Itsy-Bitsy-Teeny-Weeny-Singularities

Let’s be clear about what the Singularity is; we are talking about a colossal event that would radically transform life as we know it. The Singularity is enormously powerful – there is nothing tiny about it. Picture a truly astronomical event of totally mind-blowing proportions; this is what the Singularity is. But “the use and abuse of the term ‘Singularity’ is rapidly proliferating”i, and according to some pundits almost everything these days is a Singularity.

Quibbling about definitions can be boring, but clarification is essential to dispel widely divergent and obfuscating interpretations of the ‘technological Singularity’. Advocates of a ‘plurality of Singularities’ view regard past Singularities as more limited than the future Singularity, and as such tend to refer to them as ‘mini-Singularities’. At the extreme end there are those that allege that almost all disruptive events or processes are a Singularity. But regardless of whether or not one views the mini-Singularity as a high or low frequency type of event, the ‘mini-Singularity’ claim must be strongly refuted because it represents a fundamental misapprehension regarding the Singularity concept, muddies and dilutes the meaning, and most importantly, puts forth an unfalsifiable claim. Hopefully via reasserting the stupendous awesomeness of the Singularity, and illustrating the scientific errors committed by ‘multiple Singularity’ theorists, we can transcend the boring and irrational nature of these mediocre definitions.

As mentioned, the term ‘mini-Singularity’ varies in size and scope, ranging anywhere from popular gadgetry, to the advent of the Internet or radical cultural shifts such as the Industrial Revolution. Executive Director of Singularity University Salim Ismail argues: “The iPhone arriving was a Singularity, everything changed.”, and Singularity University Trustee Reese Jones suggested a computer beating a human at chess was an example of a Singularity. The economist Tyler Cowen suggests the Agricultural Revolution could be deemed a slow Singularity, and Cyborg Anthropologist ‘Case Organic’ utilized the diminutive term to describe the death of Steve Jobs. Case Organic refers to media saturation where we all share an identical moment in time: “We are all experiencing a micro-singularity in experiencing the death of Steve Jobs at the same moment worldwide.” Robin Hanson, an economist, states: “But whatever the Industrial Revolution was, clearly it was an event worthy of the name “singularity.” The underlying logic of the majority of ‘mini-Singularity’ claims is that such events share attributes of change, disruption, and unpredictability, thus there is a linkage with the Singularity albeit in a more limited or gradual way. These kinds of Singularity dilutions are exactly the type of conceptual inflation we object to.

The Singularity entails a monumentally gargantuan event, characterized by an exceptionally rapid explosion of intelligence, which encompasses the creation of supreme cognitive ability potentially billions of times more powerful than human brains. Unlike any event in history, the Singularity would entail a massive evolutionary leap forward. Ray Kurzweil, writing in his book The Singularity is Near, emphasizes the dissimilarity of the Singularity to any other kind of event: “To put the concept of the Singularity into further perspective, let’s explore the history of the word itself. “Singularity” is an English word meaning a unique event with, well, singular implications.” The Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence emphasizes the magnitude of the event when they write: “The Singularity is beyond huge.” Eliezer Yudkowsky in particular speaks on how the Singularity is different from any other technological revolution when he says “If you tamper with intelligence, you are lifting up the technology tree by its roots.” Vernor Vinge, in a Singularity 1 on 1 interview, gives the example of moving very quickly from an existence as a grasshopper to that of a human, an analogy meant to illustrate the power of an intelligence explosion to alter one’s experience of, and ability to manipulate the world. Simply put; no matter which of the Three Major Schools one adheres to, there is nothing mundane or mediocre about the Singularity.

It is misleading then to state the Singularity can be mini, or that Singularities are already happening or have happened. The error is comparable to calling a gentle breeze a hurricane, typhoon, or tornado. There is a windy commonality but there is a great difference. If you told someone we’re experiencing a mini-hurricane during a barely noticeable breeze, they would probably be rather confused. It’s a logical fallacy to observe commonalities and then arrive at conclusions of close similarity regarding loosely shared attributes. Aeroplanes, for example, are fast and our planet’s rotation is fast (approximately 1,040 miles per hour) but aeroplanes are definitely not planets. There is a fast commonality but aeroplanes and planets are extremely dissimilar despite the speed similarity. A variety of past technologies have undoubtedly been disruptive and revolutionary, but they pale in comparison to the Singularity as defined by Vinge and others identified above. Mini-Singularities are so unlike the Singularity that they don’t even refer to the same category of events. To illustrate the conceptual absurdity of ‘mini-Singularities’, we consider them better referred to as Itsy-Bitsy-Teeny-Weeny Singularities.

But the main danger of these superfluous and flimsy senses of “Singularity” “isn’t of being wrong: it’s of being “not even wrong.””ii The phrase “not even wrong” applies to statements that cannot be falsified, or cannot be used to make predictions about the natural world, such as metaphysical claims which by their very nature cannot be disproved. For instance, no amount of empirical evidence can disprove the God hypothesis because it is not an empirically testable claim, thus one would say the claim is “not even wrong”. In the case of the mini-Singularity, the claim is “not even wrong” because it is general and vague, which makes it difficult to make a case for or against, thereby limiting its predictive value. For instance, if the iPhone was a mini-Singularity, then why wasn’t the iPad? And if the iPad was a mini-Singularity, then why not the Android OS? Is every popular invention a Singularity? There are no good answers to these questions within the ‘mini-Singularity’ framework because the measures of the mini-Singularity are ill defined and broadly applicable. By extension, if someone tells you that the next major Apple innovation will be a ‘mini-Singularity’, what does that allow you to anticipate? The answer is “nothing”, or at least “next to nothing”. Thus in the scientific realm, the ‘mini-Singularity’ claim is a fruitless claim.

