Answering all your questions about the mind boggling Singularity
“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine!” sings Michael Stipe from the band R.E.M and it would seem he’s in good company. According to some of the most intelligent people on the planet, the world as we know it is indeed coming to an end, and apparently, it’s a good thing. Futurists and rock stars have been predicting what they refer to as the singularity or the technological singularity, driven by exponential growth of technology, as far back as 1958 when mathematician John von Neumann spoke about it. But what is it exactly? How do you define singularity? And should we be afraid?
The best way to define the singularity, in practical terms, is that its a time in the very near future that technological advancement will be so fast, that we wont be able to keep-up, unless we augment ourselves with the technology we are creating. By improving our physiological selves with advancements from the fields of biotechnology, nanotechnology and artificial intelligence, we’ll become a human-machine civilization, and we’ll be able to live as long as we want.
Singularity for Beginners
The concept of singularity is a fairly difficult one to grasp, but let’s try by using some of the last dinosaurs remaining, or as we affectionately refer to them, our parents.
When they’re asleep whisper quietly in their ear and ask them to think back to before you were born. Then ask them if they ever thought there would be a time where maps printed on paper would be obsolete and they’d be using something called ‘Waze’ that tells them how to get to their destination, roadworks and all. Or if they’d be asking some girl called Siri medical questions rather than their own GP.
We’re guessing the answers would be resounding ‘no’ and even us tech-savvy people might battle with just how far technology has come in such a short space of time. Artificial Intelligence, the Cloud, and supercomputers are no longer the things sci-fi movies are made of, they’re here and accessible to all of us.
If we were to take a look back at history in terms of the new and groundbreaking technologies that have come about and changed people’s lives we’d see how the generations that went before us would have a hard time getting their head around it all. Even if we look at something as simple as the language used today, millennials, SnapChat, googling; for older folk it may as well be Greek.
These shifts in thinking are what is known as Singularity. A mathematical phrase that describes the point at which we are no longer able to crack its properties. In other words, it’s when something goes so nuts it defies all understanding. For some of us it was like trying to understand The Matrix.
Thinkers Behind The Technological Singularity
People are more familiar with the Singularity and all that it means in the last two decades because of two people, namely Ray Kurzweil
and Vernor Vinge
In 1993 Vinge wrote that “within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.”
Ray Kurzweil, a thought leader on the Technological Singularity
The other great mind is Ray Kurzweil and while he agrees with Vinge that the Singularity will indeed happen, he thinks Vinge’s prediction of it happening in 2023 is too optimistic. Kurzweil believes that 2045 will be the year mankind experiences the greatest and most defining technological singularity of all time. It will be the tipping point that not only changes but rather overturns the way we see ourselves as human beings.
This Singularity will come about with the creation of a super-human artificial intelligence or AI. This AI will be able to come up with ideas that no one has thought of before. It will invent technological tools so advanced and will be unlike anything we have. Because the role of AI would be to keep on bettering itself it makes sense that it will keep on improving, creating an intelligence explosion that will leave us, mere biological machines, way behind.
Exponential Growth will lead to a New Species
In the future, we will see a technological singularity occur in a society that was once reserved for humans. Some will choose to ignore it. Others will fight it. Both will be left behind. Those of us who realize we can’t rely on our own brain power and embrace AI will flourish.
There is little doubt that the rate of exponential growth
we are experiencing will do more than just disrupt life as we know. It will affect the industries we work and live in and there’s a very real chance it will give birth to a whole new species over the three to four decades.
Evolving to The Singularity
The Driving Forces
There are four primary forces driving us rather quickly towards a meta-intelligence. The rate at which this is happening is mind-boggling, and reason for us to sit up and take notice.
1) We’re wiring our planet
Currently, there are almost 3 billion people that are connected online. It is predicted that in next eight or so years there will be as many as 8 billion. Thanks to 5G and networks being installed by the likes of Google, Samsung, Virgin, SpaceX, Qualcomm and various others within a decade every person will be connected and have access to information and computational power on the cloud.
2) Emergence of brain-computer interface
Get ready to have your mind blown, and connected. A lot of resources and money is going into creating bandwidth connections between the digital world and the neocortex. What this essentially means is by the 2030s there will be a human-cloud connection. Not only will we be able to increase our memory, we will also be able to connect our brains to each other as well as AIs, the same way we do our smartphones, watches, cars, homes and pretty much everything else.
3) Artificial Intelligence
Artificial Intelligence will continue to progress at a rapid rate. Cumulative intelligence, a combination of human and artificial intelligence, will see an increase in overall human intelligence, along with an AI arms race. While this is a terrifying thought, as mentioned earlier, if we embrace the collaboration many of the technological challenges we might face in the future, like nanobots interfacing with our neocortex, AI power tools will provide us with the necessary problem-solving capabilities. Technically speaking it’s one exponential on top of another.
4) Hello Space Frontier
The reality is we’re very close to becoming a multi-planetary species, as CEO of Tesla, Elon Musk, discusses in this interview for Transcendent Man LIVE
. While we don’t know exactly how we will evolve there is little doubt that in a few thousand years from now we will look back at this time as the moment we moved off the earth.
Who is Ray Kurzweil?
is a genius, and somewhat of modern-day Nostradamus if you will. He is the recipient of 20 honorary doctorates, has been awarded honors from no less than three presidents of the United States and is the author of seven books, of which five have been bestsellers.
It doesn’t end there. He is the main inventor of various technologies including the very first CCD flatbed scanner and the first print-to-speech reading machine for the blind. He is chancellor and co-founder of Singularity University
and the person responsible for directing AI development at Google.
Since the 1990s he made over 197 predictions and boasts an 87% accuracy rate. Not only are his predictions mind boggling they’re also reminders that we’re living in very exciting times. That’s if we are able to let go of our egos and embrace the imminent technological changes.
The Kurzweil Curve
But what did he predict and how accurate have his predictions been?
In 1990 Ray predicted a computer would beat a world chess by the year 1998. While not spot on, IBM’s Deep Blue went up against Garry Kasparov in 1997 and won.
He also predicted that PCs would be able to answer questions by accessing information from the internet, wirelessly, by 2010.
Kurzweil correctly foresaw that by the early 2000s exoskeletal limbs would help the disabled to walk. Again he was correct, and not only is technology doing this, it’s doing a whole lot more.
In 1999 he said we would be talking to our computers. Need we say more?
While he might have been off by a year or two Ray Kurzweil was accurate in what we would be able to do with technology.
What is GNR in the Technological Singularity?
You may have been wondering just what is GNR in terms the singularity? GNR stands for genetics, nanotechnology, robotics. For the Ray Kurzweil singularity, these are the three most important technologies. They are going to shape our world the most this century. Let us look, specifically, at cancer and its treatments as our context for understanding just what is GNR in the singularity.
In our great-grandparents’ generation, the only treatments for cancer were either poorly understood radiation, or surgery. Effectiveness was far from guaranteed. In our grandparents’ generation, treatments shifted, and it was more surgery. And an effort was made to try to catch cancer early. In our parents’ generation, the emphasis stayed on early detection, and it also shifted to prevention. We began to understand the role of diet – and we already understood the role of smoking – in making it more likely for a person to get cancer.
In our generation, chemotherapy, less invasive surgery, well-targeted radiation, and non-invasive diagnostics are the norm. However, people still get cancer, and it can still come back, even after a five year remission. For our children’s and grandchildren’s generations, genetic engineering will leave older treatments in the dust. By manipulating an individual’s genes, and even the entire species’ genome, we may be able to finally crush cancer under our heel for good.
Nanotechnology and Nanobots
With nanotechnology, we will see cancer-killing nanobots, go from medical curiosity to standard treatment protocol. For anyone not yet able to enjoy genetic engineering to prevent cancer, these nanoparticles will provide the cure – and the diagnostics and early detection as well. Imagine nanoparticles finding just one cancerous molecule and then destroying it. You would never have to know your life was ever threatened.
