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The Singularity: Fact or Fiction or Somewhere In-Between?

by Gareth John

In my continued striving to disprove the theorem that there’s no such thing as a stupid question, I shall now proceed to ask one. What’s the consensus on Ray Kurzweil’s position concerning the coming Singularity? [1] Do you as transhumanists accept his premise and timeline, or do you feel that a) it’s a fiction, or b) it’s a reality but not one that’s going to arrive anytime soon? Is it as inevitable as Kurzweil suggests, or is it simply millennial daydreaming in line with the coming Rapture?

According to Wikipedia (yes, I know, but I’m learning as I go along), the first use of the term ‘singularity’ in this context was made by Stanislav Ulam in his 1958 obituary for John von Neumann, in which he mentioned a conversation with von Neumann about the ‘ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue’. [2] The term was popularised by mathematician, computer scientist and science fiction author Verner Vinge, who argues that artificial intelligence, human biological advancement, or brain-computer interfaces could be possible causes of the singularity. [3]  Kurzweil cited von Neumann’s use of the term in a foreword to von Neumann’s classic ‘The Computer and the Brain.’ [4]

Kurzweil predicts the singularity to occur around 2045 [5] whereas Vinge predicts some time before 2030 [6]. In 2012, Stuart Armstrong and Kaj Sotala published a study of AGI predictions by both experts and non-experts and found a wide range of predicted dates, with a median value of 2040. [7] Discussing the level of uncertainty in AGI estimates, Armstrong stated at the 2012 Singularity Summit: ‘It’s not fully formalized, but my current 80% estimate is something like five to 100 years.’ [8]

Speaking for myself, and despite the above, I’m not at all convinced that a Singularity will occur, i.e. one singular event that effectively changes history for ever from that precise moment moving forward. From my (admittedly limited) research on the matter, it seems far more realistic to think of the future in terms of incremental steps made along the way, leading up to major diverse changes (plural) in the way we as human beings - and indeed all sentient life - live, but try as I might I cannot get my head around these all occurring in a near-contemporary Big Bang.

Surely we have plenty of evidence already that the opposite will most likely be the case? Scientists have been working on AI, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, robotics et al for many years and I see no reason to conclude that this won’t remain the case in the years to come. Small steps leading to big changes maybe, but perhaps not one giant leap for mankind in a singular convergence of emerging technologies?

Let’s be straight here: I’m not having a go at Kurzweil or his ideas - the man’s clearly a visionary (at least from my standpoint) and leagues ahead when it comes to intelligence and foresight. I’m simply interested as to what extent his ideas are accepted by the wider transhumanist movement.

There are notable critics (again leagues ahead of me in critically engaging with the subject) who argue against the idea of the Singularity. Nathan Pensky, writing in 2014 says:

‘It’s no doubt true that the speculative inquiry that informed Kurzweil’s creation of the Singularity also informed his prodigious accomplishment in the invention of new tech. But just because a guy is smart doesn’t mean he’s always right. The Singularity makes for great science-fiction, but not much else.’ [9]

Other well-informed critics have also dismissed Kurzweil’s central premise, among them Professor Andrew Blake, managing director of Microsoft at Cambridge, Jaron Leiner, Paul Allen, Peter Murray, Jeff Hawkins, Gordon Moore, Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker to name but a few. Even Noam Chomsky has waded in to categorically deny the possibility of such. Pinker writes:

‘There is not the slightest reason to believe in the coming singularity. The fact you can visualise a future in your imagination is not evidence that it is likely or even possible… Sheer processing is not a pixie dust that magically solves all your problems.’ [10]

There are, of course, many more critics, but then there are also many supporters also, and Kurzweil rarely lets a criticism pass without a fierce rebuttal. Indeed, new academic interdisciplinary disciplines have been founded in part on the presupposition of the Singularity occurring in line with Kurzweil’s predictions (along with other phenomena that pose the possibility of existential risk). Examples include Nick Bostrom’s Future of Humanity Institute at Oxford University or the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk at Cambridge.

Given the above and returning to my original question: how do transhumanists taken as a whole rate the possibility of an imminent Singularity as described by Kurzweil? Good science or good science-fiction? For Kurzweil it is the pace of change - exponential growth - that will result in a runaway effect – an intelligence explosion– where smart machines design successive generations of increasingly powerful machines, creating intelligence far exceeding human intellectual capacity and control. Because the capabilities of such a super intelligence may be impossible for a human to comprehend, the technological singularity is the point beyond which events may become unpredictable or even unfathomable to human intelligence. [11] The only way for us to participate in such an event will be by merging with the intelligent machines we are creating.

And I guess this is what is hard for me to fathom. We are creating these machines with all our mixed-up, blinkered, prejudicial, oppositional minds, aims and values. We as human beings, however intelligent, are an absolutely necessary part of the picture that I think Kurzweil sometimes underestimates. I’m more inclined to agree with Jamais Cascio when he says:

‘I don’t think that a Singularity would be visible to those going through one. Even the most disruptive changes are not universally or immediately distributed, and late followers learn from the dilemmas of those who had initially encountered the disruptive change.’ [12]

So I’d love to know what you think. Are you in Kurzweil’s corner waiting for that singular moment in 2045 when the world as we know it stops for an instant… and then restarts in a glorious new utopian future. Or do you agree with Kurzweil but harbour serious fears that the whole ‘glorious new future’ may not be on the cards and we’re all obliterated in the newborn AGI’s capriciousness or grey goo? Or, are you a moderate, maintaining that a Singularity, while almost certain to occur, will pass unnoticed by those waiting? Or do you think it’s so much baloney?