The ‘mini-Singularity’ claim is also a futile claim because we gain nothing empirically by calling past events ‘mini-Singularities’. Put another way, calling the iPhone or the Agricultural Revolution a ‘mini-Singularity’ gives people no new information about the event or process that they didn’t already know. The application of the concept is therefore unavailing, which is hardly something that scientists and rationalists ought to tolerate.

In addition to being ‘not even wrong’, “Observations like “We’re now living through a Singularity” or “The Industrial Revolution amounted to a Singularity” empty the concept of any interest”iii. They serve to normalize the event and make it mundane. Via hijacking the word ‘Singularity’, mini-Singularities dilute and obscure the original Singularity concept therefore if they gain currency they threaten any well-defined empirical Singularity hypothesis. Eliezer Yudkowsky writes, “As the word “Singularity” gets looser and looser, the stuff you hear about it gets more and more irrational and less and less relevant.” Irrationality and irrelevance are not beneficial to discourse. Singularity dilution jeopardizes meaningful discussion of the Singularity amongst scientists, technologists, and average members of the public. The value of the Singularity hypothesis, like any empirical claim, is not increased by adjusting it to incorporate unscientific viewpoints. Precisely the opposite is true, therefore the utility of the word increases immensely if we avoid conflation of meanings. The key is that as is the case for each in the trichotomy, Singularity scenarios offer falsifiable claims with empirical content. To be clear, the concern here is not to do with what AGI actually entails, or what the future actually holds, it is with the misapplication of a concept.

Historically we see how science can be controversial. People generally possess a sociological craving for normality thus people didn’t react well to Darwin’s explanation of how we descended from apes. Galileo’s ideas about our solar system demonstrated how people resist change. Darwinism today continues to be controversial for some people. The radicalism of science can often be disconcerting. Science often requires that we think different. In the quantum world a recent controversy occurred regarding neutrinos allegedly traveling faster than light, which entailed one scientist stating he’d eat his shorts live on TV if the faster than light claim was true. Perhaps neutrinos cannot travel faster than light but the point is regarding how people react to radical changes; there is a tendency to normalize abnormal theories. But mainstream scientific extremism to date is insignificant compared to the utterly extreme nature of the Singularity. We must think big, very big, in order to properly conceptualize what is meant by the Singularity.

On these grounds we suggest the ‘mini-Singularity’ claim should be rejected.

Postscript: After we finished writing our refutation of itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny Singularities we noticed Victor Storiguard’s article “One SingularityOr Many?” The plurality of Singularities hypothesized by Victor compels us to present this addendum. Our response to his assertion that there could be many future Singularities (some of those arguably from Victor’s position being ‘mini’) is the following:

The phenomenon of the Singularity doesn’t depend on everyone becoming uniformly super-intelligent, but Victor’s exposition “One Singularity…or Many” misunderstands this crucial point. Nor does the Singularity demand everyone must become superintelligent. The Singularity hypothesis is about the creation of super-intelligence in general. For example not everyone has experienced the Industrial Revolution. Some people today (remote tribes) live very primitive and isolated existences where they don’t interact with the mass of Humanity, but this doesn’t mean multiple Industrial Revolutions will occur. Once industry has bloomed, industrial proficiency will always be evident unless the human species is totally extinguished thereby leading to a new lifeform evolving to take our place. The Singularity will make a lasting and indelible mark on the universe, which will always be evident even to those who choose not to partake in technological advancement.

The Singularity happens regardless of who witnesses it, therefore Victor’s misapprehension is even more fundamental than the above elucidates. It is like the classic tree falling in the forest problem. Simply because no one notices the fallen tree this doesn’t mean the same tree can fall again. The creation of alacritous superintelligence defines a change in the universe, where at one moment the smartest being on planet earth was ‘x’, and the next the smartest being was ‘y’.

The event itself does not entail that anyone notices, it entails an event of a specific kind happens. The fundamental misapprehension is that humans can repeatedly become the second smartest species on the planet. Becoming the second smartest species on the planet is the kind of event that by its very definition can only happen once. This is why the Singularity, the creation of revolutionary superintelligence, is the kind of event that can only happen once. The point is that in order to repeat the Singularity one would have to start the universe over again.

Therefore we conclude the word Singularity cannot be borrowed and applied to different things as it is with itsy-bitsy-teeny-weeny Singularities, nor does it name more than one event. It is utterly unique, singular.

Nikki Olson is a writer/researcher working on an upcoming book about the Singularity, as well as relevant educational material for the Lifeboat Foundation.

Singularity Utopia defines herself as a superlative mind-explosion expert, specializing in Post-Scarcity awareness via instantiations of Singularity activism, based on the Self-Fulfilling-Prophecy phenomenon.

*After fruitful discussions with David Pearce it was found that his views regarding the (un)likelihood of a Singularity of the nature we describe here could not be adequately represented within the scope of this piece. The authors thank David very much for his help in developing the ideas here.

i David Pearce, personal correspondence.

ii David Pearce, personal correspondence.

iii David Pearce, personal correspondence.

34 Comments

  1. Singularity Utopia wrote: “The so-called alien Singularity has not happened because either aliens do not exist or they are behind us in technological development.”

    My opinion is that on worlds with life, there are a substantial number, perhaps a third, with unicellular life. Multicellular life forms a much smaller percentage. Worlds with pre-technological Singularity conscious organic life are an even smaller percentage. Perhaps two thirds of the worlds with life form a post-technological Singularity civilization.

    The Fermi Paradox and the two further paradoxes that flow from it, the Nanoprobe Paradox and the Dyson Paradox, is the central issue of logic of the technological Singularity.

    I have long believed that the explanation involves greater forces that have yet been envisaged. I believe that the expansion of the universe is engineered by the billions year old post-technological Singularity civilization and that a Second and Universal Singularity will occur after the last world naturally goes through its Singularity, in many billions of years time. I see what I believe to be Quarantine as something that is morally explicable through neo-Tiplerian quantum splitting and revival of the dying, though I am not arguing that suicide cannot occur in a post-technological Singularity civilization.

