As we enter 2016, we move a year closer to 2030, the year that renowned futurists and computer scientists believe strong artificial intelligence will overwhelm humanity. Let’s explore this possibility.
The term singularity in the context of technology first came into use more than half a century ago by Polish-American mathematician Stanisław Ulam in his 1958 obituary for John von Neumann. He described the notion as “ever accelerating the progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.”
Vernor Vinge later popularized the term, writing extensively on the subject and even predicting a timeframe for its plausible occurrence—just before 2030. Google’s Ray Kurzweil, one of the most celebrated futurists in recent years, and a leading proponent of singularity predicts it will occur around 2045.
The Chinese Chess Metaphor
Those who follow Singularity Hub’s publications and Ray Kurzweil’s Kurzweil Network know that he believes technological singularity will occur when exponential growth in information technology ultimately leads to an intelligence explosion. In one of his articles, he explains the idea of exponential growth by citing an ancient Chinese folktale.
According to the folklore, an inventor created the game of chess for the emperor of China. The game was so beloved by the emperor that he offered the inventor a reward. The inventor requested of his patron a single grain of rice for a single square on the chessboard, doubling the number of grains to two for the second square, doubling the number again to four for the third square and so on for each of the 64 squares on the game board.
The emperor sees this as a humble request and grants it but soon finds himself bankrupt. Ultimately, every square doubled in succession grows to over 18 million trillion grains of rice. At ten grains of rice per square inch, this would require rice fields covering twice the surface area of the Earth, oceans included.
The inventor’s seemingly modest reward effectively gave his wealth exponential growth. Could the same principle apply to information technology, leading to exponential growth in intelligence as Kurzweil predicted? In fact, the majority of his other predictions have proven accurate over the years.
Intelligence Explosion and Singularity
We already rely on computer systems and artificial intelligence in increasingly varied ways. The artificial intelligence that we currently use is called artificial narrow intelligence (ANI), capable of accomplishing only a very narrow range of specific tasks. In order to arrive at singularity, we will need to achieve the holy grail of AI, artificial general intelligence (AGI), which can function effectively in any scenario, much like human intelligence. If, or as its proponents claim, when we reach that tipping point, there will likely be an artificial intelligence explosion leading to superintelligence so superior that it would be unpredictable and incomprehensible to the human mind.
At that point, according to Kurzweil, we may have the choice to remain fully biological or extend and expand our lives by merging with our nonbiological counterpart. Doing so would allow us to upload our minds to a computer, enhance our intelligence, enhance our physical bodies and overcome death once and for all.
Immortality: Scientifically Plausible or Wishful Thinking?
Based on his law of accelerating returns, Kurzweil claimed that within ten years we will be adding more than a year to our lifespan every year. That was 15 years ago, but he continues to advocate this belief. “Your life expectancy was 20 a thousand years ago, it was 37 in 1800, it was 48 in 1900, pushing 80 today. I have an analysis that shows that within 15 years we’ll be adding more than a year, every year, to your remaining life expectancy, which is kind of the tipping point.”
Given that we haven’t actually added a year to our life expectancy since Kurzweil made those claims, the idea of immortality may sound a bit extreme, but perhaps medical advances can help humans elongate their lifespan. If so, what is the upper limit?
Professor Sir Colin Blakemore, a neurobiologist and former chief executive of the British Medical Research Council, said there is a ceiling on how long humans can live, and how much the body can age. And he stated that 120 years “might be a real absolute limit to human lifespan.”
However, there may be a way to circumvent biological limitations. If humans can upload their brains to the cloud by 2045 as Kurzweil predicts, we may achieve digital immortality. Kurzweil also believes that the biological parts of our body will be replaced with mechanical parts as early as 2100. Google Ventures’ Bill Maris thinks humans can live to 500 years old thanks to medical breakthroughs and a rise in biomechanics.
Could Singularity Really Occur?
Critics have described the idea of singularity as pseudoscience and its proponents as a “cult for middle-aged rich tech people out of Silicon Valley who do not want to die.” Steve Pinker, cognitive scientist, psychologist, linguist, and popular science author known for his advocacy of evolutionary psychology and the computational theory of mind asserted that “there is not the slightest reason to believe in a coming singularity.”
Imagine a world where humans are nonbiological entities that live forever and ever—the impact on human society. Perhaps we’re not quite ready to consider the full ramifications of such developments. Or perhaps we shouldn’t stress about it too much, because it will actually never be.