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Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies

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The Singularity: what to expect when machines get smarter than us

Dick Pelletier

Ethical Technology

December 25, 2012

What can we expect when machines surpass humans in intelligence; a point in time that futurists predict could become reality by 2045. Though it’s impossible to forecast this far in advance with 100% accuracy, by combining predicted technology breakthroughs with present-day knowledge, we can make plausible guesses about how tomorrow’s super-intelligent machines might affect our lives.

The concept for the Singularity goes something like this: as computers become faster with increased memory capabilities, they will eventually develop intelligence comparable to humans. These machines will not only defeat us in chess and games like Jeopardy, but will also drive cars, write books and replace humans in customer service; and one day, they may even emulate consciousness. 5-min video explains.

With today's manufacturers adding more speed and memory into computers each year, by 2030, these silicon creations will become efficient enough to build their own new models, increasing intelligence with each succeeding generation. This will evolve into what many describe as an intelligence explosion.

These machines could then keep on developing until they surpass human levels of intelligence, a phase many predict will happen by 2045. This event will also speed other technology breakthroughs; in fact, the future may advance quicker than biological brains can understand. This defines the Singularity: "A point in time when artificial intelligence drives technologies forward faster than we can comprehend."

Some worry that it may be impossible to predict the behavior of these future super-intelligent machines. Will they be dangerous and want to take over our world; or will they be eager to help solve problems that have forever plagued society, such as crime, violence, wars, disease, and unequal distribution of wealth.

 J. Storrs Hall, in his book Beyond AI, believes that as computer/robots advance, technologies will allow us to strengthen our brains with non-biological materials and interface with these creations to share their intelligence. In this way, we will always remain smarter than our machines, and will not need to fear them.

Other forward thinkers predict that in the coming decades, we will merge with our silicon cousins. Robotics expert Rodney Brooks envisions a time when tomorrow's machines will become more human-like. And humans, by swapping their biology for non-biological parts to acquire conveniences such as automatic self-repair when damaged, will develop stronger bodies and become more machine-like.

This trend will enable society to view the merger of humans with their machines, as simply the next natural phase of evolution. Though the idea may seem extreme, most experts believe this is our future.

I am simply amazed at how fast the world is changing. Just thinking about how technologies have progressed during my 82-year lifetime is overwhelming. Jet travel did not exist when I grew up in the 1930s; a five-day ocean trip was the main way to go from America to Europe, and 'wireless' meant the wood-paneled Zenith radio in the living room. TV arrived in 1950, providing moving pictures in our home.

In other advances, humans have walked on the moon, created the Internet, mapped the genome, and outfitted half the world with net-connected wireless phones, which has empowered common citizens to overthrow unwelcome dictators, as is happening in Syria and other mid-eastern countries today.

As we move closer to the Singularity, other breakthroughs will appear. Experts predict that over the next three decades, research in stem cells, genetic engineering, human-like robots, and nano-replicators that provide household essentials at little or no cost; will make life more pleasurable for all of us.

A positive post-Singularity world could include affordable healthcare, providing most world citizens with indefinite lifespans, and a global economy strong enough to erase today's gap between the rich and poor.

And here's the best part; most people alive today have an excellent chance to benefit from these miracles. Futurist Ray Kurzweil in his book Fantastic Voyage, Live Long Enough to Live Forever, says that advances in stem cells, genetics, and nanomedicine expected during the next couple of decades, could stave off deadly diseases; bridging many of us into this high-tech wonderworld of tomorrow.

Dick Pelletier was a weekly columnist who wrote about future science and technologies for numerous publications. He passed away on July 22, 2014.


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