Jaron Lanier on Singularity 1 on 1: The Singularity Is A Religion for Geeks

by Socrates on May 11, 2011

Today my guest on Singularity 1 on 1 is Jaron Lanier.

Jaron lives in Berkeley, California and, like John Horgan, is one of the better known critics of both Ray Kurzweil and the technological singularity. Unlike many other critics, however, Lanier is neither a technophobe nor a Luddite. In fact, he is known as the father of virtual reality technology. In addition, Jaron has worked on the interface between computer science and medicine, physics, and neuro-science. Most recently he is the author of a manifesto titled You Are Not a Gadget.

I thought of asking Jaron for an interview right after I watched a couple of YouTube videos where he argues that the Singularity is a new religion for geeks. Though I certainly disagree with this claim of his, I still think that his book is a great read with a lot of sound arguments about the pitfalls of legacy software backed up by several solid examples. Unfortunately, I have to admit that in my opinion his reasoning during our conversation did not strike me to be as sound as that of his book. This, however, may well be a direct result of my arguably poor questions. Perhaps I somehow failed to lead the conversation in the most productive and constructive manner…

Anyway, as always you can listen to or download the audio file above and don’t hesitate to let me know what you think!

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  • http://profiles.google.com/darkenfair Wayne Eddy

    I don’t believe that the Singularity is a religion, but if it was I would be agnostic. I think there is a limit to useful knowledge and that at some point in time the rate at which we progress will slow down significantly, because we have already discovered nearly everything about how the universe works and how to manipulate it. That said, I have no idea how far along the s-curve we are. Do we already know 1%, 10% or 50% of what there is to know?

    I think a bigger question is, if and when we will transition into a post-scarcity civilization? If post-scarcity was a religion I would be a believer.

  • http://twitter.com/CMStewartWrite CMStewart

    Some argue for a rigid definition of “believe,” wherein “I believe the sun will rise tomorrow,” and “I know the sun will rise tomorrow” would not be interchangeable. Others argue for a relaxed definition. Believing events will occur- for example, believing I’ll publish a book someday- does not make me a “Believer.” Even if I were 100% convinced Kurzweil’s Singularity predictions would come to fruition, I still wouldn’t be religious, as “Singularitarianism” or “Singularitism” or “The Singularity” is not a religion. It’s not my “opinion” it’s not a religion, it’s simply not a religion as a matter of fact. Kurzweil’s Singularity predictions are based on science, not myths. And even if you don’t agree with the science, your disagreement doesn’t turn “The Singularity” into a religion. Lanier expressed exasperation with being asked certain questions repeatedly over the course of his careers. I’m a bit exasperated by the insistence that people finding validity in the Singularity predictions makes those people religious. Same with the insistence that atheism is a religion. It’s not. To insist on “The Singularity” and atheism being religions is intellectually dishonest at best and sociologically damaging at worst.

    Lanier has some excellent points about the Watson “win” on Jeopardy. Indeed, the engineers and researchers behind Watson changed the Jeopardy game. But I would also say that “game changing” within a rapidly advancing technological society is inevitable, and the Watson match shouldn’t be so easily dismissed because Watson is a machine and not a person. Yes, the science behind Watson was reframed, and that is a bit unfortunate, but I’d also point out the majority of the technologically advanced world lives in a media culture that worships the Snookis of our species. If the spectacle of Watson “winning” on Jeopardy gets a few people believing Watson “won” the same way any other contestant won, but ALSO gets a few people interested in the technology behind the spectacle, then I’d say it’s worth it.