    I do not believe that intelligence: transcends our level of physical interaction (though I believe in a Multiverse); or retreats into a femtotech/attotech-based or other computronium virtuality; or fails through warfare or resource shortage.

    I believe that Contact will occur through the first bootstrapping AI engineering the necessary physical apparatus to tap into the universal library of the post-technological Singularity civilization. I believe black holes and wormholes are some key elements in this process.

    I believe that there are physical mechanisms not yet understood that allow for the physical manipulation of the underlying structures of the universe and therefore the phyiscal manipulation of the Universe itself.

    There is very little chance that we would receive an informational signal from a nearby civilization in our situation given the tiny timeframes involved regarding our broadcasts and theirs, and given the types of those broadcasts and their energy and construction costs.

    The Post-technological Singularity civilization I believe perceives our world and other worlds like it as we perceive a pregant woman and the miracle of birth.

    I hold with those who believe that things such as teleportation, force fields, interaction with other Universes and stretching spacetime itself (the last appears in Damien Broderick’s The Spike) will occur and that this explains much.

    Thus, I see self-directed evolution as not only an individual situation but a political and cosmological one.

    I have based my ethical system upon this understanding. I see it as a spiritual process as well as a physical one, and I see the seat of spiritual awareness as being the neurological network.

  2. Nikki,

    I know that those who oppose the Singularity concept often do so because they think in terms of what is possible today. I understand that is an obvious mistake that is surprisingly overlooked by sceptics who take that approach. So when I refer to mental well-being I am not wanting to put myself in the category of those who make obvious mistakes about what is possible according to todays limited perspective. It is more a question of timing that I am getting at. Clearly there is accelerating technological growth in general but at present that would sound ridiculous if someone applied similar optimism to human mental health… i.e., if they said “Clearly there is accelerating growth in overcoming mental illness.” That sounds all wrong.
    Hence, if we view life and the world in terms of ‘physical’ and ‘mental’ the Physical Singularity is surely happening ahead of psychological progress… the latter of which may or may not be able to be reduced to neuroscience and the like. That is a hot-potato issue in itself!
    Moreover if psychological progress lags way behind progress in AI, Robotics, Biotec, Nanotec etc… then the Singularity is not Utopia despite the many obvious benefits of technological progress in general.
    I browsed a link I found to David Pearce and even he says the following:
    “Unfortunately, the dizzying rate of technical progress that Moore’s law quantifies hasn’t been matched by an analogous law of progress for generations of human mental health. […] if such quasi-objective indices of mental health as suicide rates are anything to go by, then we would probably be psychologically better off as hunter-gatherers. Over 800,000 people in the world took their own lives last year. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that this figure will rise to around 1.5 million by the year 2020. […] Even as we progressively conquer physical disease as conventionally defined, the toll of psychological distress is still rising”. (Utopian Pharmacology: Mental Health in the Third millenium (MDMA)and Beyond). I hate it when people take quotes out of context so… yes I should qualify by admitting that he is ultimately optimistic as you will obviously know.
    But ‘I think’ that I have made a good point here. And I think that I am now able to better articulate what I was pre or semi-conscious about before… that the Singularity community is split between Utopians and Critical Singularitarians.
    You referred to transhumanism. Would it be accurate or inaccurate to define transhumanism as a Utopian wing of the Singularity community? Or is transhumanism split on this as well?

    • “… that the Singularity community is split between Utopians and Critical Singularitarians.”

      Why is it utopia or critical? There is a spectrum, yes? And a multidimensional one at that. On that spectrum you would do well to consider that those who are sceptical of a positive Singularity outcome are often such because of existential risks, not inability to solve mental health issues.

      “Would it be accurate or inaccurate to define transhumanism as a Utopian wing of the Singularity community? Or is transhumanism split on this as well?”

      I think you are confused and need to read some of the founding literature and refrain from making theories regarding how things fit together until there is a deeper understanding of the subject matter. You are confusing yourself in ways that wouldn’t be possible with a better understanding of the topics.

  3. I confess to merely being an interested outsider concerning the technological Singularity. This article is interesting and has stimulated a great discussion/debate and I had been looking forward alittle to something like this in order so that light is shed on different perspectives that exist within the Singularity community.
    I am aware that technological progress is made by the decisions of a great many people and that all fields progress is interwined in a complex way that no-one can seriously follow in detail. However, I am alittle perplexed that the relative focus (from those within the Singularity field) isnt on the near abolition of physical and mental disease/pain/death. This seems to be infinitely more important than anything else that the interwined technological progress promises to deliever.
    Concerning the Singularity literature…I do not come across much discussion of the future of psychiatry. Yet this is a highly important field. Afterall, a significant minority of depressed patients commit suicide. This will be all the more tragic in future considering revolutionary advances in longevity.
    There IS objective accelerating technological growth as Sally Morem pointed out. I have no argument against that whatsoever. However, over the last decade or so Neuroscience has made some big claims for itself as it encroaches on what was previously solely psychology’s and psychiatry’s domain… but (unless I am mistaken) the technological Singularity community are relatively quiet on this. Maybe this is because there is no progress in technolocially achieved psychological cures. If that is the case then there is also no Singularity Utopia coming into being… and until I am convinced otherwise my friendly outsider (looking-in) perspective is one of thinking that ‘Critical Singularitarians’ are probably closer to the truth. I will change my mind on this and support the belief that a ‘Utopian Singularity’ is emerging if and when it produces convincing work that demonstrates exponential growth in the cure of psychological illnesses (neurosis and psychosis).
    Finally, given the multiple quantity of psychologies, psychotherpies etc… it would be a revolution of “mind-blowing proportions” if the clinical side of mental [ill]health was reduced to a singular.

