The technological singularity (also, simply, the singularity)[1][2] is the hypothesis that the invention of artificial superintelligence will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization.[3] According to this hypothesis, an upgradable intelligent agent (such as a computer running software-based artificial general intelligence) would enter a 'runaway reaction' of self-improvement cycles, with each new and more intelligent generation appearing more and more rapidly, causing an intelligence explosion and resulting in a powerful superintelligence that would, qualitatively, far surpass all human intelligence.[3][4] Science fiction author Vernor Vinge said in his essay The Coming Technological Singularity that this would signal the end of the human era, as the new superintelligence would continue to upgrade itself and would advance technologically at an incomprehensible rate.[5]

The first use of the term "singularity" in a technological context was made in 1958 by John von Neumann. In the same year, Stanislaw Ulam described "ever accelerating 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".[6] In the 1990s, Vinge popularized the concept, linking it to I. J. Good's "intelligence explosion", and predicting that a future superintelligence would trigger a singularity.[5]

Ray Kurzweil predicts the singularity to occur around 2045[7] whereas Vinge predicts some time before 2030.[5] At the 2012 Singularity Summit, Stuart Armstrong did a study of artificial general intelligence (AGI) predictions by experts and found a wide range of predicted dates, with a median value of 2040.[8]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Intelligence explosion

Main article: Intelligence explosion

I. J. Good speculated in 1965 that artificial general intelligence might bring about an intelligence explosion. Good's scenario runs as follows: as computers increase in power, it becomes possible for people to build a machine that is more intelligent than humanity; this superhuman intelligence possesses greater problem-solving and inventive skills than current humans are capable of. This superintelligent machine then designs an even more capable machine, or re-writes its own software to become even more intelligent; this (ever more capable) machine then goes on to design a machine of yet greater capability, and so on. These iterations of recursive self-improvement accelerate, allowing enormous qualitative change before any upper limits imposed by the laws of physics or theoretical computation set in.[9]

Emergence of superintelligence

Main article: Superintelligence

Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil define the concept in terms of the technological creation of superintelligence. They argue that it is difficult or impossible for present-day humans to predict what human beings' lives would be like in a post-singularity world.[7][5]

Non-AI singularity

Some writers use "the singularity" in a broader way to refer to any radical changes in our society brought about by new technologies such as molecular nanotechnology,[10][11][12] although Vinge and other writers specifically state that without superintelligence, such changes would not qualify as a true singularity.[5] Many writers also tie the singularity to observations of exponential growth in various technologies (with Moore's Law being the most prominent example), using such observations as a basis for predicting that the singularity is likely to happen sometime within the 21st century.[11][13]

Uncertainty and risk

Further information: Existential risk from artificial general intelligence

The term "technological singularity" reflects the idea that such change may happen suddenly, and that it is difficult to predict how the resulting new world would operate.[40][41] It is unclear whether an intelligence explosion of this kind would be beneficial or harmful, or even an existential threat,[42][43] as the issue has not been dealt with by most artificial general intelligence researchers, although the topic of friendly artificial intelligence is investigated by the Future of Humanity Institute and the Machine Intelligence Research Institute.[40]

Next step of sociobiological evolution

Further information: Sociocultural evolution

 

Schematic Timeline of Information and Replicators in the Biosphere: Gillings et al.'s "major evolutionary transitions" in information processing.[44]

 

Amount of digital information worldwide (5x10^21) versus human genome information worldwide (10^19) in 2014.[44]

While the technological singularity is usually seen as a sudden event, some scholars argue the current speed of change already fits this description. In addition, some argue that we are already in the midst of a major evolutionary transition that merges technology, biology, and society. Digital technology has infiltrated the fabric of human society to a degree of undisputable and often life-sustaining dependence. A 2016 article in Trends in Ecology & Evolution argues that "humans already embrace fusions of biology and technology. We spend most of our waking time communicating through digitally mediated channels... we trust artificial intelligence with our lives through antilock braking in cars and autopilots in planes... With one in three marriages in America beginning online, digital algorithms are also taking a role in human pair bonding and reproduction". The article argues that from the perspective of the evolution, several previous Major Transitions in Evolution have transformed life through innovations in information storage and replication (RNA, DNA, multicellularity, and culture and language). In the current stage of life's evolution, the carbon-based biosphere has generated a cognitive system (humans) capable of creating technology that will result in a comparable evolutionary transition. The digital information created by humans has reached a similar magnitude to biological information in the biosphere. Since the 1980s, "the quantity of digital information stored has doubled about every 2.5 years, reaching about 5 zettabytes in 2014 (5x10^21 bytes). In biological terms, there are 7.2 billion humans on the planet, each having a genome of 6.2 billion nucleotides. Since one byte can encode four nucleotide pairs, the individual genomes of every human on the planet could be encoded by approximately 1x10^19 bytes. The digital realm stored 500 times more information than this in 2014 (...see Figure)... The total amount of DNA contained in all of the cells on Earth is estimated to be about 5.3x10^37 base pairs, equivalent to 1.325x10^37 bytes of information. If growth in digital storage continues at its current rate of 30–38% compound annual growth per year,[20] it will rival the total information content contained in all of the DNA in all of the cells on Earth in about 110 years. This would represent a doubling of the amount of information stored in the biosphere across a total time period of just 150 years".[44]

Implications for human society

In February 2009, under the auspices of the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI), Eric Horvitz chaired a meeting of leading computer scientists, artificial intelligence researchers and roboticists at Asilomar in Pacific Grove, California. The goal was to discuss the potential impact of the hypothetical possibility that robots could become self-sufficient and able to make their own decisions. They discussed the extent to which computers and robots might be able to acquire autonomy, and to what degree they could use such abilities to pose threats or hazards.[45]

Some machines have acquired various forms of semi-autonomy, including the ability to locate their own power sources and choose targets to attack with weapons. Also, some computer viruses can evade elimination and, according to scientists in attendance, could therefore be said to have reached a "cockroach" stage of machine intelligence. The conference attendees noted that self-awareness as depicted in science-fiction is probably unlikely, but that other potential hazards and pitfalls exist.[45]

Some experts and academics have questioned the use of robots for military combat, especially when such robots are given some degree of autonomous functions.[46][improper synthesis?]