  • http://profiles.google.com/blistovmhz Benjamin Selinger

    I actually mostly agree with Jaron, despite singularity/transhumanism being a very central part of my life. I won’t argue that either are central to my “beliefs” as it’s not so much about belief as it is personal goals, direction, and understanding. I’m sure a few of those who know me well will understand why I am hesitant to associate myself with Transhumanists/Singularitarians, while understanding that I myself am (I believe) more Transhumanist and Singularitarian than 99% of the others who describe themselves as such. Most of the group read “The Singularity is near” (or at least made it through the first 3-4 chapters) and converted immediately. While I would like to see more people understand the future which is so rapidly accelerating towards us so that we as a species may prepare for and guide it intelligently, most of the believers are just that. Believers. They have no scientific background, very little technical experience or knowledge, and they don’t understand a majority of the inputs required to make rational a belief in the future as suggested by Transhumanism. Something being almost certainly true is not enough for rational belief. We must understand not only the “what”, but more importantly the “why”. I’m not going to name names, and a few of you will laugh your bag off when I refer to them as “those who should not yet be allowed at the adult table”, but I see some very big names in the H+ movement whom I know (for a fact) believe they will be mind-uploading in the next 15-20 years, yet have absolutely no idea how all that magic inside a computer works. Without just that one piece of information, I find it extraordinarily irrational to believe in mind uploading (at least until we actually start uploading our lobsters), much in the same way it was irrational for so many people, ignorant to the underlying scientific principals of jet propulsion, to believe 20 years ago that we’d all be drunk driving in our flying space cars by now.
    Rational belief of the coming Singularity relies on at least a basic understanding of a majority of the prerequisite input technologies required for such. I believe I know more about why cats do as they do, than most Transhumanists know about nano-technology/neurology/computation. Their unwavering belief in their expected future as unreasonable as the hippies belief that quantum physics proves we’re all linked into one giant Universal consciousness.
    Transhumanism has become imho, quite generally a religion of joiners and followers with a sprinkling of people who truly understand the data.

  • http://twitter.com/Nikki_OlsonTSIN Nikki Olson

    Great interview Socrates!

    People such as Lanier are far under credited in my opinon. Beyond all his technical accomplishments and so on, I respect him for being the guy that is willing to say what people might not like at the expense of having a following. It’s a difficult road to walk, being seen as negative mood killer all the time.

    People would rather follow and associate with people who are less critical because they like the feelings of positivity that are associated. You can’t blame them. But there are pockets of the community that reach ‘local maximums’ because of this, where the thinking on matters gets ‘capped’ at some less than ideal point and stays there, despite the fact that discussion is constantly going on. These bubbles/echo chambers are largely resistent to truly critical thought, and don’t actually foster the evolution of thought on matters because of it. When critical thinking comes in every once and a while, it tends to be ignored (at least ultimately). Are Singularitarians a special kind of group that are more prone to thinking optimistically at the expense of critical thought, and favoring optimistic thinking/thinkers at the expense of thinking more correctly? Lanier’s sober thought on matters seems to suggest that there is some bias like this fueling the community. It may be something to look into and consider in more detail.

  • http://twitter.com/CMStewartWrite CMStewart

    “Are Singularitarians a special kind of group that are more prone to thinking optimistically at the expense of critical thought, and favoring optimistic thinking/thinkers at the expense of thinking more correctly?”

    Great observation, and a serious recognition and discussion of this phenomena will absolutely benefit the Singularity movement. While I’m all for optimism, as that is often the “life saver” of radical ideas, I also am all for an equal amount of criticism. Not exactly pessimism, but unbiased exploration of the full spectrum of opinions on an idea, and the reasoned thought behind those opinions.

  • http://twitter.com/Nikki_OlsonTSIN Nikki Olson

    Thanks CMStewart!

    Yes, that’s what is great about Lanier; he is not pessimistic, and does point out the good things where there is merit to. But to people who don’t want to examine things critically I see how it may come across as pessimism. And I agree about optimism; it is motivating and worthwhile in its own right, but can be blinding in a critical thinking context.

  • http://twitter.com/Nikki_OlsonTSIN Nikki Olson

    Also, I can’t find the clip, but in a blogging heads I recently watchd with Eliezer Yudkowsky he defended the notion that ‘Transhumanism is not a belief’ in the religious sense by arguing that ‘Transhumanism starts with believing it is good to improve the human condition with technology’ and then procedes by using empirical inquiry to determine the ways in which that is possible.

    I agree with that. So it is curious then how it becomes religious despite these intial conditions.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t know about Singularitarianism as a “religion,” but it does look a lot like make-believe and performance art. Suppose you see a man at work digging a ditch (which assumes that the ditch when finished will serve a useful purpose). Then a mime stands next to the guy and imitates his movements. Both the laborer and the mime make the same motions, but the laborer actually accomplishes something. (I credit John LaValley in Cryonics magazine about 20 years ago for comparing the “transhumanist” and “futurist” FM-2030 to a mime.)

    Transhumanists and singularitarians usually resemble the mime more than the laborer. Just look at the speakers at transhumanist conferences who call themselves “futurists,” “research fellows,” “design theorists” and other creative ways of saying that they don’t have real jobs or marketable skills. I’d throw “nanotechnologists” of the Drexler school into the same category. Eric Drexler published Engines of Creation in 1986, so many of the people who read it in their 20′s at the time have grandchildren now - yet we have no “nanoassembler breakthrough” in sight, apparently because the concept gets the physics wrong.