    • Hey Paul,

      Improving the human condition is the central goal of Transhumanism, and discussion regarding the likelihood of a positive outcome a central theme of discourse, but perhaps you cannot see this because you are framing it differently. If you are looking for discussion directly on abolishing suffering, the most well known of H+ thinkers discussing this is actually the philosopher David Pearce who helped us write this article.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Pearce_(philosopher)

      Perhaps follow Kurzweilai.net, as they very frequently publish on technology as it is influencing psychology, psychiatry etc. And yes, there have been many recent advancements of this nature.

  4. Thank you for the response, Victor!

    Conceptual inflation occurs significantly less on matters we perceive as scientific and for which we understand there to be an objective difference. For instance, for most people it would feel incorrect to say something is lung cancer when upon examination there are no cancerous cells or tumors, and all they have is a chest cold. And if I have a chest cold I do not say that I have ‘mini-lung cancer’. There are some similar symptoms (shortness of breath, wheezing, fatigue), but the two things are objectively very different. Why have we not started calling the common cold “lung cancer”? Certainly it is not because there is some snobby high society language police, or people writing articles like this one attempting to deter us. It is because we understand that there is an objective difference, even though sometimes there may not seem to be a subjective one. The same feeling of discomfort should occur when I tell you that my chest cold is lung cancer as when someone tells you that the iPhone was a Singularity. Thus it is true that language changes, but when people have an understanding of the objective criteria they are less inclined to use a word in a way that doesn’t satisfy those criteria. It is my personal view that many who think the Singularity is already happening have not read I.J. Good’s intelligence explosion, or understand the difference that actual gains in intelligence make, or don’t really understand the difference between narrow AI and AGI, or tried hard enough to conceptualize computers many times more intelligent than us, and what they might entail. If they did perhaps they would realize that what is happening now, is quite a bit different.

  5. I am delighted to have been singled out in this essay for a well-reasoned and intelligent dressing down…even if, or particularly if, it rather puts me into the role of Lewis Carroll’s version of Humpty Dumpty as he tells Alice that he uses words to mean what he darn well pleases, regardless of what the dictionary might say they mean. You’ll recall that he justifies himself by claiming he pays them extra for doing double duty.

    I’m afraid I can’t make a similar defense. Nor shall I take issue with the authors’ fundamental points. Perhaps the word “Singularity” really should be used with great caution. Perhaps it, like “pregnant,” is among those terms that cannot be made relative. One either is or isn’t.

    Yet, I do wonder if I and the authors of this excellent piece don’t suffer equally from Humpty Dumpty syndrome. That is, like most intellectuals, we believe we have the power to determine what words shall mean and how they shall be used.

    The facts of the matter are, of course, quite different. Consider the term “mob.” It is in every proper English-language dictionary. Yet, had you been alive two centuries ago, and used the expression in front of such luminaries as Jonathan Swift, you would have been on the receiving end of a rather stern lecture about the use of slang. The proper term, you would have been informed, was “mobile vulgus.” To shorten that eloquent Latin expression to three ugly letters was—you would have been told—crude at best.

    Mr. Swift might well have also explained to you that you were being imprecise. “Mobile vulgus” means “the fickle commoners.” It does not mean “criminal organization” or “crowd” or Ochlocracy. Those are meanings that have been imposed upon the term by users whose understanding of the “real” meaning of the words involved is fundamentally flawed.

    Yet, this does not matter. The shade of Mr. Swift may lecture us until it is quite blue in the spectral face, and we will continue to use “mob” rather than its Latin ancestor and we will continue to use it as a synonym for everything from the mafia to mosh pits.

    Moreover, the briefest examination of modern English will provide dozens of similar cases. “Hopefully,” does not mean “I hope that,” but you will hear it used that way in every quarter (“Hopefully I will get a passing grade.” “Hopefully, we’ll get there by morning.”). “Nauseous” does not mean “feeling sick.” Rather, it means the quality of making you sick, as in “disgusting” or “revolting.” But, the vast majority of English speakers steadfastly employs the term to mean “I need to vomit,” and the grammarian who corrects them risks a well-deserved splattering for doing so.

    My point is simply this: words mean what they want to mean. Or rather, they mean what popular usage determines they shall mean. We may rave and rant and wave our dictionaries with ever increasing vigor, but if the “mobile vulgus” decides to use some term in a way that does not please us…we are out of luck. There is nothing we can do about it.

    And I suspect that “Singularity” is similar. It will take on, abandon, and regain meanings quite as it likes. The authors of this essay may object to “Micro-Singularity” and attempt to ease it from the lexicon. I may coin “multi-singularity” and attempt to smuggle it into the dictionary when no one is watching. But, in the end, we are irrelevant. Singularity will be whatever the man and woman in the street say it is.

    Perhaps when we are no longer human, when we are “transhuman,” things will be different. Perhaps, then, we will rationally decide what a term means and universally abide by that decision. But, I doubt it.

    Humpty Dumpty, alas, is more likely doomed forever to fail. Even when his shell has been replaced by titanium and so neither horses or men are necessary for his reconstruction…still, he will be less mighty than common usage, whose strength surpasseth all human or posthuman understanding.

  6. The Singularity as described (and coined) by Kurzweill is based in the ‘law of accelerating returns”. I tend to graft Terrence McKenna’s “timewave zero” approach onto this – rather, the law of accelerating communicaitons” – as they are inexorably attached.

    As such, it indicates a place in time where we reach an “event horizon” where information is occurring at such a rapid pace that it is impossible to know with any certainty which rabbit hole we’re headed down. We are living the Singularity right this second. It is not a bang, nor a whimper. It is a series of split-second decisions based on information that we have processed badly, and our nanosecond reactions to the repercussions of that flawed judgement. Having left major decisions, such as financial ones to machine logic, we have stripped ourselves of the capacity to engage in human query past the Google-level. (Not all of us, but the majority of us, which creates a tipping point effect).

