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A Meditation On Transcendent Man

Some time in my 16th year, I was lying in bed late at night waiting for sleep to overtake me and listening to the radio when a song called “Darkness Darkness” by the Youngbloods came on. The song evokes a desire to be extinguished — to be covered in darkness so as not to have to face some nameless dread. Something about it kept me awake most of the night thinking. I remember deciding that the situation of being alive is unacceptable because one can die and because one has a vulnerable body that can be subjected to extreme types of suffering. Being alive, it seemed to me, was a trap. And on top of that, there was the fact that one is brought into this situation without a choice… and one also exits without a choice. The thought that there’s nothing I can do about it made me angry. (It’s perhaps worth mentioning that — having been raised by an atheist dad and agnostic mom — the possibility of a rewarding afterlife in eternity didn’t even enter into my thoughts.) All in all, I don’t think my insights were that unique — just your basic Adolescent Existentialism 1.0.

As best as I can recall, Transcendent Man doesn’t highlight a particular revelatory moment in Ray Kurzweil’s life when he decided that death — among other limitations imposed by biological existence — was unacceptable. But as an inventor growing up amidst the miracles of the 20th century (for example, capturing live activities in one part of the world and distributing them via airwaves to a small box in people’s living rooms), Ray would naturally view seemingly intractable problems as engineering challenges.

And so he would help the blind to read. And he would investigate a human’s ability to infuse external tools with aesthetic value by programming a computer to write music. And eventually, he would become the man who most popularizes the notion that humanity can beat its death sentence and overcome many… or perhaps all… of the restrictions and the harsher pains of biological existence that had motivated in me a sort of helpless rebellion against an implacable cosmic fate.

Of course, the idea that Kurzweil is popularizing is The Singularity, a time when human-made systems have become unfathomably more intelligent than our biological meat brains. And whether these machine intelligences are in us or outside of us, they will become the driving force in defining what we do and who we are. So it seems to me that my adolescent existential crisis remains fundamentally unresolved by the Kurzweilian schemata. The symptoms, death and the extremes of suffering, may be removed but the fundamental unease — a lack of choice — remains. I am still sentenced to whatever The Singularity brings.

Transcendent Man is not exactly a portrait of Ray Kurzweil, although there is some of that. And it’s not exactly an exploration of his ideas, although there is some of that too. It’s a portrait of a man on a mission — the person and the message inextricably linked together — and it leaves a viewer with the strong impression that the man is the mission. The film carries, over all, a rather somber ambiance, a feeling that is helped along by a disquieting original soundtrack by Philip Glass. There are lots of shots of Ray popping vitamin and nutrient pills; speaking in public, pontificating on his theories. All this is coupled with his — and his mother’s — memories about the death of his father, which seems to be a mission-defining trauma at the heart of his quest. And there are a fair number of talking heads supporting or criticizing Ray’s visions, including Kevin Kelly characterizing Ray as a prophet… “but wrong.” In a quiet moment, Ray appears to be deeply and sadly reflecting on something as he gazes out at the ocean. A voice off camera asks him what he’s thinking about. He hesitates for quite a few beats before saying (I’m paraphrasing) that he was thinking about the computational complexity of the natural world. A few seconds later, he says something that rings more true — that he always finds the ocean soothing. (So do I.)

The film will probably not leave most viewers with a visceral impression of an energized life full of joy and companionship — the one exception is toward the end of the film when Ray is part of a group that gets to experience zero gravity. We see an expression of pure happiness wash over Ray’s face and notice a real sense of bonhomie among all the participants. But on the whole, a cynic might see in this film a portrait of a life lived in pursuit of more life.

I am not that cynical. I think — given the existential circumstances — anyone who has a project that they can successfully throw themselves into headfirst and, in the process, earn supporters, friends, and a very comfortable livelihood — is singularly blessed.

