The Singularity Is Near!

What I had heard about the Singularity before reading Ray Kurzweil‘s book “The Singularity Is Near” was this: In the very near future computers will reach the processing power of the human brain, will become conscious and able to improve themselves, thereby getting exponentially smarter and quickly “taking over the world”.

I never doubted that computers would reach the human brain’s processing power, but I was always curious why the Singularity assumes that they’d automatically become conscious. Surely you need the right software for that!

Ray Kurzweil makes it very clear in his book what is needed for that step to take place, how to achieve it, and why he believes that we will achieve it very soon (in about 30 years). His main argument, for which he presents a great deal of quite convincing evidence, is that progress in science and technology is not linear, but exponential. That is especially true for the three key technologies enabling the Singularity, namely genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics.

In short, Kurzweil expects that we will come to a point where we will be able to scan a human brain, most probably via nanotechnology, and then “run” it on a computer, effectively creating an electronic copy of the brain’s proprietor. Even before that we will enhance our brains and bodies via genetics and nanotechnology, starting a transition from being purely biological creatures, merging with nanotechnology and robotics, to having purely digital brains and probably virtual bodies (physical bodies, whether biological or robotic, will be a hindrance once our speed of thought has accelerated by a few orders of magnitude).

What to think of all this? I didn’t doubt that we will at some point have the technology to “transcend biology”, as Kurzweil puts it, but I didn’t think that it might happen in my lifetime. Kurzweil’s vision depends on exponential progress in three technologies, and he presents very convincing arguments that not only are they currently progressing exponentially, but also that this exponential progress is sustainable at least up to the point where super-human machine-intelligence will be a reality, and at that point, further progress will be driven more and more by this superior intelligence. Am I completely convinced? No, but I’d say that it looks to be a real possibility. Unless we blow ourselves up first…

And if you’d like to get a fictional picture of what life after the Singularity might be like, I can recommend no better book than Greg Egan’s “Diaspora“.