Robotics and Artificial Intelligence
One thing we know about cancer is that some of it is environmentally-based. For example, if you work with asbestos, you are at high risk for a cancer called mesothelioma (and other cancers, but that is the most common and best known type). This cancer manifests itself as tumors lining tissues such as your lungs and stomach. Treatments are the standard, namely, radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery. However, as robotics becomes even more pervasive as a part of the Ray Kurzweil singularity, robots will take over jobs such as not only asbestos removal, but also shipbuilding and insulation work. With human beings never exposed to these risks, mesothelioma has a good chance of becoming something we as a people barely remember.
And that barely scratches the surface, as we are also thinking about artificial intelligence. We already use a narrow form of it with AI’s such as Siri and Watson. If your doctor has ever dictated her reports using speech recognition software, then she’s using a narrow form of AI. And if that saves her time, she can spend more time on treating her patients or on researching cures. As a result, cancer prevention and treatments even get a boost indirectly.
The Digital Playground: The Implications of GNR
Genetics, Nanotechnology, and robotics are what Ray Kurzweil calls overlapping revolutions
. What this means is that we will use them together as each one matures and becomes more commonplace.
Together these, and other technologies will congregate and influence the way we live and understandably, Kurzweil cautions that they will all be powerful to do some great things or to be harmful. The way in which we harness their power will be very much dependent on the way we use them. Whether they work for the greater good will rely on the conversations we have, what we prioritize as important, and the actions we decide to take.
As humans, we are in a position to guide the three technological revolutions and to develop them so that their outcomes are positive. Should we adopt the head-in-the-sand syndrome or allow them to become rogue forces it will be at our own peril.
In most countries technologically plays an important role in the design of almost every product, across all fields and industries. Whether it is an engineer designing a bridge, or an aeronautical engineer designing an aircraft, computers form an integral part of the process. A very simple yet effective example is to consider a day without technology; most businesses come to a standstill, even if it is on a smaller scale. It is fair to say that without technology, without computers society as we know it is not viable.
Nanotechnology or nanotech is already critical when it comes to our everyday lives. From the physical structures where concrete and steel are made to be lighter, stronger, more resilient, to nano-based drugs and cosmetics. Whether we know it or not nanotechnology and intelligent machines have a symbiotic relationship. In 2000 President Clinton established the National Nanotechnology Initiative. Since its beginning, the US government has allocated in excess of $20,000,000,000 to the development of nanotech.
An Evolution Movie
Kurzweil has a few predictions for the next 25 years. Following along is like watching an evolution movie in your head. Entrepreneurs, business owners, and parents need to pay close attention in order to future-proof their children and businesses. Kurzweil’s predictions include:
The 2020s will see most diseases going away as nanobots will be smarter than the current medical technology. The Turing test, developed by Alan Turing in 1950, will be passable. We will see self-driving cars take over and people won’t be allowed to drive on freeways.
By the 2030s, virtual reality
will begin to feel 100% real. We will be able to upload our mind by the end of the decade.
By 2040 non-biological intelligence will be around one billion times more capable than us. Nanotech foglets will make food out of thin air and be able to create any object in the physical world. We will also be working with something called utility fog.
2045 will see us increase our intelligence a billion fold, yes a billion fold, by linking our neocortex to a synthetic neocortex in the cloud. This will be done wirelessly of course.
It’s important to keep in mind that the accuracy of the predictions isn’t what’s important. What we need to focus on is what these predictions mean, what they represent. For Kurzweil, it isn’t a situation where machines take over. Instead, he sees it as a collaboration where humans and machines improve on each other.
For a quick fix on many predictions of the Ray Kurzweil Singularity, watch the singularity documentary, Transcendent Man
The Six Epochs of Evolution
What are the scariest predictions of the singularity? Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid
Feeling nervous? You’re not alone. Some of the greatest minds, including Elon Musk and Steven Hawking, have raised their concerns that super smart AI could become uncontrollable and work against us. One movie that immediately comes to mind is iRobot. Set in 2035, nanobots go against the three laws of Robotics and poses a threat to humanity. But like all good dystopian science fiction, the scariest predictions of the singularity show an apocalypse in various flavors.
