Trends Towards a Singularity

“With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet”… Victor Frankenstein continues reflecting on a dark, dreary November night. And as his Creation takes its first breath, Victor realizes “the different accidents of life are not so changeable as the feelings of human nature” (Shelley, 1994, pg 42-43). In describing that moment, a self-proclaimed “catastrophe”, Victor Frankenstein perfectly interprets the transcendence of man and machine, an event, bound only by time, that might lead to the inevitable.

Mary Shelley’s classic depiction of artificial intelligence (AI) may be cruel, at best, however it portrays a more primal and humanistic fear of technological progress. A fear that is rooted in self-destruction; a fear of an impending Singularity. At a high level, the singularity represents a unity between organic life and synthetic intelligence, along with the consequences that soon follow. The evolution of artificial intelligence and technology suggests such an event will happen. However, in order to justify even the slightest suggestion of a Singularity, the event needs to be clearly defined and the current state and path of artificial intelligence examined.

Artificial intelligence began as a science with a clear objective, “to replicate human level intelligence in a machine” (Brooks, 1987). As a technology, it received massive investments that allowed for momentum to carry the technology further, and quicker, than any other technology before. In time, individuals began to notice the energy the industry had and hypothesized an event that may occur if this energy was not regulated. This event is defined as a technological, or biological, Singularity, dependent on the theory one chooses to believe in.

The first to describe such an event was Vernor Vinge within NASA’s Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering in the Era of Cyberspace. Vinge proposed that, by the year 2030, the world will see “the development of computers that are awake and superhumanly intelligent”, that “computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent”, and “biological science may find ways to improve upon natural human intellect” (Vinge, 1991, pg 11). In the same way modern technology, across all industries, improves upon itself given the correct amount of time, this hypothesis imposes that the rapid progress made in the space of artificial intelligence will lead to an “intelligence explosion” (Good, 1965). This explosion will be a series of self-improvements, conceived by the synthetic agents humans will create, to allow for the destruction of the human race. As such, this is the path of the technological Singularity. According the Vinge, “we cannot prevent the Singularity, that its coming is an inevitable consequence of the humans’ competitiveness and the possibilities inherent in technology” (Vinge, 1991, pg 16).

Ray Kurzweil, in his book The Singularity is Near, defined the Singularity as a very different event. Kurzweil saw that transcending human biology is no mere task. His stance was to reverse engineer the human brain and interface it with a machine. This meant more than just “adding a fourth cell phone or doubling the number of unwanted e-mails”. Kurzweil implies that the Singularity “means perfecting the technologies to conquer cancer and other devastating diseases, creating ubiquitous wealth to overcome poverty, cleaning up the environment from the effects of the first industrial revolution, and overcoming many other age-old problems” (Kurzweil, 2005). Among this list includes the ability to overcome aging, reduce disease, and, in some cases, even defeat Death himself. The intention of amplifying human cognitive abilities will greatly reduce the impact that humans have had on the world, furthering many to believe this biological Singularity to be the most likely to occur through the sheer will of humanity to correct their mistakes.

One aspect of these theories, however, has made quite the impact in the scientific community and has developed an ideology unto itself: transhumanism. According to the Institute of Ethics and Emerging Technologies, transhumans are defined as the effort of “modifying the human species via any kind of emerging science, including genetic engineering, digital technology, and bioengineering” (LaGrandeur, 2014). Transhumanist search to enhance the human condition through bioaugmentation, not in an effort to correct any kind of abilities, but to improve normal human functions. By extension of transhumanism, the idea of posthumans has also come into existence. Posthumans can be described as the “condition in which humans and intelligent technology are becoming increasingly intertwined” (LaGrandeur, 2014). Through this belief, humanity evolves to the point that function takes precedence over form. To further the definition of transhumanism, Max More described it as,

both a reason-based philosophy and a cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally improving the human condition by means of science and technology. Transhumanists seek the continuation and acceleration of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form and human limitations by means of science and technology, guided by life-promoting principles and values. (2009)

Through this definition, transhumanism can be interpreted as the promotion of all sentient life. Upon the event of a Singularity, humanity becomes more of a process and the human body, or any body, becomes the equivalent of an accessory. Whether it’s a human or a machine, humanity will evolve past the need to be bound to a physical form.

