Ray Kurzweil likes to talk about the Singularity, that, depending on who you ask (mythical?), point in time after which technology will have gotten so advanced that there will be a break, a point-of-no-return, an acceleration whereby humans will be out of the loop, or at least will not fully understand their own technical creations which will then take on a life of their own.
Well, Kurzweil, who besides being the somewhat off-the-wall prognosticator described above, is also an accomplished inventor in his own right. In a sign of the times he—in one corner—has ascended to be a head of engineering at Google.
Teller is the grandson of that apotheosis of skunkwork Edward Teller, who invented not the atom bomb—that was done by J. Robert Oppenheimer—but the thousand times more powerful hydrogen bomb.
Some time ago I read the Oppenheimer biographical tome American Prometheus about the Manhattan Project, as well as personally visited Los Alamos New Mexico tracing how this all went down near ancient Anastazi Indian ruins and made it down to the—perhaps more crucial—Ground Zero in Southern New Mexico at White Sands where the first atom bomb was tested.
All this to say it is perhaps not so ironic that Edward Teller‘s grandson Astro heads up Google X—maybe the closest thing we have now to the Manhattan Project.
So what else might be going on at Google X past Glass, Loon, the driverless über-johnny cab combo?
It can be easy to let Google’s innovations of the last 15 years wash over us—worldwide instantaneous search of the entire internet, Google Streetview of practically the entire earth, the increasing and seemless functionning of cloud computing so that the pervasive computing paradigm is already here, more or less.
Kurzweil in one corner, Teller in the other.
It seems clear that in the history of science and technology that while some innovation may have been inevitable, particular personnalities do matter. The world we currently live in would be different without Einstein, Jobs, yes Oppenheimer and Teller (the grandfather), so this is why I think it consequencial that a radical futurist utopian like Kurzweil has taken the engineering reigns at Google, while a scion with the pedigree of Astro Teller is heading up their semi-secret research lab where just one of their “easy” projects is the aformentionned driverless cars which could not only put truck, taxi and bus drivers out of work, but also completely reconfigure transportation, highways and all of urban geography as well.
People now talk about drones for package delivery, but what happens when we have hundreds of millions of driverless—let’s call them contraptions for now, loose in the real world, not some video game, privy themselves to the world’s information processing it all with an Alien Intelligence?
Just think about those vertical roadways in Minority Report as an already deprecated vision.
The same kind of mind-bending change in degree seems in the cards (ahem) with Google Glass – as Neo says – we are shortly to be plugged in ourselves to not only the World Wide Web, but a nacient A.I. that Google is admittedly fostering. No wonder—sci-fi movie fan that I am—that 2 soon to be released films are quite Singularity-oriented, the first overtly so: the story of a man in the momentary lead-up to the Singularity actually happening.
And the slighlty more Hollywoodized version in Spike Jonze’s latest where Joaquin Phoenix’s character falls in love with his very human-like operating system (voiced by Scarlett Johansson).
In 1945, most of the world, even the far majority of those in Los Alamos and the surrounding towns of Santa Fe and Taos New Mexico, had no idea of what Oppenheimer, that wiley American Prometheus, was spearheading, and did not know, until the bombs finally dropped.
Now Astro was obviously a bit cagey when pressed by Charlie Rose what else Google X was indeed up to, so could it be that in their own backroom somewhere, a couple of guys are looking at something they do not fully understand, and just maybe realize, we are already living past the Singularity, here and now?
Update: A Third Singularity-themed Film (October 21, 2013)
A third film is poised to come out exploring the coming mind-meld between man and machine.
After watching it, think about how far the leap is, really, between a Google self-driving car and what’s going on in the following vision of the near future: