For as long as man has contemplated technology, he has anticipated the day when technology would surpass the capabilities of man. The thought comes with equal parts fear and excitement. The idea that technology will one day render man obsolete and/or enslave him is the bedrock of nearly every piece of seminal science fiction, and a recurring anxiety among the working class. From the Luddites and John Henry; to Isaac Asimov, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Matrix and Her; to Garry Kasparov losing to Deep Blue and Watson winning Jeopardy!; to concerns about the ill effects of automation, modern man has lived in constant fear that he will be replaced by a machine of his own making.
And yet, despite this long-running anxiety, man can’t stop pursuing this techno-dystopia. Nearly every major technology company in existence is actively developing some form of artificial intelligence. Uber is developing self-driving cars. Apple’s latest iPhone includes a “neural engine” to support AI-powered apps. Google is working on “machine learning,” as in, machines that learn from their own mistakes and adjust their programming accordingly. That AI project, ominously referred to as Google Brain, reportedly developed its own AI last year, a sign that the singularity is near (if not already here).
The singularity is the point at which technology becomes so advanced that it can iterate upon itself, without the aid of human engineering, and man is therefore irrelevant. As outlined above, it’s man’s greatest fear. And I use the word “man” literally, because worry about the robot takeover is a distinctly male pastime — one that tracks with gender imbalance in STEM fields, and the corresponding and disproportionate number of men who are interested in sci-fi pop culture.
The overwhelmingly male interest in the singularity is a function of the same social factors that simultaneously encourages men and discourages women from taking an interest in technology, according to Lydia Nicholas, researcher at Nesta, a British charitable organization that promotes the use of technology to address social issues.
“It’s only men I know who are concerned about the singularity,” she says. “I know men like that. I’ve dated men like that. And it’s usually a typical type of man.”
The type of man who’s likely to consider the robot apocalypse is the same kind of man predisposed to enter the tech industry in the first place. That is, he’s a man who values reason above all, and sees little need for emotional intelligence. If anything, he sees emotion as a weakness and a hindrance to progress.
“From early on, women are taught to think of their emotions as being contextual and embodied,” Nicholas says. Men, meanwhile, are socialized to think “logically,” and in turn, are more likely to consider their thoughts as inherently logical.
“The idea of the singularity seems more plausible to someone who’s taught, subconsciously and consciously, that their thoughts are rational and should be considered that way,” Nicholas continues. “There’s this old idea of the male computer coder who can create this perfectly rational machine, and it relates to the long social history of women’s thoughts being thought of as emotional and men’s as logical.”
This is reinforced by pop culture, which often depicts the battle of man vs. machine as literally between a man and a machine. Nearly all the most famous pop culture narratives about man’s inevitable showdown with technology features a man (often a straight, white one) as the protagonist, making it easier for men to engage with the singularity as a concept.
Man’s fixation with the singularity also centers around the idea that man will one day be able to upload his consciousness to a computer, inject himself into the internet and achieve immortality as a virtual being, with instantaneous access to all the world’s knowledge. (This often referred to as transhumanism.)
“[The singularity] is exciting for men because they have power and control over their own lives,” says Susan Cox-Smith, executive producer at Changeist, an Amsterdam-based futures research lab. “Though the singularity is explicitly described as a complete loss of human power to an all-seeing, artificial super-intelligence, these men have never experienced that level of diminishment of their own power, so they assume their lives will continue as before. But with the bonus of awesome AI-enabled robot sex.”
Indeed, one can’t discount men’s interest in the singularity as a function of their desire to create robot girlfriends designed to their specific anatomical and emotional desires. See Weird Science for a pop culture reference:
But even within the realm of sex, the male fascination with the singularity is the same. The singularity offers an escape from the messy world of human relationships and emotion, to a world dictated purely by science and reason. And in a society where men are punished for being emotional, a robot technocracy seems like a preferable alternative.