Minority Opinions

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Technological Singularity

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I’ve mentioned the Singularity a time or two without really defining it.  Partly, I’m not entirely certain what I believe about it, just that it will happen.

I first encountered the term as the name of a play-by-email card game that no longer appears to be active.  It was themed around a race of civilizations to be the first to reach a level of technology that allowed them mastery over the physical universe.  The backstory posits that only one civilization could do so, for they would be able to defeat any rivals.

More often, however, the term is applied to a significantly sooner event, in which the rate of technological progress entirely disrupts our way of life.  In particular, we may soon develop an intelligence superior to our own, itself able to create an even greater intelligence, and so on.  Life with such super-intelligences is beyond our capability to predict, because we can’t determine how they will think.

That doesn’t stop us from trying, though.  Science fiction has proposed several scenarios, ranging from paradise on earth to a struggle for survival.  The main issue is how mere humans will relate to the superior intelligence.  If we become it, perhaps through biological engineering, cyborg parts, or neural implants, then we face a struggle between upgraded and outdated humans; the worst-case scenario starts looking like Alphas or the X-Men.  If we instead create artificially intelligent robots, they could be our infinitely patient servants, we could be their pets, or a battle for survival could wipe out either group.  Weirdest of all might be a single overmind in which we each become part of a world-guiding intelligence; think of everyone networked together as a massively powerful supercomputer.

Whether an initial super-human intelligence will be created in my lifetime is up for debate.  We don’t yet understand cognition quite enough to simulate a brain, even if computers are likely to become powerful enough to do so.  I also doubt that the prototype intelligence will bootstrap itself beyond comprehension, much less that such bootstrapping will happen within a few days; progress is more likely to be incremental and generational, with plenty of construction delays along the way.

Nevertheless, I believe that we as a species are on track to creating something bigger than ourselves.  Whether that’s a good thing, I’m content to discover as it happens.

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Written by eswald

19 Nov 2012 at 6:35 pm

Posted in Technology

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