Technological Singularity

By November 4, 2011 Technology 5 Comments

In April I went to a pre-screening of Transcendent Man, not knowing what to expect or how it would changes my beliefs on what the future will bring.

Transcendent Man is a documentary of Ray Kurzweil, a serial inventor and freakishly accurate futurist. What I experienced while watching the film cannot be put into words. I was speechless myself. When the film was over, the lights came up and all I could mutter was…”holy shit.” Previously, I had no idea who Ray was but after seeing his film I looked him up on Wikipedia and wondered how I had never heard of him. Many call him the modern day Tomas Edison for all his incredible inventions (flat bed scanner, reading machine for the blind, etc, etc) and he has an amazing talent–predicting the future of technology.

The basis of Ray’s work today is grounded in singularity theory and exponential growth. I’ve pulled the definition from Wikipedia below.

Singularity Theory

… is the study of the failure of manifold structure. A loop of string can serve as an example of a one-dimensional manifold, if one neglects its width. What is meant by a singularity can be seen by dropping it on the floor. Probably there will appear a number of double points, at which the string crosses itself in an approximate ‘X’ shape. These are the simplest kinds of singularity. Perhaps the string will also touch itself, coming into contact with itself without crossing, like an underlined ‘U’. This is another kind of singularity. Unlike the double point, it is not stable, in the sense that a small push will lift the bottom of the ‘U’ away from the ‘underline’.

Exponential Growth

… occurs when the growth rate of a mathematical function is proportional to the function’s current value. In the case of a discrete domain of definition with equal intervals it is also called geometric growth or geometric decay (the function values form a geometric progression).The exponential growth model is also known as the Malthusian growth model. US scholar Albert Bartlett pointed out the difficulty to grasp ramifications of exponential growth, stating: “The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.”

Not being a stellar math or science student, it was very confusing to me at first to understand the math and science behind it all. How I have come to understand it, singularity is the point at which a given mathematical object can no longer be defined; and exponential studies how growth is not linear or constant, but rather it accelerates as it advances. We have been experiencing exponential growth in biology, economics, physics and computer technology for decades and we are at a point in the growth curve where we are going to start to see rapid advancement in all fields. Singularity theory suggests that we will reach a point where the technology we have created will transcend our own human intelligence and capability. We will then have the opportunity to merge our biological bodies with technology, making us infinitely smarter and stronger. Ray predicts this point of singularity will begin in year 2045.

All this blows my mind and I have to say… I believe it.

I attended recently the Singuarity Summit in NYC, a 2-day event that brought in speakers from all over the world to discuss all kinds of future intelligence studies and ideas. I’m not ashamed to say (OK, maybe a bit) that as an attendee I’ve never questioned my own IQ so much, as many of the speakers talked mostly over my head. Still, my takeaway is that the singularity is very real. We are living in a time where technological advancements in areas like neuroscience, robotics, nano tech, computer tech, biology, physics, etc. are growing at a rate that is so fast, sooner than most of us can imagine, we will be merging ourselves with technologies that will make us half human and half AI.

I know this is a wild (and pretty freaky) idea to grasp, but some of the predictions for the future include mind uploading, immortality and omnipresence. The technology we are creating today will continue to build upon itself and will outpace our own capabilities, which will create a dilemma–either merge with artificial intelligence or become irrelevant. There is of course optimistic and pessimistic views of what this kind of technology means for the future. If we can download Google to our brains, manipulate and change our own DNA, reverse the aging process, etc., we will become in effect super-humans. What will we do with this power? Also, if we build and bring to life AI robots that have intelligence beyond human capability, what will they do with that power?

It is inevitable that humans will use the advanced technology we’ve created to evolve. Think about today versus 40 years ago. The most advanced computer was a $1M machine that was the size of a city block with little computing power and today the smartphone that fits in your pocket is thousands of times more capable and affordable. Now remember exponential growth. Is it really so hard to believe that what fits in our pocket today could be the size of a blood cell and implanted in our body 10 or 20 years from now? I don’t think so.

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  • gord says:

    this is a little scary but still fascinating. if we allow our ourselves to download data from the internet, my fear is that free thinking will no longer be possible. we will be spoon fed the data that we are told we should have and anything that deviates from that will be not allowed. we have to have free thinking individuals and innovation. once we are allowed to have ourselves controlled by technology, we are no longer human but robots in the pure sense of the word.

  • Let me make this short:
    Your tweets about the Singularity Summit got me reading up on it, and relook at how we perceive the world.
    I joke on a regular basis about Skynet, and how personal robots cannot get here soon enough, yet jokes aside… I do believe that it will become reality.
    For all the benefit the technological advancements can bring to the human species, I do believe that we might see a new world order of have’s and have-nots. We might see the haves embracing the technology to advance who they are, and the have-nots refusing to use the technology.
    New technology will always have critics. And the critics are necessary to move us forward or redirect our efforts. There are also the ethical and philosophical effects to consider. But is it necessary to stop all innovation?
    Bottom line, people are scared of change. They will not embrace a technology that will benefit them, because it means they need to change the way they do things.
    About me uploading my mind and personality to some global server, I think not. One of me is enough :)

  • Sue Peters says:

    Wonderful post. I’m a longtime follower of Ray Kurzweil, and I would like to give my updated version of Albert Bartlett’s quote. “The current greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to think exponentially, rather than linearly.” I firmly believe that by thinking exponentially (meaning thinking about life, planning, etc in exponential time) one can achieve much greater success in life.

  • Bryan Lee says:

    This movie was in my netflix instant queue after reading your blog post, its definitely gonna be my next movie to watch!

  • Dan Vasii says:

    I like very much naive girls. They are the sweetest. By the way, Julia, did you checked on Wikipedia about A.I. winter? It is SO INTERESTING! Ever heard about Soft/Hard Gap? It’s so simple. It means that while the hardware capabilities grow exponentially – for how long, not possible to know – the soft capabilities are lagging behind – there is no AI human level, there is NO MATHEMATICAL MODEL OF HUMAN INTELLIGENCE, HENCE NO POSSIBILITY TO RECREATE IT IN SOFTWARE. So called Artificial Intelligence is actually dealing with what in IT is called peripherics – videocams, printers, keyboards, etc. There is NOTHING about THE OPERATING SYSTEM. The guys even invented a sort of code to hide it. They call this peripherics software soft AI, and the real AI hard AI. Well, you can’t make a whip out of dough, nor hard AI from soft AI, no matter how great inventor Ray K. may be.

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