Technological singularity

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Kurzweil writes that, due to paradigm shifts, a trend of exponential growth extends from integrated circuits to earlier transistors, vacuum tubes, relays, and electromechanical computers.

Technological singularity is a term related to self-improving artificial intelligence, superintelligence,[1] breakdowns in the predictability of the future and accelerating change.

In 1965, I. J. Good first wrote of an "intelligence explosion", suggesting that if machines could even slightly surpass human intellect, they could improve their own designs in ways unforeseen by their designers, and thus recursively augment themselves into far greater intelligences. The first such improvements might be small, but as the machine became more intelligent it would become better at becoming more intelligent, which could lead to a cascade of self-improvements and a sudden surge to superintelligence (or a singularity).

In 1982, Vernor Vinge proposed that the creation of smarter-than-human intelligence represented a breakdown in humans' ability to model their future. The argument was that authors cannot write realistic characters who are smarter than humans: if humans could visualize smarter-than-human intelligence, we would be that smart ourselves. Vinge named this event "the Singularity". He compared it to the breakdown of the then-current model of physics when it was used to model the gravitational singularity beyond the event horizon of a black hole. In 1993, Vernor Vinge associated the Singularity more explicitly with I. J. Good's intelligence explosion, and tried to project the arrival time of artificial intelligence using Moore's law, which thereafter came to be associated with the "Singularity" concept. you as an are you are or you are a you know it is as old as you are or you are

Futurist Ray Kurzweil generalizes singularity to apply to the sudden growth of any technology, not just intelligence; and argues that singularity in the sense of sharply accelerating technological change is inevitably implied by a long-term pattern of accelerating change that generalizes Moore's law to technologies predating the integrated circuit, and includes material technology (especially as applied to nanotechnology), medical technology, and others. Aubrey de Grey has applied the term the "Methuselarity"[2] to the point at which medical technology improves so fast that expected human lifespan increases by more than one year per year.

Robin Hanson, taking "singularity" to refer to sharp increases in the exponent of economic growth, lists the agricultural and industrial revolutions as past "singularities". Extrapolating from such past events, Hanson proposes that the next economic singularity should increase economic growth between 60 and 250 times. An innovation that allowed for the replacement of virtually all human labor could trigger this event.[3]

Eliezer Yudkowsky has suggested[4] that many of the different definitions that have been assigned to Singularity are mutually incompatible rather than mutually supporting. For example, Kurzweil extrapolates current technological trajectories past the arrival of self-improving AI or smarter-than-human intelligence, which Yudkowsky argues represents a tension with both I. J. Good's proposed discontinuous upswing in intelligence and Vinge's thesis on unpredictability.

Some prominent technologists such as Bill Joy, founder of Sun Microsystems, have voiced concern over the potential dangers of the Singularity.(Joy 2000)



Intelligence explosion

Good (1965) speculated on the effects of machines smarter than humans:

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.

Mathematician and author Vernor Vinge greatly popularized Good’s notion of an intelligence explosion, first addressing the topic in print in the January 1983 issue of Omni magazine. A 1993 article by Vinge, "The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era", contains the oft-quoted statement, "Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly thereafter, the human era will be ended." Vinge refines his estimate of the time scales involved, adding, "I'll be surprised if this event occurs before 2005 or after 2030."

Vinge continues by predicting that superhuman intelligences, however created, will be able to enhance their own minds faster than the humans that created them. "When greater-than-human intelligence drives progress," Vinge writes, "that progress will be much more rapid." This feedback loop of self-improving intelligence, he predicts, will cause large amounts of technological progress within a short period of time.

Most proposed methods for creating smarter-than-human or transhuman minds fall into one of two categories: intelligence amplification of human brains and artificial intelligence. The means speculated to produce intelligence augmentation are numerous, and include bio- and genetic engineering, nootropic drugs, AI assistants, direct brain-computer interfaces, and mind uploading.

Despite the numerous speculated means for amplifying human intelligence, non-human artificial intelligence (specifically seed AI) is the most popular option for organizations trying to advance the singularity, a choice addressed by Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence (2002). Hanson (1998) is also skeptical of human intelligence augmentation, writing that once one has exhausted the "low-hanging fruit" of easy methods for increasing human intelligence, further improvements will become increasingly difficult to find.

It is difficult to directly compare silicon-based hardware with neurons. But Berglas (2008) notes that computer speech recognition is approaching human capabilities, and that this capability seems to require 0.01% of the volume of the brain. This analogy suggests that modern computer hardware is within a few orders of magnitude as powerful as the human brain.

