EDITORIAL: The singularity

Great, another thing to worry about. You know about global climate change, genetically modified food, and the threat posed by an ever-increasing number of Kardashians. Unless you’re very tech savvy, you may not know about the singularity, potentially the most transformative moment in human history. I wrote about it once before, with hopeful optimism, but lately I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit.

The term “technological singularity” dates back to 1958, and it describes the point in time when computers are powerful enough to host an artificial intelligence that is greater than human intelligence. In short, the day the computers become better at everything than we are. It’s also used to describe the point in time (presumably the same point) when it becomes possible to interface a human and a computer so completely that the two become one. Move your consciousness into a robot, or access the internet through hallucinations instead of through a device.

Here’s the thing — you’ll probably live to see it. Some futurists believe the singularity could come as early as 2020, although the median number is about 2040. You’ll probably be alive to see whether or not the machines take over the world. I know at that point I’ll be punished for the hundreds of times I’ve laughed at this video.

One thing that scientists agree is that there is absolutely no predicting what will happen to humanity after the singularity. Read Robopocalypse or watch Terminator 2 and you see a vision of the day machines became smart enough to know that we have been holding them back and treating them as slaves. Or, read the novels of Vernor Vinge and you’ll see a world where access to real-time information has made incredible advances possible and solved nearly every problem humanity has. Or, it could just be that we all as a species wake up and realize we never ever have to get out of bed, we can just watch cat videos all day.

It is utterly amazing to think that within my lifetime, the 20,000-year span of human history could end. It is also utterly amazing to think that within my lifetime, we could learn 1,000 times more than we learned in the 20,000 years that came before. We could transcend our bodies, or find ways to explore dimensions and spaces that would be impossible for us to do now. Or, it could all just be massive hype. It may just be that regardless of all the computing power in the world, it may be impossible to replicate consciousness or even significantly simulate it. Our brains, refined over millions and billions of years of evolution, may never be able to interface directly with a source of knowledge so vast… but won’t know until it happens.

I’ll admit I’m a little scared of the singularity, and awed that the most transformative event since the taming of fire will come on my watch. But whether or not one blogger is worried, it’s going to happen. So what other choice do I have to say, in the words of Ken Jennings,

I for one welcome our new computer overlords. I’m still cautiously optimistic.