Futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil’s fascinating prediction about the imminent onset of technological singularity, the idea that nonbiological intelligence will soon surpass human intelligence, has been on my mind for some time.
It was primarily prompted by my son Jashn’s recent school assignment on the subject. I vaguely knew about it before that but I was more familiar with singularity in the context of physics, the kind that is supposed to be at the center of black holes. To put it unforgivably simplistically, at the center of a black hole all our conceptions of geometrical structures in space and time collapse. It is practically impossible to predict what reality could be in an environment where volume is zero and density infinite and nothing, even light, can escape.
Kurzweil’s singularity, however, is closer home and relatively mundane as it describes how nonbiological systems such as computers are growing so much in power and complexity that human intelligence will find it exponentially harder to keep up until a point is reached where it will be overwhelmed. I know the feeling because I reached that stage in the 1960s, soon after I was born.
On his website he describes singularity thus: “Nonbiological intelligence will have access to its own design and will be able to improve itself in an increasingly rapid redesign cycle. We’ll get to a point where technical progress will be so fast that unenhanced human intelligence will be unable to follow it. That will mark the Singularity.”
As you can see, the black hole singularity of the kind I first heard about a long time ago is of a mindnumbingly higher order. (On a much lower intellectual note, my ordinary desktop just told me that there is no word like “mindnumbingly” which is superfluous while talking about singularities—gravitational or technological.)
Ever since I came to know about 3D printers, which actually let you print physical objects in three dimensions, I have been thinking about their consequences. What if, for instance, they equip themselves with so much intelligence that they are able to design and manufacture robots embedded with artificial intelligence way more advanced than ours? A gigantic 3D printing complex belching out robots in whatever design aesthetics it wants to is indeed a mindnumbing thought. If I were to predict how technological singularity might occur, I would say it would be 3D printers outprinting human reproduction.
Such robots may not even need external nourishment such as food the way we do. They would be like perpetual machines that create and consume energy within themselves to remain in perpetual motion. These robots may choose to fraternize with humans and create a peculiar variety of cyborgs in order to help humans upgrade their own limited biological system.
One can go on speculating endlessly about what might happen but Kurzweil sets a specific date for technological singularity to happen. “I set the date for the Singularity—representing a profound and disruptive transformation in human capability—as 2045. The nonbiological intelligence created in that year will be one billion times more powerful than all human intelligence today.”
I will be 84 in in 2045 if I manage to successfully run the gauntlet of life between now and then. If I do survive, I will be able to see whether Kurzweil’s prediction comes true. As for Kurzweil, who will be 97, given his cerebral trajectory he would have long created his own hybrid version retrofitted with enough artificial intelligence to deal with singularity.