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Yes, Masters

The future as a vision of vegetables and robots.

Sep 5, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 47 • By KATE HAVARD
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Al Gore will never die. Or at least, he doesn’t plan to. 

Transcendent Man

No, the polar bears haven’t voted to deify him: Gore has simply thrown his hat in with Ray Kurzweil, inventor, author, and subject of Transcendent Man, a film documentary which predicts that man will soon be merging with machine to become an über-race of hyperintelligent, immortal cyborgs. In a video introduction to the discussion, Gore speaks about how the advances described in the film—Nanobots, Reverse Aging, Artificial Intelligence—would help address global challenges such as poverty and, of course, climate change.

“We stand on the threshold of new human potential,” says Gore.

The former vice president isn’t alone in his praise for Kurzweil: Deepak Chopra, Suzanne Somers, and Quincy Jones all made appearances in a recent Washington screening called Transcendent Man Live, a panel discussion about the film broadcast to movie theaters across the country. And while Al Gore did not speak about his own transcendence, he did praise Kurzweil’s endeavors. And indeed, Kurzweil has an impressive résumé: A onetime computer whiz kid, he helped invent the scanner.

After that, however, he seems to have taken a soaring and epic swan dive off the deep end.

Of course, this sort of argument is nothing new; Kurzweil’s vision is the same as that of the 18th-century French mathematician and philosopher Nicolas de Condorcet, who asserted that advances in science and politics are inherently positive. Though a marquis, Condorcet was an active advocate of the French revolutionaries, who thanked him by imprisoning and (probably) murdering him during the Terror. Kurzweil’s argument is similarly uncomplicated. Technology will continue to move forward at an unstoppable rate. Computers will keep getting smaller, faster, and cheaper. Medicine will get better, people will live longer and longer—eventually, they won’t ever have to die. Then we will all hold hands and rejoice as robots enter our bloodstreams, supersede our brains, and take over the world.

Kurzweil, like Condorcet, sees a revolution coming, which he calls “the Singularity,” a time when computers become so advanced that humans will be forced either to merge with their robot masters or be destroyed. (A helpful animation in Transcendent Man shows a monkey turning into a man, who gets sucked into a computer that turns into C-3PO, of Stars Wars fame, and then morphs into a satellite.) While Deepak Chopra briefly expressed his concern that man’s spiritual evolution would not be able to keep up with his biotechnological advancement, the panel was  clear on one thing: We should not fear the robot takeover, but welcome it. While the audience was warned that “those who resist” the Singularity “will suffer,” the panel promised that the Singularity would be both fun and pleasant for humans.

One of the panelists, physicist Michio Kaku, lamented that “Hollywood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and the Pentagon” have taught Americans to fear an endless reign of robots, but that more enlightened residents of Earth, such as the Japanese, view the machines as “pets, companions, and friends.” The robots won’t be aggressive or violent, he said, if we design them to be friendly: If problems arise we can control their violent impulses by implanting a chip that inhibits aggression. (This observation was followed briefly by another from Suzanne Somers, who said that, at 64 years of age, she maintains her youthful glow by eating lots of vegetables.)

Moreover, Kurzweil and his colleagues were adamant that these advances are not only inevitable but imminent—although little evidence was offered aside from insistence, optimism, and lots of footage of rocket ships launching and humans talking on cell phones.

Ray Kurzweil is many things: inventor, author, relentless name-dropper—and, to some degree, the personification of what can happen when projections of our technological future go haywire. Robots are people, too, he insisted: “Artificial intelligence is intelligence. Virtual reality is real reality.” (Dr. Kaku noted that, according to Shinto, inanimate objects have souls as well.) Technology will enable us to fall in love, added Kurzweil, eliminate the need for most physical activities, change the way we look, think, and feel—and ultimately, the way we die. 

Which, after two hours of robots, Ray Kurzweil, the Singularity, Suzanne Somers, and Al Gore, did not seem like such a bad option.

Kate Havard is a student at St. John’s College.

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