    So I have a question for you transhumanist youngsters: When you reach your 50′s, as I have, what will you do when you realize that the real 21st Century hasn’t advanced nearly enough technologically, and especially medically, to match the fantasy models of it you’ve based your lives on, you see your parents decline and die, and you realize your death doesn’t lag far behind? In other words, can you think of ways of making your visions of “the future” happen for real, instead of consuming transhumanist fantasies like Limitless and posting on the internet your wishful thinking that transhumanism has already won the day?

  • Anonymous

    I’d like to know how long the singularity belief will last after it becomes clear that nothing of the sort seems likely to happen. Will it evolve into “7th Day Singularitarianism” after the singularity’s equivalent to the Great Disappointment in the middle of the 21st Century?


    Frankly Eric Drexler’s “nanotechnology” myth has no reason to exist now, either. That hasn’t stopped the nanotech dead-enders from trying to keep it going, apparently because the ones with technical backgrounds either can’t do, or don’t want to do, real engineering. 

  • http://twitter.com/Nikki_OlsonTSIN Nikki Olson

    Advanced atheist, 

    At the risk of sounding like someone inviting a non-believer to church, I would suggest you attend a Singularity Summit. Most presenters there have marketable skills and understand the technology. When it comes to Transhumanism I would tend to agree with you; the norm is to be skilled in the social science and philosophy side of things and less in the actual science (myself included). How much that actually matters is debatable. But I agree that when not knowing the science gets in the way of creating good discourse then it interferes with the success of the movement. 

  • http://twitter.com/Nikki_OlsonTSIN Nikki Olson

    I think the idea (coming from Richard Feynman’s ‘There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom’) is that there is no reason ‘in principle’ (there are no laws of physics counter-acting the possibility) that we can’t build smart nanotechnology. The methods to get there might be miscontrued and failing, but physics does permit (and the prediction has a high degree of confidence) that we could one day build molecular machines.

  • Matthew Bailey


    My opinion should be obvious from my own Article on the same topic published a few months ago by  H+ Digital Magazine. (The Technological Singularity as a Religious Ideology)

    It is pretty safe to say that the Singularity, as described by Ray Kurzweil, and others, is NOT a religion.

    However, as the concept of the Singularity relates to a great many, it is a religion as they relate to it. It is a mythic structure used to explain their life and their relationship with the world.

    Too many people cannot seem to differentiate the claims as science and the claims as ideology.

  • Matthew Bailey

    This is essentially my complaint with many in the “Singularity” community, and this was the point I made with my article.

    Too many people, like Eliezer Yudowski “Preach” Transhumanism” and the Singularity, yet do very little to actually realize the technologies involved.

    I returned to school in my mid 40s (now late 40s) in order that I might actually be the ditch digger rather than the mime. 

  • http://singularity-2045.org/ Singularity Utopia

    I am in the process of writing a stern rebuttal, very erudite, regarding Matthew’s previous slanderous views; in the meantime I’ve written a lighter piece for people such as Matthew, which I hope you will enjoy: http://singularity-utopia.blogspot.com/2011/05/praise-almighty-lord-god-stem-cell.html

  • http://singularity-2045.org/ Singularity Utopia

    Matthew - diverse opinions are fine and dandy, but it would be better if your opinions were tempered with logic. The problem with Matthew’s opinion is that he uses his religious belief to justify his points, but instead of resorting to religious belief Mathew’s assertions would be more believable if he resorted to rationality. Rationality is sadly lacking in my Matthew’s assertions. For more info regarding the distorted way Matthew views some people in the Singularity movement this blog of mine is helpful: http://singularity-utopia.blogspot.com/2011/05/praise-almighty-lord-god-stem-cell.html

  • http://singularityblog.singularitysymposium.com/ Socrates

    Singularity Utopia,
    I understand that you have serious disagreement with Mathew’s opinion on the religiousity of the technological singularity. However, this disagreement is not necessarily amounting to slander and certainly does not make Mathew a slanderer. As the administrator of this blog I will always tolerate free speech and personal expression (including yours). However, I am not so willing to tolerate disrespecting (let alone insulting) our fellow interlocutors. Thus, I will ask you to please moderate your language. You can surely find ways to express your opinion while staying within the boundaries of mutual respect and polite language.

