Issue Date: August 21, 2006
Rick Mullin has pointed up the fly in the ointment of the current enthusiasm for Ray Kurzweil's concept of "singularity" (C&EN, May 1, page 24). Goethe expressed the problem very well in his prologue to "Faust," in which Mephistopheles complains to God about humanity:
"Ein wenig besser würd' er leben,
Hättest Du ihm nicht den Schein des Himmelslichts gegeben;
Er nennt's Vernuft und braucht's allein
Nur tierischer als jedes Tier zu sein."
[His life would have been a bit better
Hadst Thou not given him the barest glimmerof heavenly light;
He calls it "Reason" and only makes use of it
To make himself more bestial than any beast.]
I take exception to Mullin's "Frankenstein at the Circus." In it, he ignores the fact that humans invariably choose to eat from the tree of knowledge, as did Adam and Eve, rather than remain in the paradise of ignorance. Furthermore, although he effectively uses Frankenstein to show how people often make the mistake of assuming that they can control all aspects of their newly minted ideas, he fails to consider an equally grave error-the attempts of society to contain knowledge it regards as hazardous. In such cases, draconian means of suppression may ironically employ some of the same information or techniques that are to be suppressed.
For example, in "Fahrenheit 451," Ray Bradbury creates a dystopia in which government uses technology developed by Western civilization to destroy the books upon which Western thought is based. In the end, however, man learns, as did Pandora, that once knowledge is unleashed upon the world, it cannot be stuffed back into its box. Instead, humanity must learn to adapt to the new paradigm.
It is the responsibility of those of us with backgrounds in the humanities to help people adjust to technological change without forgetting their own humanity. Technology, after all, does not equal philosophy. With regard to the singularity, if what makes us human is something more than having an opposable thumb, should it matter if that thumb contains bionic joints?
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