April 30, 2004

The Singularity and Convergence

One working definition of the Technological Singularity is "that point in time when our ability to meaningfully predict the future falls to zero." This definition has a negative connotation. It emphasizes the scariest aspect of the Singularity rather than the benefits of accelerating change. Many other definitions have been offered:
[The Singularity has been] defined by Vernor Vinge as the postulated point or short period in our future when our self-guided evolutionary development accelerates enormously (powered by nanotechnology, neuroscience, AI, and perhaps uploading) so that nothing beyond that time can reliably be conceived. …usually the Singularity is meant as a future time when societal, scientific and economic change is so fast we cannot even imagine what will happen from our present perspective, and when humanity will become posthumanity. Another definition is the singular time when technological development will be at its fastest.
Here's Kurzweil's explanation:
I think that once a nonbiological intelligence (i.e., a machine) reaches human intelligence in its diverse dimensions, it will necessarily soar past it because (i) computational and communication power will continue to grow exponentially, (ii) machines can master information with far greater capacity and accuracy already and most importantly, machines can share their knowledge. We don't have quick downloading ports on our neurotransmitter concentration patterns, or interneuronal connection patterns. Machines will.

We have hundreds of examples of "narrow AI" today, and I believe we'll have "strong AI" (capable of passing the Turing test) and thereby soaring past human intelligence for the reasons I stated above by 2029. But that's not the Singularity. This is "merely" the means by which technology will continue to grow exponentially in its power.

…If we can combine strong AI, nanotechnology and other exponential trends, technology will appear to tear the fabric of human understanding by around the mid 2040s by my estimation. However, the event horizon of the Singularity can be compared to the concept of Singularity in physics. As one gets near a black hole, what appears to be an event horizon from outside the black hole appears differently from inside. The same will be true of this historical Singularity.

Once we get there, if one is not crushed by it (which will require merging with the technology), then it will not appear to be a rip in the fabric; one will be able to keep up with it.
I don't know if what I'm about to write is a symptom of an upcoming Singularity or an alternate definition. You be the judge.

As time goes by all lines of scientific inquiry are converging. The distinctions between various branches of science are breaking down. Nanotechnology, for example, is a convergence of biology, chemistry, physics, and electronics. Consider this:
DNA computer could fight cancer

New computers made of biological molecules that react to DNA hold the promise to diagnose and treat diseases such as cancer by operating like doctors inside the body, Israeli scientists said.

The devices, used in test-tube experiments, already have demonstrated the ability to identify and then destroy prostate and lung cancer cells…
You might argue that these molecules are not really computers, that these scientists are just using the word "computer" as a metaphor. They would disagree.
Shapiro's team originally designed biological computers to compete against electronic computers. The field began in 1994, when computer scientist Len Adleman at the University of Southern California proposed how DNA could be used in solving certain important mathematical calculations, such as the so-called "traveling salesman problem," critical in planning any kind of deliveries in a complex network, from shipping freight to scheduling airline flights to transmitting data packets on the Internet.

The problem is that although a single drop of water can have trillions of biological computers working on a single problem, they moved slowly compared with electronics "and unreliably also," Bennett explained. Because the biological computer concept did not look as if it could vie with electronics on general computing and win, Shapiro said he decided to "go back and do something useful with it."
You know, something mildly productive like curing cancer. O.K., so when do we get it?
their creators cautioned it could be decades before such biological computers find their way into medicine…
Decades? Really?
Had you asked me a year ago when we started how long it would take to reach the milestone we reached today, I'd have said 10 to 15 years," Shapiro said. "We are still overwhelmed by what we achieved. It took us less time than we thought."
Here's a thought experiment. Let's assume that Israel delivers a comprehensive cure for cancer in a few years. Can the world remain anti-Semitic? I hate to be pessimistic, but I'm betting it can. Discuss.

Back on topic: if all lines of scientific inquiry are converging, can an alternate definition of the Singularity be "that point in time when all questions are reduced to one?" I really don't think so. The lines of inquiry may be converging, but the number of questions seem to be expanding.

More Singularity reading.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at April 30, 2004 12:05 PM | TrackBack

Can the world remain anti-Semitic?

Isaac Asimov tackled that in an essay decades ago. Unlike other ethnic groups, Jews aren't accused of being stupid but of trying to take over by being cunning and manipulative. If anti-semitism is motivated by jealousy at seeing another group increase in relative prosperity while handing out charity to the haters, this cancer cure would only increase the amount of anti-semitism in the world. Amy Chua's work makes me think that ending anti-semitism is going to be a long, hard struggle.

Posted by: Karl Gallagher at April 30, 2004 01:07 PM

This definition has a negative connotation. It emphasizes the scariest aspect of the Singularity rather than the benefits of accelerating change.

Scariest or most exhilirating?

More good singularity stuff here:

Posted by: Phil at April 30, 2004 01:30 PM

Please take this with a grain of salt or a glass of wine, It's been a looong weekend and I might be a bit punchy here. Do you guys ever wonder what scripture is trying to tell us about our "immortal bodies" and the new heaven and new earth? Could the Singularity be as wonderful as that? Could "posthumanity" be what God is planning to do? Could we be agents in this plan with nanotechnology and biotechnology?

Posted by: Kathy at May 2, 2004 07:54 PM


Yeah, exhilirating like a roller coaster.


You're suggestion is not punchy at all. The comparison between science and religion or for some, science as religion is common.

One of the books I've read recently is entitled, "Rapture: How Biotech Became the New Religion." The word "rapture" in the title can be taken two ways - "rapture" in the sense of feeling carried away by something (perhaps too much) and "rapture" comparing the Second Coming with the Singularity.

As for me, I try to keep the two, science and religion, compartmentalized - for the sake of both.

Posted by: Stephen Gordon at May 3, 2004 05:19 AM

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