A Singular Deception

by Michael Rectenwald on October 9, 2013

By definition, a singularity is something utterly peculiar unto itself, a species of being unmatched for its “this-ness.” The term has found usage in a number of domains, most significantly in physics, where a singularity defines a condition of matter whose mass is approaching zero as a function of its density approaching infinity. Cases of singularities or near singularities include black holes and the singularity that preceded the Big Bang.

The singularity is the topic of a recent book on Marxism by Luca Basso—Marx and Singularity (2008), which is an attempt to understand Marx’s thought from the early writings through the Grundrisse in terms of the search for individual realization. Others too, such as Bruno Gullì (Labor of Fire, 2005), have worked in part to correct the errant notion that Marxism is predicated on an undifferentiated mass subject, rather than a fully articulated, fully realized (social) individual, a singularity.

But I am using “singularity” in yet another sense, to refer to the technological singularity, the hypothetical, near-future point at which machine intelligence will presumably supersede human intelligence, and when an intelligence explosion will commence. Inventor and futurist Raymond Kurzweil, whose books include The Age of Spiritual Machines (1999), The Singularity Is Near (2005), and How to Create a Mind (2012), heralds the singularity in the technological sense.

In this singularity, a prospect predicted and also advocated by “Singulartarians” like Kurzweil, the future is as fabulous as science fiction might have it. In the short term, regular genetic check-ups to scan for “programming errors” in gene sequencing, and gene therapy, would be common, as would the merging of human brains and computer prostheses. But soon thereafter, nanorobots would clean up the environment, removing excess CO2 from the atmosphere, recreating a green planet, and reversing global warming. Micro-robots would also course through the human bloodstream, removing waste (and a distasteful process), killing pathogens, eliminating cancer cells, repairing genetic codes, and reversing aging. Computer chips, implanted in the brain, would increase memory by a million-fold. By 2029, technologists will have successfully reverse-engineered the brain and replicated human intelligence in (strong) artificial intelligence (AI), while vastly increasing processing speeds of “thought.” Having mapped the neuronal components of a human brain, or discovered the algorithms for thought, or a combination thereof, technologists would convert the same to a computer program, personality and all, and upload it to a computer host, thus grasping the holy grail of immortality. Finally, as the intelligence explosion expands from the singularity, all matter will be permeated with intelligence; the entire universe would “wake up” and become alive, and “about as close to God as I can imagine,” says Kurzweil. Thus, in the Singulartarian vision, the universe begins with a singularity and becomes God-like by another. This second singularity, Kurzweil suggests, involves the creative intelligence of the universe becoming self-aware, vis-à-vis the informational, technological agent. Thus, in the technological singularity, the technological and mystical converge, as Kurzweil resembles a techno-cosmic Hegelian. Incidentally, according to Kurzweil, our post-human successors will bear the marks of their human provenance. Thus the future intelligence will remain “human” in some sense. Human beings are the technological carriers of universal intelligence and human culture is the fragile substratum.

Kurzweil justifies his belief in the inevitability of a technological singularity with the law of accelerating returns, a tendency for the exponential increase of information processing, which he traces from the beginning of matter through the computer age, and beyond. Kurzweil’s trick is to place material, biological and technological evolution on a graphic continuum, a method that reduces matter and its development, in whatever form, to information, likewise allowing its eventual subsumption into computing processes. Human (and post-human) intelligence is measured primarily if not solely in terms of processing speeds. While recognizing that such a measure of subtle human intelligence is insufficiently qualitative, Kurzweil nevertheless accepts it as adequate for his purposes.

If all of this sounds rather otherworldly, Kurzweil wields his predictions with aplomb, and powerful institutions serve to validate his self-assurance, at least for now. With the backing of Google, Genentech, Nokia, Cisco and other sponsors, he co-founded (with Peter Diamandis) Singularity University in Silicon Valley, which has as its stated mission “to educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges.” Since 2009, Singularity University has attracted business leaders, technologists, graduate students, and others, and has been training them in the Singulartarian framework for solving what they deem the world’s most pressing problems. Far from being relegated to the role of guru or hack, Kurzweil has since become Google’s Director of Engineering, where he has been given the reins to convert his futuristic notions into fungible consumer products. Whether or not the singularity itself is actually near, or even possible, the singularity as an idea is already considered a credible rubric for significant technology investment.

The singularity paradigm, so its advocates assert, amounts to a second Scientific Revolution. Trans-humanists (those who call for the supersession of humanity by a new “species” with a higher intelligence and extended lifespan) such as Simon Young (in Designer Evolution: A Trans-humanist Manifesto, 2005), oppose this new optimistic orientation to the postmodern pessimism of the neo-Luddite left, among other groups. The anti-Enlightenment, anti-technology left, represented by such figures as Bill McKibben, blames science and technology as such for nuclear bombs, environmental degradation, GMOs, the overuse of psychotropic drugs, robotic war, etc. McKibben has written against the Trans-humanist singularity (Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age, 2004), arguing for the halting of such research programs through legal and other means. Following Carl Sagan, the New Enlightenment thinkers counter-argue that science and technology have vastly improved human life and must be pursued apace so as to overcome the hurdle of humanity’s scientific and technological infancy.

While Singulartarians and Transhumanists surely have their enemies on the left, they also have earned the ire of both the religious and humanist right. Members of the latter group have recently sounded off against the movement in both the National Review and The Weekly Standard. Both articles use Trans-humanism or Singulartarianism to casually slur Marxism, which they refer to, along with Trans-humanism and Singulartarianism, as a form of “scientism,” or a “one-dimensional explanatory scheme of all that exists.” The bogey for the humanist right is the reduction of humanity to instrumentalism for either technical (Singulartarianism) or social-scientific (Marxism) mastery. Gone is the fully elaborated and irreducible individual, and along with it, the humanities, or the traditions for preserving the kinds of knowledge that cannot be codified, or encapsulated in formulas for prediction and control.

Kurzweil and others would respond by suggesting that the “human” is not eradicated per se with the singularity, but expanded exponentially. The humanities, meanwhile, far from being lost, might become a packet for easy download in a matter of minutes or seconds. The questions of moral and social agency would be transcended, Kurzweil suggests, as new philosophical problems emerge, unforeseen at present.

But what might be a Marxist perspective with reference to Singulartarianism or Trans-humanism? Contrary to the National Review and The Weekly Standard, such a perspective, while perhaps singular, is by no means scientistic.

Marxism embraces science, but not scientism. That is, it does not cede social desiderata to scientific authority, as in Comtean positivism. Furthermore, Marxism is not techno-determinist; the character and direction of the social order are not determined by science and technology, per se, nor do science and technology develop autonomously in a particular direction of their own accord. Rather, like any other form of capital, Marx noted that technology must be valorized in relation to the cost of reproducing labor, that is, in relation to the cost of labor itself. Singulartarianism may be regarded as another means of just such self-valorization of machine capital. Contrary to their own assertions, meanwhile, Singulartarians, including Kurzweill, tacitly admit as much; in their Open Letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon they imply that there is nothing inevitable about the technological developments that they advocate, as they petition the UN to take seriously their solutions to real-world problems.

On the one hand, it is not sufficient to merely suggest that Singulartarian science, to the extent that it is science, is bourgeois in character. The same might be said for all science and technology developed under capitalism. Marxism does not call for the abolition or eschewal of the products of bourgeois science and technology as such, but rather aims to preserve and improve upon the real gains in scientific knowledge and technological development, while eliminating those obviously developed for sheer domination or destruction. On the other hand, Marxism does not embrace the ideological character of particular scientific or pseudoscientific movements.

