What is the Singularity?
Some futurists say the technological singularity, when computers will become smarter than humans, will come in the next 40 years.
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The Singularity refers to a theoretical moment in the near future when computers will become smarter than humans. With technology rapidly advancing and becoming more sophisticated by the day, futurists argue a tipping point is nearing. More specifically, it’s the point when computer intelligence exceeds that of human intelligence and when the human brain can no longer predict the future because this new form of super-computer intelligence will be beyond its capacity to understand.
These are the worlds envisioned in movies such as "The Matrix," "Terminator" and "Tron." While some argue a technological singularity could occur within the next 40 years given the current rate of technological growth, the term is really only a hypothesis at the point. Despite arguments for and against it, there is no proof that the Singularity actually will or won't occur.
History of the Singularity
While the idea of the technological evolution of machines has been discussed for many years, it wasn't until 1983 that science fiction writer Vernor Vinge coined the phrase "technological singularity." He wrote in Omni magazine:
“We will soon create intelligences greater than our own ... When this happens, human history will have reached a kind of singularity, an intellectual transition as impenetrable as the knotted space-time at the center of a black hole, and the world will pass far beyond our understanding. This singularity, I believe, already haunts a number of science-fiction writers. It makes realistic extrapolation to an interstellar future impossible."
Vinge explored the concept further over the next decade, and in 1993 released the essay, "The Coming Technological Singularity," in which he wrote that there would be the technological means to create a superhuman intelligence within the next 30 years. It was at that point, Vinge wrote, that the human era would end.
"I think it’s fair to call this event a singularity," he wrote in the 1993 essay. "It is a point where our models must be discarded and a new reality rules. As we move closer and closer to this point, it will loom vaster and vaster over human affairs till the notion becomes a commonplace. Yet when it finally happens it may still be a great surprise and a greater unknown.”
It was also in that essay that Vinge revealed the four ways he saw this to be possible, including:
- The development of computers that are "awake" and superhumanly intelligent.
- Large computer networks may "wake up" as a superhumanly intelligent entity.
- Computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent.
- Biological science may find ways to improve upon the natural human intellect.
It wasn't until Ray Kurzweil's 2005 book, "The Singularity is Near," however, that the public started becoming more interested in the theory. In his book, Kurzweil predicts the technological singularity is very much on the horizon and will occur by 2045.
In this new world, Kurzweil believes there will be no clear distinction between human and machine or real reality and virtual reality. In practical terms, his prediction will mean the end of human aging and illness, pollution, world hunger and poverty. In 2012, Kurzwell joined Google as director of engineering, where he will work on machine learning and language processing.
Cases Against the Singularity
While futurists like Vinge and Kurzweil have made their case for the inevitability of technological singularity, just as many experts have argued against it. Many of those arguments against technological singularity center on the brain and how little is actually known about how it works.
In 2011, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen co-authored an article in the MIT Technology Review in which he wrote that while singularity might occur one day, it won't be soon.
"The amazing intricacy of human cognition should serve as a caution to those who claim the singularity is close," Allen wrote in the article, co-authored by computer scientist Mark Greaves. "Without having a scientifically deep understanding of cognition, we can’t create the software that could spark the singularity."
British science fiction writer Charles Stross has also publicly argued against the occurrence of a singularity. The author of both the bestselling Merchant Princes series and the Laundry series, Stross believes the development of super-intelligent artificial intelligence is unlikely.
"What we're going to see is increasingly solicitous machines defining our environment — machines that sense and respond to our needs 'intelligently,'" Stross wrote in his blog in 2011. "But it will be the intelligence of the serving hand rather than the commanding brain, and we're only at risk of disaster if we harbor self-destructive impulses."
As the debate rages on, only time will tell if a world controlled by computers is in our future.