The concept of the coming technological singularity is going to enter mainstream discourse, and won’t go away. It will stop being something that can be dismissed as freaky or outlandish – something that is of interest only to marginal types and radical thinkers. Instead, it’s going to become something that every serious discussion of the future is going to have to contemplate. Writing a long-term business plan – or a long-term political agenda – without covering the singularity as one of the key topics, is increasingly going to become a sign of incompetence. We can imagine the responses, just a few years from now: “Your plan lacks a section on how the onset of the singularity is going to affect the take-up of your product. So I can’t take this proposal seriously”. And: “You’ve analysed five trends that will impact the future of our company, but you haven’t included the singularity – so everything else you say is suspect.”
In short, that’s the main realisation I reached by attending the Singularity Summit 2008 yesterday, in the Montgomery Theater in San Jose. As the day progressed, the evidence mounted up that the arguments in favour of the singularity will be increasingly persuasive, to wider and wider groups of people. Whether or not the singularity will actually happen is a slightly different question, but it’s no longer going to be possible to dismiss the concept of the singularity as irrelevant or implausible.
To back up my assertion, here are some of the highlights of what was a very full day:
Intel’s CTO and Corporate VP Justin Rattner spoke about “Countdown to Singularity: accelerating the pace of technological innovation at Intel”. He described a series of technological breakthroughs that would be likely to keep Moore’s Law operational until at least 2020, and he listed ideas for how it could be extended even beyond that. Rattner clearly has a deep understanding of the technology of semiconductors.
Dharmendra Modha, the manager of IBM’s cognitive computing lab at Almaden, explained how his lab had already utilised IBM super-computers to simulate an entire rat brain, with the simulation running at one tenth of real-time speed. He explained his reasons for expecting that his lab should be emable to simular an entire human brain, running at full speed, by 2018. This was possible as a result of the confluence of “three hard disruptive trends”:
- Neuroscience has matured
- Supercomputing meets the brain
- Nanotechnology meets the brain.
Cynthia Breazeal, Associate Professor of Media Arts and Sciences, MIT, drew spontaneous applause from the audience part-way through her talk, by showing a video of one of her socially responsive robots, Leonardo. The video showed Leonardo acting on beliefs about what various humans themselves believed (including beliefs that Leonardo could deduce were false). As Breazeal explained:
- Up till recently, robotics has been about robots interacting with things (such as helping to manufacture cars)
- In her work, robotics is about robots interacting with people in order to do things. Because humans are profoundly social, these robots will also have to be profoundly social – they are being designed to relate to humans in psychological terms. Hence the expressions of emotion on Leonardo’s face (and the other body language).
Marshall Brain, founder of “How Stuff Works”, also spoke about robots, and the trend for them to take over work tasks previously done by humans: MacDonalds waitresses, Wal-Mart shop assistants, vehicle drivers, construction workers, teachers…
James Miller, Associate Professor of Economics, Smith College, explicitly addressed the topic of how increasing belief in the likelihood of an oncoming singularity would change people’s investment decisions. Once people realise that, within (say) 20-30 years, the world could be transformed into something akin to paradise, with much greater lifespans and with abundant opportunities for extremely rich experiences, many will take much greater care than before to seek to live to reach that event. Interest in cryonics is likely to boom – since people can reason their bodies will only need to be vitrified for a short period of time, rather than having to trust their descendants to look after them for unknown hundreds of years. People will shun dangerous activities. They’ll also avoid locking money into long-term investments. And they’ll abstain from lengthy training courses (for example, to master a foreign language) if they believe that technology will shortly render as irrelevant all the sweat of that arduous learning.
Not every speaker was optimistic. Well-known author and science journalist John Horgan gave examples of where the progress of science and technology has been, not exponential, but flat:
- nuclear fusion
- ending infectious diseases
- Richard Nixon’s “war on cancer”
- gene therapy treatments
- treating mental illness.
Horgan chided advocates of the singularity for their use of “rhetoric that is more appropriate to religion than science” – thereby risking damaging the standing of science at a time when science needs as much public support as it can get.
