US Elections Taught Me a Lesson About Technological Singularity
If AI researchers do eventually manage to make the leap to Artificial General Intelligence, there is little reason to believe that the result will be a machine that simply matches human-level intelligence. Once AGI is achieved, Moore’s Law alone would likely soon produce a computer that exceeded human intellectual capability.
This is an excerpt from Martin Ford’s highly-acclaimed “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future”. It indeed, like many other parts of the book sounds truly menacing. Martin goes on to write,
A thinking machine would, of course, continue to enjoy all the advantages that computers currently have, including the ability to calculate and access information at speeds that would be incomprehensible for us. Inevitably, we would soon share the planet with something entirely unprecedented: a genuinely alien — and superior — intellect.
All these fears and comments sound perfectly rational in a world where we’re seeing technology grow at a rapid rate like we’ve seen never before.
Google knows more about us than our better half does— what we like, what we don’t, what songs we listen to, what restaurants we most often visit, what time we work out, how we like our coffee, and a lot more.
And these fears eventually point to the most feared eventuality of technological progress — a term that is referred to as Singularity. The term is sort of a “science fiction” term but is broadly used without having a fixed definition. Wikipedia manages to do a decent job of combining a variety of sources of information to define it as:
The technological singularity — also, simply, the singularity— is a hypothetical point in time at which technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible, resulting in unforeseeable changes to human civilization.
Most futurists and technologists believe that there will be a point when Singularity might become a reality. The term was coined by John von Neumann in 1958 and was made famous by Vernor Vinge in the 1990s when he predicted we’d achieve Singularity by about 2030.
Yet, here we are in 2020, and I am going to claim that we’ll probably not achieve any such thing as Singularity in the next few centuries, or even ever.
Why do I say that?
Funnily, of all things, the US Elections have made me realize how far we are from such a technological state of advancement.
The World of Mail-In Ballots and Manual Counting
The US Election day was November 3, and we’re now 4 days past it, and most of you like me would have been refreshing your screens to only see the following for the past 3 days.
WHY THE HELL don’t we have a result yet?
Oh well, the answer is postal ballots and manual counting. Let me explain. Thanks to the unique circumstances of 2020, a heavy part of the total voting for the elections was done via mail-in or postal ballot. What this means is many citizens of the United States of America posted their vote in a secured envelope via traditional snail mail.
These ballots are then counted MANUALLY via a supposedly secure process and the rules around when this counting can happen vary from state to state. In many states, the postal ballots can only begin to be counted after the in-person voting on election day has ended.
And so given the enormity of the task and the manual nature of it, there are days and weeks of delays in getting results in certain states. What this also means is that in a closely fought election like this one, the final results get delayed as well.
And manual processes are surely prone to error — or even intentional biases/frauds and can easily be challenged. This means that even if we get results, either party is likely to challenge the results — as we know that President Trump has already stated in his intentions.
Wait, Why Don’t We Have Online Voting?
In a world where we trust the internet and technology with all our money, bank accounts, transactions, professional and personal records, and literally everything of value — how come we aren’t using the internet and technology to caste votes and count them in a matter of minutes?
You can’t be blamed to wonder this question, which I and many others probably have pondered over. So much so that there are many explanatory articles on this such as this one from the Washington Post. In a nutshell,
The greatest threat to democracy on Election Day is hacking, and cybersecurity experts have long agreed that the intelligent response is to take as much cyber out of the security equation as possible. Pen-and-paper ballots let officials count hard copies and compare them with electronic tallies after the fact. Critical infrastructure that’s disconnected from the Web keeps systems further from adversaries’ reach. Putting voting online, of course, follows the precise opposite of this advice.
The article then summarizes to say a statement that brings me back to my claim of how distant a reality Singularity is:
In a crisis, voting by mail remains the far safer option.
Tech May Be Many Things — But It Isn’t Replacing Humans
So when all else fails, we do go back to the age-old ways of manual don’t we?
This isn’t the only example — let me give you some others where the human touch still far exceeds what technology offers us:
- Healthcare — The best surgeons in the world are still humans and not robots, and telemedicine is only trusted for relatively uncomplicated stuff
- Art — The most expensive artwork or products are still “hand-made” and there is a premium on all things that are hand-made, manual vs. mass-produced stuff using technology even though it may be much closer to perfection
- Security — The final level of security on all things is still a human level — whether it is a final signature on a classified document, or a handwriting match for forged documents, or a manual override failsafe on the most technologically advanced systems
- Even Technology — We’re still in a world where man continues to attempt to advance technology further and further but the holy grail still remains “human intelligence” which hasn’t been achieved and is unlikely to be achieved in the near future.
Computational abilities, speed, and some select skills may be far more advanced in machines than in humans — but the basic cognitive abilities and the combination of them that humans possess is near impossible to match by any set of algorithms and quantum computing.
So as far as I am concerned, Terminators will always remain a thing to be found in the movies — and we can all sleep peacefully!