Even leaving aside its cosmic pretensions, the Singulartarian worldview is in fact techno-determinist, scientistic, and mystified. The movement is a carrier of an ideology would leave the social order in place as it ignores the antagonisms of class society to focus on technological management. It obscures the social basis of real-world crises by promising a panacea of technological fixes as opposed to social change. It ignores the fact that the social relations of capitalist production are culpable for the environmental crises that beset us (see John Bellamy Foster, et al., Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth, 2010). At the same time, the Singulartarian worldview fetishizes biotechnical processes, promising to place highly advanced technologies within the reach of the wealthy few, notwithstanding the weak claim that Moore’s Law closes the technological breach by exponentially increasing the price-performance of computing (and thus halving its cost per unit of measurement) every two years or less. These fetishized biotechnologies, fetishized because they are given undue attention and importance, include avatars controlled by brain-computer interfaces, the development of life-support systems for disembodied human brains, fully artificial equivalents of the human brain, and the uploading of the entirety of human brain processes to computers, all of which reveal the bourgeois ideological character of the Singulartarian priorities. While unstated, the life-extension and immortality of the few are given precedence to the experience of a mere mortal existence by many others. Further, under this rubric, knowledge and consciousness are understood in reified, individualistic terms, as if they can be abstracted from their material and social substratum, isolated, and uploaded in a neatly contrived package onto silicon or other non-biological platforms. Such a conception is idealist and instrumentalist at base, while utterly missing the reality of social relations that make cognition and consciousness not only meaningful, but also possible.

Further, Singulartarian technologies are aimed at subjecting human beings to a kind of technological management that would make the surveillance of the NSA look like child’s play. Even if the prospect for the literal connection of brains to the Internet (and thus the direct “data mining” of thought and memory) may remain impossible, the kinds of technological mastery over experience contemplated and supposedly being developed under the direction of Kurzweil and other Singulartarians poses threats to the integrity of decision-making capabilities. With humans capable of controlling avatars, some of which may bear an uncanny verisimilitude to their masters, the possibility for reversing the direction of control seems equally plausible. The use of avatars meanwhile presents moral dilemmas that the current social order is unprepared to deal with. Even with Google Glass, which is a crude development in comparison to what might follow according to Kurzweil et al., the technological constraints on experience, billed as enhancements, are already apparent. All technologies bear the marks of their makers’ priorities for users. All constrain and construct experiences in particular ways. But when such technologies enter into direct interface with the brain, the possibilities for eliminating particular kinds of experience and motivations becomes plausible. The desideratum to record, label, informationalize, rather than to understand, let alone critically engage or theorize experience, may take exclusive priority given the possibilities for controlling neuronal switching patterns. Given the instrumentalism of the Singulartarians, decisive, action-oriented algorithms may dominate these brain interfaces, compromising faculties for the critical evaluation of activity. Naturally, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World comes to mind, but as suggested, Singulartarianism bills its prostheses, extensions and substitutes for human brains as vast improvements over standard human intelligence. Thus, such technologies would have an ideological appeal not all imaginable for soma. Nevertheless, they will have been based on an intelligence defined in a particular way, putting considerable emphasis on the speed and volume of “data processing,” construed as “knowledge.”

Kurzweil claims that it is nearly impossible to imagine what would take place after the singularity. We think that the possibilities can be extrapolated from existing conditions. Under class society, a decentralized, open-access info-sphere of exploding intelligence is unfathomable. Developed in connection with the state apparatuses already in place in the United States and elsewhere, such as the vast data storage and processing centers in Nevada, and the programs, such as Prism, set up to fill them, Singulartarian technologies would become part of the arsenal for class domination and enhanced imperialism. The supersession of human intelligence by machine intelligence would likely involve the use of such data and data processing capabilities to further predict and control social behavioral patterns of domestic and other populations. Meanwhile, warrior avatars and other advanced weaponry would supplement the existing arsenal of robotic weapons, such as drones and demining robots, for expanded imperialist and less bloody (for the imperialists) adventures. The “intelligence” of all of these weaponized systems would be dramatically enhanced, making them ever more effective and dangerous. In addition, the biotechnical enhancement of the few would serve to exacerbate an already widening class gulf, while the “superiority” of the enhanced would function ideologically to rationalize differences permitted by class division. The movie Gattaca (1997) comes to mind here. That is, if developments proceed as Kurzweil predicts, this vastly accelerated information collecting and processing sphere will not constitute real knowledge for the enlightenment of the vast majority. Rather, it will be instrumentalist and reductionist in the extreme, facilitating the domination of human beings on a global scale, while rendering opposition ever more difficult.