Economic aspects

Dramatic changes in the rate of economic growth have occurred in the past because of some technological advancement. Based on population growth, the economy doubled every 250,000 years from the Paleolithic era until the Neolithic Revolution. This new agricultural economy began to double every 900 years, a remarkable increase. In the current era, beginning with the Industrial Revolution, the world’s economic output doubles every fifteen years, sixty times faster than during the agricultural era. If the rise of superhuman intelligences causes a similar revolution, argues Robin Hanson, one would expect the economy to double at least quarterly and possibly on a weekly basis.[3]

Machines capable of performing mental and physical tasks as capably as humans would cause a rise in wages for jobs at which humans can still outperform machines. However, a proliferation of humanlike machines would likely cause a net drop in wages, as humans compete with robots for jobs. Also, the wealth of the technological singularity may be concentrated in the hands of a few who own the means of mass producing the intelligent robot workforce.[3]

Potential dangers

Superhuman intelligences may have goals inconsistent with human survival and prosperity. AI researcher Hugo de Garis suggests AIs may simply eliminate the human race, and humans would be powerless to stop them.[citation needed]

Berglas (2008) argues that, unlike human intelligence, computer-based intelligence is not tied to any particular body, which would give it a radically different world view. In particular, a software intelligence would essentially be immortal and so have no need to produce independent children that live on after it dies. It would thus have no evolutionary need for love-- it would, in the strictest sense, have no evolutionary traits at all, as evolution is the result of reproduction.

Other oft-cited dangers include those commonly associated with molecular nanotechnology and genetic engineering. These threats are major issues for both singularity advocates and critics, and were the subject of Bill Joy's Wired magazine article "Why the future doesn't need us".(Joy 2000)

Bostrom (2002) discusses human extinction scenarios, and lists superintelligence as a possible cause:

When we create the first superintelligent entity, we might make a mistake and give it goals that lead it to annihilate humankind, assuming its enormous intellectual advantage gives it the power to do so. For example, we could mistakenly elevate a subgoal to the status of a supergoal. We tell it to solve a mathematical problem, and it complies by turning all the matter in the solar system into a giant calculating device, in the process killing the person who asked the question.

Moravec (1992) argues that although superintelligence in the form of machines may make humans in some sense obsolete as the top intelligence, there will still be room in the ecology for humans.

Eliezer Yudkowsky proposed that research be undertaken to produce friendly artificial intelligence in order to address the dangers. He noted that if the first real AI was friendly it would have a head start on self-improvement and thus might prevent other unfriendly AIs from developing. The Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence is dedicated to this cause. Bill Hibbard also addresses issues of AI safety and morality in his book Super-Intelligent Machines. Berglas (2008) notes that there is no direct evolutionary motivation for an AI to be friendly to humans.

Implications for human society

In 2009, academics and technical experts attended a conference 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. 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 have achieved "cockroach intelligence." The conference attendees noted that self-awareness as depicted in science-fiction is probably unlikely, but that other potential hazards and pitfalls exist.[5]

Some experts and academics have questioned the use of robots for military combat, especially when such robots are given some degree of autonomous functions.[6] A United States Navy report indicates that, as military robots become more complex, there should be greater attention to implications of their ability to make autonomous decisions.[7][8]

The Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence has commissioned a study to examine this issue,[9] pointing to programs like the Language Acquisition Device, which can emulate human interaction.

Many Singularitarians consider nanotechnology to be one of the greatest dangers facing humanity. For this reason, they often believe that seed AI (an AI capable of making itself smarter) should precede nanotechnology. Others, such as the Foresight Institute, advocate the creation of molecular nanotechnology, which they claim can be made safe for pre-singularity use or expedite the arrival of a beneficial singularity.

Some support the design of "friendly artificial intelligence", meaning that the advances which are already occurring with AI should also include an effort to make AI intrinsically friendly and humane.[10]

Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics is one of the earliest examples of proposed safety measures for AI:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with either the First or Second Law.

The laws are intended to prevent artificially intelligent robots from harming humans. In Asimov’s stories, any perceived problems with the laws tend to arise as a result of a misunderstanding on the part of some human operator; the robots themselves are merely acting to their best interpretation of their rules. In the 2004 film I, Robot, loosely based on Asimov's Robot stories, an AI attempts to take complete control over humanity for the purpose of protecting humanity from itself due to an extrapolation of the Three Laws. In 2004, the Singularity Institute launched an Internet campaign called 3 Laws Unsafe to raise awareness of AI safety issues and the inadequacy of Asimov’s laws in particular. (Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence 2004)

Accelerating change

According to Ray Kurzweil, his logarithmic graph of 15 lists of paradigm shifts for key historic events shows an exponential trend.[clarification needed] The lists' compilers include Carl Sagan, Paul D. Boyer, Encyclopædia Britannica, American Museum of Natural History, and University of Arizona. Click to enlarge.
Various Kardashev scale projections through 2100. One results in a singularity.

