The technological singularity, or simply the singularity, is a hypothetical moment in time when artificial intelligence, human biological enhancement, or brain-computer interfaces will have progressed to the point of a greater-than-human intelligence, radically changing civilization, and perhaps human nature. Because the capabilities of such an intelligence may be difficult for a human to comprehend, the technological singularity is often seen as an occurrence (akin to a gravitational singularity) beyond which the future course of human history is unpredictable or even unfathomable.
The first use of the term "singularity" in this context was by mathematician John von Neumann. In 1958, regarding a summary of a conversation with von Neumann, Stanislaw Ulam described "ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue". The term was popularized by science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, who argues that artificial intelligence, human biological enhancement, or brain-computer interfaces could be possible causes of the singularity. Futurist, and inventor of the portable reading machine for the blind, Ray Kurzweil cited von Neumann's use of the term in a foreword to von Neumann's classic The Computer and the Brain.
Proponents of the singularity typically postulate an "intelligence explosion", where superintelligences design successive generations of increasingly powerful minds, that might occur very quickly and might not stop until the agent's cognitive abilities greatly surpass that of any human.
Kurzweil predicts the singularity to occur around 2045 whereas Vinge predicts some time before 2030. At the 2012 Singularity Summit, Stuart Armstrong did a study of artificial general intelligence (AGI) predictions by experts and found a wide range of predicted dates, with a median value of 2040. Discussing the level of uncertainty in AGI estimates, Armstrong said in 2012, "It's not fully formalized, but my current 80% estimate is something like five to 100 years."
- 1 Basic concepts
- 2 History of the idea
- 3 Intelligence explosion
- 4 Accelerating change
- 5 Criticisms
- 6 In popular culture
- 7 See also
- 8 Notes
- 9 References
- 10 External links
Many of the most recognized writers on the singularity, such as Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil, define the concept in terms of the technological creation of superintelligence, and argue that it is difficult or impossible for present-day humans to predict what a post-singularity would be like, due to the difficulty of imagining the intentions and capabilities of superintelligent entities. The term "technological singularity" was originally coined by Vinge, who made an analogy between the breakdown in our ability to predict what would happen after the development of superintelligence and the breakdown of the predictive ability of modern physics at the space-time singularity beyond the event horizon of a black hole.
Some writers use "the singularity" in a broader way to refer to any radical changes in our society brought about by new technologies such as molecular nanotechnology, although Vinge and other prominent writers specifically state that without superintelligence, such changes would not qualify as a true singularity. Many writers also tie the singularity to observations of exponential growth in various technologies (with Moore's Law being the most prominent example), using such observations as a basis for predicting that the singularity is likely to happen sometime within the 21st century.
A technological singularity includes the concept of an intelligence explosion, a term coined in 1965 by I. J. Good. Although technological progress has been accelerating, it has been limited by the basic intelligence of the human brain, which has not, according to Paul R. Ehrlich, changed significantly for millennia. However, with the increasing power of computers and other technologies, it might eventually be possible to build a machine that is more intelligent than humanity. If a superhuman intelligence were to be invented—either through the amplification of human intelligence or through artificial intelligence—it would bring to bear greater problem-solving and inventive skills than current humans are capable of. It could then design an even more capable machine, or re-write its own source code to become even more intelligent. This more capable machine could then go on to design a machine of yet greater capability. These iterations of recursive self-improvement could accelerate, potentially allowing enormous qualitative change before any upper limits imposed by the laws of physics or theoretical computation set in.
The exponential growth in computing technology suggested by Moore's Law is commonly cited as a reason to expect a singularity in the relatively near future, and a number of authors have proposed generalizations of Moore's Law. Computer scientist and futurist Hans Moravec proposed in a 1998 book that the exponential growth curve could be extended back through earlier computing technologies prior to the integrated circuit. Futurist Ray Kurzweil postulates a law of accelerating returns in which the speed of technological change (and more generally, all evolutionary processes) increases exponentially, generalizing Moore's Law in the same manner as Moravec's proposal, and also including material technology (especially as applied to nanotechnology), medical technology and others. Between 1986 and 2007, machines' application-specific capacity to compute information per capita has roughly doubled every 14 months; the per capita capacity of the world's general-purpose computers has doubled every 18 months; the global telecommunication capacity per capita doubled every 34 months; and the world's storage capacity per capita doubled every 40 months. Like other authors, though, Kurzweil reserves the term "singularity" for a rapid increase in intelligence (as opposed to other technologies), writing for example that "The Singularity will allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains ... There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine". He believes that the "design of the human brain, while not simple, is nonetheless a billion times simpler than it appears, due to massive redundancy". According to Kurzweil, the reason why the brain has a messy and unpredictable quality is because the brain, like most biological systems, is a "probabilistic fractal". He also defines his predicted date of the singularity (2045) in terms of when he expects computer-based intelligences to significantly exceed the sum total of human brainpower, writing that advances in computing before that date "will not represent the Singularity" because they do "not yet correspond to a profound expansion of our intelligence."
