You’re pretty darn clever.
No, I’m not messing around. You are. I’m pretty darn clever too.
Humans are really quite smart. Our walnut-shaped heads house a brain several times larger than would be predicted for a species of our size but crucially with a much larger cerebral cortex. At some stage in human evolution this area grew significantly. Possibly down to the action of two little genes that are specific regulators of brain size (microcephalin and ASPM or abnormal spindle-like microcephaly associated, in case you were curious). We have incredibly advanced vision and forethought, social ability, reasoning, memory and problem solving ability. Nothing out there that we have discovered so far can touch us in terms of what may rightly be called “intelligence”. I think a beautiful example of our creative solution potential is that humans produce thousands and thousands more new songs than whales.
This is certainly something to reflect back on when next being subjected to Lily Allen.
But before we evolve out of our shoe size, let us wait a moment. Whilst our place in history is well defined, our place in the future may well not quite so certain.
From the evolution of brains to the evolution of hardware
Let’s talk about chips for a minute. The co ‘founder of Intel, Gordon E Moore showed that in 1965 that the number of components in integrated circuits had doubled every year since it was invented and predicted that this would continue for at least 10 years. This “Moore’s law” has actually proven to be accurate to the present day with transistor counts per chip continuing to increase and associated building costs becoming ever lower.
There is a yet unsubstantiated argument that this cannot continue forever due to physical constraints, i.e. things can only get so small whilst one is small working at the atomic level. However with Intel already using nanometer manufacturing processes and talking about quatum tunneling there is no reason why Moore’s law should not continue way past such energy barriers into the subatomic. Less impressively we could just make bigger chips or multilayered ones. In short processing power has shown that it is marching solidly forward and shows no sign of slowing down.
Moving away from dry hardware discussions into the sensationalist, Futureologists such as Verrnor Vinge would have it that the logical outcome of this is that we will have on our hands a computer, a man made computer, that is more intelligent that we are. This supports what is known as Technological singularity. The prediction is that at a “singular” point in the future, technological progress will become so fast that it will be effectively instant. Machine designing machine, with exponential potential and problem solving ability. Considerably cleverer than we are.
The history of the Technological singularity
Vinge first discussed the idea of a Singularity in 1993, as a period of complete change based on three major possible phenomena:
- Superhumanly intelligent *awake* computers
- Superhman intelligence through intimate computer/human interfaces
- Superhuman intellect achieved through enhancements in biological science.
Vinge confidently predicts that this event will occur within the next thirty years, based on the advancements in computer hardware discussed. That’s by 2023 by the way. This suddenly seems very close indeed. Vinge then launches in speculation about how we could avoid our human demise, perhaps by ensuring that artificial intelligence must by design be controlled by biological intelligence and goes on to discuss possible immortality. What would life be like afterwards?
“The post-Singularity world will involve extremely high-bandwidth networking. A central feature of strongly superhuman entities will likely be their ability to communicate at variable bandwidths, including ones far higher than speech or written messages. What happens when pieces of ego can be copied and merged, when the size of self-awareness can grow or shrink to fit the nature of the problems under consideration? These are essential features of strong super humanity and the Singularity.”
It might be worth stating that since Vinge as well as being a retired Professor of Mathematics is also a successful science fiction author.
A prediction made in 1993 may well be discarded and ignored come 2010. Gone the same way as predictions of human colonies on Mars, which were predicted to be well established by now. Vinge is mindful of this and revisited the concept in 2008. However he stands by his claims and does not adjust his reasons or his timescales. Adding the following to the three factors listed above:
- The internet scenario; Humanity, its networks, computers, and databases become sufficiently effective to be considered a superhuman being.
- The Digital Gaia Scenario: The network of embedded microprocessors becomes sufficiently effective to be considered a superhuman being.
Signs, he says, are evident in our increasing life spans and ever improving hardware for problem solving. Our entrance to the singularity could be soft, if computers became first “weakly superhuman” perhaps restrained by economics or hard, where research makes a breakthrough that catapults the world through the barrier. Bringing changes that were previously largely unimaginable.
Vinge gives examples of events previous in human evolution that can similarly be thought of as singularities, the invention of fire for example. But falls down on his argument that “the most recent event of the magnitude of the technological singularity was the rise of humans within the animal kingdom. Early humans could effect change orders of magnitude faster than other animals could.”
This is contrary to what we know about evolution, we were little better than our ape cousins for a very long time. It is not until the changes described above in the evolutionary changes to our brain that we might have be considered Super Sapiens.
A brave new world for man or for machine?
Vinge and his fellow philosophers mark the junction where Singularity leaves the factual world and moves instead into a fictional world of conjecture and fantasy. After all we cannot know what is in our future. Despite what Vinge describes it is not in the hands of the scientist either. I have long understood that the scientist, given a challenge, will seek to achieve it, break it, see if something is possible. That is why we in the civilized world have ethic committees and laws and choices.
