OK, I’ve written exactly six posts so far in September, and the month is almost over. For those of you who didn’t know, this is because I’ve been in the process of moving to Minneapolis. Ruminations on moving will happen once I’m sitting at my computer in my apartment, which won’t happen for at least a week. For now, Robin does a pretty good job, no?
The Singularity begins the moment when humans create a technology more intelligent than themselves. Singularity theorists like Ray Kurzweil argue that the rate of innovation on earth has been increasing exponentially since before we got here, and now rests on the brink of outpacing human ability to keep up with it. When that happens, the theory goes, humans become obsolete and machines take over, innovating faster than we can possibly imagine.
For a primer on the concept, try this Vernor Vinge essay, what some call the first articulation of the Singularity. Vinge is something of a Singularity pessimist; in most of the outcomes he posits, life gets pretty bad for humankind. Kurzweil, whose new book is the catalyst for this post, takes a much cheerier view; the Singularity means humans will pretty much be over mortality, poverty and disease.
The kicker? Whenever they estimate how soon we’ve got till the Singularity, Vinge, Kurzweil and others talk in terms of years. Not millennia, not centuries, barely even decades. (Vinge: “I’ll be surprised if this event occurs before 2005 or after 2030.” Kurzweil: “By 2030, a thousand dollars of computation will be about a thousand times more powerful than a human brain.”) Folks like Kevin Drum think 30-40 years are a generous estimate. (Drum: “Seems to me that the Singularity should be right on our doorstep, not 40 years away.”)
Interestingly, the Long Bet between Kurzweil and Mitchell Kapor on this topic (the very first Long Bet) has folks split exactly 50/50 as to whether it will play out like Kurz says.
More on the Singularity and Kurzweil’s book: