Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Singularity

In a previous post, I summarized what I consider to be the major milestones in time that have led to humanity on Earth today... an intelligent species inhabiting & dominating this planet. I'm going to continue that post here, not about the past... but about the future. You may have heard of a concept called "the singularity". If you haven't, it's very intriguing... as it ponders the future of humanity and what intelligence & technology lead to.

In astrophysics, a "singularity" refers to the center of a black hole beyond the event horizon... where space-time bends in upon itself and gravity becomes infinite. Nothing can escape. An analogy to this "singularity"( popularized by author Raymond Kurzweil) applies to the evolution of intelligence and technology. You see, as you approach a black hole... gravity gets exponentially stronger. Similarly, as humanity advances with knowledge and technology... our rate of advancement is accelerating. This is apparent when you look at the increasing frequency of the evolutionary & technological milestones. The trend has also been observed by many others - as seen here:

There are at least a couple theoretical scenarios in which this evolutionary singularity could occur, but they each rely upon a common requirement: intelligent life must achieve the capability to enhance and evolve itself. One scenario is biological and genetic - where a species masters genetic manipulation to such an extent that it grabs the steering wheel of evolution, enhancing it's own cognitive abilities recursively. The second scenario is similar, but would involve A.I. - where an artificial intelligence exceeds human intelligence and "reprograms" or enhances itself (also recursively). Either of these scenarios would define the "event horizon" after which an intelligence explosion would occur.

Is this for real? Could it really happen, and if so when? A lot of technophiles claim that the Singularity will occur in our lifetime. Personally, I think of this prediction like a bad 80's sci-fi movie premised on flying cars & robots in the year 2003. Still, it is undeniable that our technological advancements are accelerating - especially regarding both genetics and computing. We're currently unraveling the human genome, while Moore's Law reliably predicts CPU power doubling every two years. However, we are still nowhere near genetically enhancing human brains, nor developing artificial cognition. Optimistically, I think either of these technologies are at least a century away (probably longer)... and any type of Singularity would be several centuries away (at least).

So, yes - I think an evolutionary Singularity is a real possibility, given that we don't destroy ourselves first. Or perhaps the new intelligence following the Singularity will destroy itself.

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