The Coming Singularity

Welcome to the future. Today some members of academia use the term "Singularity" to describe the phenomenon of computers with literally superhuman intelligence capabilities coming into play within the global economy in the near future. In 1993, Dr. Vernor Venge, a mathematician at San Diego State University wrote: "…we are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth. The precise cause of this change is the imminent creation by technology of entities with greater than human intelligence. I believe that the creation of greater than human intelligence will occur during the next thirty years. (Charles Platt has pointed out that AI enthusiasts have been making claims like this for the last thirty years. Just so I'm not guilty of a relative-time ambiguity, let me more specific: I'll be surprised if this event occurs before 2005 or after 2030.) What are the consequences of this event? When greater-than-human intelligence drives progress, that progress will be much more rapid. From the human point of view this change will be a throwing away of all the previous rules, perhaps in the blink of an eye, an exponential runaway beyond any hope of control. Developments that before were thought might only happen in "a million years" (if ever) will likely happen in the next century. I think it's fair to call this event a singularity ("the Singularity" for the purposes of this paper). It is a point where our old models must be discarded and a new reality rules."

In a nutshell, unprecedented economic growth. (Among other things.)

You can read Dr. Venge's entire paper here.

Dr. Venge is not some fluke seeing the coming exponential rise in the pace of change. Dr. Robin Hansen at Berkley agrees that such a phenomenon could occur. But his best estimate, based upon "historical trends of supply and demand", is that it will happen sometime in the next 150 years. On the other hand, Natasha Vita More finds Venge's estimates realistic and the implications of such an event could be startling. She writes: "…if physical progress with computation gets good enough, then we will have creatures that are smarter than human. At that point the human race will no longer be at center stage. The world will be driven by those other intelligences. This is a fundamentally different form of technical progress. The change would be essentially unknowable, unknowable in a different way than technology change has been in the past. An analogy I like to use is Mark Twain and the goldfish. If you have a time machine, you could bring Mark Twain forward into 1997. In a day or two, you could explain everything to him about how the world works (and I think he would love it!). On the other hand, if you were to bring in a gold fish and give the gold fish the same treatment -- try to explain to the goldfish what's going on in 1997 -- the goldfish would remain permanently clueless. That is the difference that I see between current notions of technical progress and the transformation represented by the Singularity. Progress after the Singularity will be fundamentally and qualitatively different than progress than in the past."

Besides super-intelligent (artificial intelligent) computers, other factors are at work today that I believe will contribute to the coming Singularity. Advances in genetics, cloning, physics, cyberspace, gerontology, chemistry, engineering and - particularly - something called nanotechnology will, I believe, redefine what human Being is all about. The Singularity, actualized by a combination of all these very tangible and developing forces, will also most likely strain existing social, political, economic and religious structures, especially among those who do not see it coming.

One morning in January 1999, as my wife and I wrestled to get our daughter dressed and out the door, we watched a segment of ABC's "Good Morning America" where a doctor was showing off a fancy new medical gadget that will be available in about 5 years. It is a computer chip the size of a dime that can be implanted in your body. It contains highly concentrated amounts of up to dozens of different medications. It is driven by a microscopic computer that is able to constantly measure preprogrammed bodily substances and inject the appropriate amounts of the appropriate medicines automatically into the body as needed. The hopes are that by the time this chip is approved by the FDA it will be further miniaturized and be available to be simply swallowed rather than implanted. This will eliminate all need for routine injections, patches, etc. greatly transforming human medicine. A child, for example, could simply swallow one of these chips and receive all their needed immunizations in their correct sequence through their developmental years including things like, say, tetanus shots as required.

The future is getting smaller and faster.

Now, "progress" is supposed to be a big "no-no" in what is supposed to be our "post-modern" reality. I leave it to you to decide whether or not any of this is "progressive." That part of the philosophical debate doesn't interest me. The fact is that the Singularity is coming. Probably within most of our lifetimes. What will it mean to us? What is nanotechnology and what role will it play in all this? What can we expect to happen before "mature" nanotechnology arrives?

Copyright © W. Keith Beason, 1999
Version 1.0

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