Saturday, January 1, 2011

Cyberia - The Qwest for Cingularity

Kurzweil the Futurist 
My knowledge of Ray Kurzweil has been limited to the 'Kurzweil' moniker on keyboards in Pink Floyd concert videos, so I was surprised to learn that he is an author, inventor, as well as a futurist. Most people live in the past and a few manage to enjoy now - this reminds me of profound words of wisdom from the old and wise tortoise in Kung-Fu Panda - "Now is a gift, that is why it is called the 'present'". Movie quotes range from vapid yet enormously popular ("I'll be back" - Terminator) to cheesy yet catchy ("You had me at hello" - Jerry Maguire) to the resoundingly impressive yet utterly redundant ("On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero" - Fight Club). A select few choose to live in a future, which while fantastical at face value, is grounded in science (as Arthur C Clarke, a futurist who predicted geostationary satellites in 1945, noted - 'Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic'). They are known as the futurists. 

Ray Kurzweil posits (finally found a good use for this word) that continuing advances in computing will lead to a singularity event in 2045 when apparently computer-based intelligences will significantly exceed the sum total of human brainpower. "The Singularity will allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains ... There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine". There is a corollary to that - advances in computing before that date "will not represent the Singularity" because they do "not yet correspond to a profound expansion of our intelligence." The first Singularity existed just before the Big Bang, if that theory regarding origin of the universe is to be believed. I will refer to the Kurzweil singularity event as Cingularity (Cyber Singularity). Any resemblance to cellular networks dead or living is unintentional.

Plugging into the Matrix
This is interesting, if not horrifying yet. The idea of human beings uploading their consciousness (with the next logical step being a total surrender of their physical being) into cyberspace, a man-made construct, is not very appealing. As noted in my post regarding Alzheimer's (Leaving Just 'A' Memory?), having a cyber-backup structure to prevent losing invaluable constructs like consciousness, intelligence and creativity makes sense, since having these continue to exist in a biological structure subject to all kinds of damage is ridiculous. It of course brings up configuration management issues, e.g., which particular version of your consciousness backup to use if you start 'losing it', but I digress. Utilizing advances in computing to facilitate a neuron-by-neuron cyber-backup of our consciousness makes sense, but the concept of human beings giving up their physical being altogether is fraught with danger.

Implicit Promise, Shaky Premise
While the vision of man-machine convergence might be wildly exciting, one cannot ignore the nagging thought that this is not just about that - it's about man wanting to defy the natural constraints imposed on this blip of a life in the cosmic timeline and attempting to attain immortality because that is the implicit promise of Cingularity, isn't it? But it is unfortunately undone by the shaky premise of it all, which is that the upload of consciousness is going to happen in a hostile, volatile, free-for-all web cast across this wide world.

In Cyberspace no one can hear you scream 
The web works because it still operates on rules implemented via code. Having sentient beings live in cyber-form (and they will want to live on the web and possibly in the cloud since who wants to be tied to a machine without connectivity?) will result in complete anarchy. Human consciousness will immediately start operating with ego, marking their territory, establishing boundaries and firewalls, 'routing' and 'switching' traffic however they want, and rewriting programs to suit their needs. Net neutrality would be neutralized in an instant and get replaced by net brutality. The web would be the scariest place to live in, with viruses and worms ready to hack into your consciousness and causing Dalzheimer's (Digital Alzheimer's) if not complete deletion. 

Anarchy Rules!
Laws and rules will have to be created to deal with that anarchy, and the cyber-world that will result from that will not be too dissimilar from the ancient empires like Rome. If you think about it, human consciousness will end up building a world similar to ours because the effort to transcend and think outside the box is astronomical and beyond the capability of most. Case in point - the movie Tron. The Tron: Legacy world is actually medieval, with programs competing in arenas like gladiators and subject to deletion at the slightest transgression (you might get to drive the wonderful Light Cycle, but your lifecycle will be premature and you will shatter into innumerable 1s and 0s very soon - there will be b100d!). So where is this headed? And the scariest thought of all, we will be at the risk of being switched off anytime since we will be at the mercy of the machine, if not at the mercy of human beings who decided not to live in cyberspace. We would also want to travel via the 'ether' through cellular networks (digital ones replacing the biological one of the human body) which, like Qwest and Cingular, are at the risk of going defunct or being acquired/merged and subject to change at any time. Human consciousness in cyberspace will be akin to the sorcerer in the movie Aladdin who, drunk with power, wanted to be the mightiest genie in the world, got his wish granted, and ended up trapped in a lamp at the mercy of another entity. Not so in'genie'ous.

Perception is Reality
The kicker is the question that if people basically need to feel something real and end up in a Matrix-like world, what is the difference beween the tangible and the intangible? Reality is based on perception - a true and confounding contradiction. Our interpretation of the world is based on human sensory input. So who's to say the current world we are living in is matter-based and not some giant software keeping us in a dream-state? Are we just waiting to be unplugged, which might mean a descent into nothingness, or waking up in the real world? Everyone ready to take the plunge down the rabbit-hole? One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small, and the ones that mother gives you, don't do anything at all!

Existing in a non-physical state would only make sense if scientific advances allowed controlled matter-to-energy conversion and all humanity made a decision to transform into an energy state at the same time to live in an Asimovian hyperspace where there is no dependency on machine or man. Now I am sounding like a futurist. This brings to mind an amazing cyber-spiritual (if there could be such a thing) short story by Isaac Asimov called The Last Question, my favorite: He wrote this in 1956 - what a futurist!

I term this dystopian cyber-world projected by Kurzweil as Cyberia, a desolate, hostile, barely livable place. I would rather be in Siberia, instead of risking living in a digital wasteland and having to deal with cyber-toothed tigers, trolls, viruses, worms, trojan horses, denial of service attacks, writing this article one day and suddenly being attacked by a worm and getting deleted mid-sentenc

Footnote (written before I got deleted mid-sentence. Looks like I was unwittingly prescient!) - The term futurist has a 'motion' connotation, maybe because it sounds similar to motorist. It does make some sense because a futurist is traveling or has already traveled to the future in his/her mind. Futurian on the other hand, like historian, lacks that sense of movement or urgency which is essential to the futurist's thought process (a futurist is getting or trying to get somewhere new or unknown, a historian is merely visiting already visited places), and sounds more like a chronicler of the future, an impossible feat if not difficult. A futurist is a scientist who systematically predicts the future, as opposed to an astrologer who uses the position of celestial bodies to asystematically predict the position of physical bodies on a temporal plane. I wonder how the demotion of Pluto from planetary status affected astrologers worldwide. Indian astrologers also account for hidden planets called Rahu and Ketu that have not yet been discovered, so there is no risk of those getting demoted - they will need to be discovered first.

Musical CreditsBass: Pankaj Kanth, Lead Guitar (on Bass): Pankaj Kanth, Rhythm Guitar (on Bass): Pankaj Kanth, Effects (on Bass): Pankaj Kanth, Drums: Korg Pandora preset rhythm

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