The Singularity Is Coming; or No It Isn’t; or Wait Maybe It Is!

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I was in San Francisco this past weekend, covering the Singularity Summit.

You probably know what the Singularity is. If I was 100% sure that you knew, I wouldn’t try to explain what it is. But a sliver of doubt remains, so here goes.

Every once in a while human civilization reaches a moment when the rate of social and technological change accelerates non-linearly, and the whole business rapidly transforms so totally that life afterwards bears no resemblance to life before.

Such moments are singularities. Canonical examples would include the invention of agriculture and the Industrial Revolution. Some people think we’re approaching another one.

The technologies that would bring about the next Singularity include nanotechnology, robotics, assorted biotechnologies, and especially artificial intelligence. One scenario would involve computers becoming so powerful that they become self-aware.

At that point these artificial intelligences would take over their own evolution, driving technological innovation themselves. They would take over almost all white-collar work. We would merge with them, becoming far more powerful (if less human), as well as functionally immortal.

Some people think this would be a good thing. Some people think it would be a bad thing. Some people think it’s total nonsense.

I came here pretty skeptical about it. When you look at what has actually been achieved so far on the AI front, it’s all pretty primitive.

But I can’t deny that my skepticism is being, if not assuaged, at least chipped away at and complicated. That Kurzweil, he has a lot of exponential growth curves on his side, and if Moore’s law holds for another 30 years, yeah, I  would at least agree that it’s very hard to predict what the world is going to look like once computing power has increased by a factor of a billion or so.

And you talk to a guy who’s been breeding fruit flies for longevity for 30 years and studying the changes in their genome and figuring out how we could manipulate the human genome in similar ways … well, it’s good to know somebody’s working on that.

Though I have still yet to see a more convincing vision of the future than The Sprawl.

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