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The Singularity is not what you think
George Dvorsky   May 14, 2008   Sentient Developments  

People often ask me for my definition of the technological Singularity.  More specifically, they want me to offer some predictions as to what it will actually look like and what it might mean to them and the human species.

More often than not they don’t like my answer, and it’s probably because I re-frame the discussion and take the conversation elsewhere.

What people are really asking me to do is predict the outcome of the Singularity. And because I don’t, they get frustrated with me.

But that’s the problem. That’s the whole point of this ‘thing’ we call the Singularity.

As has been noted elsewhere, virtually everyone has their own definition of the Singularity and it’s become a very polluted term, one that’s been stripped of all meaning.

So, before I tell you my own ‘definition’ of the Singularity, let me first tell you what it’s not.

It’s not any particular outcome or prognostication.

It’s not any kind of definable event or transformational process.

Nor is it a term that can be used to describe a futuristic state of existence or the nature of advanced artificial intelligence.

But it’s often used to describe these very things—as if the term can be used as a synonym for what are essentially predictions. When people talk about the Singularity they can’t help but inject their own anticipated outcome—be it positive or negative.

I can be guilty of this at times. But so I don’t get myself into too much futurological trouble I tend to refer to things as being in a state of post-Singularity. That’s my clever way of avoiding any in-depth discussion as to how we’ll actually get there.

Alright, so what’s the technological Singularity?

Simply put, it’s an unanswered question.

Vernor Vinge used the term Singularity for a very good reason. It’s an event horizon in the truest sense.

But instead of a cosmological event horizon caused by a black hole’s gravitational pull, it’s a social event horizon caused by our inability to extrapolate the trajectory of human civilization beyond a certain point of technological sophistication.

The Singularity, therefore, describes a futurological problem—a blind-spot in our predictive thinking.

That’s it. There’s no more to it than that.

Anything beyond this strict and limited definition is a discussion of something else—an attempt to solve the conundrum and make predictions about 1) the actual characteristics and manifestation of the Singularity and 2) its aftermath.

So, if I say that the Singularity will involve a hard takeoff of SAI, I’m actually presenting a hypothesis that attempts to retire the term ‘Singularity’ and see it replaced by the term, uh, SAI hard takeoff event (we’ll clearly have to come up with something better).

Or, if I say it will be a decades long process that sees humanity transition into a postbiological condition, I am likewise trying to put the term to rest.

Why does our predictive modeling break down?

Two reasons: 1) accelerating change and 2) the theoretic potential for the rise of recursively self-modifying artificial superintelligence.

Essentially, because disruptive change will be coming so fast and furiously, humanity’s future remains largely unpredicted; there are too many variables and wildcards. And the rise of SAI, given its potential to be thousands upon thousands of times more powerful than the human mind, is simply beyond our prognosticative sensibilities.

Sure, we can make wild-ass guesses. And maybe one or two of them may actually turn out to be correct. But we won’t know for sure until we get there.

Or at least until we get really close.

Consequently, the Singularity is a relativistic term.

People of the future won’t use the word. That’s a term reserved for us in our ignorance.

But as we get closer to the Singularity we will in all likelihood gain an increased appreciation of what will happen at the point when machine intelligence exceeds the capacity of humans.

And keeps on going.

At that point, once the fog that is the Singularity begins to lift, we will cease to call it the Singularity and replace it with a more descriptive term.

So, as we journey forward, what was once concealed over the horizon will finally be revealed.

In the meantime, just remember to frame the Singularity as a social event horizon, particularly as it pertains to accelerating change and the seemingly imminent rise of SAI.

George P. Dvorsky serves as Chair of the IEET Board of Directors and also heads our Rights of Non-Human Persons program. He is a Canadian futurist, science writer, and bioethicist. He is a contributing editor at io9 — where he writes about science, culture, and futurism — and producer of the Sentient Developments blog and podcast. He served for two terms at Humanity+ (formerly the World Transhumanist Association). George produces Sentient Developments blog and podcast.



COMMENTS

You blew the elegant definition when you said:

and 2) the theoretic potential for the rise of recursively self-modifying artificial superintelligence.

The singularity is based purely on the timeline and clusters of significant events coming progressively closer while growing progressively larger.

The principle was as valid 100 years or 1000 years ago as it is today. But 100 years ago, you would not be trying to cram AI into the definition.
If you want to argue for AI, you are backing a looser. The new memristor from IBM has reawakened the potential of neural networking. Which is capable of modeling the working of our brains. AI never could, it dosen’t even try.

Why not genetics too? Why not chemistry? Lets not forget nanotech?

No none of these define the singularity.

One thing I can tell you about the singularity which you obviously do not realize, we are going up from inside the singularity.
If you imagine it like a black hole. When we cross the event horizon. The rate of change will be like exploding out of the funnel of a black hole and into the universe. That is how rapid change will be.

Keep working on it!

I do not believe that technological singularity will ever come about in the way it is generally supposed.  Any technology will operate between finite perameters with limited stimuli.  Were it to approach exponential growth it would be undone by the very same process, (f(x) = x/1)  All truths reveal themselves as relative and ultimately false therefore intelligence is capped by a ceiling of enlightenment, (buddha) realising that everything is unreal defeats intelligent agendas across all spheres except those acknowledged as unreal, a double negative which delivers us truths that our reality may accomodate but cannot muster.

Another thought that recurs to me is the size of primate brains in relation to their social group, (BBC Bristol).  The smallest primates are solitary and as the brains size increases, it does so apparantly in direct proportion to the animals social group and field of awareness.  This perfect correlation breaks down at human.  In relation to our global awareness and social community, the human brain should be the size of a small car.  It follows then that giving up social awareness frees up a huge amount of processing power and thus constitutes a benefit to the species.  I think maybe autism is our evolution.

Savvants are clearly able to compute at incredible speeds and if the species splits as some predict, it will be savvants who are best able to interact with advanced technology, a further species benefit?

bodi 😊

All of this presupposes that there will be some event recognized as a singularity.  It’s a very interesting notion, however you may define it, but you all seem to be starting a religion here.  While it’s certainly proper to prepare for possible future scenarios, a scenario should never be confused with an inevitable certainty.  Perhaps a bit less dreaming about future singularities, and a more focus on the difficult present-day science that is the hurdle to arriving at that future?

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