Conroy’s filter has nothing on the next technology scare
I’ve got two words for those working themselves into supernovas of incandescent cyber rage over Conroy’s internet filtering scheme: The Matrix.
Or how about: The Terminator. Or, to be more scientifically respectable: the Singularity. Let’s all unhook ourselves from our computers, iPhones and PlayStations for a few moments and consider the possibility that the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy is not a reactionary Papist set on turning this free-speech-loving nation into – take your pick from the blogosphere pundits – Torquemada’s Spain, Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia or Hu Jintao’s China.
Is it possible that in the not too distant future, the man voted 2009’s Internet Villain of the Year will come to be venerated as a John Connor-esque hero, a 21st century neo-Luddite resistance fighter, a man who tugged on the handbrake a little while the rest of humanity was intent on driving itself off a cliff?
Most non-geeks remain in a state of blissful ignorance about the Singularity. To briefly explain, in 1993, an American professor of mathematics, computer scientist and sci-fi author called Vernor Vinge published an essay entitled ‘The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in a Post-Human Era’ which predicted superhuman intelligence would arrive circa 2030.
Four years later, the Australian science writer Dr Damien Broderick published a book, The Spike, which foresaw the development, within the next half-century, of things such as part-man, part-machine ‘transhumans’ and ‘Santa Claus machines’ – nano-cornucopias capable of building anything from diamond houses to starships.
The most prominent Singularity expert nowadays is an American inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil, author of 2005’s The Singularity Is Near. As journalist Dan Halpern relates in an article in the current edition of GQ Australia, Kurzweil believes that over the next three decades humans will first become partly machine, then fully machine, then software – that is, we’ll start uploading the contents of our minds to computers and morph into disembodied computer programs.
And after that, things get really interesting.
There’s the conversion of all matter in the universe into massive computers and the vestiges of human individuality transformed into an entirely communal, interconnected existence which evolves into a Godlike supercomputer.
If you’re thinking Kurzweil might have inhaled a few too many fumes down in the lab right about now, you may be proven right, but you should know that a lot of people rolled their eyes when he released a book in 1990 predicting something called ‘the internet’ was going to take off in a big way.
And the developments Kurzweil describes are no longer the stuff of sci-fi movies. They’re happening. Right now.
Humans are being increasingly augmented with machine parts. That mobile in your pocket allows you access to more information than any library has ever stored. Scientists are making solid progress on Artificial General Intelligence, that is, machines that can learn and become progressively smarter.
In 2000, Bill Joy, a computer scientist and the co-founder of Sun Microsystems, wrote an essay for Wired magazine entitled ‘Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us’. It argued that in a world of intelligent machines, self-replicating nanotechnology and full genetic engineering things essential to humanity or humanity itself would very likely fall by the wayside.
Now, call me old school, call me paranoid, call me a Cassandra, but shouldn’t we all be taking the advice of very smart men like Bill Joy and devoting a little thought to where largely unregulated technological advances are taking us? Surely I’m not the only one a tad apprehensive about the prospect – however distant or unlikely - of being subsumed by a supercomputer?
Granted, the right of Australians to view interracial midget porn if they so choose to is important, but shouldn’t the potential extinction or enslavement of the entire human race generate a roughly equivalent amount of impassioned debate and media coverage?
Two centuries before the cyber-activist group Anonymous attacked Federal Parliament’s computers to protest the internet filter, another group of people who felt their way of life under threat started creating trouble. They were English skilled textile workers who believed — accurately — that the introduction of mechanised looms would make them redundant. They called themselves Luddites.
They attacked looms for a couple of years until the British government cracked down hard. Those arrested for the crime of ‘Machine breaking’ were typically dealt with in two ways: execution or transportation to Australia.
It would be interesting to know whether those exiled Luddite’s descendants believe their government is doing too much or too little to regulate today’s machines.
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