One Singular Sensation

In today’s New York Times is yet another mention of a notion that seems to be attracting a lot of attention lately: Ray Kurzweil’s idea of an impending technological “Singularity”.

The concept is simple enough: if we look at the history of the world, we see a consistently accelerating rate of progress — first biological, and then technological — which, if extrapolated into the future, predicts that something extraordinary is about to happen.

Kurzweil was one of the many speakers at this weekend’s inaugural World Science Festival here in New York. He has an impressive track record:

He makes his predictions using what he calls the Law of Accelerating Returns, a concept he illustrated at the festival with a history of his own inventions for the blind. In 1976, when he pioneered a device that could scan books and read them aloud, it was the size of a washing machine.

Two decades ago he predicted that “early in the 21st century” blind people would be able to read anything anywhere using a handheld device. In 2002 he narrowed the arrival date to 2008. On Thursday night at the festival, he pulled out a new gadget the size of a cellphone, and when he pointed it at the brochure for the science festival, it had no trouble reading the text aloud.

This invention, Dr. Kurzweil said, was no harder to anticipate than some of the predictions he made in the late 1980s, like the explosive growth of the Internet in the 1990s and a computer chess champion by 1998. (He was off by a year — Deep Blue’s chess victory came in 1997.)

“Certain aspects of technology follow amazingly predictable trajectories,” he said, and showed a graph of computing power starting with the first electromechanical machines more than a century ago. At first the machines’ power doubled every three years; then in midcentury the doubling came every two years (the rate that inspired Moore’s Law); now it takes only about a year.

The Singularity has been on a lot of people’s minds lately, including my own. If Kurzweil is right, the convergence of accelerating accomplishments in nanotechnology, medicine, genetic engineering, computer science, neurobiology, and artificial intelligence will soon result in a cascading series of mutually supportive breakthroughs that will amount to a discontinuous historical disruption, the anthropological equivalent of the “singularities” at the heart of black holes. And, to pursue the metaphor further: just as has been suggested for black holes, the technological Singularity will be a wormhole to an utterly different human universe. As Kurzweil imagines it, our mastery of biology will make us immortal, and with the prosthetic enhancements made possible by information-processing and neurobiological breakthroughs, our brains — and the minds that they are host to — will be transformed beyond imagining. Our generation will be the last to age, to die. It will be the end — the swift and sudden end — of our race’s long childhood, and those who cross the bridge will be as different from 20th-century man as he in turn was from his Paleocene ancestors.

Not everyone is buying all this pie in the sky, of course. Nobody disputes that Kurzweil is a mighty smart cookie, however — and that as a haruspex, so far he’s been as reliable as they come. But he does make some large assumptions.

First, he is confident that it is in principle possible to create not only artificial intelligence, but also artificial consciousness. This is far from given, though; I think that, despite the claims of functionalist AI, there may well be physical properties of biological brains that are necessary for consciousness in some way that we do not yet understand. That being said, however, there is in principle no reason we couldn’t design and build those ourselves too, once we have the necessary theoretical understanding and technical skill. To create conscious machinery of our own design, whether built of biological material or on some other substrate, would be the first step toward re-embodying our own minds as our bodies fail.

His second, and much larger, assumption is that the Singularity would be a benign event. But one can imagine — and indeed the notion has been a staple of science fiction for decades — that it might lead to any number of catastrophic outcomes; one popular example is the sudden emergence of a conscious, artificial Mind that sees fit to enslave or annihilate us.

But it is hard to resist Kurzweil’s main point, which is that the pace of change is accelerating in an obvious and predictable way, and that something is bound to happen. He estimates it will be upon us in another twenty to thirty years. For those of us who can live that long, he assures us, there is a good chance that we may never die.

I’d certainly like to be around, I have to say, if for no other reason than to see what how things turn out. I’m only 52, so I ought to make it, one would think — but I have a tendency to hypertension, am far from abstemious as regards dining and drink, and own a body that has been through a lot of what is romantically called “hard livin'”. I’ve scoffed at the suggestion that one might eke out a few more years of life by giving up everything that would make one want a few more years of life — but a couple of decades of ascetic self-denial in exchange for a millennia-long re-enlistment as some sort of godlike Ubermensch would be a different equation altogether. Will the Singularity make us any wiser? No, and therein lies one of its greatest perils. But it may at last give us the lifespan to have a chance to be.

