TCS Daily


Hey, Maybe the Singularity Really Is Near

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - September 14, 2005 12:00 AM

Ray Kurzweil's book, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology comes out next week. And I suspect that a lot of people wonder if things will really happen as fast as Kurzweil suggests.

But as I look at the news reports, I see quite a few signs that we're living in a future that not long ago would have looked science fictional. Take, for example, this report: Miracle Mouse Can Grow Back Limbs:

 

Scientists have created a "miracle mouse" that can regenerate amputated limbs or badly damaged organs, making it able to recover from injuries that would kill or permanently disable normal animals.

 

The experimental animal is unique among mammals in its ability to regrow its heart, toes, joints and tail. The researchers have also found that when cells from the test mouse are injected into ordinary mice, they too acquire the ability to regenerate.

 

The discoveries raise the prospect that humans could one day be given the ability to regenerate lost or damaged organs, opening up a new era in medicine.

 

Limb regeneration, and custom-grown organs! Sounds good to me. Bring it on! Then there are the ads I'm seeing for offshore labs offering stem cell therapy to Americans. I don't know whether this therapy lives up to the claims, but if it doesn't, the odds are that other places soon will (see the mouse story, above). And the ads certainly look like something out of Robocop.

 

Meanwhile, Cambridge University just held the second conference on Scientifically Engineered Negligible Senescence -- where people discussed ways of slowing, halting, or even reversing the aging process. The conference didn't get as much media attention as it might have, but here's a report from The Guardian focusing on Cambridge biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey. (I interviewed de Grey for TCS last year; you can read the interview here.)

 

There was also a conference on medical nanotechnology, while elsewhere nanotechnologists reported that they had produced aggregated carbon rods that are harder than diamond.

 

On a more personal note, my wife recently went to the doctor, where they downloaded the data from the computer that watches her heart, ready to step in to pace her out of dangerous rhythms, or shock her back into normal rhythms if things go too badly. And, of course, I now get most of my news, and carry on most of my correspondence, via media that weren't in existence 15 years ago.

 

I mention this because as we look at the pace of change, we tend to take change that has already happened for granted. But any of these stories would have been science-fictional not long ago. And they're still a big deal now, they're just a big deal that people often miss. Much as we get "velocitized" in a speeding car, so we've become accustomed to a rapid pace of technological change. Except that this change isn't just fast, but continually accelerating.

 

Back in his famous essay on the Singularity, Vernor Vinge wrote:

 

Another symptom of progress toward the Singularity: ideas themselves should spread ever faster, and even the most radical will quickly become commonplace. When I began writing science fiction in the middle '60s, it seemed very easy to find ideas that took decades to percolate into the cultural consciousness; now the lead time seems more like eighteen months. (Of course, this could just be me losing my imagination as I get old, but I see the effect in others too.) Like the shock in a compressible flow, the Singularity moves closer as we accelerate through the critical speed.

 

And what of the arrival of the Singularity itself? What can be said of its actual appearance? Since it involves an intellectual runaway, it will probably occur faster than any technical revolution seen so far. The precipitating event will likely be unexpected -- perhaps even to the researchers involved. ("But all our previous models were catatonic! We were just tweaking some parameters....") If networking is widespread enough (into ubiquitous embedded systems), it may seem as if our artifacts as a whole had suddenly wakened.

 

Not yet, but there's more computing power in my car, or my washing machine, than there was in spacecraft not long ago. Maybe the Singularity really is near.

 

Meanwhile, here's an interview with Ray Kurzweil that I published elsewhere. Kurzweil is an optimist, but even he worries that the Singularity may come as a result of Chinese, not American, efforts, and he's got some disturbing numbers. The future is almost here, but we've still got some choices about how things will turn out. Let's try to choose wisely.

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