The Singularity goes primetime

October 1, 2010 by Phil Bowermaster

Ubergeek Sheldon (Jim Parsons) explains to his long-suffering roommate and best friend Leonard (Johnny Galecki) that he is trying to determine how much longer he has to live to see the Singularity. (credit: CBS)

This week’s episode of the CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory brings the idea of the technological Singularity to one of the widest audiences it has ever reached.

In the opening teaser, ubergeek Sheldon (Jim Parsons) explains to his long-suffering roommate and best friend Leonard (Johnny Galecki) that he is trying to determine how much longer he has to live. Referring to the time line shown here, he laments that he will probably not make it far enough into the future to, well, live to see it would be one way of putting it:

Sheldon: At best I have 60 years left. 60 only gets me to here. I need to get here.

Leonard: What’s there?

Sheldon: The earliest estimate of the Singularity, when man will be able to transfer his consciousness into machines and achieve immortality.

Leonard: So, you’re upset about missing out on becoming some sort of freakish, self-aware robot…

Sheldon: By this much!

Leonard: Tough break. You want eggs?

Sheldon: You don’t get it, Leonard. I’m going to miss so much: the Unified Field Theory, Cold Fusion, the dogopus…

Leonard: What’s a dogopus?

Sheldon: A hybrid dog and octopus — man’s best underwater friend.

Leonard: Is somebody working on that?

Sheldon: I was going to. I planned on giving it to myself for my 300th birthday.

Sheldon talks to Steve Wozniak from his virtual telepresence robot. (credit: CBS)

In the episode “The Cruciferous Vegetable Amplification,” ¬≠Sheldon — determined to live long enough for the moment when man and machine become one, “the Technological Singularity” — decides he must cease all physical contact with the outside world.

When Sheldon calculates the technology to download his consciousness into a robot won’t be invented soon enough, he desperately tries to find a way to increase his lifespan.

Sheldon no longer goes to the outside world, since he thinks his body is too fragile to resist it, and creates a virtual telepresense instead. Using a computer screen and basic, roving robot technology, he winds up alienating the entire gang.

He joins the gang at The Cheescake Factory where they see the one and only Steve Wozniak sitting near by. Shelbot approaches him, and Wozniak compliments his machine.

Popular both with geeks and with the intellectually inferior sorts that Sheldon refers to as “muggles,” The Big Bang Theory (now in its fourth season) is a major hit, claiming an average of 14 million viewers per week. The show is also critically acclaimed. Just a few weeks ago, Parsons won the 2010 Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a comedy series.

If Sheldon’s description of the Singularity seems imprecise, that’s probably by design. While a serious in-depth explanation of what the Singularity is all about would be edifying, it probably wouldn’t make it onto TV.

Certainly not network TV. In primetime. On a popular sitcom.¬†Twisting serious scientific and technological ideas into comedic material is one of the show’s major tropes. So the audience gains a certain familiarity with terminology and concepts, but something less than a real understanding of these ideas. Hey, it’s a start.

Another major contribution of The Big Bang Theory is that it serves as a kind of mainstream endorsement of geek culture. The Geek Chic movement was one thing, but this is something bigger. As I wrote in 2007 after watching the first few episodes:

After all, isn’t it amazing that a show like this can feature four such characters, not as the annoying neighbors or as the object of derision or pity of the real heroes of the show? These guys are the heroes.
Three physicists and an engineer — heroes for our time.

One major difference between Sheldon’s description of the Singularity and references we may have seen to it elsewhere in prime time (in Fringe, for example) is that Sheldon describes the Singularity not as a catastrophe to be avoided, or something that is simply “going to happen,” but rather as a goal. In just a few short sentences he makes a case for life extension, uploading of consciousness, and the achievement of major longstanding scientific aims via cooperation between human and artificial intelligence.

Sheldon is a transhumanist!

Sure, these ideas are all portrayed as bizarre and ridiculous, but that’s because Sheldon is the nerd of the group. But that’s okay. If The Big Bang Theory has demonstrated anything, it’s how quickly and easily nerdy ideas can become mainstream. Stay tuned.

Originally published by Phil Bowermaster in The Speculist, September 30, 2010.