The term "technological singularity" reflects the idea that such change may happen suddenly, and that it is difficult to predict how the resulting new world would operate. It is unclear whether an intelligence explosion of this kind would be beneficial or harmful, or even an existential threat, as the issue has not been dealt with by most artificial general intelligence researchers, although the topic of friendly artificial intelligence is investigated by the Future of Humanity Institute and the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, which is now the Machine Intelligence Research Institute.
Gary Marcus claims that "virtually everyone in the A.I. field believes" that machines will one day overtake humans and "at some level, the only real difference between enthusiasts and skeptics is a time frame." However, many prominent technologists and academics dispute the plausibility of a technological singularity, including Jeff Hawkins, John Holland, Jaron Lanier, and Gordon Moore, whose Moore's Law is often cited in support of the concept.
History of the idea
Nicholas de Condorcet, the 18th century French mathematician, philosopher, and revolutionary, is commonly credited for being one of the earliest persons to contend the existence of a singularity. In his 1794 Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, Condorcet states,
Nature has set no term to the perfection of human faculties; that the perfectibility of man is truly indefinite; and that the progress of this perfectibility, from now onwards independent of any power that might wish to halt it, has no other limit than the duration of the globe upon which nature has cast us. This progress will doubtless vary in speed, but it will never be reversed as long as the earth occupies its present place in the system of the universe, and as long as the general laws of this system produce neither a general cataclysm nor such changes as will deprive the human race of its present faculties and its present resources."
...such machines, by which the scholar may, by turning a crank, grind out the solution of a problem without the fatigue of mental application, would by its introduction into schools, do incalculable injury. But who knows that such machines when brought to greater perfection, may not think of a plan to remedy all their own defects and then grind out ideas beyond the ken of mortal mind!
In 1863, Samuel Butler wrote Darwin Among the Machines, which was later incorporated into his famous novel Erewhon. He pointed out the rapid evolution of technology and compared it with the evolution of life. He wrote:
Reflect upon the extraordinary advance which machines have made during the last few hundred years, and note how slowly the animal and vegetable kingdoms are advancing. The more highly organised machines are creatures not so much of yesterday, as of the last five minutes, so to speak, in comparison with past time. Assume for the sake of argument that conscious beings have existed for some twenty million years: see what strides machines have made in the last thousand! May not the world last twenty million years longer? If so, what will they not in the end become?...we cannot calculate on any corresponding advance in man’s intellectual or physical powers which shall be a set-off against the far greater development which seems in store for the machines.
In 1909, the historian Henry Adams wrote an essay, The Rule of Phase Applied to History, in which he developed a "physical theory of history" by applying the law of inverse squares to historical periods, proposing a "Law of the Acceleration of Thought." Adams interpreted history as a process moving towards an "equilibrium", and speculated that this process would "bring Thought to the limit of its possibilities in the year 1921. It may well be!", adding that the "consequences may be as surprising as the change of water to vapor, of the worm to the butterfly, of radium to electrons." The futurist John Smart has called Adams "Earth's First Singularity Theorist".
once the machine thinking method has started, it would not take long to outstrip our feeble powers. ... At some stage therefore we should have to expect the machines to take control, in the way that is mentioned in Samuel Butler's Erewhon.
In the mid fifties, Stanislaw Ulam had a conversation with John von Neumann in which von Neumann spoke of "ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue."
In 1965, I. J. Good first wrote of an "intelligence explosion", suggesting that if machines could even slightly surpass human intellect, they could improve their own designs in ways unforeseen by their designers, and thus recursively augment themselves into far greater intelligences. The first such improvements might be small, but as the machine became more intelligent it would become better at becoming more intelligent, which could lead to a cascade of self-improvements and a sudden surge to superintelligence (or a singularity).
In 1983, mathematician and author Vernor Vinge greatly popularized Good’s notion of an intelligence explosion in a number of writings, first addressing the topic in print in the January 1983 issue of Omni magazine. In this op-ed piece, Vinge seems to have been the first to use the term "singularity" in a way that was specifically tied to the creation of intelligent machines, writing:
We will soon create intelligences greater than our own. When this happens, human history will have reached a kind of singularity, an intellectual transition as impenetrable as the knotted space-time at the center of a black hole, and the world will pass far beyond our understanding. This singularity, I believe, already haunts a number of science-fiction writers. It makes realistic extrapolation to an interstellar future impossible. To write a story set more than a century hence, one needs a nuclear war in between ... so that the world remains intelligible.
In 1984, Samuel R. Delany used "cultural fugue" as a plot device in his science-fiction novel Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand; the terminal runaway of technological and cultural complexity in effect destroys all life on any world on which it transpires, a process poorly understood by the novel's characters, and against which they seek a stable defense. In 1985, Ray Solomonoff introduced the notion of "infinity point" in the time-scale of artificial intelligence, analyzed the magnitude of the "future shock" that "we can expect from our AI expanded scientific community" and on social effects. Estimates were made "for when these milestones would occur, followed by some suggestions for the more effective utilization of the extremely rapid technological growth that is expected".