When you watch the singularity is near movie Transcendent Man
, which somewhat of an evolution movie, a more obvious fear is of the extinction of humanity. Whether we lose out to robots or to microscopic nanobots, we could truly lose out. And when it comes to nanobots, we could quite literally drown in it all, given that exponential replication of replicating technology will mean that machines will copy themselves over and over again. And as they create more and more replicating machinery, replication accelerates. One machine making a replicating machine in 1000 seconds means there will be two such machines replicating new machines in the next 1000 seconds. Two will lead to four, and to eight, etc. Even with machines the size of a cell, they only have finite growing space. In less than two days, the number of replicating machines will outweigh the Earth.
Another fear straight out of Hollywood and the bestseller lists is that of human slavery. Once we concede our top dog status to machinery – or at least to human-machine hybrids – what happens to those left behind? Enslavement could come in the overt form of being beheld to manufacturing and repairing our mechanical overlords, or Matrix
-style, where we have no idea that our brain power is being used as fuel. If you check out The Singularity is Near
book, you’ll see that close up.
And what about when there are situations like war or economic or environmental collapse? Would technological haves duke it out with the technological have-nots,? Would so much robotics in our society result in wasteful overproduction? Would they use every resource as a means to their ends? When AI makes everything for us, human beings could end up in perpetual poverty and dependence, unable to make anything or do anything for ourselves. That is a recipe for a global depression, and not just of the economic type.
Another scenario is Big Brother on an enormous scale. What if the AI doesn’t want to enslave us but, rather, loves us and only wants to do what is best for its human ‘pets’? Anyone who has ever been a parent knows that you need to occasionally let your children skin their knees. Imagine an AI so obsessed with our safety and well-being that it would try to prevent every disaster and injury, both large and small? The obvious way to accomplish this would be via continual surveillance. Do we want a future where an AI snoops on our meals, our sex, our art, our longings, our job interviews, and our dreams? The future, it would seem, would be encased in bubble wrap.
Others see it as something exciting; a super-intelligent AI could analyze, uncover and explain many of the world’s unexplained mysteries. A world that has an answer for every problem: no more dreaded disease, hunger, or natural disasters. Or would we see a world with new problems? Ones we could never have predicted?
The good, the bad and the ugly side of technology
Self-replicating nanobots is a reality but when will see them developed? If we consider the exponential rate at which nanotechnology and computer power are advancing we will see nanobots in the 2050s. This is because of the synergy between the two technologies. When super-intelligent machines become smarter than humans, Kurzweil’s the first technological singularity, we will have the computing power needed to develop nanobots.
We have already mentioned that we need to harness these technologies in order to use them for the good of mankind. Nanobots could be used medically, for example, to treat diseases such as cancer at a cellular level. But they can also become a very real threat. It is not far-fetched to suggest they could become weapons. Sci-fi movies depict this all too real threat often, like “The Day The Earth Stood Still”. In it an alien robot changes into a swarm of bug-like self-replicating nanobots that destroy earth within a matter of seconds, like a plague of locusts.
While it is science fiction and something out of Hollywood, the movie highlights a pertinent issue; the devastating consequences of could happen if we were to lose control, or if the technology got into the wrong hands.
Biohacking and cyborgs
How many cyborgs did you see on the way to work today? None! Think again. Once again sci-fi movies have given us a rather skewed, and scary, notion of what cyborgs are. Contrary to popular culture they’re not all robocops or Darth Vader-esque villains. Instead, modern-day cyborgs include athletes wearing prosthetic limbs or people walking around with pacemakers.
The truth is we encounter cyborgs on a daily basis without even knowing it and thanks to something called biohacking.It is reshaping the world we live in and will carry on doing so, on a much larger scale. According to Hannes Sjoblad, Swedish co-founder of Bionyfiken, a biohacker network, we are living in a time where we can make the blind see, the deaf hear and even the lame walk.
