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The Coming Singularity
A growing number of experts in the field of science and technology are beginning to believe that a point in time known as the "Singularity" is approaching quickly. This relatively new term parallels, but is not referring to the incomprehensibly infinite singularity found at the depths of black holes, but rather a point in time when our definitions of life and what it means to be human have become dramatically different than it is today.
At this point, the computing hardware of today will have evolved into invisible nanoware, which will be seamlessly interconnected with the wetware of our minds and body, creating an entirely new upgrade for the evolution of the human species. While the Singularity will not happen tomorrow, it may be closer than you think.
What is our Future?
We struggle with the concept of man and machine in our fiction and many fear we will become more like machines as we go beyond the mere repair of our bodies to a point where our intellect and powers of perception transcend the flesh. For half a century, this destiny has fuelled the plots of many sci-fi thrillers as the best and the worst of us is intensified through engineering, and we fitfully wonder if we will accidentally bring a living death to our species. Not only are these possibilities based on true science; the reality of it is quickly approaching, and it is called the Singularity.
Singularity Institute For Artificial Intelligence
Sometime in the next few years or decades, humanity will become capable of breaking the upper limit on intelligence that has held since the rise of the human species.
We will become capable of technologically creating smarter-than -human intelligence perhaps through enhancement of the human brain, direct links between computers and the brain, or Artificial Intelligence. This event is called the "Singularity" by analogy with the singularity at the center of a black hole - just as our current model of physics breaks down when attempts to describe the center of a black hole, our model of the future breaks down once the future contains smarter -than-human minds. Since technology is itself the product of intelligence, the Singularity is an effect that snowballs once it occurs - the first smart minds can create smarter minds, and smarter minds can produce still smarter minds.
The Singularity is not a simple piece of fiction dreamed up by a bunch of geeks overdosed on Coca-Cola and living their lives in a Matrix, it is based on laws that have successfully predicted the future of our technological progression.
Cofounder of Intel, Gordon Moore, realised that the number of transistors that could fit onto a single computer chip doubled every year for six years ever since integrated circuits were built in 1959. This became known as Moore's Law. The predicted trend has essentially continued, although Moore's law has been adjusted to an 18-month cycle instead of the previous doubling every year.
The law of exponential growth is not just applicable to technological progress; it is even a fundamental law of nature. The most obvious example is the fact that humanoids evolved over several million years, as opposed to Homo sapiens, which took only several hundred thousand years. The reason our technology doubles, is that even our minds and the knowledge we are capable of acquiring is growing rapidly.
KurzweilAI.net, 27 February 2001
Consider our planet's history of accelerating creation of first pre-biological (atomic and molecular-based), then genetic (DNA and cell-based), then neurologic (neuron-based), then memetic (mental pattern-based), and finally, technologic (extra-cerebral-pattern based) evolutionary epochs, each requiring less space, matter, energy, and time to represent or perform any salient "computation".
The brief history of digital computers (which have themselves moved through five substrates over the last century: mechanical, electromechanical, vacuum tube, transistor, and IC) makes this process of "accelerating rearrangement" even clearer.
It is now realised that the Singularity is not a matter of if, but when and how. Many scientists are predicting that it will be a discovery in the field of nanotechnology or artificial intelligence that could bring about the true realisation of the Singularity. The question of how makes for very entertaining fiction writing. The most dramatic recent rendition of a possible answer can be found within the creativeness of the Wachowski brothers.
The Singularity is a key concept of the Matrix trilogy. Matrix cast members were even required to read "Out of Control: The Rise of Neo-bilogical Civilization" from which the first page reads "The realm of the born - all that is nature - and the realm of the made - all that is humanly constructed - are becoming one".
Paralleled with our real world is the fact that machines within the Matrix are based on logic and therefore deterministic. As we have seen and can extrapolate into the future, deterministic machines can be extremely powerful and will soon be able to simulate free will. In the Matrix, it was not humans who discovered how to merge wetware with hardware, but the machines themselves through their inherent purpose to survive.
It could be that the machines of the future will be the ones to make the triggering discovery on how to bring about the Singularity. An incredibly sophisticated deterministic machine that understands every process in the human body would have a great advantage over any human knowledge of ourselves. A machine such as this is exactly what the US military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has in mind.
Wired News, 14 August 2003
In other sciences and other industries, computer simulations test out theories before they're done in the real world. Automakers run crash tests on the desktop before they slam SUVs into the wall; oil companies do mock drilling electronically before dig in the ground. Medicine, on the other hand, still experiments on the living.
One of the goals of Satava's Virtual Soldier program is to change that by creating an army of digital test subjects that can be subjected to new drugs, new medical procedures -- even new weapons.
Wired News, 14 August 2003
At University of Colorado's Health Sciences Center, Vic Spitzer has been working for more than a decade on the Visible Human project, a high-resolution anatomical database based on cadavers. His group has spent the last year-and-a-half solely on a computerized model of the knee joint. Sixty-four Pentium processors are needed just to make the digital joint move.
