We were sitting in the Bistro, tony if rustic nightspot in Knoxville, heart of the Appalachians, sipping our Chardonnay and nut-brown ale before strolling up to the movie palace known as the Tennessee Theatre to hear a symphony amid Spanish-Moorish splendor.
Talk had gone topical, and something prompted my brother Tim to lean back in his stylish suit and ask, "How exactly does the Supreme Court work?"
Before anyone could answer impolitely—Not very well, considering it appointed the village idiot president in 2000—Tim's smart and attractive wife, Amy, said, "Oh, I can tell you," whereupon she drew a black rectangle from her prim purse, clicked a few keys, and revealed, "The president appoints a new Chief Justice upon the retirement or death of the old Chief Justice. His duties are to…"
Took all of three minutes to learn more than we would've gleaned from three hours of speculation, then we were talking about snorkeling in the Keys.
Nothing new here. I've watched in bemused silence the past several years as millions in America—billions worldwide—have acquired what I call Auxiliary Brains.
What else are I-pods, I-pads, Blackberries, I-phones, GPS's and Kindles—in league with Google and Facebook and Groupon—if not Auxiliary Brains.
Well, they're all manifestations of "The Singularity."
No, I'm not talking about the world inside a black hole, where ordinary laws of physics famously break down. What I'm talking about is a notion rapidly gaining in recognition and importance. Ask four people at dinner what a Singularity is, and likely as not, one or two will reach into purse or pocket, pull out an Auxiliary Brain, and give a textbook definition close to what Time offered in its issue of Feb. 21. To wit:
Singularity: n: The moment when technological change becomes so rapid and profound, it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history.
Take the current "rupture" in the Middle East. How did Tunisia, Egypt and Libya suddenly start re-inventing themselves just last month in a way the CIA never saw coming?
They did it with grit, guts, heart, and a rage for justice, sure. But they also did it with Google, Twitter, Facebook and millions of Auxiliary Brains and communication organs.
Or take the rupture in human history referenced in huge letters on the cover of Time mentioned above.
2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal.
Deep inside the article, we learn that Ray Kurzweil, author of books like Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever, and subject of the new documentary, Transcendent Man, believes our shot at eternal life on Earth actually will arrive by 2030, a year in which he projects machines will achieve consciousness—or at least the ability to download human consciousness onto computer chips. Both Kurzweil and Time hedge their bets on the cover, because the notion shocks people of all sensibilities—liberals, conservatives, environmentalists, fundamentalists, funeral parlor operators and just about everyone else, including many scientists.
Even Kurzweil acknowledges a personal resistance. The hardest part of predicting the future, he suggests, is summoning the will to stay on the horse farther than 20 years and ride it to logical predictions. Mind and body rebel against entering a world in which, say, androids, might become purveyors of human—eventually not so human—intelligence and emotion. Soul if you will.
Fellow travelers are riding such horses with Kurzweil, however. English biologist Aubrey DeGrey believes we're so close to "curing" aging and death that he could probably pull off the trick within ten years given an infusion of, say, $20 billion in federal funds to his research coffers. Not likely in this economy, but eventually someone will make the investment in exchange for a shot at being first in line for The Cure for getting old and dying. Keep yourself fit and you could someday find yourself in such a line, suggest Kurzweil, DeGrey and others.
I know, I know, such notions raise all sorts of issues—political, theological, metaphysical, practical, environmental, emotional. So did the airplane. The telegram. Radio. The A-bomb. So did mapping the genetic code.
Never mind such old-fashioned stuff. Kurzweil believes we've entered an era of change so rapid, geometrical, staggering—no adjective quite nails it—that the past is no longer a guide to the future. Sorry to break it to any historians reading this, but I think we're already there.
Watch for Part II: Riding the Magic Horse of Geometric Change