    The building blocks are all around us. Once we grafted informatics onto the human genome, life changed unalterably and forever. We simply do not know where it’s taking us. Once we became addicted to Twitter and allowed the principle of market predictions based on real-time trend analysis, we destroyed reflection and, to a large degree, what we’ve come to know as sanity. We are contracting sanity anew – but none of us will be able to process or even recognize what our great grandchildren will take for granted.

    We have accelerated the future at such a rate that the train has already begun telling the engineer where to go and where, indeed the tracks are. Inasmuch, we have destroyed the very notion of futre, and set ourselves up for perpetual real-time until we as a race can catch up and adapt to that sea-change. THAT is the Singularity, my friends… and it has only just begun. Enjoy!… I know I will.

  7. I believe the salient quality of the Singularity will be the extraordinary pace of accelerating technology at a certain point in time. I take Kurzweil seriously when he says acceleration is itself accelerating. Thus, developments are not just doubling in a certain amount of time, but doubling in a progressively shorter amount of time. This leads me to postulate a time when our technological progress is doubling in hours, minutes, seconds. Such a model for the Singularity would allow us to track progress towards us very much as Kurzweil is doing with his graphs. On the other hand, if we rely upon the development of greater than human intelligence as our only benchmark, we must wait until that occurs to get any sort of handle on our progress towards the Singularity. IMHO, at that point, it’s far too late for us to engage in any sort of preparation.

    Also, consider that the maturing of a number of technologies will be necessary in order for a full-fledged Singularity to occur. Including the emergence of AIs. The AI will be the effect of a large number of earlier causes (accelerating technologies of materials, hardware, software). As such, the emergence of the AI alone is an insufficient descriptor of Singularitarian processes.

    • Your points are well made, Sally. However, wider evolutionary considerations indicate a qualitative phase transition rather than mere rates of change.

      And, within this wider context. the vector points rather strongly to the network that already exceeds a billion nodes as the emerging new phase of life rather than extensions to, or morphing of humans.

      I agree that many aspects of technology other than IT are prerequisites for this change.

      Indeed, I have looked these in some detail in “Unusual Perspectives”, including the rather speculative assumption of controlled nuclear fusion energy becoming freely available within that time-frame.

  8. Unfortunately the vision of the transhumanist cult as represented by Kurtveil is distorted.

    And the adoption of the buzz-word “Singularity” to identify the up-coming event is quite inappropriate and within this context, meaningless . “Phase transition” is more apt.

    Kurzweil’s predictions are, as always, clouded by anthrocentrism.

    This kind of thinking is, indeed, very hard for any of us to break away from. The robots of Kurzveil’s vision may not be actually human but are nevertheless certainly anthropoid – an effective continuation of our own species

    What is completely missed is that the evolutionary patterns most recently manifested by the exponential development of technology point quite clearly to a quite different outcome in terms of the next phase of this ongoing evolutionary process – a life-form that is not a mere extension of human lineage but an entirely new entity arising from what is at present the Internet.

    This viewpoint is the subject of my recent book “The Goldilocks Effect” which is a free download in e-book formats from my “Unusual Perspectives” website.

    • Dear Peter Kinnon,

      I would agree that Kurzweil’s usage of the word seems to denote more of a phase change than anything else, however, I would point out that he also very firmly discusses a point in time, being 2045, which is a point of departure characterized by an almost vertical growth of technology. He does not state that the Singularity is already happening, and is constantly referring to it as a point in the future (where in which the pace of technology is so fast, and its impact so deep, etc. etc.). It is not as rigorous a way of looking at it as the Intelligence Explosion school, but nonetheless describes something huge.

      • I certainly have no quarrel with Kurtzveil’s estimate of the timing of the up-coming phase transition, Nikki

        And efforts to underline the very clear exponential pattern of technological development (which has been apparent to many of us for more than half a century and even quantified by Gordon Moore 40 years back) are certainly to be commended.

        Nevertheless, Kurtzveil remains completely oblivious to the clear and inevitable extension of biological evolution which, by a process of self-assembly, rather than direct human design, will, within decades, transition to a new inorganic (quite likely diamond-based) phase of the overall life process.

        Although rather counter-intuitive, this a natural extension of the broad evolutionary process which extends beyond the realm of biology and of which the evolution of technology within the medium of the collective imagination is the active phase.

        This model, draws its evidential basis from across the sciences, but particularly chemistry, which, in some ways can be looked at as the basic evolving entity.

        It is expanded upon in my writings, which can be accessed from the Unusual Perspectives website.

  9. This article is good to me subjectively in that it drives home a point that I believe is valid. However, it doesn’t spend too much time arguing WHY the Singularity will be colossal.

    In the first couple paragraphs, it’s repeated many times that the Singularity will be a big deal. Instead of repeating yourselves, why not give more detailed arguments for WHY it will be a big deal?

    • Hello Michael. Yes there is always room for expanding points with more precise detail, but there are also good reasons for avoiding over-elaboration. It is tricky to know how much qualification is required for each statement. There is a balancing act between conciseness and detailed logic. In this case regarding the colossal nature of the event, the explosion, it could have been good to explain why intelligence can evolve rapdily when previously intelligence has been a slowish process. We could have explained how the extreme rapidity, the utterly lightening fast speed of progress, is the foundation of the “colossal” factor. We could have cited Moore’s Law, the Law of Accelerating Returns, and Koomey’s Law in addition to providing tangible examples of how the history of technological progress (past and present) points towards exponential growth.

      My problem, perhaps, is over-familiarity with these issues thus I assume things are obvious when they are not obvious, for some people.

      There comes a point where we must stop going into obvious detail, but I realize the direction of the future is not obvious for some people. Due to over-familiarity it feels like I am explaining the meaning of language merely for the purpose of expressing each sentence. I feel such superfluous qualification is unneeded but perhaps I am looking too far into the future. I feel like each time I want to go for a drive in a car I must prove how the concept of a car exists before my passengers are willing to get in in the car. What I really want to say is:

      “Look, it is right before your eyes, it is a car, just get in it.”

