The Coming Technological Singularity

Science fiction stories abound with the idea of super-intelligent machines becoming self-aware and turning on their human ‘masters’. The whole Terminator series of movies is built on that premise and, as stories go, it made for an entertaining few hours in the cinema (except number three which was a bit lame!). There are some scientists, futurists and philosophers though who feel a technological singularity is approaching and it could lead to the machines taking over.

A technological singularity is one in which the progress is so profound and the change so massive that it renders everything which went before it virtually obsolete. Verner Vinge coined the term in his science fiction novel Marooned in Realtime and it has since been taken up by number of other thinkers.

Imagine a time, not so long ago, before the introduction of computers. I can recall that time with great clarity because as a child the only computer that was accessible to me for school was a mainframe computer at the local university. I learned to program in the BASIC language and had to convert each single command into binary and prepare punch cards for compiling. I would carefully stack the cards in sequence and send them to the university; about a week later I would receive a printout with the results. If there was a flaw in my programming - or in my conversion of the code into binary - I would have to resubmit the entire stack of cards again and wait another week for the printout.

Today I have a phone in my pocket with more computing power than that mainframe computer of thirty-odd years ago. The rapid development of computing power has changed everything about how we do things in society. It has caused a hugely significant change in every aspect of our lives and yet fifty years ago nobody could have predicted where that technology might take us.

That is the basis of the idea for a technological singularity. Imagine again if a machine suddenly could think in terms way beyond our own capabilities, and in all areas of existence: sociological as well as technological. That thinking machine would render the run-of-the-mill human brain obsolete.

It doesn’t have to be a machine, of course, because it might be a technological breakthrough which alters the biology of the existing human brain to produce a super-intelligence. This might even be through a symbiotic relationship between machine and biology to produce a cyborg.

The belief is that the technological change which finally produces a super-intelligence will have an immediate and profound impact on human society that it is simply impossible to accurately predict them, but there is also a feeling that this singularity event isn’t far in our future.

Back in 1847, R. Thornton commented on the introduction of a simple calculator and suggested that the development of thinking machines might have a significant impact in the future: “…such machines, by which the scholar may, by turning a crank, grind out the solution of a problem without the fatigue of mental application, would by its introduction into schools, do incalculable injury. But who knows that such machines when brought to greater perfection, may not think of a plan to remedy all their own defects and then grind out ideas beyond the ken of mortal mind!”

The basis of the idea that a technological singularity is rapidly approaching often cites Moore’s Law. Put in simple terms, Moore’s Law was based on an observation that in computer hardware development the number of transistors that can be fitted onto a silicon chip roughly doubles every two years. This increase in computing power has continued since the 1960’s, but many researchers suggest that this is merely an observation and not an actual physical law or property. Some scientists insist that there still remains a physical limit to the amount of computing power that can be squeezed onto a single chip. Therefore, any suggestion that improvements in artificial intelligence (or nanotechnology/genetics research etc.) will inevitably continue to grow exponentially are flawed.

It is true though that these fledgling technologies are moving on at a rapid pace. Artificial intelligence is taking great strides, although in areas such as ‘common sense’ (which humans learn through experience) they remain obstinately stupid. In other more logical areas - such as chess - computers can already be described as super-intelligent because they far outrank the abilities of any human player.

The Blue Brain project is attempting to simulate a human brain in a computer by creating electronic versions of individual neurons. They are a long way from creating an actual biological-analogue brain, but if they ever achieve their goals it would be feasibly possible to simply increase the number of functioning neurons to increase the thinking capacity of the electronic brain.

When the technological singularity does eventually arrive it is not unreasonable to assume that a super-intelligence may not share our human morality and may not view us as worthy of saving. In the Terminator movies Skynet wanted to destroy humanity to save itself, but it is just as feasible that a super-intelligence might believe we are actually unworthy to exist in the first place.

There are optimists, to be sure, who believe that the birth of a super-intelligence may not necessarily be destructive to the human race, at least not by annihilating us all. Many believe that there will be a move to increase the intelligence of the human race as a whole, possibly through nanotechnology or cybernetic links to computing systems. If this does happen, it would lead to an evolution of the human race into something new, with completely different priorities and expectations about the purpose of life itself.

In either case, the impact of a technological singularity would lead to an immediate change in the way that life is led on planet Earth. Humanity as we know it may cease to exist, or may change into something which can no longer be considered human.

So when is this singularity going to occur? There are numerous opinions, but some thinkers believe it could happen by 2040. So get ready, the technological singularity is coming.


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