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Computers, the Singularity, and the Future of Humanity: notes for talk to BEC, Friday 8th August 2003.
Jocelyn Ireson-Paine.

Available on the Web at http://www.j-paine.org/singularity.html

A collection of clangers, or, perils of predicting the future

What did they say about computers?

Those who dared to predict the future of computers sometimes got it spectacularly wrong, too:

Downward, ever downward

Perhaps the timidity of such prophecies is not surprising. Look at how much computers have improved:

ENIAC, one of the first electronic computers, cost 1/2 million $, weighed 30 tons, had 18000 valves, and required 1,800 sq ft of space. To commemorate its 50th anniversary, electrical engineering students at the University of Pennsylvania put the equivalent circuitry on a silicon chip 7.44 by 5.29 mm. The chips on musical greetings cards have about the same power.

Moore's Law - the observation made in 1965 by Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, that the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits had doubled every year since the integrated circuit was invented. Moore predicted this trend would continue for the foreseeable future. The pace slowed down a bit, but data density has continued to double approximately every 18 months, and this is the current definition of Moore's Law. The graph below demonstrates the growth.

[Graph copyright Ray Kurzweil.]

The king and the chessboard: an exponential reward

When some quantity doubles every day, month, or year - as the power of computers seems to be doing - you get exponential growth. This little story illustrates just how unexpectedly vast the results can be:

A clever young man invented the game of chess and brought it to the king. The king offered the inventor any reward he wanted. "All I want is for you to cover this chessboard with corn as follows: one grain for the first square; two grain for the second; four grain for the third square... and so on for all squares". The king ordered baskets of grain to be brought in and the counting began. For the first row of the chess board (eight squares), the payment was 1, and 2, and then 4, and then 8, and then 16, and then 32, and then 64, and then 128 grains of corn. Much less than a bushel and the king was smiling! For the next row, the payment was 256, and then 512 .... and 32,768, almost a bushel. For the third row, the final square totalled 8,388,608 grains. The king was no longer smiling. And had he been able to find it, the total for the 64th square along would have been 8,000,000,000,000,000,000 grains or about 110,000 billions bushels!

What can faster, smaller computers do for us?

Philosophical questions. Kill a neuron (brain cell) in your brain. Are you still conscious? Obviously. Replace a neuron in your brain by a functionally equivalent chip. Are you still conscious? Most people would say yes. Repeat until all neurons replaced. Are you still conscious? Well if you are after one's been replaced, why not after all have been? (And if you believe you wouldn't be, just how many do you have to replace before you lose consciousness?) What if you add neurons, natural or artificial? (Songbirds lose neurons in the winter, and regrow them in the spring when singing becomes important once more - look up "songbirds grow brain cells" on Google. In effect, they have inflatable brains.)

If this goes on...

We can build a computer with capacity equivalent to the human brain for $1,000 around the year 2023; and a computer with capacity equivalent to the human brain for for one cent around the year 2037. So says Ray Kurzweil, http://www.kurzweilai.net/articles/art0134.html.

The last invention

"Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an "intelligence explosion," and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control. It is more probable than not that, within the twentieth century, an ultraintelligent machine will be built and that it will be the last invention that man need make."
Written by I.J. Good in "Speculations Concerning the First Ultraintelligent Machine", Advances in Computers, volume 6, 1965.

The Singularity

In maths, a singularity is (roughly) a region where some quantity becomes infinite. 1/1 = 1. 1/2 = 0.5. 1/1000 = .001. As you get closer to 1/0, the result zooms ever closer to infinity. By analogy, the Singularity in technology is where technological change becomes infinite, or at least vastly and unpredictably rapid.

"Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended. ... The acceleration of technological progress has been the central feature of this century. I argue in this paper that we are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth. The precise cause of this change is the imminent creation by technology of entities with greater than human intelligence. ... From the human point of view this change will be a throwing away of all the previous rules, perhaps in the blink of an eye, an exponential runaway beyond any hope of control. Developments that before were thought might only happen in "a million years" (if ever) will likely happen in the next century. ... I think it's fair to call this event a singularity. ... It is a point where our old models must be discarded and a new reality rules. As we move closer to this point, it will loom vaster and vaster over human affairs till the notion becomes a commonplace. Yet when it finally happens it may still be a great surprise and a greater unknown."
Written by Vernor Vinge, http://www.ugcs.caltech.edu/~phoenix/vinge/vinge-sing.html.

Plan to stick around

Will this really happen? Not everyone agrees, as you can find on the Web. As computer scientist Jan L.A. van de Snepscheut said once, "In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice. But, in practice, there is."

But let's be optimistic. To quote Ray Kurzweil again: "Most of you ... are likely to be around to see the Singularity. The expanding human life span is another one of those exponential trends. In the eighteenth century, we added a few days every year to human longevity; during the nineteenth century we added a couple of weeks each year; and now we're adding almost a half a year every year. With the revolutions in genomics, proteomics, rational drug design, therapeutic cloning of our own organs and tissues, and related developments in bio-information sciences, we will be adding more than a year every year within ten years. So take care of yourself the old fashioned way for just a little while longer, and you may actually get to experience the next fundamental paradigm shift in our destiny."

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