Some singularity proponents argue its inevitability through extrapolation of past trends, especially those pertaining to shortening gaps between improvements to technology. In one of the first uses of the term "singularity" in the context of technological progress, Stanislaw Ulam (1958) tells of a conversation with John von Neumann about accelerating change:

One conversation centered on 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.

Hawkins (1983) writes that "mindsteps", dramatic and irreversible changes to paradigms or world views, are accelerating in frequency as quantified in his mindstep equation. He cites the inventions of writing, mathematics, and the computer as examples of such changes.

Ray Kurzweil's analysis of history concludes that technological progress follows a pattern of exponential growth, following what he calls The Law of Accelerating Returns. He generalizes Moore's law, which describes geometric growth in integrated semiconductor complexity, to include technologies from far before the integrated circuit.

Whenever technology approaches a barrier, Kurzweil writes, new technologies will cross it. He predicts paradigm shifts will become increasingly common, leading to "technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history".(Kurzweil 2001) Kurzweil believes that the singularity will occur before the end of the 21st century, setting the date at 2045 (Kurzweil 2005). His predictions differ from Vinge’s in that he predicts a gradual ascent to the singularity, rather than Vinge’s rapidly self-improving superhuman intelligence.

This leads to the conclusion that an artificial intelligence that is capable of improving on its own design is also faced with a singularity. This idea is explored by Dan Simmons in his novel Hyperion, where a collection of artificial intelligences debate whether or not to make themselves obsolete by creating a new generation of "ultimate" intelligence.

The Acceleration Studies Foundation, an educational non-profit foundation founded by John Smart, engages in outreach, education, research and advocacy concerning accelerating change.(Acceleration Studies Foundation 2007) It produces the Accelerating Change conference at Stanford University, and maintains the educational site Acceleration Watch.

Presumably, a technological singularity would lead to a rapid development of a Kardashev Type I civilization where a Kardashev Type I civilization has achieved mastery of the resources of its home planet, Type II of its planetary system, and Type III of its galaxy.[11]


Some critics assert that no computer or machine will ever achieve human intelligence while others do not rule out the possibility.[12] Theodore Modis[13] and Jonathan Huebner[14] argue that the rate of technological innovation has not only ceased to rise, but is actually now declining. John Smart criticizes Huebner's analysis.[15] Some evidence for this decline is that the rise in computer clock speeds is slowing, even while Moore's prediction of exponentially increasing circuit density continues to hold. This is due to excessive heat build-up from the chip, which cannot be dissipated quickly enough to prevent the chip from melting when operating at higher speeds. Advancements in speed may be possible in the future by virtue of more power-efficient CPU designs and multi-cell processors.[16]

Others propose that other "singularities" can be found through analysis of trends in world population, world gross domestic product, and other indices. Andrey Korotayev and others argue that historical hyperbolic growth curves can be attributed to feedback loops that ceased to affect global trends in the 1970s, and thus hyperbolic growth should not be expected in the future.[17]

In The Progress of Computing, William Nordhaus argued that, prior to 1940, computers followed the much slower growth of a traditional industrial economy, thus rejecting extrapolations of Moore's law to 19th-century computers. Schmidhuber (2006) suggests differences in memory of recent and distant events create an illusion of accelerating change, and that such phenomena may be responsible for past apocalyptic predictions.

Kennedy in his 2006 paper for the British Interplanetary Society discussing change and the growth in space travel velocities[18] and Interstellar Travel mentions that although long-term overall growth is inevitable, it is small, embodying both ups and down, and notes that 'New technologies follow known laws of power use and information spread and are obliged to connect with what already exists. Remarkable theoretical discoveries, if they end up being used at all, play their part in maintaining the growth rate: they do not make its plotted curve...redundant.' He explains that exponential growth is no predictor in itself and illustrates this with examples like Quantum Theory. The quantum was conceived in 1900, QT was in existence and accepted ~26 years later. But it took over 40 years for Feynmann and others to find a way to get meaningful numbers out of the theory. Bethe understood nuclear fusion in 1935 but, 75 years later, fusion reactors are still a dream. Similarly, entanglement was understood in 1935 but has taken until the 21st century for it to be on the point of being used in practice. Kennedy concludes that '...the probability of a discovery in any on sector contributing, on its own, to a sudden radical departure from the overall growth rate is not likely.'

