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Chapter 2 ~ Singularity

TECHNOLOGICAL singularity is what visionaries are calling a hypothetical time in the future when machines will outstrip human capabilities intellectually, such that mental ability is no longer limited by traditional human capabilities and in combination with artificial or computer intelligence begins to expand exponentially.

The word singularity was originally ascribed to that part of a black hole in space where matter is so dense and heavy that its own force of gravity has caused it to collapse down to an infinitely small point.

Such a cosmic singularity is surrounded by a boundary in the shape of a spherical shell, called the event horizon. Though not as intense as at the singularity, gravity is strong enough at the event horizon that once it is entered nothing can escape— not even light. Once you cross into it you can’t leave it.

The technological singularity is expected to occur when machines become smart enough to build smarter machines, and those to build smarter still, and so forth. Once that begins, change will be so fast and unpredictable that there will exist in effect a technological event horizon beyond which the future can’t be seen.

Whereas in astrophysics the cause of an event horizon is an object called a singularity, the cause of the event horizon in our future is a process called the singularity. Guesses for when it might occur range from as early as 2060 to as late at 2140.

It won’t be one particular moment in time, nor likely one particular year in time. It will build gradually, as a crescendo. In one sense it has already started— we use computer technology to build better computer technology. Yet no present machine is known to possess anything remotely like either real human consciousness or emotion.

However neither consciousness or emotion as we know it may necessarily be required for the technological singularity, only a machine’s drive— conscious or unconscious, emotional or unemotional— to improve itself and/or build better machines, as well as the capability and the freedom, whether human-bestowed or not, to do so.

It may be easier than imagined to see beyond the technological event horizon. Ultimately there are only two possible outcomes— machines will operate as in the past to benefit humanity foremost, or to benefit themselves regardless of the effect on humanity. Since the latter would be a disaster in the making, the former is what deserves our attention.

In such a world— machine power increasing exponentially in human service— we should all live like royalty compared with the living conditions of the average person today, just as the machines we have now enable the person of today to live like royalty compared with the way the average person lived two or three hundred years ago.

With today’s technology individuals and societies can do things unimaginable, or at least seemingly-impossible, to individuals and societies centuries ago— watch television, travel into space, surf the Internet, etc.

Similarly with tomorrow’s technology individuals and societies should be able to do things unimaginable, or at least seemingly-impossible, to us— things we want and perhaps can’t do now (at least not economically) but maybe in the future.

Thus a strategy for seeing beyond the technological event horizon.

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© 2010 Warren Farr — revised 6/22