Ray Kurzweil, author of “The Singularity is Near”, responded to this by agreeing that not every technology progresses exponentially. However, those that become information sciences do experience significant growth. As medicine and health increasingly become digital information sciences, they are experiencing the same effect. Although in the past I’ve thought that Kurzweil sometimes overstates his case, on this occasion I thought he spoke with clarity and restraint, and with good evidence to back up his claims. He also presented updated versions of the graphs from his book. In the book, these graphs tended to stop around 2002. The slides Kurzweil showed at the summit continued up to 2007. It does appear that the rate of progress with information sciences is continuing to accelerate.
Earlier in the day, science fiction author and former maths and computing science professor Vernor Vinge gave his own explanation for this continuing progress:
Around the world, in many fields of industry, there are hundreds of thousands of people who are bringing the singularity closer, through the improvements they’re bringing about in their own fields of research – such as enhanced human-computer interfaces. They mainly don’t realise they are advancing the singularity – they’re not working to an agreed overriding vision for their work. Instead, they’re doing what they’re doing because of the enormous incremental economic plus of their work.
Under questioning by CNBC editor and reporter Bob Pisani, Vinge said that he sticks with the forecast he made many years ago, that the singularity would (“barring major human disasters”) happen by 2030. Vinge also noted that rapidly improving technology made the future very hard to predict with any certainty. “Classic trendline analysis is seriously doomed.” Planning should therefore focus on scenario evaluation rather than trend lines. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Vinge suggested that more forecasters should read science fiction, where scenarios can be developed and explored. (Since I’m midway through reading and enjoying Vinge’s own most recent novel, “Rainbows End” – set in 2025 – I agree!)
Director of Research at the Singularity Institute, Ben Goertzel, described a staircase of potential applications for the “OpenCog” system of “Artificial General Intelligence” he has been developing with co-workers (partially funded by Google, via the Google Summer of Code):
- Teaching virtual dogs to dance
- Teaching virtual parrots to talk
- Nurturing virtual babies
- Training virtual scientists that can read vast swathes of academic papers on your behalf
- And more…
Founder and CSO of Innerspace Foundation, Pete Estep, gave perhaps one of the most thought-provoking presentations. The goal of Innerspace is, in short, to improve brain functioning. In more detail, “To establish bi-directional communication between the mind and external storage devices.” Quoting from the FAQ on the Innerspace site:
The IF [Innerspace Foundation] is dedicated to the improvement of human mind and memory. Even when the brain operates at peak performance learning is slow and arduous, and memory is limited and faulty. Unfortunately, other of the brain’s important functions are similarly challenged in our complex modern world. As we age, these already limited abilities and faculties erode and fail. The IF supports and accelerates basic and applied research and development for improvements in these areas. The long-term goal of the foundation is to establish relatively seamless two-way communication between people and external devices possessing clear data storage and computational advantages over the human brain.
Estep explained that he was a singularity agnostic: “it’s beyond my intellectual powers to decide if a singularity within 20 years is feasible”. However, he emphasised that it is evident to him that “the singularity might be near”. And this changes everything. Throughout history, and extending round the world even today, “there have been too many baseless fantasies and unreasonable rationalisations about the desirability of death”. The probable imminence of the singularity will help people to “escape” from these mind-binds – and to take a more vigorous and proactive stance towards planning and actually building desirable new technology. The singularity that Estep desires is one, not of super-powerful machine intelligence, but one of “AI+BCI: AI combined with a brain-computer interface”. This echoed words from robotics pioneer Hans Moravec that Vernor Vinge had reported earlier in the day:
“It’s not a singularity if you are riding the curve. And I intend to ride the curve.”
On the question of how to proactively improve the chances for beneficial technological development, Peter Diamandis spoke outstandingly well. He’s the founder of the X-Prize Foundation. I confess I hadn’t previously realised anything like the scale and the accomplishment of this Foundation. It was an eye-opener – as, indeed, was the whole day.