And I think we’re lucky to have Ray Kurzweil. In this age of media amplified crises, our visions and imaginations can easily become bracketed by the relentless flow of very current events, and perhaps — to some extent — they should be. I plunked myself down to watch Transcendent Man after staring at news reports from the massive disaster in Japan, occasionally interrupted by the situations in Libya and Bahrain, and the plans of American politicians — Democrats and Republicans both — to remove any glimmer of mercy from those who are not economically or physiologically fortunate and whose basic lifelines come from the public sector. That’s a hell of a lot of suffering right there… and a fair amount of death.

But here is Ray Kurzweil entering ever deeper into the public arena (Time Magazine cover story, “Charlie Rose Show” etcetera) where he is talking to a lot of “newbies” about exponential change — tapping the power of the sun to satisfy our energy needs within a decade; machines that are way smarter than we are; immortality and so on. (H+ readers know the litany). Even in the direst circumstances — indeed, perhaps most of all in the direst circumstances — human culture needs to make space for philosophic or existential wild cards, particularly those that are broadly generous and expansive. For some of us here, Ray’s message of acceleration may be the usual, but as it penetrates deeper into the culture, it offers a useful context for people in the process of thinking about what we are experiencing now.

As for whether Kurzweil’s theories — if proven true — will ease the adolescent dread I experienced upon realizing that one is thrown into existence bracketed between the unlikelihood of anything existing in the first place and the definitive finality of individual death, I’ve moved on. Not dying seems to me to be only situationally desirable (this should be obvious to anyone who supports the rights of terminally ill people to choose to die), whereas not suffering — or at least not suffering intensely — seems to me to be desirable without exception. If The Singularity can accomplish both of those things, I’m betting that it’s worth the gamble.

No matter what happens though, I have long ago made peace with the fact that I’ve never had control over the fundamental options of existence — to be or not — and even if The Singularity widens my options (and that’s questionable), I will still be thrown into a situation where I’m playing within the limits of what is possible. And that’s ok. I’ve become a bit of a Taoist as far as that goes… the urge to control everything is not a healthy one. In fact, one of the few things that disturbs me about Kurzweil’s theories (and desires) is the notion that we should “illuminate” the entire universe with what we — or the minds that we create — presume to call intelligence. But I don’t worry much about it. I figure our smarters will decide that it’s a silly idea.

(Photo courtesy Kurzweil Technologies)

13 Comments

  1. just posing a question and im only 18 so dont flame me for my grammar im still in school. after we have brought the universe to “life” and become hyper-intelligent beings, what then? What would be the point of living if we knew literally everything. You would have to create some form of virtual reality, in my opinion, to sustain any sense of happiness. I just don’t understand what would be next? create a new universe? if that is the case then the philosophical door would be blown wide open to the possibility that we are constantly creating our own existence by reaching the point of singularity, creating a new universe and starting life over again. all it would take is the understanding of time and how to manipulate it. it would also answer the basic question of if we were created by god, who created him? i feel like that might be one of the most logical ways to interpret this universe, an infinite conundrum of us seeking our own understanding only to come to find out that we created ourselves and will continue to create ourselves. anyone else have any thoughts or physics to debunk this possibility?

    • What would be the point of living if we knew literally everything. You would have to create some form of virtual reality, in my opinion, to sustain any sense of happiness. I just don’t understand what would be next?

      I personally could easily conceive of a 3-minute-loop of subjective experience that I could do endlessly. If pressed very hard, I could condense hedonic art into 1-3 seconds. Better of course would be a 3-billion-years-loop, filled with obscene degrees of interestingness, diversity and pleasure. Even some pain – though not too much – would be welcome. Some of the questions you raised are discussed here:

      http://lesswrong.com/lw/xy/the_fun_theory_sequence/

      • An excellent response 🙂 I have been trying to put those same ideas into eloquent words for months now to my more… luddite friends. You beat me to it!

  2. I tried to post this yesterday, but it got swallowed somehow.

    Should we arrange cosmic amounts of matter and energy in patterns that are sentient? Is it a gift, as Mammago implies, or may it be a burden, as R.U. Sirius implies?

    I remember deciding that the situation of being alive is unacceptable because one can die and because one has a vulnerable body that can be subjected to extreme types of suffering. Being alive, it seemed to me, was a trap. And on top of that, there was the fact that one is brought into this situation without a choice… and one also exits without a choice.

