A Wave Towards Serendipity – “escape velocity”

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A few years ago I saw ‘Things To Come’, HG Wells’ 1930s science fiction epic. The story made a bold prediction: That by 2036 humankind’s scientific knowledge and technological capability would be so advanced, we would attempt to orbit the Moon.

From our post-Apollo perspective, this vision comes across as laughably conservative. But even as late as the 1950s, only a few daring thinkers could accept that we may one day venture into space. A publication called ‘Sattelite!’ (written by E. Bergaust and W. Beller and published just months before Sputnik was put into orbit) had this to say in its foreword:

“Even today, public acceptance of man’s coming exploration of space is slow. It is considered an event our children may experience, but certainly not one that we shall see”.

It was in the ’50s that the US Airforce charted the progress being made jet and rocket engine technology. When the trend curves were extrapolated out into the future, the conclusion was startling. The technology of speed was a mere four years from achieving escape velocity. If money and expertise were poured into research and development, there could be rockets that could deliver a payload into orbit. The Moon could be reached a few years later.

But, as Damien Broderick cautioned, “trend curves are just optical illusions, created and warped by the partial, selected information you care to put into them. Everyone in 1953 knew we would never get into space that quickly. Even the wildest optimists hoped for a lunar landing no sooner than the year 2000″.

With the benefit of hindsight we now know the trend curves’ trajectory was right on the mark. By 1957 Russia had put the first artificial sattelite into orbit, and in 1969 Neal Armstrong became the first person to walk on the Moon.

Ray Kurzweil is someone who knows all about charts that show how technology is progressing. If you read his books ‘Age Of Spiritual Machines’ or ‘Singularity Is Near’, you will find lots of charts, showing things like ‘average transistor price from 1950 to 2000′, ‘DNA sequencing cost from 1990 to 2004′ and ‘brain scanning image reconstruction time (seconds) from 1970 to 2005′. And, just like those US Airforce folk, Kurzweil has let the curves run into the future, to see where this is all progressing.

What these trend curves seem to indicate is hard to believe. Technologies that most people do not expect to see for hundreds of years are going to be possible in a few decades. Technologies like artificial general intelligence; whole brain emulations…even practical immortality. Of course, none of it will ‘just happen’. Money will have to be poured into research and development. There must be the will to make it so. But if the R+D succeeds in sustaining the level of growth we see in Kurzweil’s charts, then by 2045 there should be some truly remarkable outcomes, such as spiritual machines, the full reverse engineering of the brain and, yes, practical immortality.

Ah, but there is no shortage of doubters out there, voices of reason who would inform us that what Kurzweil’s charts seem to forecast cannot possibly happen, or at least not in the timeframe of a few decades. After all, you cannot trust trend curves like these. They are “just optical illusions, created and warped by the partial, selected information you care to put into them”. Any sane and sensible person would tell you that we know so little about the brain today that it is absurd to suggest we will have reverse-engineered it by the 2040s. And as for immortality, what lunacy to suggest we can defeat death. Every person who lived has also died. What more proof do you need that this is a law of nature, one we must all obey whether we like it or not?

But, I have another law of nature for you: ‘What goes up, must come down’. For many hundreds of thousands of years, this law of nature could be demonstrated by any modern human. After all, if you throw an object into the air it is inevitable that gravity will slow it down and then make it fall back toward the ground. But, remember what the trend curves showing progress in speed indicated: That soon our rockets would be so powerful we could hurl things up and achieve escape velocity. And once escape velocity is achieved, the rules are changed; the ‘law’ becomes obsolete. We threw the Voyager probes up, but they are never going to come back down. At least, not on our planet.

Now, Kurzweil’s curves seem to be telling us to expect more of these ‘escape velocities’. The workings of the mind is a mystery…until we develop technologies that enable us to map the structures of the brain and analyze the ways in which it operates. Death is inevitable…until bio, nano, and information technologies converge on the ability to carry out repairs at the molecular level, or transfer a person’s ‘soul’ (for lack of a better word) from one substrate to another. This is coming, and coming soon. In fact, Kurzweil believes that by 2045 we should witness what will be, for humans at least, the ultimate ‘escape velocity’: The creation of superhuman intelligences who will trigger a ‘singularity’, a paradigm shift into an entirely new reality that we cannot imagine.

Oh, but everyone knows this is absurd. It cannot possibly happen as soon as 2045. Get outta here, Ray!

But then, that is what they said about journeys to the Moon in 1950, wasn’t it?

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