TCS Daily


The Singular Sensation

By James D. Miller - August 15, 2005 12:00 AM

Most of us will become gods. And not one of those wimpy anthropomorphic gods from Greek myth, but gods trillions of times more intelligent than mere mortal men. Such is the thesis of Ray Kurzweil, who argues in The Singularity Is Near that humanity is inexorably headed towards the Singularity.

The singularity is a future period in which technological progress becomes so rapid that it radically transforms humankind. To picture the singularity imagine computers trillions of times smarter than Newton, Einstein and Edison inventing new technologies while continually enhancing their own abilities. Ray Kurzweil argues that the Singularity will occur around 2045.

Although godhood by 2045 seems like the conclusion of a lunatic, the genius of The Singularity is Near lies in showing that humanity already has tremendous technological momentum that almost has to carry us into the Singularity. And this momentum comes from the doubling every year of the power per dollar of information technology.

But the Singularity doesn't appear near. This is because most of us are used to linear thinking and haven't yet grasped the implications of the exponential growth of information technologies. For example, assume that the power of computers doubles every generation. Further assume that so far 100 generations have passed and our computers have but one-billionth of the power needed to achieve the Singularity. How many more doubling generations would be needed for humanity to reach this singularity? Well, linear thinking would say that since it took 100 generations to get one-billionth of the way there it will take a total of 100 billion generations to make it all the way. But if computer power doubles every generation, then it would take only 30 more generations for computer power to increase a billion fold.

The human brain is a much faster information processor than even the best of today's computers. But the regular doubling of computing power means computers will quickly reach human equivalence. Kurzweil estimates this will happen by the early 2030s.

Kurzweil identifies three technologies that will bring about the singularity: computers, genetics and nanotechnology.

Computers

Moore's Law, formulated in 1965, states that "the number of transistors on a chip doubles about every two years." This doubling exponentially increases computer speeds while exponentially decreasing (quality adjusted) computer costs. For the next 15 to 20 years current technology will continue Moore's Law. After this period other technologies such as nanotube circuitry, optical computing, quantum computing and three-dimensional chip architecture can be employed to further augment computing power. There are so many possible means of expanding computing power that only a few have to be proved practical for the exponential growth in computer power to continue until 2045.

Genetics

Our ability to scan the brain is growing in a Moore's law-like exponential manner. Kurzweil argues that by the late 2020s we be able to reverse engineer the brain and use its secrets to better design computers. The human brain performs some tasks far better than today's computers but others far worse. If we can combine the best of the brain and machine we will have created thinking devices vastly superior to both today's biological and electronic calculating devices.

Evolution has created biological processes that form structures at the nanometer level. Understanding our biological selves, Kurzweil argues, will also allow humanity to harness nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology refers to the building of extremely small machines. Kurzweil predicts that nanotechnology will improve artificial intelligence by allowing the construction of smaller, cheaper, more powerful computers. Furthermore Kurzweil predicts that nanobots, by the 2020s will travel throughout the human body, exploring the brain from the inside.

Nanotechnology, if Kurzweil's predictions come true, will also insure that most people living today will reach the 2045 singularity. Kurzweil thinks that within 10 to 20 years biotechnologists will learn how to greatly slow down aging and eliminate most diseases. In the 2030s, Kurzweil writes, nanotechnology will "finish the job", allowing for the redesign of the human body into an almost immortal form.

Mutually Supporting Technologies

Kurzweil convincingly argues that the technologies needed to bring about the Singularity are mutually supporting. For example, better artificial intelligence will aid in the design of computers, brain scanners and nanotechnology. Better understanding of how the brain works will assist our design of computers and nanotechnology. And better nanotechnology will help us scan the brain and develop better computers.

Think of humanity's journey towards the Singularity as the equivalent of climbing a tall mountain where each step up represents some new technological innovation. Because of mutually supporting technologies, however, many people are climbing this mountain, all helping each other ascend. And the climbers have some advantages:

  • There are many paths to the top. If, for example, the quantum computing path proves too steep the climbers could turn instead to the optical computing route.
  • The climbers have a partial map of some transversible paths, and this map becomes clearer as they ascend. (The map is written on their brains and DNA.)
  • Superior climbing tools are littered over the mountain and the higher they climb the more tools they find. (The tools are nanotechnology.)
  • Something in the air makes the climbers smarter as they ascend. (Better computers improves their artificial intelligence while bio- and nanotechnology improves their brains.)

Most importantly the climbers receive tremendous financial rewards for each step they take up the mountain because the marketplace pays well those who advance technology.

My Criticism of the Argument

Although Kurzweil makes a very convincing argument that the Singularity will likely occur in the near future, he writes as if the Singularity's occurrence this century is a certainty. Technological progress is difficult to predict. If engineers knew, for example, that in the future they could discover a much more efficient chip architecture they would employ this architecture today. Kurzweil partially overcomes this prediction problem by showing there are many possible paths to the Singularity. But it's possible that all of these paths will prove too steep for humanity to climb. I would have that Kurzweil title his book The Singularity Is Probably Near.

The Blogosphere

I predict that The Singularity Is Near will be the most reviewed book in the Blogosphere this year. Because the book draws on so many areas of scientific knowledge, blogs are the perfect medium by which to evaluate Kurzweil's Singularity thesis. Furthermore, although written to be read by non-scientists, the text is far more technologically sophisticated than most non-academic books. A programmer or engineer who keeps a blog will be better able to comment intelligently on this book than most members of the main stream media would be.

Singularity Prediction Markets

Markets will be the best means of determining if the Singularity is in fact near. For example, Kurzweil writes that by the late 2020s we'll have "full-immersion virtual-reality environments incorporating all of the senses" resulting in there being "no reason to utilize real offices. Real estate will become virtual." Such virtual reality would crash housing values in places such as Manhattan, San Francisco and Boston. With virtual reality eliminating the need to live close to work, Americans would stop paying a huge premium to live near big cities. And if this virtual reality prediction comes true, housing prices won't suddenly crash in the late 2020s but rather will start to decline when many people begin to suspect that all the important real estate will soon be virtual.

Rather then just looking at existing markets, however, believers in the possibility of a mid-century Singularity should design Singularity prediction markets. I attempted to do this myself, on a very small scale, when I proposed a bet to Kurzweil. Under the bet I would give him a very small amount of money today and in return at some future agreed-upon date he would give me a 10-meter-diameter solid diamond sphere. The idea behind my bet was that if the Singularity were near, nanotechnology would make it very easy to make large diamonds in the relatively near future. Kurzweil, alas, turned me down. He emailed me making the very reasonable argument that "Everything I write about could come true and for physical reasons that are not currently understood a ten-meter-round diamond might be hard to fabricate." But still, since the mere approach to the Singularity would cause massive price changes, it should be possible to design future markets that provide good estimates of the likelihood of a Singularity occurring.

And there would be tremendous practical benefits to Singularity prediction markets. For example, believers in a Singularity could start a life insurance company offering very low rates based on the fact that the Singularity will bring near immortality to humans. This life insurance company could then protect itself against the risk that the Singularity won't come to pass by betting against the Singularity in my proposed prediction markets.

James D. Miller writes The Game Theorist column for TCS and is the author of Game Theory at Work.


 

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