Reader Viewpoint

Look out – and beyond: The Singularity is coming

Jeffrey T. Guterman October 1, 2011

Robotic counselors. Virtual solutions. Personality uploading.

These are not science fiction fantasies but real possibilities that lie just beyond the horizon for the field of counseling. According to some futurists, a trend of great historical magnitude is unfolding: the exponential growth of technological development leading to an event referred to as the Singularity.

Ray Kurzweil, author of the 2005 best-seller The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, predicts that the pace of technological development is becoming so rapid that the rate of progress will become vertical by the middle of this century. Then, in a short period of time — perhaps in one single moment — the world may be transformed beyond recognition. It is this special point in time that is referred to as the Singularity.

The Singularity could change everything as we know it, and the implications for counseling are significant. The Singularity may challenge us to reconsider the multicultural dimension that is a defining feature of our profession. The Singularity may take disciplines such as neuroscience to a new frontier. The Singularity may also challenge the fundamental question, “What does it mean to be human?”

What is the Singularity?

The cause of the Singularity would be the creation of greater-than-human artificial intelligence (AI). As a result of advances in the development of AI and complex networked supercomputers, a positive feedback loop would result whereby smarter computers are capable of designing even smarter computers. This feedback loop would be so sudden and rapid that AI would eventually develop. In effect, machines would have consciousness and act like real people and, conversely, humans would transcend their own biology by augmenting themselves with AI.

Some futurists question if the Singularity will happen at all. In particular, some question whether a computer will ever be able to attain human intelligence. But not Ray Kurzweil! He developed the theory of accelerating returns, which holds that the rate of technological progress is exponential rather than linear. Most humans, according to Kurzweil, are linear thinkers. We understand progress as occurring in single, incremental steps (for example, 1 + 1 = 2, then 2 + 1 = 3, then 3 + 1 = 4, and so on). In contrast, exponential progress occurs when the growth rate is in proportion to current and subsequent values (1 + 1 = 2, then 2 + 2 = 4, then 4 + 4 = 8, and so on). Consider that it took about 30,000 years for humans to develop agriculture, but it took only a quarter century for the first computers, which took up the size of a large room, to be condensed into a hand-held gadget. And in only five years since its development, social media has become ubiquitous.

It is astonishing to trace exponential technological progress throughout human history and to consider where it might lead. Increasingly, people have used technologies as extensions of the self  — for example, eyeglasses, the Sony Walkman, pacemakers and prostheses. As a result of technological advances, it is foreseeable that some humans might be almost entirely nonbiological within the next 50 years. Progress in the field of biotechnology may even make it possible for humans to someday achieve immortality.

The changing nature of humanity

The Singularity may change human nature itself and raise questions about who we are and what we will become. Since the beginnings of counseling, the field has developed numerous theories of human nature. In particular, counseling has been influenced by a tradition that conceptualizes and values the self. For example, psychoanalysis theorizes that there are conscious and unconscious parts of the self. Person-centered therapy holds that there is a social self and a real self. Although these and other counseling theories disagree about how to conceptualize and intervene in relation to the self, most agree that the self is a central locus of problems and change.

Coinciding with the postmodern movement, a marked shift occurred in the field, with the self being situated in conversational, cultural and relational domains. From a postmodern perspective, the self is understood as a narrative phenomenon that is socially constructed. As technology develops exponentially in the 21st century and humans become increasingly augmented by technology, the nature of humanity itself may change and two new types of human beings could emerge: transhuman and posthuman.

Transhuman refers to a person who has become so significantly augmented by technology that, in effect, he or she has transcended the original definition, based on biology, of what it means to be human. Some people already consider themselves to be transhuman. Transhuman also refers to a human in transition who seeks to learn about new technology and might be preparing to become posthuman.

Posthuman refers to a completely synthetic entity with AI. Such beings likely could appear in the middle of this century. A posthuman is a superintelligent robot, but not the type we have become accustomed to in science fiction. Posthumans would be able to share their experiences with one another, change their bodies into data forms and choose to reside in computer networks. They might be able to think, feel and behave very much like real people. It is also conceivable that humans and transhumans will be able to transform themselves into posthumans. When considered in this way, the relationship between humans and posthumans is not about “us” and “them,” but rather about how humans may gradually transform into increasingly posthuman beings.

Implications for counseling

Many questions arise, especially for the field of counseling, if we imagine a world in which humans, transhumans and posthumans coexist. The question of what it means to be human may be thrown into critical relief as machines perform more complex human functions and as we ascribe human qualities to these machines. Even today, we refer to some of our machines as if they have personalities. For example, one might refer to his or her car as “my baby.” If computers possess AI and become superintelligent, there would be a real convergence between biology and machine. Biology would no longer necessarily define humanity. Instead, a set of characteristics and capabilities might determine what it means to be human. Among the questions that may arise for the counseling profession:

  • How might counseling be changed in a world coinhabited by humans, transhumans and posthumans?
  • What unique opportunities and problems might humans, transhumans and posthumans face in this new world?
  • How might counselors, who themselves may become transhuman or posthuman, prepare to meet these new challenges?