Vinge also popularized the concept in SF novels such as Marooned in Realtime (1986) and A Fire Upon the Deep (1992). The former is set in a world of rapidly accelerating change leading to the emergence of more and more sophisticated technologies separated by shorter and shorter time-intervals, until a point beyond human comprehension is reached. The latter starts with an imaginative description of the evolution of a superintelligence passing through exponentially accelerating developmental stages ending in a transcendent, almost omnipotent power unfathomable by mere humans. Vinge also implies that the development may not stop at this level.
In his 1988 book Mind Children, computer scientist and futurist Hans Moravec generalizes Moore's law to make predictions about the future of artificial life. Moravec outlines a timeline and a scenario in this regard, in that robots will evolve into a new series of artificial species, starting around 2030–2040. In Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind, published in 1998, Moravec further considers the implications of evolving robot intelligence, generalizing Moore's law to technologies predating the integrated circuit, and speculating about a coming "mind fire" of rapidly expanding superintelligence, similar to Vinge's ideas.
A 1993 article by Vinge, "The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era", spread widely on the internet and helped to popularize the idea. This article contains the oft-quoted statement, "Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended." Vinge refines his estimate of the time-scales involved, adding, "I'll be surprised if this event occurs before 2005 or after 2030."
Vinge predicted four ways the singularity could occur:
- The development of computers that are "awake" and superhumanly intelligent
- Large computer networks (and their associated users) may "wake up" as a superhumanly intelligent entity
- Computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent
- Biological science may find ways to improve upon the natural human intellect
Vinge continues by predicting that superhuman intelligences will be able to enhance their own minds faster than their human creators. "When greater-than-human intelligence drives progress," Vinge writes, "that progress will be much more rapid." He predicts that this feedback loop of self-improving intelligence will cause large amounts of technological progress within a short period, and states that the creation of superhuman intelligence represents a breakdown in humans' ability to model their future. His argument was that authors cannot write realistic characters who surpass the human intellect, as the thoughts of such an intellect would be beyond the ability of humans to express. Vinge named this event "the Singularity".
In 2005, Ray Kurzweil published The Singularity is Near, which brought the idea of the singularity to the popular media both through the book's accessibility and through a publicity campaign that included an appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The book stirred intense controversy, in part because Kurzweil's utopian predictions contrasted starkly with other, darker visions of the possibilities of the singularity.[original research?] Kurzweil, his theories, and the controversies surrounding it were the subject of Barry Ptolemy's documentary Transcendent Man.
In 2007, Eliezer Yudkowsky suggested that many of the varied definitions that have been assigned to "singularity" are mutually incompatible rather than mutually supporting. For example, Kurzweil extrapolates current technological trajectories past the arrival of self-improving AI or superhuman intelligence, which Yudkowsky argues represents a tension with both I. J. Good's proposed discontinuous upswing in intelligence and Vinge's thesis on unpredictability.
In 2008, Robin Hanson (taking "singularity" to refer to sharp increases in the exponent of economic growth) listed the Agricultural and Industrial Revolutions as past singularities. Extrapolating from such past events, Hanson proposes that the next economic singularity should increase economic growth between 60 and 250 times. An innovation that allowed for the replacement of virtually all human labor could trigger this event.
In 2009, Kurzweil and X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis announced the establishment of Singularity University, whose stated mission is "to educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity’s grand challenges." Funded by Google, Autodesk, ePlanet Ventures, and a group of technology industry leaders, Singularity University is based at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. The not-for-profit organization runs an annual ten-week graduate program during the northern-hemisphere summer that covers ten different technology and allied tracks, and a series of executive programs throughout the year.
In 2010, Aubrey de Grey applied the term "Methuselarity" to the point at which medical technology improves so fast that expected human lifespan increases by more than one year per year. In "Apocalyptic AI – Visions of Heaven in Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, and Virtual Reality" (2010), Robert Geraci offers an account of the developing "cyber-theology" inspired by Singularity studies. The 1996 novel Holy Fire by Bruce Sterling explores some of those themes and postulates that a Methuselarity will become a gerontocracy.
In 2011, Kurzweil noted existing trends and concluded that it appeared increasingly likely that the singularity would occur around 2045. He told Time magazine: "We will successfully reverse-engineer the human brain by the mid-2020s. By the end of that decade, computers will be capable of human-level intelligence."
The notion of an "intelligence explosion" was first described thus by Good (1965), who speculated on the effects of superhuman machines:
Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.
Most proposed methods for creating superhuman or transhuman minds fall into one of two categories: intelligence amplification of human brains and artificial intelligence. The means speculated to produce intelligence augmentation are numerous, and include bioengineering, genetic engineering, nootropic drugs, AI assistants, direct brain-computer interfaces and mind uploading. The existence of multiple paths to an intelligence explosion makes a singularity more likely; for a singularity to not occur they would all have to fail.
