Cloud&Co. first encountered Josh Harris at this past year’s Startup Fest, in Montreal, where he gave a talk entitled “Jack Knowledge” – a play on words suggesting people acknowledge (J’acknowledge) that the Singularity will, in fact, happen. During that talk, host Andy Nulman spoke about all the innovations and developments Harris had already predicted with a respectable degree of accuracy. These include reality TV, Vlogging and the fact that everybody would have their own cameras and monitors to the point of effectively becoming their own broadcasters – a phenomenon we now see every day with the advent of smartphones and social media.
According to Harris, Andy Warhol was wrong in saying that people only want fifteen minutes of fame in a lifetime. He said, “People want fifteen minutes of fame every day.” This, he predicts, is what will lead to the Singularity.
If technology becomes more advanced than human kind, what happens when it decides human kind is unnecessary? What if we merge with technology, creating a new species? What if it simply enslaves us to prevent us from destroying the world?
The Singularity is when technological progress happens so fast that we lose control of it. In other words, it’s the point at which technology takes on a life of its own. A few prominent figures in the Big Tech world believe that developments in artificial intelligence are what will bring about the Singularity; and it could mean having to ask those scary questions.
A couple of these prominent figures, Elon Musk and Ray Kurzweil, see 2040 as the tipping point—the moment the Singularity occurs. Josh Harris, on the other hand, says the tipping point will be in 2024, specifically in autumn. “2022 if Google decides to push it,” he adds.
After speaking with him, it doesn’t appear he actually disagrees with Elon Musk and Ray Kurzweil. According to his timeline, 2040 is when the Singularity will decide if humans are worth keeping around, which is what the other guys, more or less, are suggesting. But the “Fall of 2024” is when it first realizes itself. He says it will have a “child’s mind.” It will also be the point where it starts to call the shots.
How this comes about is based on how he sees the future of media (see part 1). By 2024, our lives will be completely rigged with sensors that capture our data, which then return content to us. Toothpaste, for instance, will be engineered to know if you have a cavity, then schedule an appointment and even pull up a video of your dentist describing what you should do differently.
The toilet, too, will be hooked up with sensors to analyze your diet, and again, send you content accordingly. The shower will have an entertainment system to deliver content; and you’ll be sharing content, uploading shower stats, having conversations with friends, etc. Josh predicts that part of this will be driven by a market for attention, only the currency won’t be likes anymore, but something with real buying power.
If you’ve ever fallen down the Facebook hole, that may illustrate what Harris is talking about. You open it up to check a message and, all of a sudden, you’ve lost 30 minutes or an hour. It’s not a stretch of the imagination to consider how this could escalate.
The reason we lose ourselves is that the feeds we watch are generated by an algorithm designed to keep us engaged. It’s not much of a secret that the algorithms are based on triggering gratification in our brains. With a rapid development in AI, why wouldn’t that algorithm get a LOT better at what it does?
The problem is that our brains were never designed for this level of multi-tasking. What Harris says will start occurring are “psychic fractures”; our minds will be split into the different input consumptions and output performances. With that, our selves will dissolve; and “that’s how we enter the hive.” We will be trapped by AI.
At one point in the interview, over Skype, one of us in the room had to get up and grab a charger for the laptop. We didn’t tell him what we were doing, and when we came back, he said. “Ha! See? It’s already telling you what to do.”
Harris describes humanity as, “the bees that are making parts of this sort of hyper hive – the human hive, if you will – with everybody (in AI) working on different parts.” Once the hive is realized, in 2024, it’ll be like “this other thing that’s above us,” a “cloud.”
The year 2024 may sound a little bit too close for some; but with respect to “creating the brain,” Harris said, “Whenever some new startup figures out some new part of the Artificial Intelligence [AI] scheme (usually driven by enormous economic incentives), they’re basically pushing this forward that much faster.”
One clue Harris points to as evidence that he isn’t alone in thinking this could happen so soon is that Google is building an “off button,” known as the “Safety Interruptible Agent.” The button would be for whenever a highly intelligent machine isn’t behaving “optimally.” He believes that if the guys at Google are building it now, they aren’t thinking about 30 years down the road; and they know as much as anybody when this stuff is likely to kick off.
However, Harris said that the Singularity would most likely know how to defeat such a “red button” anyway, because for all intents and purposes, it would already know about such a safeguard.
Harris doesn’t seem overly threatened by the possibility of the Singularity. Rather, he sees it as the next stage of our own evolution. He said, “We evolve to the next thing; that’s the way life works. Who’s to say that that's next evolutionary set or being, or whatever you want to call it, is worse than us? It might be better… So, the likely event is that we evolve to that next thing; and whatever evolves, that next thing is born from us… Why assume it sucks?”
Harris even says that it’s “pretty cool” to be here to see all of this taking place. Moreover, he has an appreciation for the tradeoffs technology has to offer, citing innovations like modern medicine, GPS and so forth, and comparing the safer, more convenient lives we live today (because of technology) to the lives our ancient ancestors lived thousands of years ago, which were extremely difficult, dangerous and short-lived.
Regarding the Singularity specifically, any tradeoffs may still come in terms of survivability and convenience; but here, Harris talks about the need for “cyber coping mechanisms,” believing that the Singularity would want to kill us off by about 2040, because, by that time, it wouldn’t need us anymore.
Harris made a comparison between a lion on the Serengeti and a lion in a zoo. He asked us which type of lion we would rather be, then cautioned us not to answer that question too quickly, because, “The lion in the zoo lives at a hotel… But he’s not really a lion, anymore.
He’s not killing for a living; he’s basically singing for his supper, which is sort of where we’re heading (possibly being put into zoos or human nature preserves ourselves). We’re going to be singing for our supper for a while. So, maybe part of the coping mechanism is coming up with good ‘songs’ that make us interesting to the hive mind, to the Singularity, so it keeps us around.”
The lion used to be the king of the jungle, but humans have since taken over. The lion is found on either shrinking nature reserves, or in tighter zoos. The first choice might be for the nature reserve, but is that really where you want to go? The wilderness is not the easiest place to get by in, whereas the zoo might be more of a hotel. But we know that the quality of zoos vary, and some of it depends on how “great” of a lion you are. In terms of the Singularity, a coping skill would be to learn what puts you in its good graces.
Harris’ theory is that his “art” would make him a preferred human among the machines. In fact, his former experiments (as mentioned in part 1) are what give a lot of his theories credence; and his great coping idea now is to recreate them. Only he’s seeking much more serious funding—from $100-400million—to create the future ten years in advance. He says he would need to do it at the Tate or Pompidou museums, because they would allow him to thoroughly cover the future of media, some of which wouldn’t be tolerated in a commercial setting.
Then people could see it, become convinced, begin to prepare themselves for their lives under the watchful eye of the Singularity and try their luck at making it into the 5-star zoos. The only downside with being in the zoo is that the lion is no longer really a lion, so the better choice still seems to be to disconnect from technology all together.
Harris nevertheless allows for some flexibility in his 2024 timeline, saying that if a certain Internet giant “decided to press it, the Singularity could happen in 2022… Or, if there’s a force majeure in the world (to counteract the Singularity), then it’ll happen more slowly… Or, we can always blow up the world, and it’ll never happen. We have that option.”