Is the Singularity Silly?

In the SSIT LinkedIn discussion a pointer was posted to a provocative article “The Closing of the Scientific Mind” from Commentary Magazine. It raises many issues, including skepticism about the “Singularity” and the Cult of Kurzweil (a delightfully evocative concept as well).  One comment posted in that thread suggested that the Singularity was ‘silly’ … which is not a particularly useful observation in terms of scholarly analysis.  That author sought to dismiss the concept as not deserving real consideration, a concept that deserves real consideration (IMHO).

First, let me provide a reference to the singularity as I envision it. The term originated with Vernor Vinge’s paper for a 1993 NASA Conference. It identifies a few paths (including Kurzweil’s favorite: machine intelligence) towards a ‘next generation’ entity that will take control of it’s own evolution such that our generation of intelligence can no longer “see” where it is going. Like a dog in a car, we would be along for the ride, but not have any idea of where we are really going.  Vinge includes biological approaches as well as machine (and perhaps underestimates bio-tech approaches) which establishes the concept beyond the “software/hardware” discussion in Commentary Magazine.

Why might we be able to dismiss (ignore) this concept?

  1. Because God will not allow man to create a  more powerful being. This has precedence in the tower of Babel. Interestingly in that situation God’s fear is that if man is not stopped he will become capable of anything.  (Mileage with your deities may vary.)
    I have not received any tablets or messages specific to the singularity from God, so I will not presume to state what She may or may-not allow. Presumably this will become evident in time and the interpretations of some are unlikely to dissuade others from their research and progress.
  2. It is impossible — Here we need to consider what “It” is. Clearly the creation of a conscious/intelligent being is possible (the current U.S. Congress not withstanding) because we appear to have at least one instance of this.  And since engineering of the current species into Homo Nextus is one of Vinge’s paths, we have the advantage of starting from that given.  So for the bio-tech path(s), presumably the “Impossible” is the significant differentiation needed to move beyond Homo Sapian understanding. Personally I suspect a species of folks who understand quantum mechanics might qualify. There are indications that this has happened before.  Once upon a time there were three or more humanoid species on earth (Neanderthal, Erectus and Sapians)  and indications they interacted (and interbred.)  One suspects that the Neanderthal’s were left scratching their heads as the Sapians started doing many strange things — which ones are the topic of diverse fiction stories.
    The AI/Machine Intelligence path certainly requires a larger leap of faith to either assert it as a certainty, or its impossibility. Note that “faith” is covered under point 1.
  3. It is too complex — This certainly has merits in both the bio and AI approaches.  It would seem axiomatic that a being at stage two cannot design and build a being at stage three.  However, Evolution is the counter point to this (Creationists please see point one) … wherein more complex and in some cases more intelligent beings have emerged from ‘lower’ forms.  Interestingly it is via “Genetic Algorithms”  that John Koza has created patentable devices that are outside of his expertise to create, and in some cases with capabilities he (and others) cannot explain.  An apparent pre-cursor to the singularity, since one would expect similar observations to occur when (if) that arises.
    Often this argument devolves to “since I (often expressed as ‘we’) cannot imagine how to do it, then neither can you”.
    Technology advances both surprise and dismay me — we should have had flying cars already, and where did 3-D printing come from? Vinge anticipates machine intelligence in 2023 and Kurzweil 2018-43; and of course, like the Turing Test, we won’t necessarily agree when it “happened”.

I can envision one bio-tech path towards a new species, it is outlined in Greg Stock’s TED talk on upgrading to humanity 2.0: We add a couple of chromosomes for our kids. I’m thinking two — one has “patches”, for the flaws in our current genome (you know, pesky things like susceptibility to diabetes, breast cancer and Alzheimers), the second has the mods and apps that define “The Best that We Can Be” at least for that month of conception.  Both of these will warrant upgrades over time, but by inserting the double hit of both into the the genome (going from 46 chromosomes to 50)  the “Haves” will be able to reproduce without intervention if they wish (of course not as successfully with have-nots due to a mis-match in the chromosome counts.)  Will such a Homo Nextus species actually yield a singularity?  Perhaps.  Is this a good idea?  — Well that is debatable — your comments welcomed.

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