Ray Kurtzweil, the Singularity, & the Dream-Nightmare of the Illumineers

Art by Lucinda Horan
Art by Lucinda Horan

“To rise above the body is to equate the body with excrement.”
—Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death

What Whitley Strieber is to the aliens, Ray Kurzweil is to the Singularity: probably the leading spokes-prophet of his time. The word “singularity” originally meant “singleness of aim or purpose” but the mathematical sense of singularity, a “point at which a function takes an infinite value,” was coined in 1893. In the context of technology, the term was popularized by the science-fiction writer Vernor Vinge, who argued that artificial intelligence, human biological enhancement, or brain-computer interfaces could be possible causes of the singularity. The specific term “singularity”—as a description for technological acceleration causing an unpredictable outcome in society—was coined by the mathematician, John von Neumann, who in the mid-1950s spoke of “ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which 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.” The concept has also been popularized by futurists such as Kurzweil, who cited von Neumann’s use of the term in a foreword to von Neumann’s classic The Computer and the Brain.

Curiously enough, in 1997, Whitley Strieber wrote a short story called “The Open Doors” about John von Neumann—in relation to the visitors. Von Neumann’s theory is apparently the basis of Strieber’s on-again, off-again theory that the visitors need our belief in them to enter into our reality—a startling and unexpected connection between supposed alien contact and the technological “singularity” event.

Rolling Stone magazine called Kurzweil “the most radical futurist on earth.” According to the same article, he has also been called “the rightful heir to Thomas Edison” and received White House honors from three presidents, “including the highest prize in his field, the National Medal of Technology.” Kurzweil’s dream is the oldest dream of all, but there’s an additional wrinkle. His first goal isn’t eternal life but, in good “Christian” spirit (though Kurzweil is anything but conventionally religious), the resurrection of the body: “Death represents the loss of knowledge and information. . . .  A person is a mind file. A person is a software program—a very profound one, and we have no backup. So when our hardware dies, our software dies with it. . . . I’ve made an issue of overcoming death. And the strongest experience I’ve had with death is as a tragedy.” Kurzweil plans to resurrect not his own body but his father’s, and he has stored boxes of his dad’s possessions, external objects onto which he projects his longing, including “his letters and music and bills and doctoral thesis.”

We can find some of his DNA around his grave site, that’s a lot of information right there . . . The AI will send down some nanobots and get some bone or teeth and extract some DNA and put it all together. Then they’ll get some information from my brain and anyone else who still remembers him. . . . Just send nanobots into my brain and reconstruct my recollections and memories. . . . If you can do it right, it’s worthwhile. . . . If you bring back life that was valuable in the past, it should be valuable in the future.

Kurzweil is an interesting case study (almost as interesting as Strieber). On the one hand, like Colonel Kurtz ruling over his savages in Apocalypse Now, he appears to be barking mad. Yet he is also well-attuned to the zeitgeist, and, at least as far as technology is concerned, he seems to know what he is talking about. So what he’s saying can’t simply be dismissed as insanity, any more than Strieber’s works can. It represents the precise point at which science and mysticism meet and the dream-nightmare of the illumineers begins to creep over into waking reality. And what is this vision? To conquer Nature and replace the absent father—God—with our own self-generated image. Lucifer’s dream is Oedipus’ nightmare.

Kurzweil appears to be suffering from the same psychic schism as Strieber. This suggests that it may be a collective condition in the Western world (for men at least)—not to say a universal one. Perhaps the best summation of Kurzweil’s cosmic goal would be: “The universe is not conscious—yet. But it will be.” While Kurzweil means the statement as a promise, somehow it comes out sounding more like a threat. An article at Kurzweil’s Accelerating Intelligence site quotes sociologist William Sims Bainbridge (we’ll be hearing more from him later) describing “the gradual merging of human beings with their computers over the next century.” Bainbridge provides fuel for Kurzweil’s (literally infantile) dreams when he predicts this will lead to “interstellar immortality.” The article sums up Bainbridge’s vision of employing cognitive neural science, genetic engineering, nanotechnology and information systems to found “a cosmic civilization.” This need not require transporting “living human bodies and all the necessities of life to other planets.” Instead, computer technology will allow these transhumanist hopefuls to archive personalities, “albeit at low fidelity.” Making “digital, audio/visual copies of a person’s perceptions, speech and behavior” is already possible, Bainbridge claims. Eventually, “the ability to reanimate human personalities at ever-higher fidelity is a sure bet.”

“Only a goal as valuable as eternal life can motivate investment in substantial scientific infrastructure on the Moon or Mars,” says Bainbridge, an interesting choice of words that suggests that eternal life, as the motivational factor, is a means rather than an end. The idea of eternal life is as deeply seated as any religious belief, and hence more or less guaranteed to get people’s interest. Since most people are religiously rather than scientifically oriented, and since the desire to colonize space is far less on their minds than the question of what happens to them when they die, it makes perfect sense to use the religious impulse to fuel the engine of scientific progress. Bainbridge’s grand galactic plan is to turn human beings into pure information and send them (it?) into outer space; to spread the cultural virus of traumatized, mother bonded, father-abandoned egos across the galaxy, dragging God down into the machine— Deus intra ipsos machina?—and in His absence create a brave new universe of “Mind at Large.” Possibly the transhumanist illumineers really believe this fever dream of technological transcendence, but it may be more likely they have come up with a suitably religiose narrative to inspire the masses to support their socio-political agenda and allow it to move forward unimpeded.

By offering the stars to people living today, the second wave of the spaceflight movement would be spurred into being . . . The future demands a powerful, motivational force to create interplanetary and interstellar civilizations [Bainbridge said], and a new spaceflight social movement can get us moving again.

Moving towards what?

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Jasun Horsley

Jasun Horsley

Existential detective. Liminalist author. Movie autist in chronic confessional mode. You only think you don't know who I am.
Jasun Horsley