The Singularity is the name given to the most epochal event anticipated in the history of the human species Homo Sapiens Sapiens (usually shortened to H. Sapiens). The tagline for my blog is motivated by its advent which will give rise to many of my future scribblings. Today ‘The Singularity’ is the label adopted by most people who are aware of the possible types of discontinuity that the near-term confluence of genetic engineering, nano-technology, and machine intelligence will hold for all life on earth. The name was chosen from physics and mathematics because it represents an approaching short interval in time – a future event, if you will – after which what happens is totally unknown or, technically, is undefined. The figure (click to enlarge) below may help us to understand what will happen.
The intellectual level or power of H. sapiens (green line) has been increasing over the recent tens of millennia at the glacial pace of natural evolution. In reality, the green line in the figure should be almost flat if the indicated time scale is to be linear. We arbitrarily assign 1950 as the year in which computing machinery began to exhibit primitive intelligence. At this time the leading computer scientists of the era (Turing, Church, von Neumann, …) looked at where future developments in computing could lead and began anticipating a new age of intelligent life on earth.
Only nobody really knew what intelligence was (in a rigorous sense). Someone posed the question to Alan Turing who gave an answer that, from then on, came to be known as the Turing Test. Turing basically said, ‘I don’t know how to define intelligence, but here’s an easy experiment that one can do using a machine (computer) and humans that, if the machine wins, one would be forced to call the machine intelligent.’ Having a machine pass the Turing Test has been the holy grail of computer scientists ever since.
Today there are already many (knowledge domain-specific) areas in which a machine can outperform the best human experts. And every day more such areas are falling to the machine in an accelerating manner. Ray Kurzweil, an entrepreneur, computer scientist, and futurist, has written, perhaps, the premier book on the subject – The Singularity is Near – which is a must read for anyone attempting to understand what is happening now and how the world will change irrevocably during the lifetimes of most people now on earth. For more information google The Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence which held its second Singularity Summit this year at Stanford University.
In the figure, the acceleration of machine intelligence is shown by the red line. When the red line rushes through the green line is a matter of conjecture. Kurzweil and many others in industry and academia believe this event will occur somewhere in the interval of 2020 to 2050. Almost all people who accept the coming Singularity believe that it will happen well before the end of this century. The main thing to keep in mind is that the (machine) red line will continue to accelerate beyond the (human) green line. When this happens, very quickly ‘they’ will be able to think thoughts that H. sapiens cannot.
Most of us, who have worked toward and continue to follow the approach of the Singularity, like to believe that it will herald a positive transition for our species and earth. For sure, post Singularity H. sapiens will then no longer be the dominant life-form. Instead, the follow-on, purposely modified X. sapiens or some other trans-human form that we assume will be the next step in (or fulfillment of?) our evolutionary destiny. H. sapiens only choice will be to join them or become a kept species. Many of us believe that we will go to the stars only as a post-Singularity civilization and join whatever other intelligences are out there waiting for us.
However, not all leading thinkers believe that the Singularity will portend well for humankind. For example, Bill Joy, the former Chief Scientist at Sun Microsystems, sees a much darker side of the approaching Singularity which, in one terrible scenario, leads to the end of all intelligent life on our planet. That debate is another reason why such an event is called The Singularity.
And finally, there are some who believe that the Singularity will never come – H.sapiens über alles, forever! I am among those who respectfully join them with those august scientists and engineers who in former ages believed that heavier-than-air flight was impossible and then that supersonic flight was equally unattainable, who thought that the Patent Office should be shut down because all conceivable inventions had already been patented, who hold that spacetime is absolute, who taught that the world may have use for about a total of four or five computers, who … well, you know what I mean.
Today the worldwide internet is already more complex than the human brain. Consider the likelihood that, on a day in the near future, the Singularity’s arrival is belatedly announced by an intelligence that has already come to life and dwelled quietly within the internet of, say, ten or twenty years in the future (on a day when today’s super-computer will be in an online box smaller than your PC and cost less than $3K). It will then know everything about us and will be able to control everything that we control through such a worldwide communication and control fabric. In this event, I’m not sure that it will even have to offer us terms, but I sincerely hope it will see that we may be of some use.
By now, dear Reader, you are either in utter disbelief and need to go do some independent research, or are asking yourself some very important questions. Given the acceleration toward such a singularity –
• Why isn’t the Singularity recognized in the public press? As they see humans displaced by machines, why can the press not conclude the obvious if this process is to continue?
• What will happen to fiat currencies when galloping technology makes their putative value stores worthless?
• How will we care for the humans who cannot comprehend any of this and will not be able to sell their labor in any competitive market? or will only be able to sell it under government mandate?
• How will highly paid intellectual workers in developed countries react to workers in developing countries who can use advancing technology to learn and then sell their newfound skills for much lower prices?
• How will bread and circuses be bought and distributed for those whose undiverted attention makes them finally realize that they are irrelevant to the course of human affairs? (E.g. witness the “jobs banking” program where GM already pays people to watch TV, read, or sleep.)
The signs of Singularity’s approach are all around. Meanwhile our political leadership is making long-term plans about everything from healthcare to climate change assuming that tomorrow’s ways and means will be pretty much like today’s. This makes sense only when you consider the above in the social environment in which over 40% of our working adults are functionally illiterate and well over 90% are innumerate, where 19 out of 20 adults cannot reliably assess the meaning of a written paragraph in the public round (NAAL survey), and where 25% of America’s adults do not know that the earth revolves around the sun (NSF 2006 Survey reported by Dr. L.M. Kraus in the 6dec07 Wall Street Journal.)