Let's face it. The singularity is a religious rather than a scientific vision. The science-fiction writer Ken MacLeod has dubbed it “the rapture for nerds,” an allusion to the end-time, when Jesus whisks the faithful to heaven and leaves us sinners behind.
Such yearning for transcendence, whether spiritual or technological, is all too understandable. Both as individuals and as a species, we face deadly serious problems, including terrorism, nuclear proliferation, overpopulation, poverty, famine, environmental degradation, climate change, resource depletion, and AIDS. Engineers and scientists should be helping us face the world's problems and find solutions to them, rather than indulging in escapist, pseudoscientific fantasies like the singularity.
But the very fact that the Singularity's appeal derives from some of the same impulses that drive religious faith - even as the prophets proclaiming its imminent arrival insist that they're relying on cold hard science - means that you aren't coming to make very much hay by telling the Ray Kurzweils of the world that we need to train our attention on terrorism or nuclear proliferation or famine or climate change instead. Some of the yearning for "transcendence" that the Singularity satisfies might go away in a juster, safer world, but the fundamental yearning it's addressed to - the desire for immortality - wouldn't. Eliminate terrorism and nuclear weapons, and you'll still die. Do away with poverty, clean up the environment, and ensure a fairer distribution of the earth's resources, and you'll still die. Find a cure for AIDS, and not only will you still die, but so will everybody you've cured.
Seen through this lens, telling people that they need to solve all the world's immediate problems before they take up the biggest Problem of all is like telling doctors facing a bubonic-plague outbreak that they can only address themselves to it once they've found a cure for colds, allergies, and stomach flu. Now of course this lens assumes that there could be a cure for death, which is where the issue of pseudoscience enters the picture, and the (im)plausibility of the claims the Singulatarians are making - an issue, I should note, that the substance of Horgan's essay is addressed to. But the mere fact that the Singularity is inherently "escapist," and bears a not-inconsiderable resemblance to Christianity, isn't a problem with the concept. It's the whole point.
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