To some, the whole idea is repugnant: hubristic, grotesquely unnatural, and even sinful. That we should be tampering with affairs in this way here on Earth — playing God, it seems to some — when our real chance at eternal life awaits us after death, seems the darkest and most misguided of all possible ambitions. But readers will probably already know that this isn’t how I view the world at all: I think that we are utterly, entirely on our own, and that if we are ever going to get to Heaven, we are going to have to build it ourselves.

You can read the article in the Times here (there are more links on the story’s sidebar), read an interesting profile of Kurzweil here, and have a look at Wikipedia’s article on the Singularity here.

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9 Comments

  1. eugene says

    Mal,

    You should contrast Kurzweil’s ideas against Unabomber and Bill Joy(Founder of Sun Microsystem, BSD Unix and Java programming language). Both are anti singularity.

    Eugene

    Posted June 4, 2008 at 12:31 am | Permalink
  2. JK says

    Well Malcolm,

    “the world(s) they are a’ changin'”-

    I realize it’s not on Highway 61 but do a simple bit of recent historical runs. Go “Animations” first USA then the world.

    I’m projecting here but if we do not have major interruptions on or about June 11th, I’ll never coment on your site again.

    http://earthquake.usgs.gov/eqcenter/recenteqsww/

    but then again, you know how to get ‘hold of me and cuss me out’.

    JK

    Posted June 4, 2008 at 1:41 am | Permalink
  3. JO says

    Malcolm,
    Dennis Mangan has been blogging about this concept, also. VERY interesting and I’m studying about all of it before approaching a comment.
    Jeanie

    Posted June 4, 2008 at 11:16 am | Permalink
  4. JO says

    Malcolm,
    left out a thought….your title has me dancing with top hat and cane!!!
    J

    Posted June 4, 2008 at 11:19 am | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says

    Hi Jeanie,

    Yes, I had meant to add a link to Dennis’s post, which I have now done.

    Glad you enjoyed the title.

    Posted June 4, 2008 at 11:37 am | Permalink
  6. Hi Malcolm, your effort at explaining the singularity here was exceedingly well done, better than mine. Had I done as well, maybe I wouldn’t have had quite so many objections. And thanks for the link.

    Posted June 6, 2008 at 9:29 pm | Permalink
  7. Malcolm says

    Hi Dennis – thanks for the kind words, and thanks as always for dropping by.

    Posted June 6, 2008 at 10:40 pm | Permalink
  8. Leonardo says

    I read Fantastic Voyage, The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity is Near, and they changed my life. I even found some of his lectures on Itunes and I find myself impatiently awaiting his next book.

    Recently read another incredible book that I can’t recommend highly enough, especially to all of you who also love Ray Kurzweil’s work. The book is “”My Stroke of Insight”” by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. I had heard Dr Taylor’s talk on the TED dot com site and I have to say, it changed my world. It’s spreading virally all over the internet and the book is now a NYTimes Bestseller, so I’m not the only one, but it is the most amazing talk, and the most impactful book I’ve read in years. (Dr T also was named to Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People and Oprah had her on her Soul Series last month and I hear they’re making a movie about her story so you may already have heard of her)
    If you haven’t heard Dr Taylor’s TEDTalk, that’s an absolute must. The book is more and deeper and better, but start with the video (it’s 18 minutes). Basically, her story is that she was a 37 yr old Harvard brain scientist who had a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. Because of her knowledge of how the brain works, and thanks to her amazingly loving and kind mother, she eventually fully recovered (and that part of the book detailing how she did it is inspirational).

    There’s a lot of learning and magic in the book, but the reason I so highly recommend My Stroke of Insight to this discussion, is because we have powerfully intelligent left brains that are rational, logical, sequential and grounded in detail and time, and then we have our kinesthetic right brains, where we experience intuition and peace and euphoria. Now that Kurzweil has got us taking all those vitamins and living our best “”Fantastic Voyage”” , the absolute necessity is that we read My Stroke of Insight and learn from Dr Taylor how to achieve balance between our right and left brains. Enjoy!

    Posted June 16, 2008 at 3:31 am | Permalink
  9. Malcolm says

    Leonardo, all are welcome to comment here, but on an impulse I Googled about a bit and found that you have been posting this same comment in various places – and I don’t toil away here just to provide a place for people to slap up advertising.

    Also, I’ve already devoted a post to Dr. Taylor’s TED talk, here.

    Posted June 16, 2008 at 10:55 am | Permalink