Ito: Think twice about immortality and the singularity

The director of the MIT Media Lab said sci-fi visions of computers and humans emphasize the wrong priorities for development. Technological progress should aim for resilience, not efficiency.

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MIT Media Lab director Joichi Ito speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland
MIT Media Lab director Joichi Ito speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Ray Kurzweil's vision of the "singularity" -- when nanobots make humans immortal and computer progress is so fast that the future becomes profoundly unknowable -- is a bad idea.

That's the perhaps surprisingly contrary opinion of Joichi Ito, who as a high-tech investor and director of the MIT Media Lab might be expected to be a natural ally. The lab, after all, aims to be at the center of today's technology revolution.

Ito, speaking today at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, said he believes the singularity vision puts the wrong priorities first.

"I'm on the other side of the singularity guys. I don't think immortality is a good thing," Ito said. People who think about maximizing efficiency "don't think about the ecological, social-network effects. In the future, every science invention we do should be at least neutral," and preferably positive.

"When you introduce immortality, you have to think about what does it do to the system. At the Media Lab, our design principle is not to make the world more efficient, but making the system more resilient, more robust."

Ito called for a radically restructured educational system, too.

"You're training kids to become obedient members of a mass-production society," he said. "But as there's more and more automation, you want people to be more and more creative," like kindergarten when children spend more time playing around, exploring, and teaching each other.

Tests today judge kids in a computer-free testing environment completely unrelated to what's in the real world.

Today, "you can look on the Internet, you can ask your friends," Ito said. "Cheating is actually a feature. Success as an adult is how resourceful you are at getting people to help you do things. Those are all unassessed things" in today's schools and tests.

The MIT Media Lab favors a more unstructured approach. "Our students and faculty can explore whatever they want. We just let them go," he said. "If you're not asking permission and writing proposals, the cost of innovation is very low."

Students can talk about ideas in the morning. "By the afternoon they've built a prototype," he said, especially with the increasing utility of 3D printers.

Ito had grand visions for how those printers will change manufacturing. "We're going to be manufacturing things everywhere instead of centrally. Every single person is going to become a designer," he predicted.

Technology should help people rethink what's possible with cities, he also said. With people able to page buses on demand, bus stops should be created on demand, not fixed in advance. Rentable commuter bicycles should be cheaper to use if people drop them off in high-demand areas.

"We're trying to look at the city from a software perspective and build the hardware around it," Ito said.