Ray Kurzweil is an inventor and well known futurist, for many he is the face of Futurism. For him the singularity is defined as the moment in time when humans will merge with machines, become smart and live forever. He generalizes Moore’s law to our many technologies claiming that we can indeed predict the future and agrees that in the 2020s non-biological intelligence will grow exponentially. Our brains he says operate about million times slower than electronics and he doesn’t see us getting any cleverer by ourselves. Instead robotics and nanotechnology, and a DNA/nanotechnological fusion will take over. Bigger, better, faster, cellular, more. In 2006 he claimed “By 2015, computers will be largely invisible, and will be very small. We will be dealing with a mesh of computing and communications that will be embedded in the environment and in our clothing”
Steve Jobs is obviously still somewhat short of the mark.
Mr. Kurzweil is a very influential man. Worryingly enough, he is a consultant for the US Army on technology issues. However his more mainstream applications of his knowledge belie the other, perhaps more controversial side of his involvements. Ray is considered to be the face of the Transhumanist movement, a kind of cult of technological creationists who use the symbol H+ or h+ to signify that which is more than human. Transhumanists look to emerging technologies with the specific goal of improving human mental and physical ability. Critics argue that this moves far from acceptable mainstream science claiming that they are “playing god” or perhaps even worse, practicing eugenics.
I’m not sure that we have that much to fear from the discussion of such ideas. Much more the implementation. It is interesting to me that none of the forefronters are biological scientists. While it is true that humans already walk around with little implants in their brains that enable them to see, and that Synthetic Genomics has created an artificial bacterial genome, these things are still incredibly difficult to do. They take a very long time to take from lab to lobe. Is it that those using hearing aids are already the advanced freaks of the soft singularity? Within 15 years will be really see such an explosion in research and development, particularly given the state of the global economy as to render ourselves unrecognizable?
University of privileged singular entities or “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”
In a scene, somewhat reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz in which Dorothy holds an audience with a wondrous talking head rather than the rather smaller wizard, Sergey Brin addressed the students of the singularity university via a robot on wheels carrying a large screen showing a picture of Brin’s face.
Sergey Brin and Larry Page are well known as the co-founders of Google a company well appreciated for centering itself into our own technological present and driving us into their future. The two helped set up the singularity university which takes place annually since 2008 at the Nasa Ames campus in Silicon Valley. The Singularity University was first proposed to the well discussed Mr. Kurweil by a Dr Peter Diamandis , the former as the figurehead, the latter as the pilot. A very select privileged few signed up for courses costing $25,000 dollars for a 10 week graduate course. There are only 80 places. $15,000 buys the entrants a mere nine days. The mission is to “assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies in order to address humanity’s grand challenges”. The ideal student a proven leader and entrepreneur . The research undertaken of course seeks “to look at how to use exponentially growing technologies to solve some of the world’s grand challenges” .
This coming together promoted the New York Times to run a 6 page piece on the Singularity and coming together of the technological elite as Students of the phenomenon. The article was lamented by John Horgan in Scientific American, described as an “enormous puff piece”
John Horgan blasts Mr. kurzweil for failing to understand the complexities of the topics and advances he is parading. Just because Silicon Valley and the NYT has been sucked in he argues, does not mean that we should be too. There is too a suggestion that Mr. Kurweil also no longer believes his ideas but sees instead a wonderful business consultancy model. Dr Peter Diamandis plans to live 700 years. If he is going to go that far, why limit himself to 700?
The Futurist argument is huge way beyond the scope of this blog and by now far removed from science, into the realms of philosophy and quasi religion. It is perhaps unsurprising that technology as a future to embrace is being lauded by those who pockets and passions are immersed in the industry. We are the future! If the future needs us that is.
We better ourselves by running marathons and not by being led up garden paths
I don’t believe in the Singularity. I believe in advancement, I believe in incredible progress in the sciences and in hardware in the future. I do not believe that in 15 or 20 years time that time or humans as we know them will have be unrecognizable from what has gone before. Even taking in Kurzweil’s extrapolation of Moore’s Law, that of accelerating returns, we cannot in such a small timescale become so different to that which has remained to some, all too recognizable over thousands of years. Not everyone lives in Silicon Valley. kurzweil may believe that one day we will achieve partial resurrection through science, but there is a greater part of our world who believe in it through religion and both are equally controversial.
It is also the case that science and technology is not one field, something which seems missing from this argument. There are far more labs working quietly away on projects and publishing results and theories than there are grand masters of unification. Money in research is generally stretched and there is competition amongst labs that means collaboration, whilst encouraged can also be cagey. This means that we are more likely to see parallel advancements in many areas, which in fact we are seeing today, implants to the ear and eye in the medical field, carbon nanofibres in radiowave-absorbing composites, bacterial genomes sequenced by molecular plant pathologists, than any grand event.
We may well become super but we will do so gradually. And when we get there we will still be very human.