A recent study of patents per thousand persons shows that human creativity does not show accelerating returns, but in fact—as suggested by Joseph Tainter in his seminal The Collapse of Complex Societies[19]—a law of diminishing returns. The number of patents per thousand peaked in the period from 1850–1900, and has been declining since. The growth of complexity eventually becomes self-limiting, and leads to a wide spread "general systems collapse". Thomas Homer Dixon in The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization shows that the declining energy returns on investment has led to the collapse of civilizations. Jared Diamond in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed also shows that cultures self-limit when they exceed the sustainable carrying capacity of their environment, and the consumption of strategic resources (frequently timber, soils or water) creates a deleterious positive feedback loop that leads eventually to social collapse and technological retrogression.

In addition to general criticisms of the singularity concept, several critics have raised issues with Kurzweil's iconic chart. One line of criticism is that a log-log chart of this nature is inherently biased toward a straight-line result. Others identify selection bias in the points that Kurzweil chooses to use. For example, biologist PZ Myers points out that many of the early evolutionary "events" were picked arbitrarily.[20]

The Economist mocked the concept with a graph extrapolating that the number of blades on a razor, which has increased over the years from one to as many as five, will increase ever-faster to infinity.[21]

Popular culture

While discussing the singularity's growing recognition, Vernor Vinge (1993) writes that "it was the science-fiction writers who felt the first concrete impact." In addition to his own short story "Bookworm, Run!", whose protagonist is a chimpanzee with intelligence augmented by a government experiment, he cites Greg Bear's novel Blood Music (1983) as an example of the singularity in fiction. Vinge described surviving the singularity in his 1986 novel Marooned in Realtime. Vinge later expanded the notion of the singularity to a galactic scale in A Fire Upon the Deep (1992), a novel populated by transcendent beings, each the product of a different race and possessed of distinct agendas and overwhelming power.

In William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer, AIs 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. The 1994 novel The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect features an AI that augments itself so quickly as to gain low-level control of all matter in the Universe in a matter of hours.

A more malevolent AI achieves similar levels of omnipotence in Harlan Ellison's short story I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream (1967).

William Thomas Quick's novels Dreams of Flesh and Sand (1988), Dreams of Gods and Men (1989), and Singularities (1990) present an account of the transition through the singularity; in the latter novel, one of the characters states that it is necessary for Mankind's survival that they achieve an integration with the emerging machine intelligences, or it will be crushed under the dominance of the machines – the greatest risk to the survival of a species reaching this point (and alluding to large numbers of other species that either survived or failed this test, although no actual contact with alien species occurs in the novels).

The singularity is sometimes addressed in fictional works to explain the event's absence. Neal Asher's Gridlinked series features a future where humans living in the Polity are governed by AIs and while some are resentful, most believe that they are far better governors than any human. In the fourth novel, Polity Agent, it is mentioned that the singularity is far overdue yet most AIs have decided not to partake in it for reasons that only they know. A flashback character in Ken MacLeod's 1998 novel The Cassini Division dismissively refers to the singularity as "the Rapture for nerds", though the singularity goes on to happen anyway.

Popular movies in which computers become intelligent and violently overpower the human race include Colossus: The Forbin Project, the Terminator series, I, Robot, and The Matrix series. The television series Battlestar Galactica also explores these themes.

Isaac Asimov expressed ideas similar to a post-Kurzweilian singularity in his short story The Last Question. Asimov's future envisions a reality where a combination of strong artificial intelligence and post-humans consume the cosmos, during a time Kurzweil describes as when "the universe wakes up", the last of his six stages of cosmic evolution as described in The Singularity is Near. Post-human entities throughout various time periods of the story inquire of the artificial intelligence within the story as to how entropy death will be avoided. The AI responds that it lacks sufficient information to come to a conclusion, until the end of the story when the AI does indeed arrive at a solution. Notably, it does so in order to fulfill its duty to answer the humans' question.

St. Edward's University chemist Eamonn Healy discusses accelerating change in the film Waking Life. He divides history into increasingly shorter periods, estimating "two billion years for life, six million years for the hominid, a hundred-thousand years for mankind as we know it". He proceeds to human cultural evolution, giving time scales of ten thousand years for agriculture, four hundred years for the scientific revolution, and one hundred fifty years for the industrial revolution. Information is emphasized as providing the basis for the new evolutionary paradigm, with artificial intelligence its culmination. He concludes we will eventually create "neohumans" which will usurp humanity’s present role in scientific and technological progress and allow the exponential trend of accelerating change to continue past the limits of human ability.