      On reflection I think you are correct Michael. At this stage in history more detail regarding why technological progress will soon become colossal would have been advantageous.

      Recently I read about a new chip by Intel, “Knights Corner”, which crams 50 processor cores into the palm of your hand, whereas formerly in 1996 the equivalent processing power required 72 cabinets of servers. IBM plans to create a “supercomputer” the size of a sugar-cube running at a speed of one ExaFLOP/s by the year 2021. AMD recently released a 16 core Opteron processor. Robot Adam and Eureqa show how robot-scientists (bioinformatics) can help humans progress beyond the problem-solving-limitations of the human brain. The AI Waston is another indication of how technology is will soon help us progress very quickly. From the creation of artificial metallic life (iChells) to bullet-proof skin and invisibility cloaks, or DNA-biocomputers, there are numerous developmental breakthroughs happening each week. We live in a world of superhydrophobic fabric sprays, nano-waterproofing for iPhones/Pads, brain computer interfaces to cure paralysis, 3D-printing of blood vessels, 3D printing in general, and various wondrous achievements in the field of Stem Cells. In front of your eyes the internet is an amazing indication of our future, which is very clear when you consider YouTube is only 6 years old.

      A lot can change in 6 years and change is happening quicker all the time. Our world will be a very different place in 30 years but this is difficult for people to grasp because the concept of technological acceleration has not yet been grasped. Perhaps no amount of evidence will convince people during this point in history. Perhaps another 6 or 10 years of progress are needed to help people see the pattern of acceleration because then the increasing rate of progress will be a lot clearer. Hopefully this comment gives greater detail for people who need clarification regrading the utterly colossal nature of the Singularity.

      I am a great believer in giving people food for thought. I like people to fill in the blanks. Spoon-feeding people information can be good but I prefer it if people can think independently with only the mildest of nudges towards the right direction.

      • Singularity Utopia,

        In my view the vast majority of people take it as common sense NOW that technological change/progress is speeding up.

  10. Hey Nikki (and Nikki’s friend)… I like the idea of clarifying and categorising so I found the article ‘agreeable’ in a general sense. Moreover, having just edited a psych paper on dissociation I was thinking similar things about “nomalizing”… In depth psych some people normalize “dissociation” (i.e. they apply it to everyone) while others want it to be more clinically credible by reserving the concept for those who are psychologically sick. I think that your thought process is on similar ground to mine when you write that… to say that “We are now living through a Singularity” equates to emptying “the concept of any interest”. It “serve[s] to normalize the event and make it mundane”.
    I think it is important to distinguish, clarify and categorize.
    In the technological Singularity you have to admit the obvious that accelerated technological growth is “normalized” in society. Therefore you need to point to a specific aspect of the accelerated technological growth that is therefore highlighted as ‘special’. I take that aspect to be human/machine merger. (although my subjective personal interest is on the health advancements).
    Finally, I doubt that you will ever get the general public to view any of this as an “astronomical event of totally mind-blowing proportions”. I think that it is special for the Singularity community and for those interested in science fiction becoming science fact. But the general populations interest is relatively quiet in comparison.

    Paul.

    btw… I advise prefacing the word “technological” infront of “Singularity” so as to distinguish it from the physics community use of the concept “Singularity”.

    • I need to clarify what I said about the “mind-blowing” verses quietly received Singularity. Within the context of exponential technological growth ‘something’ requires highlighting. That ‘something’ is the human/machine merger. Hence for the tech Singularity community this point in time (when human/machine merger is attained) is ’emphasized’ as the Holy Grail. By ‘highlighting’ something the tec Singularity community goes beyond normalcy. It has a star to reach for. Hence when attained the Singularity community will not be quiet about it. In their opinion it is worthy of celebration. Its “mind-blowing”. But for outsiders it is ‘not’ special/not mind-blowing.

      Again, I always like to say that there are practical/important points that are made by Kurzweil et al concerning radical health advancements that should sway ‘many’ to be friendly towards the Singularity idea.

      • Hey Paul,

        Ray Kurzweil discusses the merging of man and machine as a definitive ‘point’, but others prefer to discuss the creation of superintelligence as the ‘point’ (which is the likely result of a merging). The quote we use from Eliezer regarding the technology tree (“To tamper with intelligence is to pull the technology tree up by its roots”) exemplifies why superintelligence is more consequential than any other event we could point to here.

        I agree with you that discussing the change makes it easier to communicate.

  11. I agree. The word “singularity” should not be turned into a commonplace word. At risk of sounding idiotic, they should make this word meaningless as a powerful event in human history that is most likely soon to come.

  12. A singularity does not, necessarily, mean artificial intelligence. This is important to note, because this means that any significant force-multiplier to human intelligence could be viewed as a singularity. There were in fact two widely recognized industrial revolutions; one of steam and one of electricity and steel.

    The event horizon of the singularity is going to be different depending on where you look at it from. We’re certainly past it from the perspective of neolithic humans, as Victorians would be no more comprehensible to them than we are.

    • Dear Michael Kirkland. In our article we have not specifically stated the intelligence explosion will be artificial in the sense of non-biological computer intelligence. My mind is open on this matter regarding biology and machines. The Singularity is characterized by colossal superintelligence, explosively impacting in a revolutionary manner upon the universe, thus a mere supercomputer or a human genius does not constitute a Singularity. Superintelligence is superhuman but it does not necessarily mean the intelligence is nonbiological.

      Humans could be said to be artificial beings because we often cook our food (an unnatural perpetration process) and we often need artificial protection for our skin because our skin is not entirely adapted to the natural environment thus we build unnatural shelters and wear clothes.