One possible scenario is that a human counselor encounters a transhuman or posthuman client. Or a posthuman counselor might provide counseling to a human or transhuman client. As a result of future technology, people might even possess the capability of recreating the self in ways that are unimaginable today. Software uploading to the brain, which is already being done for individuals with Parkinson’s disease, could allow one to experience and manifest alternative personalities. Personality uploading may permit an individual to be anyone or anything he or she wishes to be, presenting new challenges and opportunities for clients and counselors alike. This would challenge the traditional assumption that an essential self exists that is “just there” and instead support the postmodern understanding that the self is an evolving, fluid phenomenon.

Reconsidering our mission, ethics code and multicultural competencies

The Singularity may also challenge the American Counseling Association to one day reconsider its mission and the ACA Code of Ethics. ACA’s current mission statement is as follows:

 

The mission of the American Counseling Association is to enhance the quality of life in society by promoting the development of professional counselors, advancing the counseling profession, and using the profession and practice of counseling to promote respect for human dignity and diversity.

 

If we accept that transhumans and posthumans may someday inhabit the world, then ACA’s mission might need to be revised to account for these new beings. Moreover, a review of the ACA Code of Ethics and the Association for Multicultural Counseling and Development’s Multicultural Counseling Competencies may be needed to address the coexistence of these multiple, diverse forms of humanity. In particular, these guidelines would need to address diversity and multiculturalism from a broader perspective. The scope of diversity and multiculturalism has already been expanded beyond race, ethnicity and gender to include other domains such as age, family structure, sexual orientation and disability. As people become increasingly augmented by technology, new opportunities will arise for counselors to promote respect for the dignity and diversity of transhumans and posthumans as well as humans.

In the future, our mission, our ethical imperatives and our multicultural competencies may in some respects be no different than they are today. The Singularity may, however, require what philosopher Peter Singer refers to as expanding our circle of empathy. According to Singer, human progress has involved an expanding moral circle.

Through time, the circle of whom we count as members of our group has expanded to include other races, other sexes, other religions and other species. It is not a stretch to imagine humans accepting and embracing transhumans and posthumans. But work still needs to be done in the area of social justice strategies aimed at promoting respect for the dignity and diversity of human beings. It follows that the inclusion of transhumans and posthumans in the world would present society with challenges that counselors need to be prepared to address.

What now?

Kurzweil suggests the pace of technological change will become so fast in the next 40 years that you will not be able to keep up unless you enhance your own intelligence with AI. Already today, it is essential for many of us to access the Internet on a regular basis. Some people feel they would be lost without their smartphones. The good news is that more and more people are able to access the new technologies, and the playing field will continue to level. But are people prepared for the exponential technological change that may be coming?

Counselors are all too aware of the importance of preparing for change. Change is the business of counseling. But there has never been a change in human history like the change occurring now — a change that may culminate in the Singularity. If you observe closely, you will find many people are being affected by the sudden, rapid increase in technological change. Sociologist and futurist Alvin Toffler came up with a name for this condition, which served as the title of his 1970 book, Future Shock. In this seminal book, Toffler predicted that people would become disconnected, overwhelmed and “future shocked” as a result of accelerating technological and social change. The cause of this condition, according to Toffler, is “too much change in too short a period of time.” Basically, technological evolution is outpacing our biological capability to manage it.

We need to find ways to help others with these new challenges. Already, many counselors are dealing with technology-related issues such as online counseling and Internet addiction. But this is only the beginning. New possibilities, some of which are unimaginable today, are closer than you may think. Counselors, educators and especially students, the future of our profession, need to be willing and prepared to look out — and beyond. The Singularity is coming!

Suggested websites

Nick Bostrom- nickbostrom.com

Ray Kurzweil- kurzweilai.net

Singularity Hub- singularityhub.com

Transhumanist FAQ- extropy.org/faq.htm

Suggested readings

Human Enhancement edited by Julian Savulescu and Nick Bostrom

Radical Evolution: The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies — and What it Means to Be Human by Joel Garreau

The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence by Ray Kurzweil

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology by Ray Kurzweil

Jeffrey T. Guterman is associate professor of counseling in the Counseling Department of the Adrian Dominican School of Education at Barry University in Miami Shores, Fla. Contact him at jguterman@mail.barry.edu.

Letters to the editor:
ct@counseling.org

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