Thursday, December 31, 2009

Rise of the Cybermen

I know in reading that headline all of you either said "huh?" or put on your skeptic hat (or both). Bear with me.
For those of you who don't know what a cyberman is, a quick explanation:

A cyberman is a machine (usually robot) with a human brain and/or consciousness inside. I encountered the concept via a TV show known as Doctor Who. I've been watching it obsessively lately for two reasons:

  1. David Tennant (the 10th regeneration of The Doctor)'s finale has come. Part 1 last Saturday, and Part 2 this coming Saturday. Naturally, I've rediscovered how freaking awesome it all is and am rewatching lots of old episodes. For instance, we watched the finale to Season 3 this morning. I've seen the End of Time Part 1 twice and listened to BBC's commentary podcast episode on it twice. Stop laughing at me.
  2. My friends are visiting from Indiana, and they like Doctor Who but haven't seen all of the New Who episodes. We always watch at least a few whenever they come. 
Anyways, I was reading the latest issue of Popular Science earlier today, and was shocked to learn something:

The cybermen are coming.

The subtitle of the article reads "According to Ray Kurzweil, the Singularity is a point at which man will become one with machine and then live eternally- which makes Singularity University, a nine-week academic retreat named for the concept, sound a little cultish. Our writer traveled west to investigate and found 40 stunningly sane braniacs out to change the world."

The writer "expected to encounter a bunch of sci-fi nerds who couldn't wait to plug into the Matrix" but instead found a group of graduate students scientifically working with "far out" concepts to try to make the world a better place. The "university" isn't actually much of a school- it's an "intellectual retreat". There are no tests and no papers. Collaborative projects, thinking, and presentations dominate.
The University isn't even centered around achieving Singularity, although it is one of the things they play with. That's just the school's chancellor (Kurzweil). He estimates that by 2029 we will achieve AIs (Artificial Intelligences) equal to humans and by 2045, we "should be able to upload our consciousness into machines, providing eternal life."
Remind anyone of John Lumic?
Of course, what Kurzweil is talking about will (hopefully) be radically different from the episode. He's already on a " regimen designed to prolong life (minimal calories, healthy foods, no booze, many [over 150] supplements)", and has made arrangements to be cyrogenically frozen in the event that the technology is not ready within his lifetime (he's currently 61). He appears to have none of Lumic's qualms about becoming a  human mind in a metal body.
I'm writing about this not to say "WE MUST STOP THIS" and not to heavily endorse it. I think we definitely need to be careful in this field and that there are pros and cons to Singularity. I think people should be made aware that this concept is not as sci-fi as they think it is. I think we should all come to our own conclusions. I think we should be wary, but open-minded. It doesn't seem like the Doctor will be around to save us if we mess up (although that would be beyond awesome), so let's think it through, and be careful.
I know it sounds like I'm paranoid of being attacked by robots. I know it sounds like I'm against this technology. It scares me, yeah, but I'm open to the concept of using it. If I see people making the change and still retaining their humanity, and nothing weird or horrible happens (observation for a few years) then I'll be in the car on my way to the integration facility. I don't want to sound like I'm dissuading the project from continuing.
My point: Yes, sci-fi is fiction, but we can still learn from it. So let's be VERY CAREFUL. Who says these AIs won't try to take over the world and obliterate humanity from the face of the earth?

A question for Kurzweil: are you talking computers with consciousnesses floating around in cyberspace, cybernetic organisms like the Termiantor (minus the guns and stuff), or brains in metal suits?

Forgive my Doctor Who fanship and slight paranoia. Like in Galaxy Quest when Nesbit tells Branden "[everything on the show] is all real" and he exclaims "I KNEW IT", perhaps I never quite accepted that some stuff is entirely fake. Most children are like that, right?

1 comment:

  1. As a die-hard Whovian I was very disappointed with The End Of Time Part 1. I felt that it was weird to extreme, full of fluff, and rushed at the beginning. The Characters were also terrible, the new ones were 1 dimensional and the old ones were out of character. Th ending was so totally out of character with the old series that it feels like Mr. Davies has not even seen the old series.

    That said I look forward to the new series with Mr. Smith. I love the new head writer and Matt Smith looks like he might be quite good as the Doctor.


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