Sunday, November 06, 2005

"The Singularity"

Several times during the last few weeks I've encountered articles about a new book written by Ray Kurzweil entitled "The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology". Mr. Kurzweil is a noted futurist who has done much work since the early '80's harnessing digital technology in the service of music and text-to-speech synthesis. His new book presents the provocative idea that computing processing technology is accelerating at such a rate that sometime between the years 2030 and 2045 mankind will have created machines that are more intelligent than we are. At that point in time (the "Singularity" that he refers to in his book's title) our relationship with our machines will be radically and irrevocably altered and will ultimately allow us to, as he puts it, "transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity". Although he wasn't the person who originated the idea of the Singularity or coined the term (SF writer and academic Vernor Vinge was first -- see his article here), Kurzweil appears to be the first to explore specific technological trends that he believes will lead to that event and published them in popular book form. His Web site can be found here and an interesting interview with Kurzweil discussing the book and the idea of the Singularity can be found here.

Now upfront I have to admit that I have not ready his book yet (although I plan to) but his ideas are so interesting that I didn't want to wait until then to write my impressions and thoughts. Although his thoughts on nutrition are pretty bizarre, I think his positions regarding technological progress are credible. The key ideas that will lead mankind to the Singularity are his "law of accelerating returns" (see his article here), a continued extrapolation of Moore's Law into the future, the continued improvement in application of genetic engineering, and the blossoming of nanotechnology. He takes the position that the melding of machine-assisted intelligence with our own will create a species of unrecognizably high intelligence, creativity and memory. While outwardly he presents this as neither utopian nor dystopian (because what will come after the Singularity is "unrecognizable" there's no way to tell), his tone is definitely such that he thinks this is a good thing.

I don't know enough about the entire book to comment on most of his contentions. But one thing struck me as I first began reading about the book. As any programmer will tell you, having ultra-fast hardware means nothing without software to power it. To make computers do anything we have to have an algorithm. And in the case of the machines that enhance or transcend our own brainpower, I think we are a long, long way from having an algorithm that emulates "intelligence". Sure, we have algorithms that allow our computers to perform very specific things that have the appearance of intelligence (such as playing chess), but most of the time these simply represent applying brute force computing speed to assist. We currently don't have a deep-enough understanding of how our minds work to be able to define an algorithm that is a reasonable facsimile of intelligence and I frankly think we are a long way off from finding one. And this lack of progress has happened in spite of studying human intelligence intensely for over 50 years.

While I can see the Singularity happening some time in the future, I think that the 2030-2045 time frame is too soon. My intuition tells me that it will take some sort of revolutionary idea or new application of mathematics (along the lines of chaos theory) to allow us to determine one.

Scary or not, I believe the event Ray Kurzweil calls the Singularity isn't something we need to be concerned about for a long time.


Music that got this post out: "Gimme That" -- The Resource featuring Jimmy Napes


At 1:14 PM, Blogger Mike Thomas said...

having ultra-fast hardware means nothing without software to power it.

I agree. And I think the Internet is a good example of what you are saying. We have this huge wealth of information available to us online, but it is for the most part just a big jumble. Nonsense, rumors, lies and garbage all mixed indiscriminately with hard facts and analysis. New technology only succeeds in reshuffling and sending this flurry of misinformation around at greater and greater speeds.
How can we build a supersmart computer when we can't even agree among ourselves what constitutes being smart in the first place? How would a computer distinguish what is and isn't true if we can't agree on it now?

At 10:55 PM, Blogger Jose' said...

Yep. My thought when I read his assessment of computing power in the 2045 time frame was, "so what if computers have a billion times the processing power of today's systems if we don't have the algorithm to take advantage of it?". Most computers today run 99% idle because we don't have complicated enough things to make them do. And unless we make some sort of breakthrough in AI or come up with a new way to understand and approach processes (like chaos theory does or perhaps like Wolfram's "New Kind of Science") I don't see us filling that 99% idle time with anything meaningful.

I find Kurzweil's ideas fascinating and insightful for the most part, but I'm truly skeptical about superintelligent machines in that time frame.

