What is the Singularity?

Artificial Intelligence Genetics Nanotechnology Robotics Singularity Technology
What is the Singularity? Exponentially accelerating progress
© iStockphoto.com / Felix Mickel

The Singularity

The Singularity, also called the technological singularity, refers to the predicted accelerating progress of science and technology in coming years and the changes that will result. Several technologies will play key roles in this, including artificial intelligence software, computer hardware, nanotechnology, genetic engineering and robotics. A key principal in the theory is a demonstrated history, and predicted continuation of, accelerating progress in these areas that is measured not on linear scales, but exponential ones.

Greater Than Human Intelligence

One prediction is that artificial intelligence software that is more intelligent than a human being will be developed. If it is possible to develop this kind of software, it will be able to engineer something even more intelligent. A continued cycle of improvement will lead to an intelligence explosion, and the creation of superintelligence, beyond which accurate predictions of what will happen next begin to break down. The term singularity is an analogy taken from physics that refers to the lack of knowledge that happens at the center of a black hole – its singularity.

A Process

The term singularity can be misleading in some ways. It gives the impression that there is some particular event, or explosive activity that occurs at a point in time. Instead, most authors are referring to a process or sequence of activities that result in dramatic changes over time.

Here’s an analogy in computer storage capabilities. Hard drives which are able to store terabytes of information have become more accessible in the mainstream marketplace recently. A quick check of several vendors shows that there are units available for around $150-200. Several years before, we saw 500 gigabyte drives – less than half of the storage space – for around the same price.

When looked at within the context of current events, that progress is notable, but not dramatic. However, a few decades ago, when the cost of a 10 megabyte drive was approximately the same, an announcement that a drive that was available that had 100,000 times the capacity of the standard drive on the market would have been seen as earth-shattering in what it would do for information technology of the time.

Dramatic Progress

In the same manner, we will experience dramatic progress over the coming decades, but it won’t feel as dramatic while we are actually experiencing it.

If you’re interested in the concept of the Singularity, Artificial Intelligence and Robotics, stick around and keep reading!

5 thoughts on “What is the Singularity?

  1. I am very concerned about the singularity ‘problem’. I think that the math makes sense (the historical trend lines up with the projected trend). I think that technology is capable of replacing humans completely at a not-too-distant time in the future. This leads me to wonder what role humans will have in the future. I’m not so much worried about a “Terminator”/”Matrix” world. I think that our biggest problem will be unemployment. We might have to shift to a more socialist/communist social order, but even with that adjustment, human beings are likely to feel a sense of despair, uselessness, and depression that could lead to catastrophic social disorder.
    I would be interested in reading more about how likely the singularity is to occur (or how close we can realistically get to that point), and why nobody seems to care! Why doesn’t CNN talk about this instead of Governor Palin’s illegitimate grandchild?

  2. Thanks for a great thought-provoking comment, Kevin.
    You bring up a very interesting point about the potential downside of the Singularity. The creation of smarter-than-human intelligence definitely has the potential for unanticipated consequences (to say the least). There are a number of organizations that think about how to manage these risks, for example the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence and the Lifeboat Foundation.
    I’ve wondered about the question of employment as well. In the past, as technology progressed, we’ve freed ourselves for more complex work. But, the creation of smarter-than-human-intelligence and tools is something altogether different. Perhaps some people will choose to merge with the technology, and others will be content to continue existing as humans always have.
    A great book that I would recommend is Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near.

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