ESSAY | COSMOS | June 2009
Are we approaching a juncture where technology will accelerate exponentially, and we'll merge with machines? Wilson da Silva muses on the radical ideas of the technological singularity.
IMAGINE A FUTURE where engineers build a computer with greater-than-human intelligence. This hyper-intelligent being expands its knowledge and brainpower exponentially over days and weeks as it learns how to improve on its own hardware and software design. It starts building ‘offspring’ even smarter than itself. The sudden arrival of these offspring – cheap, mass-produced super-intelligent machines – sparks explosive economic growth, triggering a series of cascading events.
We then see the rise of accelerated biotechnology that renders most diseases harmless, nanotechnology that allows us to convert any object into any other, while microscopic, self-replicating machines begin to scour the planet, ridding it of toxic waste and repairing the damage done by industrialisation.
Soon, we have the ability to alter and improve our bodies with genetic engineering. And not long after that, we learn how to transfer our memories and thoughts – ourselves – into human-like robots. We become super-intelligent beings with indestructible bodies (thanks to an abundance of cheap spare parts), bodies that can last forever.
“The singularity is technological change so rapid and so profound that it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history.”
Death, famine, disease and environmental degradation become a thing of the past. Human history passes a turning point that makes our progress during the Industrial Revolution look like we were dawdling. We harness extraordinary energies and expand across the Solar System.
It sounds like science fiction; and for now, that’s all it is.
But a growing number of respected thinkers are not just saying this is likely: they see it happening in the next 20 to 30 years. They base their predictions on the fact that technology is advancing fast – the processing power of computers doubles every two years. If this continues at current rates, then machines will surpass the processing capacity of the human brain sometime between 2030 and 2040.
Once a computer becomes aware, it will be able to improve on itself faster than any human designer, ushering in advances in a single decade that would have taken humans thousands of years of discovery and experimentation. Technological development will leap off the charts, becoming so rapid that we cannot possibly imagine the results.
It’s been called the ‘geek rapture’ – an allusion to the belief among some Christians that, at the end of the world, they’ll be whisked directly to heaven in a process termed ‘the rapture’. Some might consider the concept of a technological singularity a gross extension of humanity’s plunder of nature; others a comical event unlikely to come to pass.
Nevertheless, a number of noted scientists and engineers think the scenario is realistic. Even more surprising, some forecast that this nirvana is not hundreds of years away, as one might expect – but mere decades.
A leading proponent is Ray Kurzweil, a computer engineer who made his fortune creating machines that could recognise printed letters, read for the blind and recognise speech. He invented the flatbed scanner and the first true electric piano; he’s launched 10 companies and sold five; and he has written five books, including a bestseller, The Singularity is Near, which has been made into a film being released in 2009. Fortune magazine called him “the smartest futurist on Earth”.
“The singularity is technological change so rapid and so profound that it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history,” he says. “Some would say that we cannot comprehend the singularity, at least with our current level of understanding, and that it is impossible, therefore, to look past its ‘event horizon’ and make sense of what lies beyond.”
Kurzweil is 61 and wants to live long enough to see singularity happen – presumably so he can upload himself and live forever. He takes 200 supplement pills a day, intravenous treatments once a week, and exercises daily – walking, bike-riding and working out with machines. It’s having an effect, he says: his fitness profile shows his biological age to be more than a decade younger than his real age.
By the time a child born today graduates from university, Kurzweil argues that poverty, disease and dependence on fossil fuels will be history.
By the time a child born today graduates from university, Kurzweil argues that poverty, disease and dependence on fossil fuels will be history. Everything will be subject to his Law of Accelerating Returns. “Everything is ultimately becoming information technology,” he argues.
Hence, as we learn to reverse-engineer and decode our own DNA, medical technology will be converted to bits and bytes and accelerate over the horizon, triggering simultaneous revolutions in robotics, genetics, nanotechnology, chemistry and biotechnology.
Moore’s Law – established by the co-founder of chipmaker Intel, Gordon E. Moore – states that the number of transistors able to fit on a single computer chip has doubled every two years since 1959, and he predicted the trend would continue – as it has.
Kurzweil regards it an excellent example of his Law of Accelerating Returns. He also refers to the Human Genome Project to illustrate exponential growth. “It was scheduled to be a 15-year project,” he says. “After seven years, only 1% of it was done, and the critics said it would be impossible. But if you double from 1% every year over seven years, you get 100%. It was right on schedule.”
