Think of The Singularity as a “tipping point” where the accelerating pace of machines outrun all human capabilities and result in a smarter-than-human intelligence.
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Q: So what is this “Technological Singularity” I keep hearing about?
In the broadest sense it refers to “an event or phase brought about by technology that will radically change human civilization, and perhaps even human nature itself before the middle of the 21st century.”
Think of it as the “tipping point” where the accelerating pace of machines outrun all human capabilities and result in a smarter-than-human intelligence.
Q: Seriously? People actually believe this?
Yes. The belief is credited to the accelerating progress in many disruptive technologies that include genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, robotics, and nanotechnology.
Q: Sounds like something out of a sci-fi novel…
Well the term “technological singularity” was coined by Vernor Vinge, a professor of Mathematics who originally used the term in one of his sci-fi novels. In 1993 he then wrote his well-known essay “The Coming Technological Singularity” that served as a fundamental building block for the Singularity community.
In it, he writes:
“Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended. […] I think it’s fair to call this event a singularity. It is a point where our models must be discarded and a new reality rules. As we move closer and closer to this point, it will loom vaster and vaster over human affairs till the notion becomes a commonplace. Yet when it finally happens it may still be a great surprise and a greater unknown.”
Q: How did the concept make the jump from sci-fi into practical discussions? What real evidence to supports this?
Although the year of his prediction seems quite off, there is certainly some compelling evidence that supports the notion of rapid technological progress. Ray Kurzweil, a pioneer in the Singularity movement, puts forth what he calls “The Law of Accelerating Returns.” Applied to technology, it says that technological progress is occurring at an exponential pace, in part because each new iteration of any given technology is used to help build the next, better, faster, cheaper one.
According to Kurzweil, this means that we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).
It took the human race 400 years for the printing press to reach a mass audience. But as technology has improved, its rate of adoption has become exponentially faster. It took only 7 years for the cell phone to reach a quarter of the population, and it’s taken social networks only 3 years.
The following graph applies the same logic to computing power:
Not only does Kurzweil chart historical data, he even goes as far as predicting future advancements. Applying this trend to the future, he predicts we’ll be able to purchase the equivalent to a human brain’s worth of computing power for about $1000 by 2023.
Kurzweil believes the rate at which technology grows in power is never going to slow down or plateau (it never has); not as long as humans continue to exist. Whenever a technology approaches some kind of a barrier, a new technology will be invented to allow us to transcend it.
Q: Where does the Singularity come into play here?
That’s the best part. Ray Kurzweil’s ultimate prediction is that the Singularity will arrive by 2045.
By that time:
“Artificial intelligences will surpass human beings as the smartest and most capable life forms on the Earth. $1000 will buy a computer a billion times more intelligent than every human combined. Machines can think, act and communicate so quickly that normal humans cannot even comprehend what is going on. The machines enter into a “runaway reaction” of self-improvement cycles, with each new generation of A.I.s appearing faster and faster. From this point onwards, technological advancement is explosive, under the control of the machines, and thus cannot be accurately predicted (hence the term “Singularity”).”
Q: Whaaaaat. Hold on a sec – you’re telling me I’m supposed to believe that?
No, I’m not telling you what to believe. Some of his predictions are a contested topic, but all things considered he’s still been astonishingly accurate.
His claim to fame was his prediction into the rise and explosive growth of the Internet while it was still a niche and unreliable network in the 80’s. Since the 1990’s he claims to have made 147 more predictions and been “fully correct” on 115, or 86%, of them (though his criteria for fully accurate is relatively lenient). Another 12 of those are considered “essentially correct” and are off by only a year or two.
Plus he was named the Director of Engineering at Google in early 2013, so there’s surely some method to his madness.
Q: So… you’re telling me that the world is going to be controlled by super-intelligent robots?
Not necessarily. Note that I said the Singularity revolves around creating
“super human intelligence”. Now there are two different methods as to how this could occur:
Transhumanism – Technology will act as more of a “human enhancement” that will amplify existing human physical and cognitive capabilities. This will ultimately lead to a “biointelligence explosion” that merges humans and technology and creates a new species that merges biology and technology and conquers aging, death, and diseases.
Artificial Superintelligence – Accelerating progress in computing technology that leads to the creation of a synthetic mind that surpasses our own in terms of intelligence. So yes, robots.
Q: Well what exactly do you mean by “intelligence”?
Defining “intelligence” is no easy question as it’s something that scientists, philosophers, and psychologists have struggled to agree upon for centuries. For the purpose of this dialogue we’ll use Kurzweil’s definition: “the ability to solve problems with limited resources, including time.”
Q: Fine – “super-intelligent beings”. And this is all going to happen by 2045?
There is no commonly agreed upon date. Some believe it could happen as early as 2030, but many others believe we’re at least a century away.
Q: Well can you give me any more details about what this future is going to look like?
Imagine that you’re trying to explain the capabilities of your iPhone to someone who’s living in the Middle Ages. How will you explain to them the capabilities of your camera – that your phone seems to have a woman inside (Siri) who can look up stuff on the Internet for you.
It would be impossible. There would have been no viable frames of reference you could have used to describe the capabilities of a technology like the Internet.
Q: But you’re saying that a transformational change of similar magnitude has happened before?
The Singularity is usually anticipated as a future transformation, but for comparison’s sake we can relate the enormous change that’s coming to drastic changes in the past, like the example above from the Middle Ages.
Q: Now I’m a bit frightened. What are the odds that humanity survives?
Well it depends who you ask.
Kurzweil is known as the heavy optimist. He says “the extermination of humanity by violent machines is unlikely (though not impossible) because sharp distinctions between man and machine will no longer exist thanks to the existence of cybernetically enhanced humans and uploaded humans.”
But if you ask many of those at other research labs such as Singularity Institute, you’ll hear that based on our current direction something far more cataclysmic seems probable. To them, it’s more likely that this superhuman artificial intelligence gives rise to a race of sentient machine that has no use for humans, subsequently wiping us from the face of the Earth.
It’s important to note that this is all prediction and right now we can’t even get researchers and scientists to agree on what exactly the term “Singularity” means. In the next section we’ll take a closer look at more optimistic scenarios and dive deeper into three distinct schools of thought.