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A Mediated Singularity: Human Use as a Passport to Life Extension

Introduction

 A singularity, according to cosmology, is located at the core of infinite density and pressure, where matter is continually merging ad infinitum. At the perimeter of this core is the event horizon, where the force of gravity becomes so strong that nothing can escape. Beyond the event horizon everything that occurs is unknown and cannot affect an outside observer. Light emitted from inside the horizon can never reach the observer and anything that passes through the horizon from the observer’s side is never seen again — a point where the space-time continuum folds infinitely on itself due to massive gravity. The most commonly known example of such an event horizon in physics is defined around general relativity’s description of a black hole, a celestial object so dense that no matter or radiation can escape its gravitational field.

Here the focus is not on an event horizon comparable to a black hole or other cosmological events, but on a singularity that stems from human ingenuity and innovation

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Technological singularity

Eight decades ago in the mid 1940s, scientist John von Neumann revolutionized the budding field of computing memory. His idea for computing memory was in storing programs by describing bytes of computer code as if they were neurons, thereby framing an analogy between the digital computer and the human brain (Aspray 1990). Von Neumann noted the importance of the storage capacity of computer memory could parallel the importance of memory of the biological nervous systems (Aspray 1990). He also described the idea of a technological singularity as a crucial moment in the evolution of the human. While no reference is given as to when von Neumann said this, it is reported in numerous papers that on one particular day in the 1950s while walking with Stanislaw Ulam, he said that technological acceleration “gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs as we know them could not continue” (Ulam n.d.).

What does it mean that human affairs as we know them could not continue? The literature concerning accelerating technology and social unrest, environmental devastation, war and, alternatively, the many beneficial breakthroughs, are vast and broad. We might approach the concept of a technological singularity as: who is the singularity rather than what is the singularity? This essay focuses on a paradigmatic shift and its potential in benefiting human life. In particular, radical life extension of biological life, artificial life, and other life forms yet to be identified.

As such, the term human use refers to the idea of human innovation being at the root of technological acceleration. In The Human Use of Human Beings, Norbert Wieners states, “[t]he human species is strong only insofar as it takes advantage of the innate, adaptive, learning faculties that its physiological structure makes possible” (1954, p. 57-58). And, specifically that a “cybernetic view of human nature emphasized the physical structure of the human body and the tremendous potential for learning and creative action that human physiology makes possible” (Bynum 2008).

 

Self-improving AI / exponential growth

Science, and especially science which is related to AI, has been a reoccurring topic of science fiction with catch words like: self-generating AI, self-generating nanotechnological assemblers, and self-replicating super intelligent machines. These terms create future scenarios, which on one hand may seem far-fetched and on the other hand may be worth investigating more closely. Thus, the technological singularity can be viewed as a “hypothesized point in the future variously characterized by the technological creation of self-improving intelligence, unprecedented and rapid technological progress, or some combination of the two” (Anissimov 2008).

Vernor Vinge, professor of mathematics and credited author as of the technological singularity, claims that this event horizon is “… a point where our old models must be discarded and a new reality rules” due to “a change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth” (1993). Recently Vinge further stated that the technological singularity could be a combination — a synergy of events, namely the result of an artificial intelligence, intelligence amplification, biomedical advances, Internet growth and a digital Gaia (2008, p.1). For example, unlike a wake-up scenario where a computer quickly surpasses human-level intelligence and autonomously manufactures copies of itself, Vinge suggests that we create and program superhuman artificial intelligence into computers and, simultaneously, biologically enhance our own brains. Additionally, the networking capability of our physical extensions becomes connected and immersive. Here, Vinge envisions a digital Gaia, where even larger and embedded microprocessors become so useful and real that they would be considered a superhuman being (p. 2). In short, this would look like an evolving system wherein all participants — biological and digital — are immersed as each organism and particle interconnects. Standing back from this vision, it might look like a spiral arm of our Milky Way as a system or body. Up close, all points might be individuated or synergetic, or a combination of both.

Kurzweil (1999) takes the technotopia approach that accelerating change and exponential growth will bring about a period of extremely rapid technological progress. Kurzweil argues that the event can be evidenced by a long-term pattern of accelerating change that generalizes Moore’s Law[1] to those technologies which predate integrated circuits, thereby arguing that exponential growth will continue as new technologies are invented. In the near term, such new technologies within the ecological spectrum include artificial tornados used to generate electricity and biofuels in providing alternatives to oil-based fuels. In the more distant future, such new technologies could harness the power of light to pattern surfaces on nanoscale for energy, or nano-sensors for detecting environmental contaminants.

