Friday, February 27, 2009

The beginning is near

Express Staff Writer

In the 1970s, futurist and inventor Buckminster Fuller accurately predicted that the human population would reach 6 billion by the year 2000. Fuller also did the math on economics and natural resources and computed (before the advent of modern computers) that every man, woman and child on Earth could live like kings and queens if natural resources were used wisely and we avoided spending vast sums on military arsenals. Fuller was an optimist, but was he expecting too much from mere human beings? I've been thinking for some time now that the shaping of our futures might be too important a project to leave to humans. When it comes to running things, people are often all too human; special interests, politics, greed and ignorance often spoil the show. So why not let computers have a shot at it?

Google co-founder Larry Page and NASA are looking forward to a day in the near future when the problem-solving abilities of computers outstrips the meager mental resources of humans in dealing with the big problems facing humanity: hunger, poverty, climate change, energy, etc. They founded Singularity University in 2007 to "assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies and apply, focus and guide these tools to address humanity's grand challenges."

It seems fitting that Google, which helped to create the data smog of our Information Age, will work toward putting all this data to good use. Their hope is that a feedback loop will be achieved sometime in the 21st century among computers dealing with information technology, and that a "super-intelligence" will emerge from within these machines to mathematically solve the big problems that perennially plague our world. This moment in time is known in science fiction circles as "the singularity," a term borrowed from a novel by Ray Kurzweil titled "The Singularity is Near." Kurzweil was appointed chancellor of Singularity U. and is helping to gather leading thinkers in fields of science and business dealing with big sets of data: genetics, neuroscience, medicine and ecology, to name a few. The plan is to develop interdisciplinary programs aimed at transforming the world when "the singularity" takes place and computing machines run wild with one another to create Utopia.

Planned interdisciplinary studies at Singularity U. combine ecology with neuroscience, robotics with medicine. My favorite is a program combining computing with policy making. I think crunching numbers to make and enforce policy could keep the baser instincts of humanity from fouling up the gears of government. (I am thinking of HAL the computer in the film "2001, A Space Odyssey" but without ulterior motives.)

With the right programming, future decision-makers could replace moral issues with mathematical ones. Given enough time, humanity could replace the social Darwinism at the core of our governmental and economic system with a loftier perspective. When "The Singularity" takes place, computing machines will run wild with one another to create utopia.

I'm not sure what the New World would look like, but I expect that people could stop fussing so much over the difference between right and wrong, and start worrying about the difference between wrong and fun.

Tony Evans:

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