Claremont Embraces the Singularity
Technological leaders anticipate the future
When Ray Kurzweil speaks, smart people listen. One of the leading inventors of our time, Forbes described him as the “rightful heir to Thomas Edison.” In 1999, he received the National Medal of Technology. This February, Kurzweil visited CMC’s Athenaeum to give a talk entitled “The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.” With the new Silicon Valley program and speakers like Kurzweil, CMC is embracing the tech sector.
Kurzweil began his argument with a simple claim that technological change is exponential, which is evident from the rapid expansion of technology in the past 100 years as opposed to the generally slower pace of change over the past 10,000 years. Kurzweil told us that fundamental changes in the approach occur once an existing method exhausts its potential.
If we agree with that claim, a Pandora’s box of implications for the near future emerges. The three areas in which Kurzweil sees the most potential growth are nanotechnology, biotechnology, and artificial intelligence (AI). Immortality will be a byproduct of our ability to manipulate biology and DNA sequences, he argues. We will be able to supplement our biological functions with nanobots the size of red blood cells.
Marcelo De Rada CMC ‘14 described the Ath’s atmosphere when Kurzweil unveiled these ideas of the future: “Kurzweill commanded rapt attention and I felt personally blown away by the scope of his thought.”
Kurzweil’s final big idea is that nonbiological mediums will be able emulate the richness and depth of human intelligence. Once this is achieved, machines will achieve a intelligence that dwarfs the average human’s – this is the Singularity. These machines will then integrate with humanity and expand our intelligence an incredible degree. Everybody wins.
On this point of AI, Oxford Professor Nick Bostrom, another Ath speaker this semester, begs to differ with Kurzweil’s optimism. Bostrom agrees that AI will reach a point of godlike intelligence, but argues that humanity will not integrate with machines. Bostrom, a well-accredited philosopher, is thus focused on developing laws that would govern AI sentience in order to prevent it from ending humanity. He believes AI is a threat to our existence because a machine that can achieve superior intelligence will make humanity insignificant. Consider how the typical North Quad resident might deal with ants and you begin to understand some of Bostrom’s concern.
Ultimately, whether we end up in Kurzweil’s paradise or Bostrom’s nightmare will likely be determined by factors outside of our control. Fortunately, when Kurzweil spoke, an eminently practical CMC questioner arose and asked, “Given the increase in machine intelligence and its capacity to solve our problems, what should I do?” The question reflects a deeper, distinctly Claremont desire to be relevant and pragmatic – to generate commercio for our civitas as it were.
The impact and implications of technology are not something dear old CMC has ignored. The recent formulation of the Silicon Valley Program, which will be modeled after the existing Washington D.C. Program, displays this rather clearly. Program Director Stephen Siegel CMC ‘87 commented that, “the genesis of the Silicon Valley Program comes from a number of alumni who work in Silicon Valley, and who wanted to see more Claremont Colleges students actually making things; providing society with products and services that can change lives.”
“These alumni,” Siegel continued, “understand that there is a distinct culture of innovation and productivity in Silicon Valley that makes it, as a region, conducive to the thoughtful application of a liberal arts education to societal challenges.” To place D.C. and Silicon Valley on parity reflects not only increased student interest but a shift in societal interest.
Students would like to leave their mark on the world and are increasingly seeing technological social innovation as a means to accomplish this. Fall 2012 Silicon Valley Program participant Ankit Sud CMC ‘14 observes that “Many Claremont McKenna students are interested in becoming entrepreneurs and the technology sector is seen as having the potential for plenty of growth especially given the success of startups.” The program represents not only a shift in attitude, but also an investment in the future of entrepreneurship.
This being said, predicting the future is fraught with uncertainty. For example, despite being widely anticipated, hover cars are yet to be seen. What we can be certain of is that the logic of Ecclesiastes – “all is futile under the sun” – no longer applies to our future. We will indeed see new things “under the sun” in our time. With this knowledge in hand, we can observe with little surprise and prepare for when this generation’s science fiction becomes the next generation’s science fact.