Just because something sounds ludicrous doesn’t inherently make it incorrect. The potential health benefits of standing on your head for five minutes a day might very well save your life. While you skeptically raise an eyebrow, I’ll be stimulating my pineal gland. Simply accepting the truth can sometimes be our biggest obstacle. The technological singularity sounds ludicrous, but that certainly isn’t an excuse to ignore it.
I was tasked with responding to a TED talk of my choice for a class that I’m taking. Ray Kurzweil’s 22-minute lecture on the exponential growth of technology stood out to me. Kurzweil is a full fledged futurist, complete with the attitude that he’s wasting his time talking to mere mortals. His main point is quite straightforward: technology has been, current is, and will definitely continue to advance at an exponential rate. That is, the sum of human knowledge continues to build upon itself, and the annual growth of it can be measured as a fraction of the previous year’s metric.
Okay cool. We’ve all heard of Moore’s Law, right? This shouldn’t be too radical of a concept to deal with. Ray argues that this is just one very specific example of the non-linear trends that are transforming our world. The size of the internet measured by hosts, the cost of sequencing genes, the efficiency of solar panels, and the capacity of harddrives all follow this model. While each of these commodities aren’t necessarily advancing at the same rate, they can be linearized by taking the logarithm of the Y-axis nonetheless.
Taking a step back reveals a more discrete picture of design paradigms. The number of transistors in a processor that Moore’s law has been acurately predicting is just one instance of a larger reality. This observation was preceded by vacuum tubes, and when they could no longer keep up with this model, a new paradigm was ready and waiting. Frighteningly, there seems to be a good chance that each new paradigm increases this rate of growth even further. Transistors in modern integrated circuits will reach the size of individual atoms soon enough, and a new approach will be needed. Say hello to the world’s first stacked 3D processor.
What does all this imply?
Kurzweil’s lecture is already somewhat dated, so we get to cheat a little. He says that by 2010, computers will disappear. They did. The iPhone 4 is 90% battery. Reebok just announced that they are partnering with flexible computing hardware manufacturers to create a line of smart-clothes that monitor your vitals. He predicted this as well. Keep in mind how far ahead R&D is from consumer products. It trickles down over time. Don’t pretend that you know what we are currently capable of; you wouldn’t have found yourself at SuperProfundo if you did.
The 2020s should be an interesting decade if things continue. Nanomachines will give us superhuman abilities, delivering oxygen to our cells at a much improved rate. They will cure our diseases and allow us to enter a virtual world entirely. We will be able to share our sensory experiences over the internet, and have immediate access to all human intelligence stored in such a way that it can interface directly with our brain. I’d recommend watching his lecture for the full effect. Is “The Matrix” really only a few years away?
Kevin Kelly (founding executive editor of Wired magazine) tries to sand down the sensationalism, arguing that regardless of the time period, it always looks like a singularity is upon us. I feel like this is more of a play on phrasing than anything else. The term is borrowed from physics, referencing the unknowable aftermath of matter entering a black hole. We can have no idea what lies beyond an event horizon.
I came to a similar conclusion. The farther ahead of us we look, the cloudier it becomes. There will always be a point when visibility drops to zero, and since we are a moving target, so is that point. As new discoveries are made, what was once unknowable can now be theorized. Kevin uses that to justify Ray’s predictions not being valid. Perhaps. If what lies beyond the singularity is invisible, by definition, I suppose it seems a bit foolish to be making any kind of claims.
I fail to see why this specifically doesn’t permit Kurzweil’s predictions from being possible, however. An unknowable future doesn’t mean great things aren’t coming, it simply means they are beyond theory right now. That still sounds pretty cool to me. Keep in mind that impossible things have already happened. As Louis C.K. hilariously puts it, we partake in the miracle of flight without appreciating it every day. I have a device in my pocket that can literally call China in 2 seconds. It can also show my position on the globe within several feet. We landed on the fucking moon.
Try convincing a peasant from the middle ages, who passes the time by publicly whipping himself to apologize to God for causing the bubonic plague, that these things aren’t impossible. The singularity to him would have stopped long before the FM Radio.
So while it seems that this technologically deterministic singularity will always be just a tad out of reach, it’s honestly just a useful metaphor anyway. It represents the idea that unpredictable things over time will become predictable. We can only see a few miles ahead of us, but once we get there, we’ll be able to see a few more.
Think I’m retarded? I’m all ears.