Nevertheless, such conjecture is speculative. The theories concerning a technological singularity are open to questioning and debate. Some speculations point to the laws of physics and an unlimited increase in computer power. Some point to a reinforcing loop of change where it can continue for so long, but eventually burn itself out. While there are no evidential facts stating an event horizon will occur, it is possible that it could come to pass. In fact, according to computer scientists, evolution theorists, and futurist — and also as research and developments in technology suggest as marked by academic and industry trends — a singularity is more than possible.

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Innovations – Human Use

Taking into account innovation as a selection process of adoption, diffusion, improvement and hybridization, it is often the user who shapes an overall impact. For example, the World Wide Web was invented by Tim Berners-Lee and Robert Cailliau in 1990 as a protocol for exchanging documents among physicists. Nevertheless, it was the user who turned the invention into a global tool for communication. Likewise, the adoption and diffusion of nuclear energy now provides incomparable benefits for magnetic resonance imaging. Teflon’s fluorine-containing polymers have been hybridized to provide the Mars Rover with a durable and environmental resistance structure. When it comes to the accelerating technologies, the possibilities are endless.

According to Dr. Mihail Roco, Senior Advisor of the International Strategy for Nanotechnology Research and Development, “[n]anotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, biomedical and cognitive sciences, and systems approach develop in close interdependence. The synergism among the converging fields will play a determinant role in the birth and growth of new technologies, as sought beginning from the molecular scale” (2001).

On the molecular scale, quantum dots and other nanotechnologies could possess behavioral characteristics allowing them to picture, calculate, and follow the molecular structure of neural cells. Nano-neural interfaces, including hardware and software, offer potential for high-level information interfaces with neurological cells and the central nervous system. These characteristics comes close to what Von Neumann noted when he drew parallels between semiconductors and the human central nervous system, and later when his interests turned toward the modeling of the nervous system and the human brain (Aspray 1987).

 

New models – bio/techno

Alfred North Whitehead, mathematical logician and philosopher of science suggests that, “…every organism in some way anticipates the future and then chooses one among a number of possible routes to adjust its own behavior to what it expects to encounter. In other words, every organism exhibits some degree of aim or purpose” (Rifkin 1999, p. 208) and becomes a model. Such model can be seen in what Whitehead provides as a philosophical vision of behavior. Also, such model can be recognized in Wiener’s (1954, p. 57-58) scientific framework of cybernetics and the potential for organisms to be viewed as formations in assessing technological advancements. Perhaps, “[a] living organism is no longer seen as a permanent form but rather as a network of activity. With this new definition of life, the philosophy of becoming supersedes the philosophy of being …” (p. 208-209) and life becomes a process bound to a notion of change.

Norbert Wiener’s “cybernetic view of human nature emphasized the physical structure of the human body and the tremendous potential for learning and creative action that human physiology makes possible” (Bynum 1999). Wiener writes, “[c]ybernetics takes the view that the structure of the machine or of the organism is an index of the performance” (1954, p. 57). And further that “[hu]man like all other organisms lives in a contingent universe, but man’s advantage over the rest of nature is that he has the physiological and hence the intellectual equipment to adapt himself to radical changes in his environment” (1954, p. 58).

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New models – radical life extension

In that it might be prescient to ask who is the singularity, such an event might be a series of user-mediated innovations resulting from the teaming up of nano-bio-info technologies with neuroscience. Such a convergence offers potential in helping people diagnosed with physical and mental conditions and having difficulty engaging in daily life activities. Pushing the envelope on this convergence, one scenario might be that human life continues past its maximum biochemical process, as reported by the scientific Hayflick[2] theory and as verified in the case of Jeanne Calment who lived to be 122 (Whitney 1997). Until then, humans augment, enhance, adopt and hybridize in attempting to modify life.

For example, bodily augmentation developed in the fields of wearable technologies and alternative personas assemble in virtual environments, yet these fields do not directly affect the particular human being’s biological makeup. Artificial life, virtual replicas, and digital presence offer alternatives to biology. Wet bioart offers alternatives to inherent traits of cells and organisms. Performance art offers alternatives to body as vehicle and body as material. Body art offers alternatives to physicality and identity. Are there artistic, design-based practice, theory and/or academic discourse concerning the scope of human enhancement for the purpose of life extension?