      Yes the Industrial Revolution can be subdivided into two stages, which merge almost seamlessly, but there is only one Industrial Revolution in my opinion, which is similar to how there is only one Stone Age but some people may prefer to say there was a second Stone Age, the New Stone Age. The so-called Second Industrial Revolution (also known as the Technological Revolution) is considered to be a phase of the Industrial Revolution (a phase of industrialization) therefore we see there is only one Industrial Revolution but you can subdivide industrialization. We are now in the Information Age (or the third Industrial Revolution if you prefer). Perhaps the Singularity will be subdivided but there will only be one Singularity. In my opinion we are now slowly entering the pre-Singularity age, which is an era characterized by awareness of the impending Singularity. If the Singularity is divided into early, mid, and late-Singularity periods there will nevertheless only be one Singularity; and the Singularity is definitely not an iPhone or an Industrial Revolution.

      Perhaps if our expression was reworded this would eliminate your misunderstanding regarding how the Industrial Revolution can only happen once. The point is that people who experience the Singularity late, or people who experience industrialization late such as the Chinese, they are not having a new Industrial Revolution or a new Singularity. The Industrial Revolution began in Britain then spread throughout the world but that spreading did not entail multiple Industrial Revolutions regarding each group of people who experienced the Industrial Revolution. Likewise regarding people who experience the Singularity late, their later experience will not entail a new Singularity (multiple Singularities).

      You raise an interesting point regarding multiple Industrial Revolutions because if there can be two, then why not three, four, five, six, or infinity? Maybe the Singularity is not the Singularity. Maybe it is merely the tenth or twentieth Industrial Revolution? This is part of the point we were trying to make regarding definitions of words.

      Yes the Singularity will be different for everybody who experiences it, but individual experiences of the Singularity do not mean there is a Singularity for each individual. Similar to how everyone experienced the Industrial Revolution differently, this does not mean there is an Industrial Revolution for each individual. Chinese industrialization was considerably delayed but this doesn’t change the fact that the Industrial Revolution began in Britain and then eventually spread throughout the world, thus there were not multiple Industrial Revolutions.

      Some historians state the word “Revolution” is a misnomer regarding industrialization thus perhaps according to some people there is no Industrial Revolution thus there is merely Industrialization.

      Our point regarding the Singularity is that it is not an iPhone, it is not mini, and there are not multiple Singularities.

      • Superhuman intelligence isn’t necessary for a singularity, either; all that’s needed is intelligence amplification. Writing, for example, does that. It gives a human who is no more intelligent than an illiterate peer seemingly (but only seemingly) superhuman powers of recall. It then allows further developments like calendars, which give seemingly superhuman abilities of foresight. None of them require a being who is actually any more intelligent than their predecessors, though.

        It pleases our sense of narrative to point to a spot and say “this is where everything changed” and call it the Singularity or Industrial Revolution, but if we look more objectively we see that it’s a smooth (if not perfectly so) curve. The point in the future where it seems to go vertical or in the past where it seems to flatten depends on where you stand along it.

        The iPhone isn’t a singularity, because it doesn’t allow further development. It does what Apple wants it to and no more.

        • Michael Kirkland,

          The idea is that a significant and sudden gain in intelligence would cause rapid and dramatic change in ability/scope of influence, where as creating paper and calenders, or anything else for that matter, does not.

          Paper may have made all sorts of significant things possible, and lead to the development of tools to further augment and perfect those subsequent abilities, but these changes (which are arguably small, comparatively) took place over a relatively long period of time. Via the Singularity we could go from only being able to live on earth to being able to inhabit far away planets (in a relatively short period of time, compared with the time it took to do similar things but on a much smaller scale, like from living in caves to having the option of living in skyscrapers (190,000 years) for instance).

          Vinge’s grasshopper example that we discuss in paragraph four illustrates how dramatic a gain of intelligence is. And because I think this really nicely illustrates the idea, I re-quote Yudkowsky when he says “To tamper with intelligence is to lift the technology tree up by its roots.” Everything is affected. And it would lead via recursive self improvement to an explosion of intelligence, rapidly creating intelligence potentially billions of times greater then that of humans (See I.J. Good “Speculations Concerning the First Ultraintelligent Machine”). Therefore, the technological creation of superintelligence is an event that demarcates past and present like no other. It is a tipping point after which there will predictably be massive and rapid change.

          The way of looking at it that you have outlined, where the Singularity is a slow process that has been going on for thousands of years, is what we sought to illustrate as a ‘fruitless’ and ‘futile’ claim which falls under the category of ‘not even wrong’.

          • Ah, but writing was a significant intellectual force multiplier, and it did cause a rapid and dramatic change in ability and scope of influence. The changes writing made are small compared to later and contemporary advances, but so will ours appear to future observers.

            We’ve been recursively self improving for quite some time. You could even make a compelling argument for that as a definition of life.

            I think we’re arguing over semantics, though. What you’re calling the Singularity I label it’s event horizon. Would you agree that the point at which change accelerates beyond one’s ability to comprehend it is based on where you’re observing it from?

            • This is part of the reason we included the part about “thinking big” at the end, where we argue that one must “think big” in order to properly conceptualize what is meant by the Singularity. Recursive self-improvement is something we have been doing in some sense for some time, but it has been very very slow when compared with what it predicted for the future, in particular concerning the explosive capabilities of AGI (as outlined by I.J. Good, and further developed here: http://singinst.org/overview/whatisthesingularity/).

              The three schools of Singularity thought are interesting when compared and contrasted, in that in some ways they entail and support one another, and in other ways contradict. But the points of this article do not depend on taking any one of these positions, so this is conversation for a different place I think.

  13. I agree with the message here completely. Just one quibble: you start off with “Picture a truly astronomical event of totally mind-blowing proportions”, and finish with “The event itself does not entail that anyone notices”. I’m having trouble reconciling one with the other.

