What If the “Singularity” Is Us?
By Joe Brewer
I’ve been watching the conversation about “the Singularity” — that historic moment when a transcendent artificial intelligence awakens and takes over the planet. For some reason, the evangelizers of this story seem to be mired in a deep hatred for their own bodies and corporeal existence.
Ray Kurzweil, the principal advocate of singularity thinking, fills his body with pills every day to preserve it long enough for an upload to the digital Matrix. He can’t wait to shake off this mortal coil and achieve immortality by leaving all of his humanness behind. He idolizes machine intelligence and confuses it with the inherent intelligence of nature — the wellspring that makes digital computing possible.
But what if he has it exactly backwards?
My studies of embodied cognition* tell a different story:
The mind is an emergent pattern of body, brain, and situated environment. This is what the last half century of cognitive science tells us. We are the dynamic patterns of life that arise when primate bodies interact in social networks to create cultural realities.
*Books on embodied cognition include The Embodied Mind, Embodiment and Cognitive Science, The Political Mind, Philosophy in the Flesh, The Meaning of the Body, Incomplete Nature, Self Comes to Mind, Louder Than Words, and many many more.
Which brings me back to the Singularity. I am ready to wager that it will not be an escape from our ecological reality as physical beings into a digital Matrix. Rather it will be the cultivation of global intelligence in our planetary system of human cultures — a web of evolutionary patterns that weaves technology with knowledge and, most centrally, our corporeal existence as ecological beings. Said another way, we are on the cusp of an evolutionary transition from hierarchical societies built on wealth hoarding, exploitation, and extraction (where much of technology created today is meant to serve this political agenda) to one built on our pro-social biological nature as cooperators and altruists (which would use technology in a very different manner to encourage harmony with the many facets of our ecological existence).
I want to propose that the Singularity will not be a mass exodus from the human condition. What it will be instead is a healing process that brings an end to the false dualisms of mind/body, human/nature, machine/organism, us/them, etc. in the myriad ways we build institutions and craft social policies.
This will include:
- Recognizing the ecological nature of the human mind. We will increasingly see that our thoughts are shaped by social learning, our behaviors informed by those of our peers, and that tools are extensions of our mental capacity to solve problems in the world.
- Cultivating market economies like gardens, rather than building them as if they were industrial machines. Our principle metaphors for economic thinking will come from the biological world. We will recognize that economies ARE living systems made up of human social webs — and that these living systems are fundamentally woven into the tapestry of the natural world on which they depend.
- Applying biomimicry to urban design. We will look at cities as the human ecologies they truly are. Our buildings will become like trees that capture and cycle nutrients in net-zero configurations of energy and water consumption. Our waste and transportation systems will behave like the mycelial threads that give rise to mushrooms in the forest — a communication infrastructure for moving around all the pieces needed for cities to function like an ecosystem.
- Treating culture as physical and part of the natural world. This is perhaps the biggest leap that will be required, recognizing that cultural evolution is a hereditary process that is essentially Darwinian in nature. Technologies (including “social tech” like business models, management systems, and yes, computers) really do evolve by building on what came before and selecting those attributes that are most adaptive to their given context.
All evidence is pointing toward this kind of singularity event. There will be a critical threshold (possibly several of them) upon which a new capacity for human cooperation emerges at the planetary scale.
Globalization in the late 20th Century brought us the digital infrastructure for real-time monitoring and self-organization. It was heavily dependent on the computing machines we created to serve an industrial factory metaphor for society. The next few decades are poised to make globalization operate as a Planetary Stewardship System that evolves into harmonic relationships between humans and the more-than-human world. In this life-affirming configuration we move beyond ideas of the mechanical universe and treat humanity as the ecological web of relationships that it truly is.
Now THAT is a kind of transcendence I can get behind! Not one that separates us from nature. But one that moves us beyond the parochial thinking of false divisions that conceal a more fundamental unity.
The Singularity will not be humans supplanted by machines. It will be the making of machines that serve our beautiful and natural inherent humanness. It will be an awakening to our embodied imminence as part of this world — a truth celebrated in wisdom traditions across the ages that must be remembered as we grow up into a spiritually mature “adult” civilization capable of managing its affairs responsibly and for the good of all.
Onward, fellow humans.