Immortality

In his 2005 book, The Singularity is Near, Kurzweil suggests that medical advances would allow people to protect their bodies from the effects of aging, making the life expectancy limitless. Kurzweil argues that the technological advances in medicine would allow us to continuously repair and replace defective components in our bodies, prolonging life to an undetermined age.[47] Kurzweil further buttresses his argument by discussing current bioengineering advances. Kurzweil suggests somatic gene therapy; after synthetic viruses with specific genetic information, the next step would be to apply this technology to gene therapy, replacing human DNA with synthesized genes.[48]

Religion

Jaron Lanier, writes, "The Singularity [involves] people dying in the flesh and being uploaded into a computer and remaining conscious".[49] Singularitarianism has also been likened to a religion by John Horgan.[50]

History of the concept

In his obituary for John von Neumann, Ulam recalled a conversation with von Neumann about the "ever accelerating 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."[6]

In 1965, Good wrote his essay postulating an "intelligence explosion" of recursive self-improvement of a machine intelligence. In 1985, in "The Time Scale of Artificial Intelligence", artificial intelligence researcher Ray Solomonoff articulated mathematically the related notion of what he called an "infinity point": if a research community of human-level self-improving AIs take four years to double their own speed, then two years, then one year and so on, their capabilities increase infinitely in finite time.[4][51]

In 1983, Vinge greatly popularized Good's intelligence explosion in a number of writings, first addressing the topic in print in the January 1983 issue of Omni magazine. In this op-ed piece, Vinge seems to have been the first to use the term "singularity" in a way that was specifically tied to the creation of intelligent machines:[52][53] writing

We will soon create intelligences greater than our own. When this happens, human history will have reached a kind of singularity, an intellectual transition as impenetrable as the knotted space-time at the center of a black hole, and the world will pass far beyond our understanding. This singularity, I believe, already haunts a number of science-fiction writers. It makes realistic extrapolation to an interstellar future impossible. To write a story set more than a century hence, one needs a nuclear war in between ... so that the world remains intelligible.

Vinge's 1993 article "The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era",[5] spread widely on the internet and helped to popularize the idea.[54] This article contains the statement, "Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended." Vinge argues that science-fiction authors cannot write realistic post-singularity characters who surpass the human intellect, as the thoughts of such an intellect would be beyond the ability of humans to express.[5]

In 2000, Bill Joy, a prominent technologist and a co-founder of Sun Microsystems, voiced concern over the potential dangers of the singularity.[25]

In 2005, Kurzweil published The Singularity is Near. Kurzweil's publicity campaign included an appearance on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart.[55]

In 2007, Eliezer Yudkowsky suggested that many of the varied definitions that have been assigned to "singularity" are mutually incompatible rather than mutually supporting.[11][56] For example, Kurzweil extrapolates current technological trajectories past the arrival of self-improving AI or superhuman intelligence, which Yudkowsky argues represents a tension with both I. J. Good's proposed discontinuous upswing in intelligence and Vinge's thesis on unpredictability.[11]

In 2009, Kurzweil and X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis announced the establishment of Singularity University, a nonaccredited private institute whose stated mission is "to educate, inspire and empower leaders to apply exponential technologies to address humanity's grand challenges."[57] Funded by Google, Autodesk, ePlanet Ventures, and a group of technology industry leaders, Singularity University is based at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. The not-for-profit organization runs an annual ten-week graduate program during the northern-hemisphere summer that covers ten different technology and allied tracks, and a series of executive programs throughout the year.

In popular culture

See also: Artificial intelligence in fiction

The singularity is referenced in innumerable science-fiction works. In Greg Bear's sci-fi novel Blood Music (1983), a singularity occurs in a matter of hours.[5] David Brin's Lungfish (1987) proposes that AI be given humanoid bodies and raised as our children and taught the same way we were.[58] In William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer, artificial intelligences capable of improving their own programs are strictly regulated by special "Turing police" to ensure they never exceed a certain level of intelligence, and the plot centers on the efforts of one such AI to circumvent their control.[58][59] In Greg Benford's 1998 Me/Days, it is legally required that an AI's memory be erased after every job.[58]

The entire plot of Wally Pfister's Transcendence centers on an unfolding singularity scenario.[60] The 2013 science fiction film Her follows a man's romantic relationship with a highly intelligent AI, who eventually learns how to improve herself and creates an intelligence explosion. The 1982 film Blade Runner, and the 2015 film Ex Machina, are two mildly dystopian visions about the impact of artificial general intelligence. Unlike Blade Runner, Her and Ex Machina both attempt to present "plausible" near-future scenarios that are intended to strike the audience as "not just possible, but highly probable".[61]

See also

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