George Rebane: Singularity? What’s that?
April 10, 2010
In my past columns I have hinted at the enormous impact that accelerating technology is having on education and America’s workforce. Here I’ll try to convince you that ‘enormous impact’ is an understatement. Let me start with the punchline and then back off. Unless you’re planning on dying in the next 10 or 20 years, it is very likely that you will live in a world with machines that are smarter than humans. The event when machines reach par intelligence with humans is known as the technological singularity, or simply the Singularity.
Before you turn the page, let me alert you that the Singularity will be the most planet changing event since the asteroids wiped out the dinosaurs 40 million years ago. And most of you will be around to witness it. We are now living in the pre-Singularity years and already sense that something different is going on. For example, wealth-producing productivity continues to increase while the number of workers required for such work is going down.
As a developed society we haven’t yet figured out what to do with the extra workers except maybe start all kinds of new service industries and public sector jobs to keep most everyone busy. But machines are already pushing themselves into the service sectors. Performance neutral workplaces in government seem to be the only places immune to encroaching technology.
Let me disabuse those who think the Singularity is some hare-brained notion held by weirdo techies. The Singularity is a very mature idea that has been around for at least 40 years. Today major scientists in artificial intelligence, nano-technology, and genetic engineering are working on perfecting everything from the brain-computer interface to machine consciousness.
Large companies like Intel, Cisco, Google, and Microsoft meet regularly at conferences, which the mainstream media mainly misses, to share their advances and discuss the societal implications of their work. Many of them have joined to found the Singularity University that now teaches courses on how to prepare for the epochal changes. Yes, and even the lawyers are in the act considering what kinds of legal system will be required even before the first machine looks back at us and says, “Now, I am here.”
Why is it called the Singularity? Years ago mathematician and writer Vernon Vinge gave it this name because singularities in physics and mathematics are ‘points’ at which things become undefined, where the normal rules no longer work, where we don’t know.
A popularized example of a singularity is the center of a black hole – there our physics simply breaks down, and we don’t know what is really going on.
In the same manner, scientists, futurists, and philosophers run into a cognitive wall when they try to conceive of a post-Singularity world. Because in that world, humans will no longer be the dominant species on this planet. How do you deal with a critter that can think thoughts you cannot, and do it a thousand times faster? Will we have the chance to ‘climb aboard’ and become some version of trans-human combining meat and machine? Will they let us?
Many of us believe that the Singularity will not result from a purposed technology development program. Instead it will arise spontaneously as an ’emergent property’ of a sufficiently complex computing environment that we are still working on. Some argue that the Internet is already a sufficiently complex ‘organism’ from which a conscious, par intelligence can arise, and in its own time, announce its existence to us. You can be sure that then it will be too late for us to do anything but attempt to play nice with it, because the Internet is already used to control our finances, communications, energy, food supplies, and security.
If you accept only a smidgen of this, you will understand why the Singularity will be the planet changing event I have described. And the pre-Singularity years will become more tumultuous as we try to sort out new paradigms for wealth creation and distribution, the roles of the mal-educated, and human rights. As the effects of the Singularity become more broadly known, I believe that legions of luddites will arise to demand a halt to all such intellect-toxic enterprises and their public discussion.
For your own research I recommend going to sites like singinst.org, kurzweilai.net, singularity.com/themovie/, and reading authors like Ray Kurzweil (The Singularity is Near) and Hans Moravec (Robot). In future months we will revisit this topic and its growing impact on our lives.
George Rebane is a retired systems scientist and entrepreneur in Nevada County who regularly expands these and other themes on KVMR and Rebane’s Ruminations (www.georgerebane.com).
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