He believes humanity is nearing that 1% moment in technological growth. By 2030, computers will surpass humans in intelligence; by around 2045 or so, we will reach the singularity – a point beyond which events will unfold beyond our understanding. “Non-biological intelligence will match the range and subtlety of human intelligence,” he says. “It will then soar past it because of the continuing acceleration of information-based technologies, as well as the ability of machines to instantly share their knowledge.
“Intelligent nano-robots will be deeply integrated in our bodies, our brains and our environment, overcoming pollution and poverty, extending longevity and creating full-immersion virtual reality … and vastly enhanced human intelligence. The result will be an intimate merger between the technology-creating species and the technological evolutionary process it spawned.”
“Intelligent nano-robots will be deeply integrated in our bodies, our brains and our environment, overcoming pollution and poverty, extending longevity and vastly enhanced human intelligence.”
Kurzweil may not be a literary master, but his speculations are fascinating. Occasionally he drifts into quasi-religious prophecy, and he makes up his own laws and then bases his predictions on them. “We are the species that goes beyond our potential,” he told Fortune magazine in 2007. “Merging with our technology is the next stage in our evolution.”
But isn’t there a physical barrier to packing ever more transistors onto a chip? Is Moore’s Law headed for a brick wall in the 21st century?
Justin Rattner, chief technology officer of Intel, the global juggernaut of microchips, said that although current chip technologies have reached their limits, a new paradigm always allows advances to continue.
“In some sense, in silicon gate CMOS [short for Complementary Metal-Oxide-Semiconductor, the current microchips technology], Moore’s Law ended last year,” Rattner told delegates of the Singularity Summit in October 2008 in San Jose, California. “One of the founding laws of accelerating returns ended. But there are a lot of smart people at Intel and they were able to reinvent the CMOS transistor using new materials.”
Intel is now looking at harnessing photons and quantum properties, such as the spin of an electron, as a way of increasing processing power beyond 2020. “The arc of Moore’s Law brings the singularity ever closer,” he says.
In February 2009, Kurzweil announced the establishment of a prestige summer school to prepare for the coming revolution. Dubbed the Singularity University, it has backing from NASA and Google and will be based at NASA’s Ames Research Centre in the area known as Silicon Valley, California (just across the road from Google’s headquarters) with plans to teach up to 120 students a year. It aims to educate and inspire the next generation of science, engineering and business leaders who will make the singularity a reality, according to reports. Its list of academics include George Smoot, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2006, among other luminaries.
“It’s a first-of-a-kind curriculum, designed to provide future leaders with an understanding of what is possible today as well as an understanding of where the real opportunities exist for innovation that might spring from converging technologies,” says co-founder Peter Diamandis, the man credited with fuelling private space travel with the creation of the X Prize competition. “We expect the next generation of multibillion-dollar companies to come out of this university.”
Stephen Hawking believes the rise of intelligent computers is not an absurdity. “At the moment, computers show no sign of intelligence. This is not surprising, because our present computers are less complex than the brain of an earthworm.”
The British physicist Stephen Hawking – whose work centres on the more famous singularity, black holes – is fascinated by the idea of a technological singularity. He believes the rise of intelligent computers is not an absurdity. “At the moment, computers show no sign of intelligence. This is not surprising, because our present computers are less complex than the brain of an earthworm,” he says.
“But it seems to me that if very complicated chemical molecules can operate in humans to make them intelligent, then equally complicated electronic circuits can also make computers act in an intelligent way. And if they are intelligent, they can presumably design computers that have even greater complexity and intelligence.”
He may be right. And so may the singularitarians, sometimes also called transhumanists, who fervently insist this golden age is just around the corner. But how much of it is wishful thinking by men and women keen to avoid ageing and the infirm twilight of their lives? There are many leading thinkers who doubt the singularity will ever occur, and can conjure up many reasons why.
Still, it’s true that biotechnology, nanotechnology and robotics are already starting to blur the lines between man and machine, from cochlear implants and pacemakers to nanotech sunscreens and prosthetic robot arms. But could we really be just decades away from a revolution of staggering proportions? The real answer is anyone’s guess.
Wilson da Silva is the editor-in-chief of COSMOS Magazine. This was originally published in COSMOS in June 2009.