Hanson (1998) is skeptical of human intelligence augmentation, writing that once one has exhausted the "low-hanging fruit" of easy methods for increasing human intelligence, further improvements will become increasingly difficult to find. Despite the numerous speculated means for amplifying human intelligence, non-human artificial intelligence (specifically seed AI) is the most popular option for organizations trying to advance the singularity.
Whether or not an intelligence explosion occurs depends on three factors. The first, accelerating factor, is the new intelligence enhancements made possible by each previous improvement. Contrariwise, as the intelligences become more advanced, further advances will become more and more complicated, possibly overcoming the advantage of increased intelligence. Each improvement must be able to beget at least one more improvement, on average, for the singularity to continue. Finally the laws of physics will eventually prevent any further improvements.
There are two logically independent, but mutually reinforcing, accelerating effects: increases in the speed of computation, and improvements to the algorithms used. The former is predicted by Moore’s Law and the forecast improvements in hardware, and is comparatively similar to previous technological advance. On the other hand, most AI researchers believe that software is more important than hardware.
The first is the improvements to the speed at which minds can be run. Whether human or AI, better hardware increases the rate of future hardware improvements. Oversimplified, Moore's Law suggests that if the first doubling of speed took 18 months, the second would take 18 subjective months; or 9 external months, whereafter, four months, two months, and so on towards a speed singularity. An upper limit on speed may eventually be reached, although it is unclear how high this would be. Hawkins (2008), responding to Good, argued that the upper limit is relatively low;
Belief in this idea is based on a naive understanding of what intelligence is. As an analogy, imagine we had a computer that could design new computers (chips, systems, and software) faster than itself. Would such a computer lead to infinitely fast computers or even computers that were faster than anything humans could ever build? No. It might accelerate the rate of improvements for a while, but in the end there are limits to how big and fast computers can run. We would end up in the same place; we'd just get there a bit faster. There would be no singularity.
Whereas if it were a lot higher than current human levels of intelligence, the effects of the singularity would be enormous enough as to be indistinguishable (to humans) from a singularity with an upper limit. For example, if the speed of thought could be increased a million-fold, a subjective year would pass in 30 physical seconds.
It is difficult to directly compare silicon-based hardware with neurons. But Berglas (2008) notes that computer speech recognition is approaching human capabilities, and that this capability seems to require 0.01% of the volume of the brain. This analogy suggests that modern computer hardware is within a few orders of magnitude of being as powerful as the human brain.
Some intelligence technologies, like seed AI, may also have the potential to make themselves more intelligent, not just faster, by modifying their source code. These improvements would make further improvements possible, which would make further improvements possible, and so on.
This mechanism for an intelligence explosion differs from an increase in speed in two ways. First, it does not require external effect: machines designing faster hardware still require humans to create the improved hardware, or to program factories appropriately. An AI which was rewriting its own source code, however, could do so while contained in an AI box.
Second, as with Vernor Vinge’s conception of the singularity, it is much harder to predict the outcome. While speed increases seem to be only a quantitative difference from human intelligence, actual improvements in intelligence would be qualitatively different. Eliezer Yudkowsky compares it to the changes that human intelligence brought: humans changed the world thousands of times more rapidly than evolution had done, and in totally different ways. Similarly, the evolution of life had been a massive departure and acceleration from the previous geological rates of change, and improved intelligence could cause change to be as different again.
There are substantial dangers associated with an intelligence explosion singularity. First, the goal structure of the AI may not be invariant under self-improvement, potentially causing the AI to optimise for something other than was intended. Secondly, AIs could compete for the scarce resources mankind uses to survive.
While not actively malicious, there is no reason to think that AIs would actively promote human goals unless they could be programmed as such, and if not, might use the resources currently used to support mankind to promote its own goals, causing human extinction.
Carl Shulman and Anders Sandberg suggest that intelligence improvements (i.e., software algorithms) may be the limiting factor for a singularity because whereas hardware efficiency tends to improve at a steady pace, software innovations are more unpredictable and may be bottlenecked by serial, cumulative research. They suggest that in the case of a software-limited singularity, intelligence explosion would actually become more likely than with a hardware-limited singularity, because in the software-limited case, once human-level AI was developed, it could run serially on very fast hardware, and the abundance of cheap hardware would make AI research less constrained. An abundance of accumulated hardware that can be unleashed once the software figures out how to use it has been called "computing overhang."
Dramatic changes in the rate of economic growth have occurred in the past because of some technological advancement. Based on population growth, the economy doubled every 250,000 years from the Paleolithic era until the Neolithic Revolution. The new agricultural economy doubled every 900 years, a remarkable increase. In the current era, beginning with the Industrial Revolution, the world’s economic output doubles every fifteen years, sixty times faster than during the agricultural era. If the rise of superhuman intelligence causes a similar revolution, argues Robin Hanson, one would expect the economy to double at least quarterly and possibly on a weekly basis.
Berglas (2008) notes that there is no direct evolutionary motivation for an AI to be friendly to humans. Evolution has no inherent tendency to produce outcomes valued by humans, and there is little reason to expect an arbitrary optimisation process to promote an outcome desired by mankind, rather than inadvertently leading to an AI behaving in a way not intended by its creators (such as Nick Bostrom's whimsical example of an AI which was originally programmed with the goal of manufacturing paper clips, so that when it achieves superintelligence it decides to convert the entire planet into a paper clip manufacturing facility). Anders Sandberg has also elaborated on this scenario, addressing various common counter-arguments. AI researcher Hugo de Garis suggests that artificial intelligences may simply eliminate the human race for access to scarce resources, and humans would be powerless to stop them. Alternatively, AIs developed under evolutionary pressure to promote their own survival could outcompete humanity.
Bostrom (2002) discusses human extinction scenarios, and lists superintelligence as a possible cause:
When we create the first superintelligent entity, we might make a mistake and give it goals that lead it to annihilate humankind, assuming its enormous intellectual advantage gives it the power to do so. For example, we could mistakenly elevate a subgoal to the status of a supergoal. We tell it to solve a mathematical problem, and it complies by turning all the matter in the solar system into a giant calculating device, in the process killing the person who asked the question.
A significant problem is that unfriendly artificial intelligence is likely to be much easier to create than friendly AI. While both require large advances in recursive optimisation process design, friendly AI also requires the ability to make goal structures invariant under self-improvement (or the AI could transform itself into something unfriendly) and a goal structure that aligns with human values and does not automatically destroy the human race. An unfriendly AI, on the other hand, can optimize for an arbitrary goal structure, which does not need to be invariant under self-modification.
Eliezer Yudkowsky proposed that research be undertaken to produce friendly artificial intelligence in order to address the dangers. He noted that the first real AI would have a head start on self-improvement and, if friendly, could prevent unfriendly AIs from developing, as well as providing enormous benefits to mankind.
One hypothetical approach towards attempting to control an artificial intelligence is an AI box, where the artificial intelligence is kept constrained inside a simulated world and not allowed to affect the external world. However, a sufficiently intelligent AI may simply be able to escape by outsmarting its less intelligent human captors.
Stephen Hawking said in 2014 that "Success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history. Unfortunately, it might also be the last, unless we learn how to avoid the risks." Hawking believes that in the coming decades, AI could offer "incalculable benefits and risks" such as "technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand."
Implications for human society
In February 2009, under the auspices of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI), Eric Horvitz chaired a meeting of leading computer scientists, artificial intelligence researchers and roboticists at Asilomar in Pacific Grove, California. The goal was to discuss the potential impact of the hypothetical possibility that robots could become self-sufficient and able to make their own decisions. They discussed the extent to which computers and robots might be able to acquire autonomy, and to what degree they could use such abilities to pose threats or hazards.
Some machines have acquired various forms of semi-autonomy, including the ability to locate their own power sources and choose targets to attack with weapons. Also, some computer viruses can evade elimination and have achieved "cockroach intelligence." The conference attendees noted that self-awareness as depicted in science-fiction is probably unlikely, but that other potential hazards and pitfalls exist.
Some experts and academics have questioned the use of robots for military combat, especially when such robots are given some degree of autonomous functions. A United States Navy report indicates that, as military robots become more complex, there should be greater attention to implications of their ability to make autonomous decisions.
Some support the design of friendly artificial intelligence, meaning that the advances that are already occurring with AI should also include an effort to make AI intrinsically friendly and humane.
Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics is one of the earliest examples of proposed safety measures for AI. The laws are intended to prevent artificially intelligent robots from harming humans. In Asimov’s stories, any perceived problems with the laws tend to arise as a result of a misunderstanding on the part of some human operator; the robots themselves are merely acting to their best interpretation of their rules. In the 2004 film I, Robot, loosely based on Asimov's Robot stories, an AI attempts to take complete control over humanity for the purpose of protecting humanity from itself due to an extrapolation of the Three Laws. In 2004, the Singularity Institute launched an Internet campaign called 3 Laws Unsafe to raise awareness of AI safety issues and the inadequacy of Asimov’s laws in particular.
Some singularity proponents argue its inevitability through extrapolation of past trends, especially those pertaining to shortening gaps between improvements to technology. In one of the first uses of the term "singularity" in the context of technological progress, Stanislaw Ulam (1958) tells of a conversation with John von Neumann about accelerating change:
One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.
Hawkins (1983) writes that "mindsteps", dramatic and irreversible changes to paradigms or world views, are accelerating in frequency as quantified in his mindstep equation. He cites the inventions of writing, mathematics, and the computer as examples of such changes.
Kurzweil's analysis of history concludes that technological progress follows a pattern of exponential growth, following what he calls the "Law of Accelerating Returns". Whenever technology approaches a barrier, Kurzweil writes, new technologies will surmount it. He predicts paradigm shifts will become increasingly common, leading to "technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history". Kurzweil believes that the singularity will occur before the end of the 21st century, setting the date at 2045. His predictions differ from Vinge’s in that he predicts a gradual ascent to the singularity, rather than Vinge’s rapidly self-improving superhuman intelligence.
Oft-cited dangers include those commonly associated with molecular nanotechnology and genetic engineering. These threats are major issues for both singularity advocates and critics, and were the subject of Bill Joy's Wired magazine article "Why the future doesn't need us".
The Acceleration Studies Foundation, an educational non-profit foundation founded by John Smart, engages in outreach, education, research and advocacy concerning accelerating change. It produces the Accelerating Change conference at Stanford University, and maintains the educational site Acceleration Watch.
Recent advances, such as the mass production of graphene using modified kitchen blenders (2014) and high temperature superconductors based on metamaterials, could allow supercomputers to be built that, while using only as much power as a typical Core I7 (45W), could achieve the same computing power as IBM's Blue Gene/L system.
Some critics assert that no computer or machine will ever achieve human intelligence, while others hold that the definition of intelligence is irrelevant if the net result is the same.
Steven Pinker stated in 2008,
(...) There is not the slightest reason to believe in a coming singularity. The fact that you can visualize a future in your imagination is not evidence that it is likely or even possible. Look at domed cities, jet-pack commuting, underwater cities, mile-high buildings, and nuclear-powered automobiles—all staples of futuristic fantasies when I was a child that have never arrived. Sheer processing power is not a pixie dust that magically solves all your problems. (...)
Martin Ford in The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future postulates a "technology paradox" in that before the singularity could occur most routine jobs in the economy would be automated, since this would require a level of technology inferior to that of the singularity. This would cause massive unemployment and plummeting consumer demand, which in turn would destroy the incentive to invest in the technologies that would be required to bring about the Singularity. Job displacement is increasingly no longer limited to work traditionally considered to be "routine."
Jared Diamond, in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, argues that cultures self-limit when they exceed the sustainable carrying capacity of their environment, and the consumption of strategic resources (frequently timber, soils or water) creates a deleterious positive feedback loop that leads eventually to social collapse and technological retrogression.
Theodore Modis and Jonathan Huebner argue that the rate of technological innovation has not only ceased to rise, but is actually now declining (John Smart, however, criticizes Huebner's analysis). Evidence for this decline is that the rise in computer clock rates is slowing, even while Moore's prediction of exponentially increasing circuit density continues to hold. This is due to excessive heat build-up from the chip, which cannot be dissipated quickly enough to prevent the chip from melting when operating at higher speeds. Advancements in speed may be possible in the future by virtue of more power-efficient CPU designs and multi-cell processors. While Kurzweil used Modis' resources, and Modis' work was around accelerating change, Modis distanced himself from Kurzweil's thesis of a "technological singularity", claiming that it lacks scientific rigor.
Others propose that other "singularities" can be found through analysis of trends in world population, world gross domestic product, and other indices. Andrey Korotayev and others argue that historical hyperbolic growth curves can be attributed to feedback loops that ceased to affect global trends in the 1970s, and thus hyperbolic growth should not be expected in the future.
In The Progress of Computing, William Nordhaus argued that, prior to 1940, computers followed the much slower growth of a traditional industrial economy, thus rejecting extrapolations of Moore's law to 19th-century computers. Schmidhuber (2006) suggests differences in memory of recent and distant events create an illusion of accelerating change, and that such phenomena may be responsible for past apocalyptic predictions.
Andrew Kennedy, in his 2006 paper for the British Interplanetary Society discussing change and the growth in space travel velocities, stated that although long-term overall growth is inevitable, it is small, embodying both ups and downs, and noted, "New technologies follow known laws of power use and information spread and are obliged to connect with what already exists. Remarkable theoretical discoveries, if they end up being used at all, play their part in maintaining the growth rate: they do not make its plotted curve... redundant." He stated that exponential growth is no predictor in itself, and illustrated this with examples such as quantum theory. The quantum was conceived in 1900, and quantum theory was in existence and accepted approximately 25 years later. However, it took over 40 years for Richard Feynman and others to produce meaningful numbers from the theory. Bethe understood nuclear fusion in 1935, but 75 years later fusion reactors are still only used in experimental settings. Similarly, quantum entanglement was understood in 1935 but not at the point of being used in practice until the 21st century.
A study of the number of patents shows that human creativity does not show accelerating returns, but in fact, as suggested by Joseph Tainter in his The Collapse of Complex Societies, a law of diminishing returns. The number of patents per thousand peaked in the period from 1850 to 1900, and has been declining since. The growth of complexity eventually becomes self-limiting, and leads to a widespread "general systems collapse".
Jaron Lanier refutes the idea that the Singularity is inevitable. He states: "I do not think the technology is creating itself. It's not an anonymous process." He goes on to assert: "The reason to believe in human agency over technological determinism is that you can then have an economy where people earn their own way and invent their own lives. If you structure a society on not emphasizing individual human agency, it's the same thing operationally as denying people clout, dignity and self-determination ... To embrace [the idea of the Singularity] would be a celebration of bad taste and bad politics."
In addition to general criticisms of the singularity concept, several critics have raised issues with Kurzweil's iconic chart. One line of criticism is that a log-log chart of this nature is inherently biased toward a straight-line result. Others identify selection bias in the points that Kurzweil chooses to use. For example, biologist PZ Myers points out that many of the early evolutionary "events" were picked arbitrarily. Kurzweil has rebutted this by charting evolutionary events from 15 neutral sources, and showing that they fit a straight line on a log-log chart. The Economist mocked the concept with a graph extrapolating that the number of blades on a razor, which has increased over the years from one to as many as five, will increase ever-faster to infinity.
In popular culture
Isaac Asimov's 1950 story "The Evitable Conflict", (the last part of the I, Robot collection) features the Machines, four supercomputers managing the world's economy. The computers are incomprehensible to humans and are impossible to analyze for errors, having been created through 10 stages of bootstrapping. In the end of the story, it is implied that from now on (it occurs in 2052), no major conflict can occur, and the Machines are going to guide humanity toward a better future, one only they are capable of seeing (and known to be truly the best). Susan Calvin states that "For all time, all conflicts are finally evitable. Only the Machines, from now on, are inevitable!"
James P. Hogan's 1979 novel The Two Faces of Tomorrow is an explicit description of what is now called the Singularity. An artificial intelligence system solves an excavation problem on the moon in a brilliant and novel way, but nearly kills a work crew in the process. Realizing that systems are becoming too sophisticated and complex to predict or manage, a scientific team sets out to teach a sophisticated computer network how to think more humanly. The story documents the rise of self-awareness in the computer system, the humans' loss of control and failed attempts to shut down the experiment as the computer desperately defends itself, and the computer intelligence reaching maturity.
While discussing the singularity's growing recognition, Vernor Vinge wrote in 1993 that "it was the science-fiction writers who felt the first concrete impact." In addition to his own short story "Bookworm, Run!", whose protagonist is a chimpanzee with intelligence augmented by a government experiment, he cites Greg Bear's novel Blood Music (1983) as an example of the singularity in fiction. Vinge described surviving the singularity in his 1986 novel Marooned in Realtime. Vinge later expanded the notion of the singularity to a galactic scale in A Fire Upon the Deep (1992), a novel populated by transcendent beings, each the product of a different race and possessed of distinct agendas and overwhelming power.
In William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer, artificial intelligences capable of improving their own programs are strictly regulated by special "Turing police" to ensure they never exceed a certain level of intelligence, and the plot centers on the efforts of one such AI to circumvent their control. The Roger Williams' 1994 novel The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect features an AI that augments itself so quickly as to gain low-level control of all matter in the universe in a matter of hours.
William Gibson and Bruce Sterling's alternate history Steampunk novel The Difference Engine ends with a vision of the singularity occurring in 1991 with a superintelligent computer that has merged its mind with the inhabitants of London.
William Thomas Quick's novels Dreams of Flesh and Sand (1988), Dreams of Gods and Men (1989), and Singularities (1990) present an account of the transition through the singularity; in the last novel, one of the characters states that mankind's survival requires it to integrate with the emerging machine intelligences, or it will be crushed under the dominance of the machines—the greatest risk to the survival of a species reaching this point (and alluding to large numbers of other species that either survived or failed this test, although no actual contact with alien species occurs in the novels).
The singularity is sometimes addressed in fictional works to explain the event's absence. Neal Asher's Gridlinked series features a future where humans living in the Polity are governed by AIs and while some are resentful, most believe that they are far better governors than any human. In the fourth novel, Polity Agent, it is mentioned that the singularity is far overdue yet most AIs have decided not to partake in it for reasons that only they know. A flashback character in Ken MacLeod's 1998 novel The Cassini Division dismissively refers to the singularity as "the Rapture for nerds", though the singularity goes on to happen anyway.
Popular movies in which computers become intelligent and violently overpower the human race include Colossus: The Forbin Project, the Terminator series, the very loose film adaptation of Isaac Asimov's I, Robot, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clark's 2001: A Space Odyssey, the adaptation of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?: Blade Runner, and The Matrix series. The television series Battlestar Galactica, and Star Trek: The Next Generation also explore these themes. Out of all these, only Colossus features a true superintelligence.
Isaac Asimov expressed ideas similar to a post-Kurzweilian singularity in his short story "The Last Question". Asimov's future envisions a reality where a combination of strong artificial intelligence and post-humans consume the cosmos, during a time Kurzweil describes as when "the universe wakes up", the last of his six stages of cosmic evolution as described in The Singularity is Near. Post-human entities throughout various time periods of the story inquire of the artificial intelligence within the story as to how entropy death will be avoided. The AI responds that it lacks sufficient information to come to a conclusion, until the end of the story when the AI does indeed arrive at a solution. Notably, it does so in order to fulfill its duty to answer the humans' question.
St. Edward's University chemist Eamonn Healy discusses accelerating change in the film Waking Life. He divides history into increasingly shorter periods, estimating "two billion years for life, six million years for the hominid, a hundred-thousand years for mankind as we know it". He proceeds to human cultural evolution, giving time scales of ten thousand years for agriculture, four hundred years for the scientific revolution, and one hundred fifty years for the industrial revolution. Information is emphasized as providing the basis for the new evolutionary paradigm, with artificial intelligence its culmination. He concludes we will eventually create "neohumans" which will usurp humanity’s present role in scientific and technological progress and allow the exponential trend of accelerating change to continue past the limits of human ability.
Accelerating progress features in some science fiction works, and is a central theme in Charles Stross's Accelerando. Other notable authors that address singularity-related issues include Karl Schroeder, Greg Egan, Ken MacLeod, Rudy Rucker, David Brin, Iain M. Banks, Neal Stephenson, Tony Ballantyne, Bruce Sterling, Dan Simmons, Damien Broderick, Fredric Brown, Jacek Dukaj, Stanislaw Lem, Nagaru Tanigawa, Douglas Adams, Michael Crichton, and Ian McDonald.
The feature-length documentary film Transcendent Man by Barry Ptolemy is based on Kurzweil and his book The Singularity Is Near. The film documents Kurzweil's quest to reveal what he believes to be mankind's destiny. Another documentary, Plug & Pray, focuses on the promise, problems and ethics of artificial intelligence and robotics, with Joseph Weizenbaum and Kurzweil as the main subjects of the film.
In 2009, scientists at Aberystwyth University in Wales and the U.K's University of Cambridge designed a robot called Adam that they believe to be the first machine to independently discover new scientific findings. Also in 2009, researchers at Cornell developed a computer program that extrapolated the laws of motion from a pendulum's swings.
A Tamil film Enthiran deals with a humanoid robot having an intelligence equivalent to that of a human and wreaking havoc causing struggle for existence.
The web comic Dresden Codak deals with trans-humanistic themes and the singularity.
The seventeenth episode of the sixth season of the TV sitcom Futurama, "Benderama" references Bender reaching the technological singularity and being able to infinitely produce smaller versions of himself to wreak havoc on the world. The twentyfifth episode of the same season "Overclockwise" has Bender overclock himself so that he passes over what he claims as the existential singularity. His description of what he becomes is that the universe itself is his processor.
Industrial/Steampunk entertainer Doctor Steel weaves the concept of a technological singularity into his music and videos, even having a song entitled "The Singularity". He has been interviewed on his views by the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, and has also authored a paper on the subject.
Spike Jonze 2013 film her, which depicts an epic love story when man in the not-too-distant future falls in love with his computer operating system. The talking operating system with artificial intelligence, designed to adapt and evolve, is termed as Consciousness in the movie. Spike Jonze won the Academy Award for Original Screenplay for writing this relationship between Man and Machine.
The feature-length documentary film The Singularity (film) by independent filmmaker Doug Wolens (released at the end of 2012), has been acclaimed as "a large-scale achievement in its documentation of futurist and counter-futurist ideas" and "the best documentary on the Singularity to date."
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Some people say that computers can never show true intelligence whatever that may be. But it seems to me that if very complicated chemical molecules can operate in humans to make them intelligent then equally complicated electronic circuits can also make computers act in an intelligent way. And if they are intelligent they can presumably design computers that have even greater complexity and intelligence.
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- Vinge, Vernor (30–31 March 1993), "The Coming Technological Singularity", Vision-21: Interdisciplinary Science & Engineering in the Era of CyberSpace, proceedings of a Symposium held at NASA Lewis Research Center (NASA Conference Publication CP-10129), retrieved 2007-08-07. See also this HTML version, retrieved on 2009-03-29.
- Warwick, Kevin (2004), March of The Machines, University of Illinois Press, ISBN 978-0-252-07223-9
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Essays and articles
- Intelligence Explosion: Evidence and Import by Machine Intelligence Research Institute
- Singularities and Nightmares: Extremes of Optimism and Pessimism About the Human Future by David Brin
- A Critical Discussion of Vinge’s Singularity Concept by Robin Hanson
- Is a singularity just around the corner by Robin Hanson
- Brief History of Intellectual Discussion of Accelerating Change by John Smart
- One Half of a Manifesto by Jaron Lanier – a critique of "cybernetic totalism"
- One Half of an Argument – Ray Kurzweil's response to Lanier
- A discussion of Kurzweil, Turkel and Lanier by Roger Berkowitz
- The Singularity Is Always Near by Kevin Kelly
- The Maes-Garreau Point by Kevin Kelly
- "The Singularity – A Philosophical Analysis" by David Chalmers
- 2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal, By Lev Grossman, time.com, Feb. 10, 2011.
- Report on The Stanford Singularity Summit
- An IEEE report on the Singularity.
- March 2007 Congressional Report on the SingularityAlternate Link