[ExI] Sheldon is a transhumanist!

Keith Henson hkeithhenson at gmail.com
Fri Oct 1 16:48:03 UTC 2010

The Singularity Goes Prime Time
October 1, 2010 by Phil Bowermaster

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 fried 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

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.

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 prime time.

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
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.


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