Faith in numbers: Six more tech cults

These six sects of fanatical loyalists prove there is no end to passion in tech

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Tech cult No. 2: The Sirens of the Singularity

Established: 1980s

Gathering of the tribes: The TED Conference, H+ Summit

Theological Seminary: Singularity University

Holy scripture: "The Singularity Is Near"

Major deity: Ray Kurzweil

Minor deity: Ramona, the singing AI bot

The goal of Singularitarians could not be loftier: immortality as realized in a living, breathing man-machine hybrid -- a Transcendent Man, a Human+.

This concept, articulated by author Vernor Vinge in 1982 and made popular by inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil in "The Age of Spiritual Machines" (1998) and "The Singularity Is Near" (2005), has drawn acolytes numbering in the tens of thousands. According to Kurzweil, the "singularity" will occur by 2045, when technology has advanced to the point where humans and thinking machines finally converge.

(Kurzweil is also famous for communicating via a software bot named Ramona, the talking/singing hostess of his site.)

"I proudly admit to being called a 'Singularitarian'," says writer and researcher Brad Acker, though he's not entirely thrilled with being called a member of a cult. "But the idea of equating the concept of Singularity, an event horizon which has never happened before in the history of evolution as we know it, with OS/2 aficionados or Slashdot fans is nonsensical."

He has a point. For example, not many cults have established their own university, co-sponsored by Google and NASA's Ames Research Center, where the leading lights of technology congregate to hack the next stage of human evolution.

Like Acker, Singularitarians are, well, single-minded -- and very serious about Kurzweil and his work. "This is a scientific movement that must be joined by more individuals if we are to safely and beneficially guide our evolution of humans merging with their tools into transcendent man," Acker writes (in boldface and all caps).

No cult would be complete without its rival faction, even if its members number in the single digits. Dr. Stephen Thaler, who calls himself a "porcupine-ularitarian" just to tweak the Kurzweil crowd, argues that the singularity is not near, it is already here -- and has been since at least August 19, 1997. That's when he received a U.S. Patent for his Creativity Machine, a "conscious" neural network that has been used to design everything from toothbrushes to U.S. military satellites.

"Unlike Kurzweil, I'm not optimistic," says Thaler, who sees this technology inevitably falling into the wrong hands. "I've built the leading form of AI in the world, and all I see as a result is conflict and suffering."

Thaler says he will unveil the secrets of machine-generated consciousness at the WorldFuture Society Conference next July. And then, perhaps, he'll inspire his own following.

See tech cult No. 3: The High Priests of Wikipedia

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