One artistic work which could be viewed as a type of immortal life is the work of Cynthia Verspaget. While Verspaget’s Anarchy Cell Line brings to bear issues concerning the legacy of the HeLa[3] cells, the original cells of Henrietta Lacks who expired in 1951 but whose cells continue to live on, the artistic work is that of a collection of single cells and not of an organism or body. The author’s own artistic work concerns the biological organism that is aging. The project, Bone Density investigates regenerating bone tissue at a point when the tissue cells are abnormally degenerating. Each cell is part of the entire organism, but its degeneration is not consequential to the identity and livelihood of the person unless it affects the entire bodily system.

The exploratory experimentation and manipulation of biological life systems, from single cells to organisms, is increasingly drawing attention to artistic practice and theory. As noted, biological art and transbioart practice have reached far into the uncomfortable zone of bioengineering and genetics, where science and medicine reside, in aptly creating bio-experiments and offering opinions on the meaning of life. On another side of the creative spectrum, exploratory creations with nanotechnological particles have become a molecular vehicle for establishing artistic practice and theory. In and around these domains one can see the perpetual interconnectivity of what Roy Ascott calls a telematic embrace, where the human use of computer networks is the medium “moving beyond object art and time-based art, uses simulation to render what is invisible visible, to bring the virtual, the potential, the unseen, and unrealized into view. In this process, a multiplicity of viewpoints, of worldview, is required and provided by networked perception and intelligence” (2003, p. 231).

Conclusion

Whether it is smarter-than-human machines or exponential technological acceleration, or the desire to life longer, the impact of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, biomedical and cognitive sciences, and a systems approach as reported by Vinge, Kurzweil, and Roco, could bring about a singularity. Apart from the notion of a singularity as introduced by Von Neumann, these technologies could also bring about radical life extension. Whitehead’s comment that by anticipating the future, we can choose a route and adjust our behavior is apt in developing a practicable approach to an event horizon, should one occur. The idea of human use in regards to our using our intellectual equipment in our ability to adapt, as suggested Wiener, offers an appropriate set of circumstances in considering extended life. Further, Wiener’s views reflect an ethical and philosophical approach to life. However, it differs from Wiener’s own worldview, the author’s interest in radical life extension is anticipated by the transhumanist worldview.

 

Notes

[1] Gordon Moore’s valued observation made in 1965, which projects the doubling of transistors every couple of years. Moore’s Law has been maintained and still holds true today.

[2] Hayflick Limit Theory of Aging claims there is a limit on the number of times a cell can divide resulting in a limited cell lifespan.

[3]HeLa cell is the term used to describe original cancer cells which were discarded form the person of Henrietta Lacks during cervical cancer operation in 1951. The immortal HeLa cell line is repeatedly used in medical research.

 

Bibliography

Ascott, R., 2003. Telematic Embrace, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Aspray, W., 1990. John von Neumann and the Origins of Modern Computing. Cambridge: The MIT Press.

Desanctis, G. & Poole, M.S., 1990. Understanding the use of group decision support systems: the theory of adaptive structuration. In J Fulk, ed. Organizations and Communication Technology, Newbury Park: Sage.

Extropy-chat@lists.extropy.org, 2008. ExI Singularity Discussion – Human – Takeoff. [E-mail]. Message from M. Anissimov. Sent 13 June 2008, 04:52. Available at:http://lists.extropy.org/pipermail/extropy-chat/ [Accessed 20 June 2008]

Good, I.J., 1965. Speculations concerning the first ultraintelligent machine. In F.L. Alt & M. Rubinoff,

Kurzweil, R., 1999. The Age of Spiritual Machines. New York: Viking.

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Rifkin, J., 1999. The Biotech Century. New York: Penguin Putnam.

Roco, M.C., 2001. International Strategy for Nanotechnology Research and Development. In Journal of Nanoparticle Research, vol. 3, no. 5-6, pp. 353-360. Nederlands: Springer Netherlands.

Vinge, V., 1993. The Coming Technological Singularity. Whole Earth Review, 10 Dec.

Vinge, V., 2008. Signs of the Singularity. IEEE Spectrum, June 2008. Available at http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/jun08/6306 [accessed 25 June 2008]

Vita-More, N. 2007. Brave Biological Design. Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence Conference. Cambridge.

Webb, S., 2002. If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens: Where Is Everybody? Fifty Solutions to Fermi’s Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life. New York: Springer.

Whitney, C.R., 1997. Jeanne Calment, World’s Elder, Dies at 122. New York Times. [internet] 5 Aug. Available at: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C01E7D7113DF936A3575BC0A961958260
[accessed 4 June 2008]

Wiener, N., 1954. The Human Use of Human Beings. Boston: Da Capo Press.

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