The fourth leg: Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity


In 1908 Henry Ford dropped a bomb into modern life that would not be matched until almost a century later, when Steve Jobs would send the iPhone into a waiting world in 2007: the Model T. There had been smart phones before the iPhone, and there had been automobiles before the Model T, but these were the devices that would make the massively popular. We hardly think of the Model T as tech, much less high tech. The iPhone is an intimate mating of the hardware and software that we have come to expect in the devices we lump together as ‘tech’. The Model T was just about all hardware. The driver had to provide the software and much of the hardware as well.But cars are machines that have quickly become intelligent. First they got self-starters. Now they are self-driving.

Ray Kurzweil’s singularity is the ever more quickly approaching time when the intelligence of machines will match and then quickly surpass that of humans. He expects not only that this will be a very good thing, but that it will will be easily accepted. Not everyone is so optimistic as Kurzweil. Surprise.

Another use of the term singularity is to describe the horizon, the perimeter, around a black hole, beyond which everything is consumed and from which there is no escape. Physicists argue whether any information is preserved. What seems to come out is at best/most radiation.

What informs Kurzweil’s theory is that computing power has been increasing at an exponential rate for whatever period one chooses to measure it. Some object that there is not enough available energy to support the continued change Kurzweil predicts. But of course our ancestors who has only recently discovered fire and who for hundreds of thousands of years did their computations with mineral pigments on cave walls did not foresee the steam engine and its energy requirements.

I find that predicting the future is an inexact art at best, so I have very little opinion about the form some super intelligence might evolve into. (I also find the distinction between human or biological intelligence and machine intelligence to be a misunderstanding of what comprises intelligence. I suspect that intelligence is simply intelligence, whether it uses carbon and nitrogen or iron and rubber or silicon and gold for hardware.) What is not speculation about Kurzweil’s theory is the part that is not theorizing about the but obsering history. Change in the evolution of human society and just about everything else in the universe is exponential. The kicker in exponential change is that it can coast along unnoticed for years, then all of a sudden it’s huge. One of the earliest stores of the power of exponential change tells of the unfortunate  emperor who was so pleased with the game of chess that he told the man who brought it to him to name a reward. The man said his wishes were simple: one grain of rice for the first square of the chess board, two for the second, four for the third . . . There was not enough rice in the empire. In fact the would not be so much rice for centuries.

Is the any turning back from a singularity? This seems to be where the two concepts of singularity that I mentioned converge. The are obviously people who are very uncomfortable with the future, especially a future in which human beings are not the peak, the goal, of evolution. There are also some, Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking among them, who are concerned that some future firm of intelligence might not share ‘human values’. My response to them is World War One, the war intelligent humans fought to end war.

Still, I am cautiously optimistic. (At least I was until the United States showed the servere limits of both human intelligence and human values by electing Donald Trump.) Self-driving cars are already better drivers than are humans. I am hoping that wiser machine take out worst weapons out of our hands before we destroy ourselves. I am hoping no one blows up planet earth, our fragile island home, before some sort of intelligence with better values than we do often display takes the controls out of our hands.


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