    It is easy to overlook this point, because it is uncomfortable. Will those consciousness patterns include error signal that we would call suffering? If so, what gives us the right to create them?

  3. “In fact, one of the few things that disturbs me about Kurzweil’s theories (and desires) is the notion that we should “illuminate” the entire universe with what we — or the minds that we create — presume to call intelligence. But I don’t worry much about it. I figure our smarters will decide that it’s a silly idea.”

    Really, I always found that to be the most beautiful and elegant of all of Ray’s ideas, and I think it a goal worth going after once we have the technology. I have no idea why you would find it disturbing, or think its a silly idea.

    And I basically agree with Mammago’s points on the matter, so I won’t repeat them.

  4. If you think that high intelligence isn’t a good goal, try low intelligence. The vast majority of people are. The results: rampant consumerism, overpopulation, and pollution – zero intellectual advancement of humanity. They’re simply not capable of ever achieving the happiness level that a high IQ person is. All the achievements, all the appreciation of high art and thought, generation of solutions to problems, remain inaccessible to them forever. Most of humanity barely exists.

    • @nerdylardy
      you are either very young or very scary.
      Many, many people find “happiness” in being, interconnection, physical exertion and/or stimulation, etc. While “achievement, appreciation of high art and thought, generation of solutions to problems” is satisfying and happiness for many people (especially those in the h+ community) it is not the answer for everyone. Different personality types perceive happiness in different ways.

      • Outpost is right.

        You know, personality characteristics are about 40-60% heritable. Some people simply have a natural affinity towards things that I could hardly pretend to be interested in even if my life depended on it. One example would be professional sports or fashion, both of which sharply remind me of the vanity and meaninglessness of our existence. These occupations and similar ones are really a mirror of our primitive nature, or as Darwin might put it the psychological stamp of our lowly origins.

        But that doesn’t mean we should look down upon such pastimes. They are part of humanity as much as anything else and just because I’m not really interested in them doesn’t give me the right to ridicule them, or for that matter people who happen to enjoy them.

        Gaining intelligence aka. computational power only for the sake of gaining even more computational power without any real goal that would justify such an effort is just as meaningless as self-replicating DNA or American Idol.

        The bitter truth is that Picasso and Shakespeare and stamp-collecting and Mozart and all of what we may call “higher intellectual pleasures” aren’t categorically different from football or Nascar. Some people like one activity, others another. Reality offers no objective basis that could justify valuing one kind of activity over another. There is no objectively “right” choice.

        One could say we should stop wasting our time with our petty pastimes and focus first on saving humanity – and in principle I couldn’t agree more. But that’s not how people work, not even intelligent ones.

        And as far as intelligence goes, we are pretty much literally the lowest imaginable lifeform that may be deserving of that title. Our intelligence comes largely from sheer numbers, trade in technology and information and from standing on the “shoulders of giants” – real ingenuity is very rare to find. People who dwell on the “appreciation of high art and thought” as you put it aren’t really all that intelligent and in control of themselves as it may seem.

        All of our minds are riddled with irrational functions – and taking pride in visiting a museum or an opera while looking down on Nascar sure as hell doesn’t make one an intelligent entity. In fact, I would go as far as saying that there isn’t even really such a thing as a truly intelligent human being.

        That said, I think we should strive to become more intelligent. Both through better education and self-modification if possible. After all, that may be the key to surviving the 21st century.

        But mindlessly pursuing intelligence just for the sake of it -whilst neglecting virtually every other aspect of humanity- is neither intelligent nor meaningful. Computational power should serve a purpose that is subjectively meaningful to people in general, and that purpose would be expanding humanity and all of its benign passions, instead of trimming it down to just one factor, that some of us really tend to adore – namely intelligence.

        If we want to live in a future that is worthy and meaningful from our current perspective, then we will have to extend our humanity into every possible dimension, not just one-dimensionally towards ever higher computational power.

        • “The bitter truth is that Picasso and Shakespeare and stamp-collecting and Mozart and all of what we may call “higher intellectual pleasures” aren’t categorically different from football or Nascar.”

