"It seems plausible that with technology we can, in the fairly near future create (or become) creatures who surpass humans in every intellectual and creative dimension. Events beyond such an event -- such a singularity -- are as unimaginable to us as opera is to a flatworm."
Vernor Vinge -SciFi great
The Singularity is an apocalyptic idea originally proposed by John von Neumann, one of the inventors of digital computation, and elucidated by figures such as Ray Kurzweil and scifi great Vernor Vinge.
While the definitions of the Singularity are as varied as people's fantasies of the future, with a very obvious reason, most agree that artificial intelligence will be the turning point. Once an AI is even the tiniest bit smarter than us, it'll be able to learn faster and we'll simply never be able to keep up. This will render us utterly obsolete in evolutionary terms.
Singularity books are now as common in a computer science department as Rapture images are in an evangelical bookstore, says computer scientist and visionary Jaron Lanier in his new manifesto. There are many versions of the fantasy of the Singularity. Here’s the one Marvin Minsky of MIT used to tell over the dinner table in the early 1980s:
"One day soon, maybe twenty or thirty years into the twenty- first century, computers and robots will be able to construct copies of themselves, and these copies will be a little better than the originals because of intelligent software. The second generation of robots will then make a third, but it will take less time, because of the improvements over the first generation.
"The process will repeat. Successive generations will be ever smarter and will appear ever faster. People might think they’re in control, until one fine day the rate of robot improvement ramps up so quickly that superintelligent robots will suddenly rule the Earth."
In some versions of the story Lanier writes in We Are Not Gadgets, the internet comes alive and rallies all the net- connected machines into an army to control the affairs of the planet. Humans might then enjoy immortality within virtual reality, "because the global brain would be so huge that it would be absolutely easy for it to host all our consciousnesses for eternity".
It might be true, Lanier adds, that on some vast cosmic basis, higher and higher forms of consciousness inevitably arise, until the whole universe becomes a brain, or something along those lines.
Even at much smaller scales of millions or even thousands of years, Lanier continues, "it is more exciting to imagine humanity evolving into a more wonderful state than we can presently articulate. The only alternatives would be extinction or stodgy stasis, which would be a little disappointing and sad, so let us hope for transcendence of the human condition, as we now understand it."
If you believe the Singularity is coming soon, you might cease to design technology to serve humans,Lanier concludes, and prepare instead for the grand events it will bring. The Singularity, however, would involve people dying in the flesh and being uploaded into a computer and remaining conscious, or people simply being annihilated in an imperceptible instant before a new superconsciousness takes over the Earth. The Rapture and the Singularity share one thing in common: they can never be verified by the living.
Casey Kazan from an excerpt from We Are Not Gadgets
Image credit: Flickr nobodyz2007