I agree with you about the 'Net, too. It's a shame that so many people don't realize that, while you have a lot more figurative wheat at your fingertips, there is also exponentially more chaff you have to be aware of, too.

At 9:55 PM, Blogger singularitarian said...

While I'm not equipped to make the case myself, I can direct you to Chapter Four of "The Singularity is Near" entitled "Achieving the Software of Human Intelligence: How to Reverse Engineer the Brain". Kurzweil may not be right, but he has done his homework. The fact that the likes of Bill Gates, Bill Joy, Marvin Minsky and Dean Kamen see both the promise and peril of Kurzweill's thesis ought to give we bloggers some pause before critiqueing his work. If like me you find even the possibility fascinating, I recommend reading the book. Then let us know what you think about his timetable.

At 11:53 PM, Blogger Jose' said...

I knew when I published this post that I was speaking from incomplete knowledge. I actually ordered his book yesterday from Amazon and am looking forward to reading his analysis and then following up here with another post. I'll be keeping an open mind regarding the possibility of a comprehensive algorithm for intelligence, but until I see something more persuasive I'll probably tend towards skepticism. Futurists in general bring that out in me. :-)

At 12:42 PM, Blogger Mike Thomas said...

Hey! We missed our post for December! ;)

Hope y'all had a Merry Christmas!

At 1:29 AM, Blogger Ayisha said...

nice site for more books I have some more gifts..

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At 2:21 PM, Blogger goodbyegeorgew said...

Love him? Hate him? How do YOU feel about our soon to be former President? Take part in a chance to immortalize your views in book form by visiting and letting your opinion be read!

Check out the following article about

Cyber Send Off for Bush Sparks Hope for Movement for Democratic Voice in USA

When I entered the website I was struck by the comic depiction of George W. assumedly on his way back to Texas, “gettin’ outta Dodge.” I read the sample letters to Bush, which I heartily agreed with, sticking it to him but good and then I clicked over to the virtual store. While politically collectible and good for holiday gifting, there were only a few things, and reasonably priced. Nobody was out to make a killing here.

“What is it that motivated this website?” - I wondered out loud to my two kittens rolled up beside me as I sat propped against the bed board with my laptop in front of me.

I suppose I’ve become the product of the same system I have worked against for so many years as an activist and avowed socialist at that, expecting everything to be based in the profit motive.

And why shouldn’t I expect that? After all we just had eight years of a White House run almost exclusively for profit. And I don’t mean only for the profit of the big banks that run the economy. Bush and Cheney went over the top, enriching the very companies in which the cabal of cronies running the government had major shares and no one has cared enough to stop them. They did it in Iraq. They did it through sewing fear at home with the notion of the homeland security state. They even did it with Hurricane Katrina. Government has been downsized, even the Pentagon. The role of governing has been privatized with no-bid sub-contractors profiting the same guys running the country! Once again, so much for the oath to uphold the Constitution and safeguard the public trust.

So then, in today’s world, as perverse as it has become, why should not be selling me something? I made contact with the people running the site and found the unexpected.

The Georgia-native, Kate Wheeler and her daughter Ashley had had enough of being walked on by politicians and they figured that a lot of other people felt the same. Lifted by the recent rout of Republicans from the White House and Capitol Hill they were motivated to act.

“People need the chance to say what’s on their minds after putting up with what we have all gone through in this country. Bush stole the first election and the Democrats and the mainstream media let him. Things only went downhill from there,” Wheeler asserted.

“With our website we are letting people tell George W. what they really think about him and it’s about time. So far the response has been terrific but we want the message to be really loud, not just so that Bush hears it. We want all of Washington, Republicans and Democrats alike to know that the American People are expecting real change in this country. The George W. Goodbye Movement is going to grow into a movement making sure that that change takes place,” Wheeler said.

It was a nice surprise from the creator of Wheeler encourages everyone, even Bush supporters, to click on and write their fond farewells. Later the letters will be immortalized in a book, documenting public opinion of the George W. Bush presidency. More than anything this website looks to move people to act and participate in holding those that govern accountable for what they do. I know I’ll be clicking in and writing my letter over the weekend.

At 4:34 AM, Blogger Robert said...

Wow, and I thought I hadn't posted in awhile!

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