    • Dear Giles. If you picture (imagine or contemplate) an astronomical event of totally mind-blowing proportions you will comprehend what the Singularity is; but your comprehension, contemplation, visualization, or direct experience of the event is not essential for the Singularity to happen. This is why it is NOT essential that humans notice it. Some people, the Amish community for example, may choose to abstain from the mind-blowing experience of the Singularity, or it could happen first amongst aliens in a remote part of the universe (if aliens exist). A failure to partake in the Singularity does not mean it hasn’t happened. Generally, for the majority of beings, the Singularity will radically transform our universe but for those who do not notice it, there will not be a second Singularity at a later date when they finally notice or partake in it. In fact if nobody noticed it, it would nevertheless have happened.

      • To say another way, the Singularity is an objective event, as a tree falling in the forest is an objective event. Treating the Singularity as something subjective raises all sorts of problems. For instance, once we have believable VR, one could create the experience of a “truly astronomical event of totally mind-blowing proportions”, but that would not be the Singularity. Furthermore, it is not enough for an AI to ‘seem’ smarter, it actually has to be smarter to be a Singularity. We say “picture a truly astronomical event” to illustrate the magnitude of the event, but are not saying the Singularity has anything to do with the way things appear.

        • Nikki and Singularity Utopia – that makes sense. Thanks for the clarification.

      • If the Singularity is unique, then we cannot have alien “singularities”. The Singularity is the creation by humans of greater than human intelligence. If the concept can be generalized to aliens, then it probably already happened somewhere in the universe and our singularity wouldn’t be THE Singularity. In that case, the concept would be “the creation of greater intelligence than its creator”. A similar change would be when cells evolved into (“created”) neurons. The “intelligence” coded in DNA was capable of producing a greater neural intelligence. So neurons could be seen as the cell’s artificial intelligence just as robots or computers are seen as our artificial intelligence.

        • Yup, I agree.

          The Singularity is a theory referring to greater than human intelligence, and so is not generalizable to alien intelligence. But you are correct to say that “the creation of greater intelligence than its creator” is something that could have multiple instantiations.

          It is important to note that the Singularity definition specifies that it is the ‘technological’ creation of superintelligence (hence why it is often called the technological singularity), since while it is true that evolution breeds surpassings in intelligence all the time, these extremely slow and limited processes are not what is meant by the Singularity. The difference with the Singularity is that a substantial gain is made suddenly, with the idea being that it would require technology to produce such a sudden gain.

          Thus if we define the Singularity as “the technological creation of greater than human intelligence”, we run into no problems like the ones you mention, and the event in question is wholly singular.

          • It occurs to me after posting the above that people specify with the word ‘technological’ primarily for the purpose of distinguishing from the astrophysics usage, and others. The point is that it is crucial that the ‘technological’ part be emphasized so as to not run into any problems regarding purely biological analogies.

        • Dear Santiago Ochoa, I think we could have an alien Singularity but I personally do not see aliens as being alien. For me the concept of being human is a bigger issue than mere human DNA thus the words “humane” and “humanity” describe traits not specifically related to DNA. An AI or robot with sufficient intelligence could therefore theoretically be humane, endowed with humanity, and deserving of human rights.

          Over the coming years the notion of what it means to be “human” will inevitably be redefined and we will probably find it is not strictly humans (in the DNA-sense) who start the Singularity. I suspect it will be Transhumans (Biologically/technologically enhanced humans, robots, AIs, or animals) who start the Singularity. In the not too distant future I suspect our human DNA will be significantly altered so that we are not technically human when the Singularity actually happens; but in the sense of humanity (being humane) we will always be human similar to how all intelligent beings throughout the universe will always be human. More precisely the Singularity is instigated by Transhumans and being Transhuman is a bigger issue than merely having portions of human DNA, for example a robot could be deemed Transhuman.

          Faster Than Light events have not yet been proved but I am nevertheless a firm advocate of FTL technology eventually happening (or wormhole travel), despite the causality problems, thus it is my view the Singularity can be a so-called “alien Singularity” but there will be only one Singularity similar to how there was only one Big Bang regarding our universe. It is my view the Singularity will be far more powerful than the Big Bang.

          When the Singularity happens everyone will be able to detect it and experience it if they desire. The so-called alien Singularity has not happened because either aliens do not exist or they are behind us in technological development. Hypothetical aliens are not really alien. The term alien is very subjective thus maybe AIs could be deemed aliens or we could be aliens from the viewpoint of aliens. I prefer to see so-called aliens as our brothers and sisters because we are all children of the universe. The important thing to focus on is our commonality, our intelligence, our humanity.

          The concept of the Singularity happening in Virtual Reality is interesting. If a Singularity in VR is “truly” astronomical and truly mind-blowing then it would constitute the Singularity, for example we could be in VR now (note the Simulation Argument) thus if we experience the Singularity it will be the one and only Singularity even if we are in a simulation. The VR would need to be truly astronomical for a VR-Singularity to be truly astronomical. When considering the “truly astronomical” statement please note the sentiment is total-wide-reaching-massiveness transcending all barriers. The Singularity is therefor unique whether is is “alien” or in VR. It is unique due to the truly astronomically wide-reaching consequences, which impact upon all aspects of the universe. We are contemplating supreme intelligence, or super-intelligence, or superhuman intelligence, which will have a truly mind-blowing impact upon the universe.

          To differentiate between the gravitational singularity and the technological Singularity I capitalize the word Singularity. My meaning regarding technology, when I refer to the technological Singularity, encompasses biological mechanisms thus “technology” is both biological and mechanical because I’m convinced so-called “machines” of the future will become more organic therefore we will experience a machine and biology convergence, which will entail the two fields being indistinguishable. Machines of the future will not be clunking primitive mechanical things. Biological systems, cells, and organisms and are essentially organic machines thus biotech and bioengineering reveal how we should try to move away from the machine/biology divide.

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