We have now reached the point in our story where we no longer know what is going on. Moore’s law still reigns supreme over the technological playground, but it appears that our toys have outgrown us – or are very, very close to doing so. Each prediction about what this will mean for the human race is wilder than the next. The wildest prophecies of all cluster around a concept known as “the singularity.”
Now there’s a word. Something to do with single, with singleness, oneness, with one or perhaps, The One. All of that and more is wrapped up in it. There are as many different definitions of singularity as there are academic disciplines, ranging from a profound transformation to an idea of mythic proportion. If you talk to a mathematician, you will be told that singularity is the point at which a function approaches an infinite value. If you chat with an astronomer, you will learn that it is a region in which matter approaches infinite density. A physicist will inform you that it is a tear in the fabric of space-time where the normal rules of modeling break down. And finally, a futurist will use the word to mean technological singularity.
And what does that mean? Again, it depends on who you talk to. The word was first used in the technological sense by the polymath John von Neumann, one of the creators of both the atomic bomb and ENIAC, who in the mid-1950s spoke of the “ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.”
But all the more recent futurist predictions for what we can expect can be reduced to one word: superhuman (Nietsche would have been proud: Übermensch is finally here).
There are four major hypotheses about how this exalted state will be attained:
1. Computers will become superhuman
2. Humans will merge with computers to become superhuman
3. Humans will become superhuman all on their own through neurological and genetic enhancement
4. The Internet will become superhuman
#4 would seem to be the most likely and the most imminent, since we’re already inextricably tangled up in the Net. If we include the approximately 1 billion broadband mobile devices and 2.5 billion regular computers hooked up to it, the Internet harnesses the power of 200 quadrillion transistors, 200 times the number of synapses in the human brain, and contains – or very soon will contain – almost all the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of every human being who ever lived.
Is this the end of us or the beginning of a new us?
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw.
Was this a premonition? Should that last line have read transistors instead of straw? And were the last two lines of the poem
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
another presentiment of how the world might end? Was this the poet’s subliminal foreshadowing of the singularity as we whimper at the brass feet of Big Brain?
Eliot wrote his poem in 1925, twenty-one years before ENIAC and half-a-dozen years before anyone knew that the world had in fact begun with a bang. An even greater poet wrote, “We are such stuff/As dreams are made on; and our little life/Is rounded with a sleep.” Was Eliot perhaps dreaming of a universe rounded with a pair of bangs?
We’ll never know for sure. But what we do know is that there were two Jesuits priests who dreamed just that.
The first of the pair of sonic bookends for the Beginning and the End of Everything was proposed in 1931, just six years after Eliot’s poem, by a young Jesuit cosmologist, Georges Lemaître, who took note of the astounding revelation by the giant Hubble telescope at Mt. Wilson in California that all the visible galaxies were receding from us at a very great speed. This meant that the universe must be expanding, falling apart, in a sense, as it created more and more nothingness between its various lumps of matter.
This was a shock to put it mildly, because up until this time, the standard cosmological idea of the universe was that it was static, neither expanding nor contracting, remaining more or less the same throughout all eternity. Lemaître realized that since the universe was expanding, if you rewound the tape, you would see the universe shrinking smaller and smaller and becoming denser and denser until it was reduced to a single particle – the “primeval atom” – and then to nothing at all.
It is this very nothingness that must have miraculously exploded into existence in the first place, giving rise to space and time. As Lemaître put it, the present universe was the “ashes and smoke of bright but very rapid fireworks.” This “fireworks theory” was a first version of what the astronomer and science fiction writer, Fred Hoyle, was later to call the “Big Bang” theory of the origin of the universe.
Fast-forward five years to 1936, the same year Turing imagined the first digital computer, when another Jesuit priest named Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who was also a philosopher, paleontologist and geologist. De Chardin had never heard of computers, let alone the Internet, yet he wrote a book entitled The Phenomenon of Man, in which, while contemplating the spread of humanity across the globe, he asked:
Is this not like some great body which is being born – with its limbs, its nervous system, its perceptive organs, its memory – the body in fact of that great living Thing which had to come to fulfill the ambitions aroused in the reflective being by the newly acquired consciousness?
De Chardin called this global consciousness the noösphere.
He was not the first to entertain such thoughts, only the first to attend to them so closely. As the age of radio was dawning, Nikola Tesla predicted in 1904 that thanks to his new invention, “The entire Earth will be converted into a giant brain, as it were, capable of response in every one of its parts.”
In 1922, Mark Caspar, editor of Radio Dealer, proclaimed, “Radio proves the truth of the omnipotence of the Almighty. When the Bible tells us God is omnipresent and sees all we do and knows all our thoughts – we can now better realize that if we, mere humans, can ‘listen in’ and hear people talk all over the Earth with a radio set, a foot or two long, what power must be ascribe to the Almighty? Can we longer doubt His omnipresence and omnipotence? Behold, the all-seeing eye!”
De Chardin envisaged his noösphere (from the Greek nous for mind) as a sphere of human thought enclosing the Earth in a single “thinking envelope… a harmonized collectivity of consciousnesses equivalent to a sort of super-consciousness.” He goes on:
When for the first time in a living creature instinct perceived itself in its own mirror, the whole world took a pace forward. …to an imaginary geologist coming one day far in the future to inspect our fossilized globe, the most astounding of the revolutions undergone by the earth would be that which took place at the beginning of what has so rightly been called the psychozoic era. And even today, to a Martian… the first characteristic of our planet would be, not the blue of the seas or the green of the forests, but the phosphorescence of thought.
…De Chardin was only imagining this phosphorescence of thought; we are now living it, squirming and writhing in its lattice, the greatest catch of the day of all time.
Of course de Chardin had no idea he was predicting the Internet half a century before it happened; rather, he was reaching for the loftiest, most spiritual thoughts he could conceive of: the evolutionary progression of matter from nothing into first a geosphere, then a biosphere, then a noösphere, leading ultimately to what he called the “Omega Point”: supreme consciousness. From Aleph to Omega; from Nothing to Rock to Life to Man to…
David Stansfield is a former PBS writer-producer and the author of “Take Nothing For Granted,” a thriller set against the backdrop of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.