Health is the area where biohacking will have the most benefits. For example, consider a smart pill equipped with wireless technology that can be ingested and monitor how the body reacts to different treatments and medications. Unlike now where cancer patients have to wait for sonars to see whether chemotherapy is working or not, these pills will be able to tell doctors in real-time if healing is taking place.
Another area where biohacking will help is with security. In the same way we use our fingerprints to unlock our smartphones, police, for example, will be armed with guns only they can use. Monetary transactions will be done with us waving a micro-chipped hand at a scanner and should we be in an accident paramedics will be able to identify us and access our medical information.
What is even more exciting with biohacking is that is something we will be able to do ourselves.
The most simple definition of biohacking is ‘citizen science’ or do-it-yourself science. The last 50 years have seen an increase in our understanding various fields as a result of globalization and technology. We have access to all sorts of information, experiments, concepts, and data, which in the past was limited to professionals in medicine and science. Biohacking refers to our connectivity and accessibility to such information.
Citizen science has flourished from a place of curiosity and even dissatisfaction. When normal people become tired of a ‘trickle-down’ effect in science and technology, biohacking occurs. An everyday example, although simplified, is the example of a woman miscarrying a baby. The specialist provides an explanation they think will suffice but she isn’t happy. She goes onto the internet, researches the reason and follows up on alternative treatments. While she might not be in a position to clone a baby or create a robotic version, to a degree she has taken science into her own hands to find a solution.
Also called Occupy Biology, biohacking is changing the politics of science and academia from a hierarchy to something more of a meritocracy. It is a world where we come up with our own titles and conduct experiments, like the woman who miscarried.
Another way in which we use biohacking is to improve our bodies, the condition it’s in and our lifestyle. This can translate to mindfulness exercises, meditation, and breathing exercises to control anxiety, assist with depression or for self-awareness. The more extreme form would be an individual researching chemical technology and its effect on perception, cognition, and consciousness. The movie Limitless with Bradley Cooper explores this.
When will the Singularity occur?
The question everyone is asking is how long will it be before we have artificial brains equal to, or smarter than ours.
According to the futurist Kurzweil 2029 is when AI will pass a Turing Test, achieving intelligence on a par with humans. It is his thinking that 2045 will be the year the Singularity occurs, meaning our intelligence will multiply a billion fold and will merge with the super-intelligence we’ve created. This date is consistent with others, including Masayoshi Son, the CEO of Softbank, who believes we will see machines with superior intelligence by 2047.
We are already in the process of achieving this. In 2013 neuroscientists at Forschungszentrum Jülich in Germany and the Okinawa Institute of Technology Graduate University used Japan’s K Computer, one of the world’s supercomputers, to try mimic the activity of the human brain. In the experiment, they used a network of more than one billion nerve cells that were connected by over 10 trillion synapses. It used more than 80,000 processors of the computer and for one second’s worth of neuronal activity in a human brain it took 40 minutes.
Japan’s K Computer – one of the world’s top supercomputers – to attempt to mimic a human brain’s activity. Using the open source NEST simulation software, they simulated a network of 1.73 billion nerve cells connected by 10.4 trillion synapses. Doing so used 82,944 processors of the K computer, and it took 40 minutes to simulate a single second’s worth of neuronal network activity in a real, biological human brain. In total, the simulation used a petabyte of memory, which is about the same as 250,000 PCs. So while the Singularity isn’t close, the human brain can already be simulated, and Moore’s Law means that it will become much easier quite quickly.
The Singularity is inevitable. It is human nature to create and evolve but is it something we should be scared of? According to some of the world’s greatest minds, it is. Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking and even Bill Gates warn about a future where machines will take over the world. But Ray Kurzweil doesn’t agree. He isn’t worried about it, in fact, he is looking forward to it.
A world where AI rules the world is what he considers to be fiction. “That’s not realistic. We don’t have one or two AIs in the world. Today we have billions.” According to him, we will benefit from the technology. We will become smarter, we’ll be funnier, we’ll be better. As a race we will exemplify everything we value.