Whatever, I’d really value your input and hear your views on the subject.

send comments to transhumanparty@gmail.com

NOTES

1. As stated below, the term Singularity was in use before Kurweil’s appropriation of it. But as shorthand I’ll refer to his interpretation and predictions relating to it throughout this article.

2. Carvalko, J, 2012, ‘The Techno-human Shell-A Jump in the Evolutionary Gap.’ (Mechanicsburg: Sunbury Press)

3. Ulam, S, 1958, ‘ Tribute to John von Neumann’, 64, #3, part 2. Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society. p. 5

4. Vinge, V, 2013, ‘Vernor Vinge on the Singularity’, San Diego State University. Retrieved Nov 2015

5. Kurzweil R, 2005, ‘The Singularity is Near’, (London: Penguin Group)

6. Vinge, V, 1993, ‘The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era’, originally in Vision-21: Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering in the Era of Cyberspace, G. A. Landis, ed., NASA Publication CP-10129

7. Armstrong S and Sotala, K, 2012 ‘How We’re Predicting AI - Or Failing To’, in Beyond AI: Artificial Dreams, edited by Jan Romportl, Pavel Ircing, Eva Zackova, Michal Polak, and Radek Schuster (Pilsen: University of West Bohemia) https://intelligence.org/files/PredictingAI.pdf

8. Armstrong, S, ‘How We’re Predicting AI’, from the 2012 Singularity Conference

9. Pensky, N, 2014, article taken from Pando https://goo.gl/LpR3eF

10. Pinker S, 2008, IEEE Spectrum: ‘Tech Luminaries Address Singularity’, http://goo.gl/ujQlyI

11. Wikipedia, ‘Technological Singularity; Retrieved Nov 2015 https://goo.gl/nFzi2y 

12. Cascio, J, ‘New FC: Singularity Scenarios’ article taken from Open the Future http://goo.gl/dZptO3

COMMENTS

Gareth,

Thank you for the thoughtful article. I'm emailing to comment on the blog post, though I can't tell when it was written. You say that you don't believe the singularity will necessarily occur the way Kurzweil envisions, but it seems like you slightly mischaracterize his definition of the term. 

I don't believe that Kurzweil ever meant to suggest that the singularity will simply consist of one single event that will change everything. Rather, I believe he means that the singularity is when no person can make any prediction past that point in time when a $1,000 computer becomes smarter than the entire human race, much like how an event horizon of a black hole prevents anyone from seeing past it. 

Given that Kurzweil's definition isn't an arbitrary claim that everything changes all at once, I don't see how anyone can really argue with whether the singularity will happen. After all, at some point in the future, even if it happens much slower than Kurzweil predicts, a $1,000 computer will eventually become smarter than every human. When this happens, I think it's fair to say no one is capable of predicting the future of humanity past that point. Would you disagree with this? 

Even more important is that although many of Kurzweil's predictions are untrue about when certain products will become commercially available to the general public, all the evidence I've seen about the actual trend of the law of accelerating returns seems to be exactly spot on. Maybe this trend will slow down, or stop, but it hasn't yet. Until it does, I think the law of accelerating returns, and Kurzweil's singularity, deserve the benefit of the doubt. 

Sorry for any errors here - I typed this on my phone. 

Thanks,

Rich Casada

Hi Rich,
Thanks for the comments. The post was written back in 2015 for IEET, and represented a genuine ask from the transhumanist community. At that time my priority was to learn what I could, where I could, and not a lot's changed for me since - I'm still learning!

I'm not sure I agree that Kurzweil's definition isn't a claim that 'everything changes at once'. In The Singularity is Near, he states:

"So we will be producing about 1026 to 1029 cps of nonbiological computation per year in the early 2030s. This is roughly equal to our estimate for the capacity of all living biological human intelligence ... This state of computation in the early 2030s will not represent the Singularity, however, because it does not yet correspond to a profound expansion of our intelligence. By the mid-2040s, however, that one thousand dollars' worth of computation will be equal to 1026 cps, so the intelligence created per year (at a total cost of about $1012) will be about one billion times more powerful than all human intelligence today. That will indeed represent a profound change, and it is for that reason that I set the date for the Singularity—representing a profound and disruptive transformation in human capability—as 2045." (Kurzweil 2005, pp.135-36, italics mine).

Kurzweil specifically defines what the Singularity is and isn't (a profound and disruptive transformation in human intelligence), and a more-or-less precise prediction of when it will occur. A consequence of that may be that we will not 'be able to make any prediction past that point in time', however, I don't believe this is the main thrust of Kurzweil's argument. 

I do, however, agree with what you appear to be postulating (correct me if I'm wrong) in that a better definition of a Singularity might indeed simply be 'when no person can make any prediction past that point in time.' And, like you, I don't believe it will be tied to any set-point in time. We may be living through a singularity as we speak. There may be many singularities (although, worth noting again, Kurzweil reserves the term "singularity" for a rapid increase in artificial intelligence as opposed to other technologies, writing for example that, "The Singularity will allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains ... There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine." (Kurzweil 2005, p. 9)

So, having said all that, and in answer to your question of whether there is a point beyond which no one is capable of predicting the future of humanity: I'm not sure. I guess none of us can really be sure until, or unless, it happens. 

This is why I believe having the conversation about the ethical implications of these new technologies now is so important. Post-singularity might simply be too late.

Gareth