Measured Against Reality

Monday, February 25, 2008

The singularity is near!!!

This comic pretty much sums up how I feel about the singularity. Ray Kurzweil is, as far as I know, the progenitor of this "theory", which is essentially glorified futurism. Every time there's a technological advance, especially biomedical ones, people start shouting "the singularity is near!"

But if you actually look at it, the singularity concept is entirely obvious, banal, and superfluous. It's essentially saying, "Things will be different fifty years from now!" Well, yeah, of course they will. But that's been true at any point up to about a hundred and fifty years ago. It's not exactly brilliant to take Moore's Law and extend it to the rest of the world.

What bugs me though are claims about humans becoming immortal. First off, no biological system will ever be immortal, there will always be some way to kill it. And all the medical advances in the world couldn't save us from nuclear Armageddon, which is always possible. But the claims about nanotechnology curing all of our ills are just absurd. The main problem I have with it is the simple fact that our biological understanding of our bodies isn't increasing exponentially. Granted, we know much more medically now than 100 years ago, but compare medicine then to now, and then compare computer science then to know. Technology advances much faster than science, it's just in science's nature to move slowly. So even if we get nanotechnology perfected in the next 20 years (which, by the way, we won't), we probably couldn't put it to any use, or at least truly effective use. And even if we do manage to build robots to take care of us, what do you think federal regulatory committees would do with it (and let's face it, if anything is certain about the future it's that there will be bureaucracy)? I don't think it will get anywhere fast, and that's with gracious assumptions.

Granted, some of this stuff probably will happen. Machines will get smaller and smaller, and humans will become more and more dependent, biologically, on machines. At some point in the future we will probably have machines inside of us. It's not a grand insight given that hundreds of thousands of people already do in the form of pacemakers and other devices. Essentially all you're doing when you say that is take something that has already happened and project into the future.

What really bugs me about the concept of a technological singularity is that it trends toward the hyperbolic. Everyone loves looking back at people in the 70's (or earlier) making predictions about what the future would be like. Most of them are wildly off the mark, and those are the ones that make grand claims and weird assumptions. The ones that are scarily accurate are the ones that look at what has recently happened, how people have reacted to it, and projected that into the future with the assumption that technology will continue to get better. The singularity goes beyond that common-sense approach, and says that life will become unrecognizable. It very well may, after all, no one can predict the future. But the smart money is on gradual, incremental, non-revolutionary change. After all, even the internet revolution took decades to truly develop.

Rome wasn't built in a day, and I think that's the key thing singularity proponents forget with their timelines. Their predictions may come true, but within 20 years? Doubtful.


  • I probably don't know what I'm talking about, but I thought that the idea of the singularity was that as soon as people come up with AI, that AI would be able to come up with an even better AI and so on and so forth...

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:54 PM, February 26, 2008  

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