The Singularity is near (repent now)June 28th, 2010 by Rob Haitani
I have mixed reactions regarding the Singularity, the “technological creation of smarter-than-human intelligence.” Once this happens, the argument goes, AI will program itself and spiral beyond human comprehension. If so, will they consider humans adorable pets or vermin destroying the planet? It’s hard to feel a sense urgency when state-of-the-art recognition AI involves telling people from trees. But when it comes to uncontrollable, incomprehensible intelligence, you either have to reject the premise or welcome some contingency planning.
Ray Kurzwell takes a broader, sunnier view, emphasizing exponential advancement in numerous technologies. “With 30 linear steps, you get to 30,” he says. “With 30 steps exponentially, you get to one billion.” Progress is misleading though, because at 15 steps you’re only 0.003% there. Kurzwell estimates we’ll advance the equivalent of 200 centuries this century. He predicts we’ll download our brains, and live forever.
Incredible gains generate concomitant risks, however. If you hate the Gulf spill, imagine the equivalent catastrophic failure with self-replicating nanobots. Some feared turning on the Hadron Collider would generate a black hole (more like “apocalyptic failure”). And as Adam Smith observed, people over-invest seeking upside and under-invest in risk mitigation (e.g., we buy too many lottery tickets and too little insurance).
Then there’s the exponential increase in destructive capabilities. About when my grandmother was born, the NY Times opined we were millions of years from manned flight. When her daughter was a teenager, B29s dropped 3600 tons of incendiary bombs on her home city in one night. And when her grandchildren were teenagers, ICBMs were capable of destroying the world many times over without even being piloted.
Too bad human benevolence doesn’t increase exponentially (or even linearly). Yet it stubbornly refuses to be defeated entirely. Ironically, my grandmother’s daughter named her son after Robert Little, a colonel in the Air Force that had devastated her hometown. After the war, he had shown tremendous generosity to her family, refusing to judge a people by the atrocities their Empire committed. Hopefully this capacity for kindness and understanding, despite our horrible flaws, will score us some points with our future robotic overlords.
- If you’re interested in the exponential advancement of technology, Michio Kaku wrote a great book called Physics of The Impossible. He talks about crazy ideas that are theoretically possible, and how far we’ve gotten (like time travel and teleporation–did you know scientists have teleported particles?)
- For Hadron Collider fans, some people at CERN made the coolest uber-geek rap video ever made (topics include anti-matter and the Higgs bosons).