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The Singularity

The Singularity is Near

I recently watched “Transcendent Man”. It was entertaining as well as thought-provoking.  The documentary forced me to appreciate the complexity of the world we live in, and how we can easily develop systems that go out of our control. Some people, like Sam Harris, have gone on to say that it’s the most important question of our time. I don’t know if I would go that far, but at this pace, it might be quite soon.

Ray Kurzweil uses the “singularity” analogy to illustrate a fundamental point, that it will mark the beginning of an entirely new paradigm of human existence. One that is infinitely more complex than ours today, and one in which human beings will merge with AI to become immortal.

The Pace of Change

The documentary constantly switches between two points of views. One advocates Kurzweil’s hypothesis and enforces his authority on the subject by referencing his past achievements and successful predictions. The other point of view scrutinizes Kurzweil’s optimism, and states that he is going through an existential crisis.

The basic premise is this, according to Kurzweil. Scientific change has been happening for a few hundred years. For the majority of this time period, progress has been pretty slow. Today, things are starting to pick up, and the time it takes for breakthrough innovations to occur in any given field is becoming exponentially smaller. This builds on Moore’s observation decades ago.

Moore’s law refers to an observation made by Intel co-founder Gordon Moore in 1965. He noticed that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits had doubled every year since their invention. Moore’s law predicts that this trend will continue into the foreseeable future. (Source: Investopedia)

Artificial Intelligence will eventually be infinitely better than us at every conceivable task and would outsmart and out-think us. The doomsday prediction is that instead of controlling AI’s to advance our interests, AI would control us to advance theirs. This is analogous the Terminator series as well as a number of other pop culture references to this morbid, yet inevitable destiny.

However, that presupposes that it is possible for consciousness to emerge, and that is far from obvious, not least because we don’t understand consciousness. A possible reality is that we merge with AI, that is perhaps the optimistic scenario, and one that would prevent the human race from being subservient to the whims and demands of the more advanced AI species.

Any kind of scientific advancement whatsoever requires us to expose ourselves to unknown consequences. We have no idea how things could go awry in the future, but we never did. The car, computers, mobile phones, and the internet have had consequences that few (if any) human beings could have predicted at the time of their invention. That isn’t to say that human beings have never had any control on the pace of development of AI, or cannot foresee any negative consequences. Cloning human beings, for example, is something that could have occurred a long time ago if not for the intervention of lawmakers around the world.

Modern Dependence on AI

While it is interesting and important to try and control where we’re heading, it’s probably futile to do so.  To illustrate this point, think of the world we know today. How much do we control it? To what extent are we already dependent on AI?

Our lives have been made easier with the advancements of technology, but few of us are able to operate in a world without it. Generations in the future will find it even easier to operate in the world – thanks to the conveniences brought about by AI – but almost impossible to operate in a world without them. We have effectively switched our constraints.

In the past, it used to be the natural world. Our bodies would get sick and die because of disease. Today, our risks have shifted. We are more susceptible to the constraints set forth by the set of rules and structures created by man, within the context of the free market or the government.

In the future, we can imagine that this pattern will continue. Nature would become more controlled, not less. And the set of structures created by man will become more powerful. That includes structures that contain AI as their primary component.

That isn’t to say that things are fundamentally different today. A future in which AI controls our lives and make us subservient to it due its superiority in intelligence in multiple dimensions is not a dystopia, it’s life today.

The singularity may be near, but the point of no return has already taken place.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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