When studying the progression of technology and the likelihood of a technological Singularity, Vernor Vinge’s hypothesis, four main points indicate its probability. The first confesses that “the study of the history of technology reveals that technological progress has long been accelerating”. The second states that “there are good reasons to think that this acceleration will continue for at least several more decades”. The third admits that “if it does continue, our technological achievements will become so great that our bodies, minds, societies, and economies will be radically transformed”. The final statement suggests “it is likely that this disruptive transformation will occur” (Eden, Steanhart, Pearce, Moor, 2012). However, what technological advancements suggest this, or Kurzweil’s theory, will ever occur?

The Singularity, as an event horizon that will change all matters of life on Earth, cannot be easily predicted. Both theories have the Singularity occurring around the year 2045. In an effort to argue for the progress towards a Singularity, Kurzweil presents the Law of Accelerating Returns. This “law” suggests that instead of steady progression towards the end goal, technological advancement will exponentially accelerate. Kurzweil suggests,

We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate). The “returns,” such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially. There’s even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth. Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to The Singularity (2001)

The rate of technological growth was fairly flat until the Industrial Revolution. Once it began, the rate at which technology evolved became very exponential, and continues to this very day. If humanity were to view the Digital Revolution (the late 20th century) in the same manner, the assumption that a Singularity will occur in our lifetime becomes increasingly more likely.

In order for the Singularity to occur before 2047, a few milestones must first be achieved. This path is based on resources, or technologies, becoming available to the populace in an almost infinite supply and are only a handful of many different possibilities. The first milestone would be to have 5 billion people on the planet connected to the Internet with speeds greater than 10mbps. Once the infrastructure is established, it is likely that this will happen before 2025. The second milestone would be a worldwide capacity of 1 terawatts of photovoltaic energy. Again, infrastructure needs to be established, however, this energy source will decrease human dependence on finite natural resources. This can be expected sometime around 2030. The third milestone would to have 90 percent of the world’s population living in developed countries, as determined by a UN Human Development Index greater than .8000 (equivalent to the United States in the 1960’s). Through worldwide efforts, and the advancement of technology, this should be reached by 2035. The last milestone would be an artificial intelligence that can pass the Turing Test. Developed by Alan Turing, the Turing Test is specifically designed to test the responses of a machine. Instead of testing to find the correct answer, Turing examines how humanlike a response is and whether or not a machine can imitate a human. Effective imitation, which also imposes more thought like functions, is estimated to be achieved around 2040. Although there are many different milestones that need to be achieved, the combination of these four will set the world up to be prepared for the likely Singularity. (The Futurist, n.d.)

The possibility of a Singularity is easy to argue, however, it’s just as easy is argue against. The most critical aspect of Kurzweil’s theory rests on the Law of Accelerated Returns, yet this law is not a physical one. This is an assumption using past technological and scientific progress to predict future progress, a concept that is only valid while true (Allan, 2011). It can also be clearly argued that the current level of understanding of the brain is in no way ready, nor will it be anytime soon, for the levels of reverse engineering needed to incite a Singularity (Hartsfield, 2013). Lastly, most mainstream support for technological progress is dependent on hardware advancements. However, just as the hardware needs to be developed, so too does the software that runs on it, and not just artificial intelligence (Allan, 2011). If a Singularity is to be achieved by Kurzweil’s and Vinge’s predictions, these hurdles need to be addressed.

Technological progress will bring with it a Singularity. When it will happen is up for debate, with multiple trends leading in very different directions. Will it be a single event like a machine gaining consciousness, or will it be a decade long process of engineering a brain? No one quite knows, nor can it be accurately calculated. However, whether it’s the technological demise proposed by Vinge or, more likely, the biological transformation put forth by Kurzweil, “we are the last. The last generation to be unaugmented. The last generation to be intellectually alone. The last generation to be limited by our bodies” (Beight & Reddell, n.d.).

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1 Comment

Very thought provoking… “the last generation to be intellectually alone” statement hits quite hard as we may be living with robotic forms of other “human” life in the future. If and when technological advances can be reached such as storage/creation of mass photovoltaic energy & the modernization of some currently “underdeveloped” countries, we could be in for a WILD ride. Great read.

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