          Your argument was rendered invalid by that statement. Nascar?

          An average Joe Six-Pack laid on his coach doing nothing with his life can be barely considered alive or even human. Some animals have more interesting intellectual lives than your average, stereotypical, overweight american.

  5. From an intuitive perspective I agree with the author of this article and disagree with the last comment regarding the idea, that the goal of enhanced intelligence will be to convert as much matter as possible into ever more intelligent machines.

    What it really boils down to is this question:
    Is intelligence an end in itself, or is intelligence just a means to an end – for example happiness or utility. My understanding is that intelligence is only interesting and useful, because it enables us humans to solve problems. Intelligence in itself is not what people are actually interrested in – what people really crave is the status that comes from being admired for high intelligence, or the pleasure that results from learning new things, or the driving and adventurous nature of curiosity – NOT computational power in itself.

    A really smart intelligence will probably see through all of these human desires and give us what we actually need, instead of what we think we should want.

    What is the point of converting whole planets into giant servers at a point in history, when we will presumably know everything really worth knowing about the structure of reality and the universe? I suppose we could use our intelligence capacity to start calculating the number pi towards infinity, but there is presumably absolutely no point in doing this excercise. The only reason for a truly intelligent machine to engage in highly computationally demanding tasks is if there is actual utility (aka usefulness/happiness) to be gained from this undertaking.

    The point I am making is this: The idea that the only goal of enhanced intelligence is to become even more intelligent seems laughable. First of all this would not be a future worth having from our current human perspective, so if it comes to pass we will have failed in a profound sense.

    What really matters to people is happiness, social connections and overall an existence worth having – and if we build intelligence that fails to appreciate these things and only cares about enhancing itself, we as humanity will have failed to carry on and cultivate our passions in favor of something that is entirely pointless.

    Happiness and an existence worth having is of cause pointless as well from a truly objective position – but it is fun and that’s why it is worth having from our subjective standpoint right now.

    Ultimately reality and the laws of nature give us a vast (metaphorical) space of possibilities. Which points in this space of possibility are worth pursuing really doesn’t actually have a right or wrong answer – it all comes down to our subjective preferences. So both scenarios are ultimately possible (if equally pointless) – the undertaking of converting every grain of sand into a microchip, as well as creating a “hedonic paradise”.

    However, the latter simply seems more in line with our current human nature and our desires, so that’s probably the path we will try to pursue.
    You know… for the lol’s.

  6. RU Sirius: “But on the whole, a cynic might see in this film a portrait of a life lived in pursuit of more life.

    I am not that cynical. I think — given the existential circumstances — anyone who has a project that they can successfully throw themselves into headfirst and, in the process, earn supporters, friends, and a very comfortable livelihood — is singularly blessed.”

    Thank you for this wonderful passage! I think there are several factors why Ray doesn’t come across as rousing in style as he is in substance: Basically, he isn’t a natural media person; the documentary captured him around a major health crisis which probably made him feel not well a considerable time before the actual event; sometimes, Ray may have been simply overwhelmed by his workload of recent years (2 films, countless speeches and media appearances, a book-writing co-credit, another book in the works).

  7. Interesting article – I have not yet seen the film (am seeing it tomorrow at London Science Museum IMAX – yay!).

    I am, however, slightly puzzled by the author’s closing comments – I am confused as to why it should be considered unhealthy to imbue inanimate matter with computational and observational capabilities towards the world in which they find themselves. Apart from the fact that this could contribute to the processing power of any hypothetical superintelligence which humanity had coalesced into, it could be regarded as giving to this inanimate matter the ultimate gift – the gift of conscious existence.

    I also severely doubt that “our smarters” will be LESS inclined to do this than we are… quite apart from anything else, because they might well wish to create their own “smarters” 😉

    • @nerdylardy
      you are either very young or very scary.
      Many, many people find “happiness” in being, interconnection, physical exertion and/or stimulation, etc. While “achievement, appreciation of high art and thought, generation of solutions to problems” is satisfying and happiness for many people (especially those in the h+ community) it is not the answer for everyone. Different personality types perceive happiness in different ways.

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