The Singularity

For the past few decades, an idea referred to as “the Singularity” has been bantered about by futurists and technologists. Basically, the theory of the Singularity goes something like this:

Given the rapidly accelerating pace of technological advance, and the fact that, eventually, we will develop artificial intelligence capable of driving further technological advance at a faster pace than human beings ever could, we will eventually reach a point in our advancement where the rate of advance accelerates towards infinity.

Now, this idea may sound rather batty, but just consider this: the Universe formed some 13.7 billion years ago. The solar system, about 4.6 billion years ago. Multicellular life: 500 million years ago. Primates: 5 million years ago. Language: 40,000 years ago. Civilization: 10,000 years ago. The Enlightenment: 400 years. The Industrial Revolution: 150 years. Computers: 50 years. The Internet: 10 years. “Web 2.0”: 2-3 years. Each of these paradigm shifts is happening after a shorter and shorter delay, and, unless we manage to wipe ourselves out somehow (not exactly a remote possibility), then it seems that such a rapid acceleration of technological advance is inevitable.

A much better treatment of this idea can be found in Ray Kurzweil’s book The Singularity is Near. A fictionalized version of the idea graces Charles Stross’s (probably the best Singularitarian author I know of) book Accelerando. But, since you were nice enough to visit me in this little pocket of the Internet, I thought I’d give you a condensed timeline of the predicted unfolding of the Singularity:

  • By about 2015: Practical artificial intelligence is created and comes into use. The A.I.’s can’t pass the Turing Test yet, but they’re very useful in many venues, and they’re advancing all the time. Artificial-Intelligence methods are used to design new technologies, sowing the seeds of the Singularity.
  • By about 2030: The first practical neural implants enter the market. These implants enhance human capabilities immensely, marrying the speed and stability of electronic circuits with the redundancy and plasticity of human neurons.
  • By about 2040: Human-level A.I. is born. Computers and robots gain civil rights, and begin competing with their human makers.
  • By about 2050: The aforementioned neural-implant technology combines with artificial intelligence and allows human minds to be “uploaded” and maintained in computers. The merging of mind and machine begins.
  • By the late 21st century: Nonenhanced humans are completely “obsolete.” Computing power continues to increase. Nanotechnology allows computers to infiltrate every part of our lives.
  • The end of the 21st century: The Singularity arrives. All of the computing power on Earth merges into one vast super-intelligence, which begins expanding out into the Universe.
  • Sometime next century: Nanotechnology begins dismantling all the matter in the solar system, and some matter in nearby space. All is converted to “intelligent matter” capable of performing ultrafast calculations for a tiny energy cost.
  • Who Knows When: The Singularity-Consciousness evolves to the point that it is capable of manipulating matter and energy on the smallest scales, and thus “reprogramming the universe.” New universes can be created to escape the inevitable demise of this universe.
  • After That: Consciousness controls the entire Universe, and many beyond it. It can create universes at will, and expand infinitely. Frank Tipler calls this the “Omega Point.” Some Singularitarians call this “God.”

The really creepy thing is that, in all likelihood, I, being a young and fairly healthy person, will live to see this. Barring some sort of unfortunate incident, I — and probably quite a large fraction of my readers, too — will live long enough to be absorbed into the Singularity. And, since we will then be able to escape from our physical bodies, we will live essentially forever.

Food for thought, as usual.

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