The Coming Singularity
What happens when our technology surpasses our humanity?
The term “singularity” was likely first used by the mathematician John Von Neumann who said that the progress of technology “…gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.” The word then, describes a time in which technological advancement transforms our lives and what it means to be human. It changes everything from our business models to our intelligence and even the cycle of life and death itself as some futurists believe during this time we will be able to upload our consciousness onto machines.
One of the main supporters of this idea is inventor and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil. He’s been recognized by institutions like MIT for his work in the field of technology, having created the first text to speech synthesizers, omni-font optical character recognition, and charge-coupled flatbed scanners. He works for Google and has dozens of awards, including 12 honorary doctorates. Most impressively, I think, is that he’s made several predictions about the future of technology and over 85% of them have turned out to be correct. His work on this idea of the singularity has been a project of his for the last thirty years. He has support not only from his own community of futurists, but also from theoretical physicists such as the renowned Michio Kaku, and other scientists and mathematicians.
According to Kurzweil, there are six major phases of evolution. He includes technology alongside biological evolution for the fact that, in the coming singularity, technology will go on to be the continuation of biological evolution.
1. Physics and Chemistry
First there was the Big Bang. A few hundred thousand years later atoms began to form. Electrons became trapped in their orbits around nuclei. A few million years after that, chemistry and molecules arrived. It was at this point that carbon, the base element for life, came into play.
2. Biology and DNA
Carbon compounds, which at first were very simple, gradually increased in complexity. The self replicating system allowed for life to be born. This life contained DNA — the information which describes these large bodies of molecules.
Each of these phases has built upon the ones which came before it, driving the evolution of information. This information can now be stored away in brains and nervous systems.
Technology itself began to sense, store, and evaluate patterns of information. Due to its exponential growth there were fewer and fewer years between important events in the field. While the more advanced mammals might add one cubic inch of brain matter per 100,000 years, computational capacity for computers doubles every single year.
5. Merger of Human Technology and Intelligence
This is our current phase.
According to Kurzweil’s predictions, in just a few decades our brains will be embedded with the much faster and efficient capabilities of our technology, no longer bound by the biological restrictions we now face from birth. We will be able to surpass limitations such as only having about a hundred trillion slow connections or facing cognitive degeneration as we age.
Several decades into this phase we come across the singularity.
6. Fate of the Universe
At this point, things we can’t even comprehend or wrap our minds around begin to happen. Intelligence saturates matter and energy, reorganizing matter to provide optimal levels of computation that would allow it to spread out from Earth. We will test such questions as, “can anything move faster than the speed of light?” Kurzweil goes as far as saying that any “dumb matter” and mechanisms in the universe will be transformed into sublime forms of intelligence.
The Law of Accelerating Returns
In examining the history of technology, we learn that its growth is exponential and not linear. What that means for us in the 21st century is that from 2001 to 2100 we won’t experience 100 years of change. That number is closer to 20,000 years if we continue at the current rate. This is because technology builds upon itself and creates ever faster, sleeker, more efficient systems in shorter and shorter amounts of time. This is what’s known as Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns.
This same trend would apply to artificial intelligence. Ex-Machina and I-Robot are AI. But so are Google Maps and our interactions with Siri. The latter two are what is known as Artificial Narrow Intelligence because they’re good at certain tasks but their capabilities are limited. They’re nowhere near the realm of human computational abilities. However, the goal is to get from Artificial Narrow Intelligence to Artificial General Intelligence. This would be the point at which we as humans enter the realm of creationism and we give birth to something which can reason, learn, use tools like language, be trusted with moral and ethical dilemmas, and improve itself without our interference. One manager from an AI institution posed the question, “Why should there be a difference between what brains can do and what a machine can do?”
Going from ANI to AGI is a pretty slow and steady, one step at a time sort of achievement. But because this intelligence could improve upon itself in ways we could never do, it would essentially go into an exponential growth to create Artificial Super Intelligence — an entity more intelligent than the entire sum of our species.
Ray predicts that by 2029, AI will reach the cognitive abilities of one human brain. By 2045, it will surpass all human intelligence, including integrating itself with our emotional intelligence. These machines could share knowledge at electronic rates a million times faster than any human language, accessing databases of information that allow them to remember billions of facts with perfect accuracy.
All of this to extend our human reach. Today we can take out our phones and text a loved one in a different country, sharing our information with them across oceans and borders. In the future, the dark space of the universe might be our oceans and the arms of the galaxy will be our borders.
There’s no doubt that technology has improved our lives significantly up until now. While it has come with its own costs, people generally agree that the good its done has outweighed the bad that has come with it. We expect that soon it will be able to diagnose and repair our bodies, analyze law enforcement records, and help us to reverse the effects of climate change. But further reliance and improvement upon technology is also a revolution. It will affect jobs which will in turn affect our economic systems. It will uproot transportation, education, and medicine. Perhaps most importantly, it will redefine what it means to be a human being. Will our ideals, our morals, our sense of creativity and wonder change? What will happen to virtues and vices? Does wiping greed also wipe kindness from our race? Though I suppose that throughout this merger when there is no longer a distinction between machines or between virtual and physical realities, one human trait will persist. As Ray says in his Book The Singularity is Near, “ours is the species that inherently seeks to extend its physical and mental reach beyond current limitations.”
I’ll leave off with a link to this very short but powerful story on the dangers and the sublimity of our ever more intelligent technology.