Sergey Brin, no longer just a human being
On a Tuesday evening this spring, Sergey Brin, the co-founder of Google, became part man and part machine. About 40 people, all gathered here at a NASA campus for a nine-day, $15,000 course at Singularity University, saw it happen.
While the flesh-and-blood version of Mr. Brin sat miles away at a computer capable of remotely steering a robot, the gizmo rolling around here consisted of a printer-size base with wheels attached to a boxy, head-height screen glowing with an image of Mr. Brin’s face. The BrinBot obeyed its human commander and sputtered around from group to group, talking to attendees about Google and other topics via a videoconferencing system.
The BrinBot was hardly something out of “Star Trek.” It had a rudimentary, no-frills design and was a hodgepodge of loosely integrated technologies. Yet it also smacked of a future that the Singularity University founders hold dear and often discuss with a techno-utopian bravado: the arrival of the Singularity — a time, possibly just a couple decades from now, when a superior intelligence will dominate and life will take on an altered form that we can’t predict or comprehend in our current, limited state.
A student at the Singularity University.
At that point, the Singularity holds, human beings and machines will so effortlessly and elegantly merge that poor health, the ravages of old age and even death itself will all be things of the past.
Some of Silicon Valley’s smartest and wealthiest people have embraced the Singularity. They believe that technology may be the only way to solve the world’s ills, while also allowing people to seize control of the evolutionary process. For those who haven’t noticed, the Valley’s most-celebrated company — Google — works daily on building a giant brain that harnesses the thinking power of humans in order to surpass the thinking power of humans.
Larry Page, Google’s other co-founder, helped set up Singularity University in 2008, and the company has supported it with more than $250,000 in donations. Some of Google’s earliest employees are, thanks to personal donations of $100,000 each, among the university’s “founding circle.” (Mr. Page did not respond to interview requests.)
The university represents the more concrete side of the Singularity, and focuses on introducing entrepreneurs to promising technologies. Hundreds of students worldwide apply to snare one of 80 available spots in a separate 10-week “graduate” course that costs $25,000. Chief executives, inventors, doctors and investors jockey for admission to the more intimate, nine-day courses called executive programs.
Both courses include face time with leading thinkers in the areas of nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, energy, biotech, robotics and computing.
On a more millennialist and provocative note, the Singularity also offers a modern-day, quasi-religious answer to the Fountain of Youth by affirming the notion that, yes indeed, humans — or at least something derived from them — can have it all.
“We will transcend all of the limitations of our biology,” says Raymond Kurzweil, the inventor and businessman who is the Singularity’s most ubiquitous spokesman and boasts that he intends to live for hundreds of years and resurrect the dead, including his own father. “That is what it means to be human — to extend who we are.”
But, of course, one person’s utopia is another person’s dystopia.
In the years since the Unabomber, Theodore J. Kaczynski, violently inveighed against the predations of technology, plenty of other more sober and sophisticated warnings have arrived. There are camps of environmentalists who decry efforts to manipulate nature, challenges from religious groups that see the Singularity as a version of “Frankenstein” in which people play at being gods, and technologists who fear a runaway artificial intelligence that subjugates humans.
A popular network television show, “Fringe,” playfully explores some of these concerns by featuring a mad scientist and a team of federal agents investigating crimes related to the Pattern — an influx of threatening events caused by out-of-control technology like computer programs that melt brains and genetically engineered chimeras that go on killing sprees.
Some of the Singularity’s adherents portray a future where humans break off into two species: the Haves, who have superior intelligence and can live for hundreds of years, and the Have-Nots, who are hampered by their antiquated, corporeal forms and beliefs.