Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Singularity has already happened...

IEEE Spectrum has a special report about the Singularity, that point in our future where predictions fall apart because major technical changes make any extrapolation we may make based on today's trends essentially obsolete. Even the New-York Times has an article, entitled The Future Is Now? Pretty Soon, at Least, which quickly brushes up some of the ideas.

The special issue in IEEE is more extensive. There are many interesting articles. In one of them, Ray Kurzweil, arguably the inventor of the concept of Singularity, debates with Neil Gershenfeld, and Vernor Vinge shares what he sees as the signs of the Singularity.

One important point, I believe, is that "there will be a singularity at time t" is a proposition that might depend on the time it's being enunciated. It seems very likely to me that when you are in the middle of a singularity, you have no idea that it's there. That's why I am a bit wary of the use of a singular noun, the singularity, when I think really that there have been many singularities over the course of history.

How could someone from the middle-age, for example, predict the structure of a society after motorized personal transportation became not only possible, but mainstream and relatively cheap (I know, I know, gas prices...)? In other words, seen from the middle-age, the invention of the automobile or, even more so, the airplane, were singularities that might be predicted (e.g. by Leonardo da Vinci), but whose impact on society was really difficult to grasp. The same is true for remote communication, from the telephone to television to the Internet.

Now, one singularity is somewhat special, and it's when we started building enhancements to our intelligence, and not just our physical abilities. That's the very definition Vernor Vinge uses when he writes:
I think it's likely that with technology we can in the fairly near future create or become creatures of more than human intelligence. Such a technological singularity would revolutionize our world, ushering in a posthuman epoch.
But that already happened. The first modest pocket calculators enabled computations so complex that they completely changed the course of engineering. Any engineer with a calculator has "more than human intelligence", for he can compute faster than any human being without a calculator can. It's only recently that we redefined intelligence to exclude the ability to perform computations, and the only reason we did that is because computers were so much better at it than we are.

So that's my personal view on that question: the most important singularity, the one that Ray Kurzweil sees sometime in the future, has already happened, and we are right in the middle of seeing its effects.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

I read Fantastic Voyage, The Age of Spiritual Machines and The Singularity is Near, and they changed my life. I even found some of his lectures on Itunes and I find myself impatiently awaiting his next book.

Recently read another incredible book that I can't recommend highly enough, especially to all of you who also love Ray Kurzweil's work. The book is ""My Stroke of Insight"" by Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor. I had heard Dr Taylor's talk on the TED dot com site and I have to say, it changed my world. It's spreading virally all over the internet and the book is now a NYTimes Bestseller, so I'm not the only one, but it is the most amazing talk, and the most impactful book I've read in years. (Dr T also was named to Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People and Oprah had her on her Soul Series last month and I hear they're making a movie about her story so you may already have heard of her)
If you haven't heard Dr Taylor's TEDTalk, that's an absolute must. The book is more and deeper and better, but start with the video (it's 18 minutes). Basically, her story is that she was a 37 yr old Harvard brain scientist who had a massive stroke in the left hemisphere of her brain. Because of her knowledge of how the brain works, and thanks to her amazingly loving and kind mother, she eventually fully recovered (and that part of the book detailing how she did it is inspirational).

There's a lot of learning and magic in the book, but the reason I so highly recommend My Stroke of Insight to this discussion, is because we have powerfully intelligent left brains that are rational, logical, sequential and grounded in detail and time, and then we have our kinesthetic right brains, where we experience intuition and peace and euphoria. Now that Kurzweil has got us taking all those vitamins and living our best ""Fantastic Voyage"" , the absolute necessity is that we read My Stroke of Insight and learn from Dr Taylor how to achieve balance between our right and left brains. Enjoy!

Christophe de Dinechin said...

Thanks a lot, that sounds really interesting. It is a good point that even before talking about what's beyond human intelligence, we may need to already take the best possible advantage of what we already have :-)

Algosome said...

For what it's worth, William Gibson agrees with you. In an interview at ugo.com he said:

"And in a world where things change as quickly as they do today, it's impossible to calculate a future. So, in a sense, we don't. There's going to be a future, but it's not predictable in a way that the culture can create a dream of it and lean into it. I don't really see how we could, because we don't know what's going to happen."

Personally, I don't think singularities are such a big deal. Consider what happened to humanity when these events appeared: the ability to ask questions of group members in a symbolic-based language and understand the answers, the adoption of agriculture, the adoption of written language, the invention of movable type. At each of these a profound jump in the complexity of possible behaviors occurred. The first, linguistic singularity was unquestionably the greatest, but the invention of movable type in China and its subsequent loss proves that singularities can be undone.

The apocalyptic Vinge/Kurzweil singularity looks to me to be the result of a mathematical error. Exponential functions such as Moore's law don't have singularities, they just keep growing and growing and growing, faster and faster and faster. Stacking exponentials one on another doesn't yield a singularity, it just raises the base of the exponential function.