Have you enrolled at the Singularity University?
Kurzweil is the founder of the Singularity University, a place of study established on the premise that the greatest problems we face are also our greatest opportunities.
It is a place of learning for the visionaries, the teachers, the makers and the technologies to make a positive change to the world. The institution is a platform that promotes new approaches to the problems we face. It is a place for innovation and new ways of thinking; it is a launchpad for exciting ventures where a global community of doers and thinkers work tirelessly to create the change we need.
While the admission process is similar to that of any other university in 2017, the curriculum is from 2020. Subjects like physics, biology, and computer science are replaced with Nanotechnology, Synthetic Biology, and AGI or Artificial General Intelligence, to name a few. The focus is on exponential growth and the advancement of science and students are encouraged to find opportunities that take advantage of this.
Students not only attend lectures, they also visit companies like BioCurious, TechShop, Code for America, and the National Ignition Facility. Subjects are taught by leading researchers in their specific fields, and more often than not by the founders of these disciplines. The quality of speakers is such students face the conundrum of which lecture to attend. Situated in the NASA research park, students have access to the Autodesk ADSK -0.37% innovation lab with the latest CAD software, 3D printers, robots, and quadcopters.
A truly global community, students come from across the world, and all are accomplished in their particular fields; scientists, business owners, writers, and entrepreneurs. Singularity University is about ideas, solutions, and innovation, and is the only place of learning where an assignment is to assist a billion people.
What happens after The Singularity?
We have looked at what The Singularity is and when it is supposed to happen. We have considered what it means for humans and for AI and we have discussed the good and the bad, and possibly even the ugly. But what will happen after The Singularity?
It seems those that have looked ahead to the next few decades, or at Singularitarians see a future where time stands still. But what about the other groups of people who have a destination in mind? Some religious groups speak of ‘heaven’ or ‘hell’ as their destination, Others talk of a rebirth, then there’s reincarnation and for those who don’t believe in anything picture death as their final destination. And the people that believe we’ll all be beamed up by a spaceship passing by, they too have an end in sight.
After the Singularity, we are sure we will leave earth, expanding outwards and colonizing other planets. Transhumanists think in terms of a process where we constantly change and improve using technology to transcend any limitations. But the question is what are we transcending? Where are we transcending to? When we do reach that point where we are able to do anything how do we know what we want to do.
Kurzweil believes that with AI taking over many of the jobs we currently occupy we will have the opportunity to do things we are passionate about, creating a different type of Maslow’s Hierarchy. But what will give us direction?
There are three potential factors that will influence our direction.
Firslty a sense of direction arises from human history. The things we think are worth doing now has come about based on the history of our civilization and different points of civilization have created different value systems. According to experts, we don’t need to make up things that are valuable, essentially they are inherited from our past, both collective and individual. If our sense of purpose is based on history then what we think is important now is what will shape the direction we take after the Singularity.
Secondly, it would be accurate to assume that our direction will be driven by what we need to do to survive. Our innate will to survive will play a large role in the direction we take. Because the Singularity will present threats we haven’t thought of yet we will need to adapt to them accordingly
Last but not least we will get our sense of purpose or direction from incidental attributes of the world around us, keeping in mind we will be in new surroundings, and our encounters could very well be of the third kind.
It’s difficult to get our heads around what the world will look post-Singularity, especially because we will have surpassed the limitations we view everything with at this moment in time. Once we have an augmented intelligence and a new reality our direction will change rather than come to an end. It is not that we’ll be aimless, we will have aimed for something different.
As we near the Singularity and speculate life after it, new questions will be posed. For example, will there still be hunger or will we have found a way to feed everyone? Will poverty still exist? What will people do to make money, and will they need to? Furthermore, what will the economy be like? Will an economy exist? If robots are doing our jobs will they get paid? Would they need to be paid? What would they spend their money on? And if we’re not working how will we survive?
Whatever happens, the reality is our biggest challenge isn’t the Singularity, or even what happens after. Instead, our challenge lies in coming together as a global community to find ways to work together as man and machine.