  • http://singularity-2045.org/ Singularity Utopia

    I’m sure this is an issue of slander. Matthew’s views are stated without any corroborating evidence. To be accused of religiousness is far more offensive in my opinion my truthful statement that the accuser is a slanderer. Shortly I will present an article to be published in H+ magazine and I will clearly set out all the facts regarding Matthew’s allegations and then I and others will be vindicated regarding the religious smears. Matthew commits a formal fallacy regarding his logic. My language is polite and I only use the word “slander” because it is the appropriate word. There is no desire to be impolite. I am merely stating the facts as I see them. This is your website so you are welcome to censor my comments if you wish, but I reject your notion that my words are impolite. My words are stern but there is no impoliteness, and in fact given the highly offensive “nerd” or “geek” insult I think most people would agree I am being very civil. Maybe it is polite where you come from to call people “geeks” but for me the word “geek” is an offensive insult. Imagine if a news reporter called President Obama a “geek” during an interview, would that be polite?

  • http://twitter.com/CMStewartWrite CMStewart

    I don’t find Lanier pessimistic per se. I do find him less convinced of many of the more lofty predictions of the Singularity movement. And yes, I agree, the criticism Lanier offers is much needed in the Singularity movement.

  • http://twitter.com/CMStewartWrite CMStewart

    I think those who are more familiar with religion and less familiar with the Singularity find it easy to put a religious label on a concept they don’t completely understand, or one they find fantastical. Even some who claim to fully understand the basics of the Singularity naturally focus on the fantastical aspects of it and its supposed similarities to religious doomsday or rapture myths and prophesies.

  • http://singularityblog.singularitysymposium.com/irrational-certainty-is-predicting-the-end-of-the-world-different-from-predicting-the-singularity-is-near/ Irrational Certainty: Is Predicting the End of the World Different from Predicting the Singularity is Near?

    [...] Jaron Lanier on Singularity 1 on 1: The Singularity Is A Religion for Geeks [...]

  • http://www.plusultratech.com Jeremiah Bilas

     yes, its a religion, and I am a Singularitarian. http://www.plusultratech.com/2011/06/singularity-is-religion.html

  • http://singularite.wordpress.com/2011/06/24/la-singularite-et-la-mort-de-millard-de-personne-naura-pas-lieu-peut-etre-la-singularite-est-spirituelle/ La singularité et la mort de millard de personne, n’aura pas lieu (peut être); La singularité est spirituelle « singularite

    [...] Jaron Lanier on Singularity 1 on 1: The Singularity Is A Religion for Geeks [...]

  • Matthew Bailey

    The “Technological Singularity” will definitely happen, as it is defined as a Scientific Hypothesis. In fact, the Singularity is happening right now, and will be happening for the next 50 to 100 years as the mode of existence of humanity changes radically due to advancing technologies.

    What will NOT happen is the Rapture of the Nerds that so many predict, nor will the world suddenly become a “Utopia,” where our every whim will be fulfilled (for the simple fact that some people’s whims will still involve the very real suffering of others).

    This was the whole point of the article I wrote, and my criticism of a great many people in the “Singularity Community.”

    Most of the people in this community do not take themselves very far outside of it. The best they might do is to go to a tech conference that isn’t explicitly involved with the Singularity (where they usually spend all of their time proselytizing for the Singularity).

    I’ve spent a lot of time over the last three years going to Conferences that deal with Philosophy, Linguistics, and Academic Science and Engineering.

    I’ve discovered that the vast number of academics who hear the term “Technological Singularity” tend to have a fairly negative view of the idea.

    This negative view is usually founded on their exposure to the idea, not from Ray Kurzweil, or from an Academic who is familiar with the formalizations regarding the Singularity, but rather from “Obsessed Fans who seem to be myopically focused on Uploading or Utopias run by AIs.”

    And, most of the promoters (preachers) of this sort have also been indicated to me to be people rather high on the Autism Spectrum who did not show the slightest remorse over possible lives lost in the process of attaining their future utopia (usually because they would claim that “Since the Singularity will solve all of our problems in the future, our current problems are irrelevant unless they delay the Singularity).

    I hope that you can see how this hurts, rather than helps the cause of developing a more rigorous hypothesis surrounding the Singularity.

    But… It IS happening. The only thing that is not certain is the form of society that will ultimately emerge from this transitional period.

  • http://singularityblog.singularitysymposium.com/salim-ismail-on-singularity-1-on-1-we-are-already-gods-we-might-as-well-start-acting-as-such/ Salim Ismail on Singularity 1 on 1: We Are Already Gods, We Might As Well Start Acting As Such

    [...] being/becoming gods; our responsibility for what happens to the planet; religion in general and the rapture of the nerds criticism in particular; making money and investing; being Canadian; using technology to address [...]

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