In short, whether or not the vaticinations of Raymond Kurzweil have the slightest chance of becoming reality, it is clear that the Singulartarian movement provides ideological cover for the objectives of an increasingly technocratic ruling elite. Promises of vastly increased “intelligence” during an “information explosion,” or of immortality given the increasing precariousness of life on Earth, serve to allay fears and provide (false) hope, while obscuring real social and material conditions. The singularity notion proffers a resolution to existing conditions while sidestepping the confrontation that a real resolution requires. If it were mere ideology, Singulartarianism would not merit much concern. But make no mistake: the singularity paradigm is a Trojan horse that smuggles a desideratum for the singular mastery of space and time by a few under the cover of a techno-utopia for the totality. If indeed the ruling elite is hastening us toward a singularity, as corporate and State projects would seem to suggest, then we must be cognizant of the actuality it signifies, and work to oppose it, not on anti-technology grounds, as the Singulartarians would have it, but from the standpoint of the use of science and technology for the purposes of human emancipation. Whether anything may be salvaged from the technological apparatuses leftover from Singulartarianism is a question for the future, the future of socialism-communism, not, if we have our way, of Singulartarianism.

(Originally published here)

{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

hooar October 9, 2013 at 9:47 pm

work dat thesaurus!

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Zen_Punk October 15, 2013 at 7:43 am

I guess some people don’t consider precision of language a desideratum.

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hooar October 15, 2013 at 10:17 pm

“precision of language”
riiiiiight, because presenting this argument as clearly as possible to the layperson and navigating the complex detailed rebuttal of transhumanism with exacting language guideposts is totally the point, not covering up an intellectually shallow and morally dubious opinion with flowery five dollar verbiage. Gotchya!

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Pavel Dubrovsky October 15, 2013 at 10:33 pm

please follow our policy if you intend to comment. thanks.

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Michael Rectenwald October 22, 2013 at 11:38 pm

I don’t believe I’m at all covering up some “intellectually shallow” nor especially a “morally dubious opinion” with “flowery five dollar verbiage.” The object was to be as precise as possible. There’s nothing particularly “flowery” about the language, nor does it serve as scrim for a “morally dubious opinion.” I don’t think I’ve invoked morality as such, at all, although I do think that the politics of transhumanism and singulatarianism have been addressed. And I did not “work a thesaurus.” This is just the language that I prefer to use. I don’t follow what I call the “plain language imperative,” as this seems as dogmatic as anything else. If you think this is difficult, try Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment.

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hooar October 24, 2013 at 9:54 pm

Thanks for responding, I obviously didn’t expect to spark off any discussion with my snarky dismissal of your article. I was just a bit disappointed with what I felt was the central thesis of the article that these advancements would somehow be controlled so tightly that only the wealthy could take advantage and I think as you see the massive growth of personal computing and internet access these past few years of race-to-the-bottom-dollar smart phones and mobile devices and how hugely that has impacted people in former “3rd world” nations it strikes me as ideologically based that you would assume these trends would not continue in the future. To be honest though I was in a mood and as said didn’t think I would spark off a discussion, thank you again for the unexpectedly civil response :)

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William C Crain October 10, 2013 at 5:48 am

Hello Ayn Rand and Superman ~ is Singularity any more or less than this egregious Scientistic super race of chosen robots?

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Jeff K. October 11, 2013 at 5:25 pm

Slight correction: In physics, a singularity is an object whose volume (not mass) approaches zero, resulting in infinite density.

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Michael Rectenwald October 12, 2013 at 10:38 pm

Right. It should read a condition of mass whose volume is approaching zero…

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C James Townsend January 16, 2014 at 2:57 pm

You miss entirely the fact that the Singularity is not just about human beings becoming transhuman, there is a whole current that is totally Marxist as it is predicated on scientific and technolgical exponential change that will bring about abundance. Something Older Marxists understood as the ultimate goal of socilaism. My new book goes into this fully, http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/thetechniuminstitute/the-singularity-and-socialism

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