Is the Singularity Near?

Sarah Lawrence College
Fall 2013


Something profound is happening on planet Earth. The past one hundred years have witnessed the most rapid and far-reaching technological advances in human history. Think of the world of 1913, as compared to the world of 2013. Back then automobiles, flying machines, and telephones were curiosities only recently invented, and television, space travel, computers, mobile phones, and the internet were as yet unimagined, still decades away in the future. What of the next one hundred years? A number of serious, highly respected scientists and scholars believe that the relentlessly accelerating pace of technological change over the next few decades will soon transform our human civilization into something radically different, almost unrecognizable, an event that will mark the beginning of a new "posthuman" era in evolutionary history. This event, often called the Singularity, will be driven by advances in molecular biology, genetic engineering, nanotechnology, and machine intelligence. Ray Kurzweil, a well-known technologist and AI pioneer, has argued that the transition from biologically-based to technologically-based evolution is natural and inevitable, and will bring enormous benefits to society. Others, taking a more pessimistic view of the human future, warn of the increasing risk of self-extinction posed by the development of ever more powerful technologies, and worry that our genes may have finally outsmarted themselves. How realistic is the Singularity scenario, and just how seriously should we take these ideas? In this course we will explore these questions in depth, focusing in particular on developments in computational intelligence, and on placing these ideas within the larger context of human and cosmic evolution.


Prof. Jim Marshall
Office: Ilchman Science 100
Phone: 2673 (from off campus: 914-395-2673)
Email: j + my last name +

Class Meeting Time

Required Book

The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology
Ray Kurzweil

Course Format

This is a seminar and discussion course. Thus as students, you will bear a great deal of the responsibility for its success. The course will require significant amounts of reading, written analysis, and class participation. You will be expected to actively investigate the course material and to express yourself clearly and respectfully in class discussions, papers, and presentations. Students will be responsible for giving presentations on the readings or other material, for leading class discussions, and for providing feedback on presentations through a process of informal peer-evaluation. Your presentations and papers will be judged for their clarity, organization, and thoroughness. All students will be expected to come to class prepared to discuss the readings, having thought about the issues in advance. Students will also be responsible for writing short responses to the readings. In addition to reading books and articles, we will occasionally watch videos during class. A major objective of the course is for you to strengthen your written and oral communication skills, and to sharpen your ability to critically evaluate ideas and claims.

Assignments and Evaluation

For each seminar meeting, the assigned readings will form the basis for our class discussions. Thus it is very important for everyone to complete the readings and to spend some time thinking about the issues before coming to class. To facilitate this, everyone will be required to post a short (1-2 page) written response to the readings on the class web board by 10:00pm the night before class. Your responses should not be summaries of the readings; rather, they should be the product of the reading process itself — questions that occurred to you, ideas that you found particularly interesting, points that were not clear, connections to previous material you've read, and so on, and should include two or three questions for discussion.

We will also have several other types of written assignments. For some, students may be asked to evaluate each other's papers in class and provide feedback. In all cases, you will be expected to carefully proofread your own work for grammar and spelling (which means more than just running it through an automated spell checker or grammar checker). I will not look kindly on sloppily-written papers full of spelling mistakes or awkward, convoluted grammar. I will also give some quantitative assignments from time to time, to help sharpen your mathematical and computational intuitions. Late work will not be accepted.

In addition to the above, every student will be required to give a more formal presentation on a topic of interest related to the course. This will give you the opportunity to further practice your oral communication skills. Your final course evaluation will be based on the quality of your written work, the quality of your oral presentations, your level of preparation and participation in seminar discussions, and your conference project. There will be no formal examinations in the course.


It is difficult to have a seminar class if students don't show up, so on-time attendance is absolutely required for all class meetings and conferences. I realize that occasionally you may need to miss class, but missing more than 2 classes or more than 1 conference will very likely result in reduced credit for the course. If you are unable to attend class or conference due to illness, please contact me about it as soon as possible. If you must miss class or conference for any other reason, please let me know well in advance. No make-up conferences will be scheduled under any circumstances, except possibly if you have a really compelling reason (e.g. medical emergency). Examples of unacceptable reasons include "I forgot", "I got held up and couldn't make it", "I thought this was B week!", "I had to pick up my best friend at the airport", and "I fell asleep on the couch and woke up at 8 p.m."

Conference Work

For your conference project, you will research a topic of your choosing related to the course material and analyze it in depth. The topic and design of your project will be up to you, subject to my approval, and will give you the opportunity to focus on an area of particular interest in detail. You will be expected to develop an annotated bibliography of books, articles, web sites, etc. on your topic and to do extensive background reading on your own. The project goal will be a well-written final paper approximately 15-20 pages in length. The quality and clarity of your writing, and the depth of your analysis, will play a major role in the evaluation of your project. Projects will be due on Tuesday, December 17. Each student will give a brief presentation of their work to the class during the final week of the semester.

Please try and come to your first conference meeting with at least two or three ideas about potential areas of interest you would like to explore for your project.


I will often send out announcements to the class through email, so you are expected to check your Sarah Lawrence email account at least once per day. I will use your address because it is reliable and easy to remember. You should also check the course web pages frequently. I will be happy to answer your questions by email and will try to respond as quickly as possible to messages that pertain to the course.

Getting Help

You are strongly encouraged to come talk to me whenever you are having difficulty with the course material, or for any other reason. If you are confused about something, don't stay that way! Staying confused will only make things worse later. Come talk to me as soon as possible so that we can clear up the problem. I'll be more than happy to schedule an appointment, or answer your questions by email. You can also try to catch me on the fly, though I can't always guarantee that I'll have time to meet with you right then.

Academic Honesty

The highest level of academic integrity is expected of every student. You are strongly encouraged to discuss ideas on a general level with your fellow classmates, but all of your written work must be exclusively your own. Effective learning is compromised when this is not the case. Always credit your sources using accepted standards for citation, quotation, and attribution. This also goes for any information obtained via the internet. If you are ever unsure how to appropriately cite a source, just ask. You should also carefully read the College's official Policy on Academic Integrity in your Student Handbook. Failure to abide by these rules is considered plagiarism, and will result in severe penalties, including possible failure in the course. Please do not put me, yourself, or anyone else in this unpleasant situation.