While sixty-four processors is a lot for just a knee joint it is easy to see what direction they are headed. While ambitious projects such as this seem a little too futuristic for many to believe, it is worth mentioning that many cyborgs already live amongst us, and cures for disease using nanotechnology are here now.
KurzweilAI.net, 31 March 2003
The FDA recently approved a computerized neural implant for Parkinson's Disease that replaces the biological neurons destroyed by that disease. This surgically implanted device communicates with its neighboring biological neurons in the same way that the original biological neurons do in the patient's "ventral posterior nucleus".
One scientist has already cured type I Diabetes in rats with a nano-engineered device that releases insulin and blocks antibodies. A similar approach should work in humans.
The Straits Times, 25 September 2003
In Project Cyborg 2.0, a chip was grafted onto his left wrist, with a hundred electrodes wired to his nervous system and transmitting signals to a computer. This allowed him to control an artificial hand.
He had his wife, Mrs Irena Warwick, connected too, so that when his hand twitched, she felt it.
While many people would not be aware of such critical progress, the question is how aware is the public of our direction towards the Singularity?
Hastening the Inevitable
James Bell, who writes for Sustain, a national environmental information group, has indicated that the general population is being unwittingly hastened towards the Singularity.
While leading technology industries have been aware of the Singularity concept for some time, there are concerns that, if the public understood the full ramifications of the Singularity, they would be reluctant to accept many of the new and untested technologies such as genetically engineered foods, nano-technology and robotics.
A 1998 Harris poll of the 5,000 members of the American Institute of Biological Sciences found 70 percent believed that what has been termed "The Sixth Extinction" is now underway. A simultaneous Harris poll found that 60 percent of the public were totally unaware of the impending biological collapse.
The majority of people closest to these theories and laws - the tech sector - can hardly wait for the Singularity to arrive. The true believers call themselves "extropians," "post-humans" and "transhumanists" and are actively organizing not just to bring the Singularity about, but to counter what they call "techno-phobes" and "neo-luddites" - critics like Greenpeace, Earth First! and the Rainforest Action Network.
These are the two main groups battling it out for domination over our future. In the red corner are the "transhumanists" who have little regard for human life and seem so engrossed with the exciting possibilities of technology they do not stop and think about how to usher it in safely. In the blue corner are the "hippies" who put little fury animals ahead of humanities own safety, well being, and survival. While it is obviously unfair to criticise everyone belonging to these groups, the extremist faction that exists within them have very loud and powerful voices that attract media attention resulting in bad publicity and misleading the public.
Instead of alarmist media attention brought on by extremists, we need discussions among levelheaded players within the tech and public sectors to work through the relevant issues now in public forums, not in panic after it is too late.
It is dangerous to ignore and cower from the often-difficult questions that need answering. Especially considering that, even when we try our best to take precautions we can still fail to see all the possibilities. A great example of how close we have come to extreme ramifications from technology without realising it can be found in the statements of Nobel Prize winner Professor Paul Crutzen.
Open Science Conference, 10-13 July 2001
"Had industry used bromine instead of chlorine in the chemicals used in spray cans and as solvents and refrigerants, we would have had a catastrophic ozone hole everywhere and at all seasons by the mid 1970s. The impact on the chemistry of the atmosphere would have been profound, and the consequences for life on the surface of the planet would have been severe. We avoided such a fundamental change in Earth's chemical mode of operation by luck rather than foresight and planning".
While we got lucky that time, imagine what could happen in the future if such scenarios were not fully debated and instead hastily implemented and introduced.
Thankfully, there are some people in the tech sector who understand the inherent dangers of technology and are in a position of power to do something about it. Cofounder of Sun Microsystems and chief scientist Bill Joy made some interesting predictions in April 2000 that will most likely be reflected upon in the history classes of the future.
Joy's warning of the impacts of exponential technologic progress run amok gave new credence to the coming Singularity. Unless things change, Joy predicted, "We could be the last generation of humans." Joy has warned that "knowledge alone will enable mass destruction" and termed this phenomenon "knowledge-enabled mass destruction" (KMD).
The Times of London compared Joy's statement to Einstein's 1939 letter to President Roosevelt, which warned of the dangers of the nuclear bomb.
Similarly to technology, future advancements in knowledge will become dangerous and provide opportunities. It may be our only chance to survive the Singularity.
Adaptability Key to Survival
Nature and technology have quietly evolved along separate paths in the past. However, we can now see the horizon where these two fields will inevitably meet. What will happen at this juncture is anyone's guess. Will they continue to compete along separate paths into the future? Will they merge into the predicted Singularity? Or, will only one survive?
The key answer to this lies within our natural ability to adapt. There is a fundamental difference between human wetware and machine hardware, and that is our ability to adapt. In the past people have demonstrated through either birth defects or accidents, that our brain has the ability to remain fully operational despite major brain damage or loss through surgery. However if you remove even a single chip from a circuit, no matter how trivial it may seem, the computer will be rendered completely useless.
While this limitation of computing hardware may one day be overcome, providing we can continue to keep ourselves informed of the progression, we will always have the choice presented through our free will to adapt and save ourselves.