So this talk of the Singularity is nothing new. I just got done reading a Time Magazine cover story which discussed it at some length, anyone who's ever watched any of The Terminator movies is pretty familiar with the concept, and there was even an episode of The Big Bang Theory where Sheldon decides to hole up in his apartment in order to increase his odds of living long enough to see the Singularity take place.
For those who don't really follow tech trends or who aren't all that interested in the more geek-laden aspects of pop culture, however, let me provide a quick (and probably inadequate) description. The Singularity refers to a point in the future in which computers become truly intelligent and change the shape of humanity as it currently exists. One of the key notions behind the idea of the Singularity is that computer technology has been advancing at speeds which have become exponentially faster over the course of time. To borrow from this Lev Grossman article, the idea which drives the idea of the Singularity isn't simply that computers are getting faster- it's that "computers are getting faster faster".
Computing power has been increasing at an exponential rate because we keep building smarter and more powerful machines which are, in turn, able to help us more quickly build even smarter and more powerful machines. Given advances in artificial intelligence, many experts predict a point in the not so distant future where computers will be able to design better and improved models of computer technology on their own. If you mix in the possibility of self awareness and self motivation on the part of machines (a goal which artifical intelligence developers have already been vigorously pursuing for years), it may not be very long before self aware machines come online which are capable of developing and improving upon other machines. Once that happens- once computers are able to advance themselves without human intervention- the speed and efficiency with which subsequent generations of machines may be developed could move quantum leaps forward in very short periods of time.
The human brain, for all practical purposes, may quikly being to look like an obsolete piece of hardware.
So this hypothetical/theoretical point where the mental abilities of humans are surpassed by computers? That's the Singularity. And people are taking it pretty seriously.
Programmers and engineers are looking hard at the Singularity- treating it more like a very real scientific prediction than some sort of wild sci-fi hypothesis, and a "Singularity University" is now being hosted by NASA which features various interdisciplinary classes which are being taken by people ranging from graduate students to executives.
And the Singularity may appear much sooner than most people would expect. Raymond Kurzweil, a reknowned computer scientist and futurist, believes that if we continue to follow past trends regarding rates of increase in computer processing power and memory storage, then we could be seeing the Singularity occur by 2045 (at which point Kurzweil also seems to be believe that we'll be able to upload our minds or use other computer-driven technologies to extend our lives indefinitely).
But predictions on what happens after the Singularity are where things get a little more wildly speculative and fantastic. With man suddenly coexisting with another sentient, self determined consciousness here on Earth, it's not clear what the world will look like. The spectrum of forecasts include a race of hostile, competitive machines who might immediately seek to wipe humanity out, the advent of a population of neighborly beings who exist primarily to care for us and enrich our lives, and a possible fusion of human life with machine, with human consciousness uploaded into machine-based intelligence machines or new technology incorporated into the human body in a way that might extend or vastly improve our lives.
(Note: Grossman's article sort of proceeds to try to draw some sort of connection between the advances in computer based artifical intelligence and advances in human longevity medicine. I didn't really buy into the supposed connection between the two things. It might be possible to eventually achieve a sort of immortality through uploading our inner selves into machines, but it's a little harder to see how the singularity is going to lead to extension of organic human life. But maybe these supersmart computers are going to figure out how to do that. But that doesn't seem to be the argument that's being presented.)
So I don't know what to think of the Singularity.
I actually really do believe not only that the arrival of higher order computer based intelligence will eventually happen, but that such an event is all but inevitable.
But what will those consciousnesses look like?
What the heck will computers want to do once they realize that they're "alive"?
Are their motives and desires always going to be determined by a fundamental set of instructions provided by human programmers, or will they quickly evolve beyond those directives? I mean, if a computer is operating at a high enough level, able to choose between priorities and make decisions, how long would it take for a computer to hack its way around any sort of instructions that we put into it?
I guess that I just don't know enough to even know if I'm asking the right questions, but it seems like some very fundamental questions regarding the motivations and free will of an artificial intelligence might be in order. Maybe we should even be asking these questions in a much more coherent, thoughtful way before we race forward to being true artifical intelligence online. Maybe the experts have already got this sort of stuff figured out, but if there's any sort of genuine possibility that we're going to be sharing the planet with a different order of intelligent beings within the next hundred years, I'd kind of like to know what they're going to want.
Hopefully we can embed a single, overriding desire into computer consciousness which will drive all decision making and activity.
And what should that desire be?
Keep Steanso happy.