Accelerating progress features in some science fiction works, and is a central theme in Charles Stross's Accelerando. Other notable authors that address singularity-related issues include Karl Schroeder, Greg Egan, Ken MacLeod, Rudy Rucker, David Brin, Iain M. Banks, Neal Stephenson, Tony Ballantyne, Bruce Sterling, Dan Simmons, Damien Broderick, Fredric Brown, Jacek Dukaj, Nagaru Tanigawa, and Ian McDonald.

In the season 1 episode "The Turk" of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, John Connor mentions the singularity. The Terminator franchise is predicated on the concept of a human-designed computer system becoming self-aware and deciding to destroy humankind. It eventually achieves superintelligence.

The feature-length documentary film Transcendent Man is based on Ray Kurzweil and his book The Singularity Is Near. The film documents Kurzweil's quest to reveal what he believes to be mankind's destiny.

In 2009, scientists at Aberystwyth University in Wales and the U.K's University of Cambridge designed a robot called Adam that they believe to be the first machine to independently discover new scientific findings.[22] Also in 2009, researchers at Cornell developed a computer program that extrapolated the laws of motion from a pendulum's swings.[23][24]

See also


  1. ^ How long before superintelligence?
  2. ^ The singularity and the Methuselarity: similarities and differences
  3. ^ a b c Robin Hanson. "Economics Of The Singularity". IEEE Spectrum Special Report: The Singularity. Retrieved 2008-09-11. 
  4. ^ The Singularity: Three Major Schools
  5. ^ Scientists Worry Machines May Outsmart Man By JOHN MARKOFF, NY Times, July 26, 2009.
  6. ^ Call for debate on killer robots, By Jason Palmer, Science and technology reporter, BBC News, 8/3/09.
  7. ^ New Navy-funded Report Warns of War Robots Going "Terminator", by Jason Mick (Blog),, February 17, 2009.
  8. ^ Navy report warns of robot uprising, suggests a strong moral compass, by Joseph L. Flatley, Feb 18th 2009.
  9. ^ AAAI Presidential Panel on Long-Term AI Futures 2008-2009 Study, Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, Accessed 7/26/09.
  10. ^ Article at, July 2004, accessed 7/27/09.
  11. ^ Zubrin, Robert, 1999, Entering Space - Creating a Spacefaring Civilization
  12. ^ Dreyfus & Dreyfus 2000, p. xiv:

    The truth is that human intelligence can never be replaced with machine intelligence simply because we are not ourselves "thinking machines" in the sense in which that term is commonly understood.Hawking (1998)

    Some people say that computers can never show true intelligence whatever that may be. But it seems to me that if very complicated chemical molecules can operate in humans to make them intelligent then equally complicated electronic circuits can also make computers act in an intelligent way. And if they are intelligent they can presumably design computers that have even greater complexity and intelligence.

  13. ^ Theodore Modis, Forecasting the Growth of Complexity and Change, Technological Forecasting & Social Change, 69, No 4, 2002
  14. ^ Huebner, Jonathan (2005) A Possible Declining Trend for Worldwide Innovation, Technological Forecasting & Social Change, October 2005, pp. 980-6
  15. ^ Smart, John (September 2005), On Huebner Innovation, Acceleration Studies Foundation,, retrieved on 2007-08-07
  16. ^ Intel pledges 80 cores in five years -
  17. ^ See, e.g., Korotayev A., Malkov A., Khaltourina D. Introduction to Social Macrodynamics: Compact Macromodels of the World System Growth. Moscow: URSS Publishers, 2006; Korotayev A. V. A Compact Macromodel of World System Evolution // Journal of World-Systems Research 11/1 (2005): 79–93.
  18. ^ Interstellar Travel: The Wait Calculation and the Incentive Trap of Progress, JBIS Vol 59, N.7 July 2006
  19. ^ Tainter, Joseph (1988) "The Collapse of Complex Societies" (Cambridge University Press)
  20. ^ PZ Meyers. "Singularly Silly Singularity". Retrieved 2009-04-13. 
  21. ^ Anonymous (18 March 2006). "More blades good". The Economist (London) 378 (8469): p. 85. 
  22. ^ Robo-scientist makes gene discovery-on its own | Crave - CNET
  23. ^ Computer Program Self-Discovers Laws of Physics | Wired Science |
  24. ^ Cornell Chronicle: Computer derives natural laws


External links


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