootloader”. Kurzweil’s focus on accelerating technological progress through information processing technology gives us the path from which to move onwards, now towards a greater goal than only technology. Finally, Musk puts humans back into the picture. Those who wish can try to participate directly in the parusia through Neuralink, while others can participate indirectly through religion.
We will see what the next decades bring. It will be exciting for sure, but if it is the Omega point we are really lucky to live at this point in time (at least for those of us who are very curious). It is also remarkable how technological and scientific arguments can apparently support an “end of the world” narrative, so popular in many religious settings. I myself see the logic, but I am sceptic enough that I will continue to live my life as if the Singularity was not going to happen. However, I can understand the curiosity that leads both Kurzweil and Musk to try to extend their lives and try to have a front-row seat in whatever happens. Whatever progress brings, even if we just hit a wall and stop moving onwards, it will be extremely interesting to see.