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 12:05 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

February 26, 2004

The Fog

Bill Tozier commented on my "Everyday Singularity" post:
Stephen Gordon: "Since Internet use became widespread about ten years ago, our ability to predict the future impact of any new development began to fail."

Bill Tozier: I'm not sure, but I think this may be giving too much credit to humanity's current and past ability to "predict the future impact"
Bill is mostly right.

Humans do have a long history of being surprised by technological developments – sometimes not even recognizing the importance of a development that is right in front of them.

We may be able to predict "Probable Development A" and "Probable Development B," but its harder to predict the synthesis of A and B into "Unknown Development C." And how will "Surprise Development D" affect A, B, and C?

These unknowns snowball so that forecasting becomes impossible beyond a certain time horizon. 100 years ago people had developments like A, B, C, and D. They had almost as much difficulty forecasting their A, B, C, and D as we have forecasting ours today. The difference is that their developments took place over many decades. Our surprises are coming more and more often as we move toward the Singularity.

In the past some expected the opposite to occur. Science fiction author Isaac Asimov predicted that as our ability to calculate improved, our ability to forecast would improve into an exact science he called "psychohistory."

The opposite has occurred. Asimov envisioned a single huge computer doing all the world's calculations. In such a world it might be possible for the single computer operator to make accurate long-term forecasts because technological developments would take place at a slower pace.

But the wide distribution of ever-increasing computer power and the arrival of the Internet has shortened the time horizon for new developments.

Here is how Bill is partly wrong. In the past it was possible for a well-educated and informed individual to keep track of a larger percentage of contemporary scientific work than it is today (even with the advent of the Internet). Today too much work is being performed in parallel for any one person to keep up with it all.

Not only are the developments coming faster - which gives us less time to ponder where the next generation of developments are going, but the amount of work that is being done keeps us from knowing even all of what has already been developed. We are in the fog.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 09:56 AM | Comments (8) | TrackBack

February 25, 2004

The Everyday Singularity

KurzweilAI has this definition of the technological Singularity -
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. The Singularity is a common matter of discussion in transhumanist circles. There is no concise definition, but 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.
The singularity is that point in the future at which our ability to forecast today fails us completely. This will not be a sudden failure, but an increasing failure as we approach the singularity. We are already in the fog.

Since Internet use became widespread about ten years ago, our ability to predict the future impact of any new development began to fail. Napster, Kazaa, Google, Voice Over IP – few could predict these things or their impact in 1992. Flexibility has become the most important trait in business. Since we can't know what's going to happen next, we'd better be quick and nimble when it does.

No one has any experience knowing what twenty years of wide-spread Internet use will do. No one can say what will happen when all scientific researchers have, in effect, a supercomputer on their desktop.

And so we have highly intelligent well-educated people making wildly divergent forecasts from other highly intelligent well-educated people – and this is for the next ten years.

Kurzweil and others have explained that the singularity will occur when greater than human intelligence becomes a reality. But aren't we as a practical matter in some ways smarter because we have the Internet than we were ten years ago without it? Our ability to process information is the same, but our ability to access information and communicate it to others has vastly improved.

It's hard to catch yourself in the process of having a thought because so much processing is occurring in parallel – most of which is below the threshold of consciousness. Now it's hard to catch the direction of society for the same reason. So many things are happening in parallel that it is impossible to predict how possible development A will impact possible development B and so on.

We are in the "knee of the curve." Our best bet is to get educated, stay current, and be flexible.

Posted by Stephen Gordon at 10:24 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack