It's all spinning wheels and self-doubt until the first pot of coffee.

The Singularity vs Human Nature

Apologies in advance if this post-cum-essay runs a bit long...

We could conclude that modern human intelligence is an unfinished product, and something that nature hasn't quite got around to polishing yet. The problem-solving intelligence part can be tuned and revved up to high levels, but it becomes unstable like early supersonic jet prototypes that shook themselves to pieces just after reaching the sound barrier. Nature has outstripped itself, producing a freak organism with a feature that's obscenely over-developed but under-refined. We've seen examples of evolution getting ahead of itself before, like the rapid conversion to an erect, bipedal skeletal frame without properly modifying the spine to withstand the back-aching load of pregnancy. To get a better grip of human failings, and human stupidity, you have to realize that modern Homo sapiens sapiens just isn't done yet.
When our own instincts are inadequate, or become a hazard, and the surrogate activities to control them aren't sufficient anymore, then there certainly will be a push to change human nature to fit his new, self-crafted niche. And the answer to my original question?that man will invent something that knocks him out of his niche with fatal consequences?is yes. Homo sapien will die, and homo modified will inherit the earth.

There's only an essay or two per month published over at Disenchanted, but they're gems, each and every one. And what I read almost never fails to resonate with something I've been thinking or musing about, from my perspective as a geek wondering about life, the universe, and everything and as a fan of Kurzweil, Vinge, and all of post-humanity. But my anticipation of the Singularity is constantly swayed by things such as the theses of the above quoted essays.

See, as an irredeemable believer in the ways of better living through technology, I look forward to our increasing ability to further self-improve and bootstrap to higher levels of living, longevity, ability, understanding, and exploration. But, there's a neopagan mystic and naturalist in me who keeps looking for the catch. There must be natural limits we don't yet understand.

No matter the precocious cleverness of our species, there's got to be plenty of good reasons it takes millions of years to achieve progress in forms and patterns of life. There are lots of little subtle details to be easily missed. We're smart, but not yet endowed with the patience and wisdom that eternity grants. I both breathlessly await and fear the arrival of our ability to fundamentally change human nature directly through genetic manipulation and device implantation.

As the first essay quoted above asserts, I believe the human species is unfinished. But as with the second essay, I think we've outpaced evolution in terms of changing the conditions under which the process itself occurs.

Just look around you. You're likely indoors, in a building composed of simple straight lines which register easily on your visual pattern recognizers, with corridors and doorways and rooms proportioned to your bodily dimensions. The air is conditioned to your respiratory and temperature tolerances. Things are padded and accessible. Food and drink are likely plentiful. The only predators you're likely to meet up with during your day are of your own species. Nothing really challenges your basic nature.

Yet, this is just what the universe has been doing to forms of life throughout the history of evolution. Only now, we've jumped the tracks, reversed the flow of control, and have reshaped our corner of the universe to fit our status quo. So, where does that leave the natural process of evolution with regard to us? Stopped or slowed to a crawl, that's where. Maybe falling backward, since we have prosthetics, glasses, and other forms of propping up imperfections that would have otherwise been faced with disincentives by natural selection.

So, where are we without a natural evolution? We're left as an unfinished species, with a peculiar mix of awesome abilities matched with amazing disabilities. Very clever people, but with a lot of blind spots. There are certain ways in which it is very difficult and sometimes nearly impossible for us to think. We have biases toward grouping things by similarity, dividing them by difference - which allows for a very elegant economy of memory and thought, but allows for peculiarly devastating things like racism and xenophobia. Critical thinking is counterintuitive, yet is one of our most powerful tools.

And there are definite flaws in our perceptions of reality, as any book of optical illusions will tell you. One thing that struck me like a thunderbolt came from a human biology class: Ever try following a common housefly with your eyes? Isn't it frustrating how it just seems to vanish from your sight? I can't find a reference to back me up, so this is just from memory: I was taught that flies have developed a particularly zig-zaggy and erratic flight pattern to evade just our kind of mammalian vision system. But, studies of fly-eating frogs have shown that their vision systems appear particularly tweaked to react to a fly's midair dance. Imagine what else slips past us, or comes to our attention garbled because our very apparatus contains biases of which we're yet to even conceive?

Here we are, then, flawed and incomplete yet with a growing ability to self-modify. As an amateur computer scientist, I shudder a bit at any code that's self-modifying. It can be done, and it can be powerfully enabling, but it's just so damn easy to blow a foot off with the technique. So too with ourselves, then. There's a possiblity that we can push ourselves into a richer level of thought and perception and ability without destroying ourselves completely. But, we're going to miss things, important things.

If we're lucky, we'll roll with it and survive. But, as the second Disenchanted essay explores, we'll most certainly render the species as we know it extinct, and push ourselves our of a natural niche and into a wholly artificial niche in need of perpetual maintenance and renewal. Maybe this artifical niche will be easily sustained and portable enough to take with us if we want to leave the planet. On the other hand, maybe this artificial niche will prove our undoing as it outstrips our ability to keep it up.

So, given all this, I think the inevitable predicted verticality of the Singularity's curve has an incredibly strong counter-force stemming from human nature itself. What does this mean? Not sure. What to do? Not sure. But it tells me that the Kurzweilan and Vingian predictions of which I'm so fond face some severe reality checks.

More thinking to do. Thanks to Disenchanted for making me think this far today. :)


Archived Comments

  • It occurs to me that creating a situation we're not entirely prepared to face would, in fact, be tantamount to forcing ourselves back into Darwinian evolution. There may be a holocaust, but I find it highly unlikely that there will be too few survivors for Earthly sentience to continue. We may not like it very much. But then, neither did the trilobites. Just depends on how personally you take it all. And of course, as would any selfish little gene, I plan on doing my damnedest to figure out the niche.
  • I've been struggling with this idea for a while. I've thought about learning some base-level skills such as hunting with bow or woodworking "just in case". It does seem a matter of time until nuclear winter, airborne, long-incubating fatal virus, smart-enough microbes, or natural selection in the form of a cataclysm. Agile development has taught me many things, and one of those is that communication and small changes are much more effective than isolation and marksmanship precision. The human race has been shielding itself for a long time, and I suspect the potential difference will arc before we finish building our happy cocoon. What to do? It's a tough question. Suggestions, such as "allow the diabetics to die", are viewed as morally flawed. I am conflicted with myself over it, but really... are we -that- confident that we've got a handle on this whole thing? Aren't we better off with Darwinism (viz. agile evolution)?
  • Has anyone ever shouted FIRE in a crowded theatre? How many people kept their calm and asked where it was? It puzzles me that we as a species are so fatally attracted to confidence; a single leader with charisma and conviction can take a group anywhere. Obvious examples include Nazi Germany, Soviet Communism, American Democracy... The idea that there is something fundamentally wrong with our society circulates in whispered tones, always hesitant lest we should say something immoral or politically incorrect. I shudder to think of the barrage of hate mail when someone seriously suggests that we eliminate the diabetics ... and yet I also shudder to think what we will do when the man on horseback rides into our theatre and shouts "Darwin."