Saturday, December 4, 2010

The singularity is not in our past

I think this person is absolutely right about the significance of the industrial revolution but also misses the point about the technological singularity.

There can be no doubt that the industrial revolution represented a profound break in human history. Adding to what Mr. Shalizi states in his post, we can also include massive movements of population, unprecedented increases in worker productivity and accumulation of wealth, an almost 50% increase in human life expectancy in as little as a century, a radical transformation of the cost and therefore the meaning of war, to say nothing of all the impressive and interesting intellectual advances. Of course the seeds of the industrial revolution can be traced back to the middle ages, even back to Roman times. But there can be no doubt that a large, qualitative shift took place in the 19th century which left virtually no aspect of human existence untouched.

Now, the singularity can mean a lot of things, depending on the author you read. Vernor Vinge's early paper on the subject deals mostly with superhuman intelligence, as did I.J. Good's. J├╝rgen Schmidhuber places emphasis on the acceleration of paradigm shifts in computing, starting back in the 17th century and going to the present. Raymond Kurzweil thinks there will hardly be a single area of life that will not be revolutionized by the singularity.

In no case, though, is the singularity simply about "unpredictable growth of technology", a "profoundly dis-orienting transformation in the life of humanity", "distributed systems of information-processing", or any of the other things Mr. Shalizi correctly states belong to the present and past of humanity. If that's what is meant by a singularity, then Mr. Shalizi is being conservative. The singularity really took place some time in the early 16th century. Schmidhuber makes this claim somewhere, but I can't find it on his byzantine web page. Basically he argues that, since historians think the European arrival in the New World and the Protestant Reformation were the two most important events of the last 1,000 years, this proves an acceleration of events that should have culminated some time around the middle of the 16th century.

But if you think about it, that's again somewhat conservative. Why not bring it back to the agrarian revolution 10,000 years ago? After all, that resulted in civilization: population increase, stratification, science, religion, art, and abstract thought. Isn't everything else a mere footnote to that?

Of course a technological singularity will disrupt history, and of course its effects are unpredictable. And when we look at the past, of course we tend to downplay the disruption and impose necessity, even though, if you lived back then, you would have found events to be neither predictable nor smooth. But I don't think that's the point. Or at least it's not the only point.

What's unique about the singularity is that it represents an exponential increase in the ratio between non-biological and biological intelligence. Merely pointing out that the rate of change in history is increasing doesn't make one a singularitarian. After all, it's easy to point out that it's been increasing for a long time. Merely pointing out that some day non-biological, superhuman intelligence will replace biological intelligence isn't distinctive, either. What makes a person singularitarian is that they believe this transformation will take place on the order of decades, not centuries. On this interpretation, it makes little difference whether you think a machine will pass the Turning Test in 2020, 2030, 2040, or 2080. Most people, if they give the issue thought at all, think it won't happen until 2100 or 2200 or never.

The same goes for the application of information technology to other fields like medicine. It's easy to grasp that life expectancy (and quality of life) have increased drastically in the last 200 years for everyone on earth. And if you read U.S. Department of Health and Human Services papers, you know the government is preparing for a population where people routinely live beyond 100 years of age. What most people do not think about—and what singularitarians do think about—is the inevitability of living indefinitely and what this means for human civilization and for the meaning of an individual life. Since a singularitarian believes this will be achievable in decades rather than centuries, it's a practical problem, not a mere theoretical problem.

So the question isn't whether there have been paradigm shifts which have thrown everything up in the air and have changed everything humans took for granted. There have been many such shifts. (And before humans, there were many such "game-changing" shifts with regard to the rules of life generally.) It's more a question of how close together those paradigm shifts are occurring now. It's a question of the time-scale you're talking about. Are the changes depicted in the wildest science fiction going to occur by the year 2500, or are they going to occur by 2050 or 2100? The scale of 102 is too large to make a difference to an individual human life (as we know it so far). But the 101 scale, well, that's a different story. That's why people who read about the singularity get so excited about it. That believe they'll live to see it and benefit from it.

No comments: