Monday, April 18, 2011

Vernor Vinge & the Technological Singularity (Audio, Review) "I'd be surprised if it doesn't happen by 2030"

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The Singularity Cometh: "We will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended". (Vernor Vinge)


Vernor Vinge and the Technological Singularity Nikola Danaylov interviewed Vernor Vinge, who can rightly be called the Father of the Technological Singularity. Vinge thinks the technological singularity will occur no later than 2030. "I'd be surprised if it doesn't happen by 2030" (37:55 in audio below). "The technological singularity is the most likely scenario for the relatively near future". Vinge states, "In the relatively near future, humankind, by using technology, will either create or become creatures of superhuman intelligence". This type of change, a technological change, will be qualitatively different than technological changes in the past. The change will be so profound that what will happen is unknowable, hence a singularity and event horizon over which no information, actually speculation and prediction, can occur. This implies no limit to progress. However, he finds hope in this future world and not fear of the unknown. "Overall, we are in a situation where we can surpass the wildest dreams of optimism of previous generations."

Singularity Concept Timeline Vernor Vinge developed and honed the concept of the technological singularity in the 1980s and early 1990s. The culmination was a 1993 paper, a presentation at NASA and now a classic, "The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era". Vinge says that as the exponential increase in technology becomes more and more evident, especially compared to the 1980s and 1990s, the concept of the technological singularity will increasingly be part of the cultural fabric. "It fits more with what's going on. It becomes a steady drumbeat like background music, like background wallpaper, in how we look at things when it comes to progress. It is a way of looking at things, the world." He feels this concept is a model than can be run to interpret daily events. To keep a balanced view, Vinge also "runs a model" of the technological singularity not happening, as a contra-indicator and even has given a talk on this scenario. In retrospect, from the NASA essay in 1993 to the present, 2011, Vinge says there is little he would change in his paper.

Technological Singularity Paths Vinge watches paths to the singularity, and the developments in each as positive and negative indicators as to the overall progress towards the technological singularity. These paths are scenarios on how the singularity could occur. He lists 5 paths:
1) Artificial Intelligence scenario: humans create superhuman artificial intelligence in computers, machines become super-intelligent
2) Intelligence Amplification scenario: humans enhance human intelligence through human-to-computer interfaces, that is, humans achieve intelligence amplification, humans become super-intelligent
3) Biomedical Intelligence scenario: humans directly increase their intelligence by improving the neurological operations of their brains, humans become super-intelligent
4) Internet Intelligence scenario: humanity, its networks, computers, and databases become sufficiently effective to be considered a superhuman being, humans and machines collectively become super-intelligent
5) Digital Gaia scenario: the network of embedded processors becomes sufficiently effective to be considered a superhuman being, machines collectively become super-intelligent
6) [Editor's Note: this leaves only one other possible scenario: humans collectively become super-intelligent?]

Digital Gaia: Reality Wakes Up Currently Vernor Vinge sees rapid progress in scenario #5, the Digital Gaia scenario. A collective network of microprocessors is "extraordinarily powerful". Vinge also calls this possibility "ensemble intelligence". He compares it to animism in the sense that physical objects "wake up" and "have a spirit of their own". Further, he says, "reality becomes its own database and reality wakes up" and their could be types of "mind" that don't think like humans.

Technological Singularity Criticisms Nikola Danaylov asks, is the technological singularity nothing more than a new religion, wrapped in 21st century culture and terminology? The technological singularity can be viewed as the Apocalypse (end of the human world) and/or the Rapture (deliverance from the human world). Have Adam and Eve been replaced with a computer? Is the technological singularity the same as the hope of human religions to overcome this physical world and death? Are adherents of the technological singularity no different than fundamentalists in world religions?

Technological Singularity Indicators Vinge responds to the criticisms, "I'd be surprised if it doesn't happen by 2030" (37:55 in audio below). "The technological singularity is the most likely scenario for the relatively near future". However, the reason the singularity wouldn't occur would most likely be that "we couldn't put all the parts together". Conversely, he says one of the strongest arguments for the singularity is Moore's Law. Failures of large software projects and coordination would stop the progress. Therefore, Vinge watches for "progress and non-progress in software engineering". With regards to Moore's Law, does software development keep the same pace as hardware development? Basically Vinge says that while the hardware may grow exponentially, it appears software is only linear growth. Therefore software development, software engineering is a key indicator for the progress towards the technological singularity. This progress is driven by money and "anything humans are doing, especially of an economic nature" can achieve gains through computer processing. However, he does try to envision technology leveling off short of the singularity which would mean humans could not achieve further progress.

Surviving the Technological Singularity Nikola Danaylov asks, what are the odds humans survive the singularity? That is, what is the fate of humanity beyond the singularity event horizon? He notes Ray Kurzweil is sometimes criticized for being too optimistic about humanity's fate after the technological singularity. He adds that others he has asked give low to very low survival rates for humans (2%-25%). Vernor Vinge responds that first, long-term survival of humans (as in millions of years) is "very unlikely", based on the history of species that are living or have lived on Earth. "I think the human race is going to grow into something better". Assuming the technological singularity happens, he thinks it is "very unlikely" that the human race would become extinct. Vinge even thinks there would still be a place for Homo Sapiens 1.0, that is, current un-augmented humans, even though the presumed Homo Sapiens 2.0 would possibly result from the technological singularity. He thinks original humans would be maintained as a backup in case of disaster.

Vernor Vinge on Singularity 1 on 1: We Can Surpass the Wildest Dreams of Optimism Nikola Danaylov interviews futurist Vernor Vinge on a variety of subjects including the technological singularity.

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Technological Singularity: one scenario is that artificial, machine intelligence surpasses human, biological intelligence


About Vernor Vinge


Vernor Vinge is a retired San Diego State University professor of mathematics, a computer scientist, and an award-winning science fiction author. Vinge is a futurist who is known as the originator of the term "technological singularity" and his 1993 essay, "The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era" expounds on this concept. In the essay, he states, "Within thirty years we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended". He introduced the term "technological singularity" at an artificial intelligence conference at Carnegie-Mellon University in 1982 and later in a science fiction novel, "Marooned In Realtime" in 1986. Vinge has expanded on the themes of virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and the technological singularity in his books and describes himself as a science fiction writer.


About Nikola Danaylov


Nikola Danaylov is founder of the Singularity Weblog which aims to "spark a conversation about the impact of technology, exponential growth, and artificial intelligence." Danaylov goes by the pseudonym "Socrates" and the weblog was started as "a personal journal of Socrates' thoughts on trends, news, issues, films, and people related to the technological singularity".


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