Friday, May 13, 2011

Divergent Perspectives; Similar Conclusions

Terence McKenna was a modern-day shaman and an expert on New Age mysticism.  He was also an advocate of the use of psychedelic substances to achieve new perceptions of reality.  While he may have seemed, perhaps, to be a pseudoscientist, his predictions about the future largely reflect those of Ray Kurzweil.

Both men foresee a continuation of the trend of massive technological innovation, as described by Moore's Law.  On McKenna's side of the argument are the "pseudoscientific" numerological implications of the I Ching, while on Kurzweil's and Hawkings' side are Artificial Intelligence and the technological singularity.

McKenna and Kurzweil both, on first glance, both look and sound crazy.  But when I was introduced to the notion of the technological singularity--to which both men point--I couldn't dismiss the notion offhand.  After all, reading their rationales and watching videos of them expand on their theories, it was obvious to me that both of these men were extremely intelligent.  So were their eschatological projections mere crazy talk, or something novel and real, like the observations of Galileo?

I started researching the singularity myself, and have come to the conclusion that the singularity isn't an abstract doomsday theory but a philosophy focused on looking at the past and predicting the future of the evolution of the universe.

An important notion underpinning the process of the technological singularity is the idea that there will, at some point, be a tipping--or "omega"--point, at which point an evolutionary shift will occur.  From McKenna's perspective, this would translate to (and I'm paraphrasing here), the point at which "the universe becomes aware of itself."  From Kurzweil's standpoint, this would be the point of the complete development of the first superhuman intelligence that was self-replicating and could make recursive improvements to its being in successive iterations.  Kurzweillian sees this as potentially being realized via a variety of means, including the creation of seed AI, genetic engineering, brain-computer interfacing, or some combination of the three.

I can see where both are coming from, and while I suspect that they might be equally accurate, it appears to me that Kurzweil's position is more precise, while his placement of the singularity in space-time is less so (between 2012 and 2045 for Kurzweil, December 21, 2012 for McKenna).  My belief is that they've each got part of the picture, but that Kurzweil's missing another potential means by which the singularity may be achieved:

Evolution is central to the notion of the singularity, whether you think of it as the process of the universe becoming aware of itself or whether you think of it as the augmentation or surpassing of human intelligence.  And that got me thinking about how evolution works.

If the singularity is the result of an evolutionary process, then there's another way that it might occur: via mutation.

The primary mechanism that allows for the process of evolution to take place is the process of self-replication, recombination, and mutation.  While recombination adds variety to the gene pool, mutation is the miracle that allows for transcending former biological limitations and arriving at another, higher, form of being.  The next question is: which of these two processes is more likely to result in the next evolutionary step?

Mutation.  Everybody has mutations in their DNA.  While any given gene is unlikely to have a mutation, there are so many genes in a human body that the presence of at least one genetic mutation is almost unavoidable (until we become more capable with respect to genetic engineering and decide to eliminate mutations, which seems implausible).  The vast majority of mutations are benign--incidental--and the majority of the rest are malignant.  But there are those remaining few that are improvements.  And what of them?  It seems probable that those mutations would have an increased chance of being passed on, assuming that such a mutation were adaptive.  This means that, given enough time, there will be a mutation that, as it proliferates across the population, will fundamentally change humanity.

Now, one of the characteristics of the Omega Point is that when it is discovered, it would be found to have already been in existence.  I contend that the Omega Point might well be a genetic mutation that will be found shortly after the full sequencing of the human genome is made widely available and economically viable for a large portion of the population.  It may be a mutation found in one specific individual, or it may be found to be in many, after numerous generations of proliferation.

I contend that this genetic mutation may well be the means by which the next step in evolution is taken.

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