Is the Singularity Near?

Open—Fall

Something profound is happening on planet Earth. The past 100 years have witnessed the most rapid and far-reaching technological advances in human history. Think of the world of 1913 as compared to the world of 2013. Back then, automobiles, flying machines, and telephones were curiosities only recently invented; television, space travel, computers, mobile phones, and the Internet were unimagined and still decades in the future. What of the next 100 years? A number of serious, highly respected scientists and scholars believe that the relentlessly accelerating pace of technological change over the next few decades will transform our human civilization into something radically different, almost unrecognizable—an event that will mark the beginning of a new “posthuman” era in evolutionary history. This event, often called the Singularity, will be driven by advances in molecular biology, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and machine intelligence. Ray Kurzweil, a well-known technologist and AI pioneer, has argued that the transition from biologically-based to technologically-based evolution is natural and inevitable and will bring enormous benefits to society. Others, taking a more pessimistic view of the human future, warn of the increasing risk of self-extinction posed by the development of ever more-powerful technologies and worry that our genes may have finally outsmarted themselves. How realistic is the Singularity scenario, and just how seriously should we take these ideas? In this course, we will explore these questions in depth, focusing in particular on developments in computational intelligence and on placing these ideas within the larger context of human and cosmic evolution.