UPDATED EDITORIAL: The singularity

I originally wrote this article back in 2014. I thought it would be fun to revisit it.

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.

What is the singularity?

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.

Is it coming soon?

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 seems incredible.

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. Who knows. Maybe regardless of all the computing power in the world, it may be impossible to replicate consciousness. You might not be able to 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. I’m 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.

And now… in 2019…

Well I don’t think there’s anyone today who thinks the singularity is coming next year. In fact it seems just as far away as it did six years ago. Maybe it won’t ever come. But it is clear that we’re still seeing increases in processing power and storage that could make the singularity happen. Since 2014 we’ve learned a new term: augmented reality. It gained currency with Pokemon Go and it’s still with us. You can use the Google Translate app, look through your phone’s camera lens and see English translations of other languages, instantly.

But, the day when we all give up our physical bodies? That seems still quite far off because people don’t seem to want it… yet. Since 1945 the world has been focused on one generation. Baby boomers may no longer be the largest generation in history but it seems like they’re still the world’s focus. And, they’re getting older. Pretty soon they’ll be trying to figure out how to get young again. Who knows, a lithe robot body might just be the thing for a 90-year-old hippie who never grew up.

That’s why I do actually forecast an increase in this sort of research in the next ten years. Today’s innovations in machine learning are probably paving the way and I still think 2040 is probably a very possible and achievable date. Who wants to live forever?