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The Technological Singularity

1/19/2016 12:00:00 AM 

"Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create
superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended."

This ominous prediction comprises the opening statement of the 1993 essay, "The Coming Technological Singularity" by Dr. Vernor Vinge. A famed mathematician, computer scientist and author, Vinge asserted that computer intelligence will rapidly surpass human intellect, and that machines will likely dominate the world, conquer humanity, use and abuse our race just as we subjugate the animals.[1]

To fully appreciate the concept of Transhumanism, one must first understand the hypothetical event of the Technological Singularity.

The Technological Singularity, often simply termed the Singularity, is the point at which Artificial Intelligence exceeds human intelligence.

The concept is nothing new. The idea of a supercomputer that outgrows its makers has been highly explored in literature and film since the golden age of Science Fiction. It is the central theme of classics such as Clarke & Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968), and more recently in "The Terminator" series and "The Matrix" (1999). In nearly every fictional depiction, machines turn against humanity.

The significance of Vinge's essay is that it qualified the concept as a feasible prospect. By citing examples of advancements in technology, and the rapid pace at which they are taking place, he concludes that the Singularity is inevitable. The proposition appears reasonable. The exponential rate at which machine computational speed and complexity are progressing seemingly supports the notion that computers will move beyond human intelligence within very little time. Because of Vinge's credentials, he had the authoritative status necessary to make an impact where mere speculative authors had not.

With all respect for Dr. Vinge, his pessimistic conclusion rests heavily on two major unqualified assumptions.

The first flaw in Vinge's reasoning is the presumption that increased power and speed can produce intelligence. He provides a related scenario: that a single computer, or else a collective network, will "'wake up' as a superhumanly intelligent entity."[2] He gives no explanation of how such an event is possible…other than the assumption that hardware complexity will continue to progress on the same scale that it has in the past. However, mere advancements in hardware cannot simply create intelligence.

Thus far, all computers are based on Alan Turing's model of the Universal Machine (with minor exceptions, and certainly there exist unreleased technologies that are being developed). The Turning machine can do only what its programming instructs. Its actions are the result of numerous conditional statements, which process and respond to user input. No device based on Turing's model, regardless of complexity, has the capacity to think for itself.

The assumption that a computer is capable of genuine cognition was refuted by John Searle in his thought experiment, The Chinese Room.[3] Searle describes a scenario where a man is locked inside a room. The man knows no Chinese, however, he has a rulebook that provides responses to questions written in Chinese. A Chinese speaker outside of the room passes a note with a text composed in Chinese. The prisoner looks up the symbols in his manual, and copies the appropriate response, still without understanding a single symbol.

Searle argues that, regardless of how complex a computer may be, it is still only a machine responding to user input based on its programming. The machine understands the conversation no more than the man locked in the room understands Chinese. The example illustrates the problem in assuming that a Turing Machine can achieve intelligence. The machine has no mind or consciousness. It is merely a set of algorithms designed to respond to input.

Vinge's implication that a speedy machine can "wake up" is viable only when based on an exaggerated view about our knowledge of the mind. The fields of psychology and neuroscience have merely begun to progress in the last few decades. The workings of the brain are scarcely understood by modern science. Until we comprehend what makes intelligence, what gives the brain the ability to predict and create, we will be unable to make artificial minds that can do the same.

The inner-working of the brain is explored in the book "On Intelligence"[4], co-authored by computer innovator Jeff Hawkins. Hawkins submits that the basis of intelligence is largely a mystery. Until our knowledge of the mind is more fully developed, it is impossible to create a machine that can think.

Only in recent years has much progress been made toward deciphering the enigma of intelligence, but there remains a long way to go before we will have the proficiency to reverse-engineer the brain.

The second fault in Vinge's argument is the assumption that a superior machine will have any motive to subdue humanity. Although the scenario is certainly possible, there is no reason to conclude it is probable. Rather, it may turn out that our superintelligent invention would remain friendly to its creators, even work for the advancement and enhancement of our race. A happy coexistence may yet be the outcome.

Vinge is not the only authority with a doomsday view of the Singularity. The celebrated cosmologist Stephen Hawking has warned, "Artificial Intelligence could end mankind."[5]

Others remain optimistic. Futurist Ray Kurzweil, considered the foremost expert on Trahsnumanism, makes the case that Artificial Intelligence will be a benefit to humanity. Kurzweil cites examples in which technology has improved life, including curing disease, developing renewable energy, providing education, and helping the disabled.[6] His assertion is that there is no reason to assume Machine Intelligence will be antagonistic.

Kurzweil has boldly predicted that the Singularity will take place before the year 2045,[7] His predictions over the last decades have been surprisingly accurate. However, history has taught us time and again to expect the unexpected.

The Singularity may be imminent. It will not happen until we are able to build machines that have the capacity to think creatively as we do. The sphere of neurological understanding, while still in its infant phase, is developing rapidly. It seems inevitable that ambition will someday lead to superintelligence, whether it comes in the form of technology, or by the enhancement of the human mind, or both. Let us hope the outcome is favorable. ◼

[1][2] Vernor Vinge: "The Coming Technological Singularity" (1993)
[3] John Searle: "Minds, Brains, and Programs" (1980), Behavioral and Brain Sciences
[4] Jeff Hawkins: "On Intelligence" (2004)
[5] “Stephen Hawking warns artificial intelligence could end mankind” (2014) BBC News
[6] Ray Kurzweil: "Don't fear artificial intelligence" (2014), TIME
[7] Ray Kurzweil: "The Singularity is Near", p 136

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