Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Singularity

Ray Kurzweil is a brilliant man who has been writing for decades about artificial intelligence (AI) and the extraordinary growth of computing power. The development of microchips and the increasing quantities of data that can be stored on a microchip has risen exponentially since the 19th century and Kurzweil sees no reason to think the growth won't continue.

This means that at some point computing power will skyrocket and when it does computers will be able to do everything, Kurzweil believes, that our brains can do. People will be able to scan their brains' contents, including their ability to produce states of consciousness, onto a computer and leave the physical body behind. It will be the end of humanity as we know it.

Kurzweil thinks that, at present rates of increase in the power of our computers, this point, what he calls The Singularity, will be reached by 2045.

Lev Grossman at Time has a fascinating essay on Kurzweil and his ideas. Here are a few excerpts:
Computers are getting faster. Everybody knows that. Also, computers are getting faster faster — that is, the rate at which they're getting faster is increasing.

So if computers are getting so much faster, so incredibly fast, there might conceivably come a moment when they are capable of something comparable to human intelligence. Artificial intelligence. All that horsepower could be put in the service of emulating whatever it is our brains are doing when they create consciousness — not just doing arithmetic very quickly or composing piano music but also driving cars, writing books, making ethical decisions, appreciating fancy paintings, making witty observations at cocktail parties.

The one thing all these theories have in common is the transformation of our species into something that is no longer recognizable as such to humanity circa 2011. This transformation has a name: the Singularity.

We will successfully reverse-engineer the human brain by the mid-2020s. By the end of that decade, computers will be capable of human-level intelligence. Kurzweil puts the date of the Singularity — never say he's not conservative — at 2045. In that year, he estimates, given the vast increases in computing power and the vast reductions in the cost of same, the quantity of artificial intelligence created will be about a billion times the sum of all the human intelligence that exists today.

Once hyper-intelligent artificial intelligences arise, armed with advanced nanotechnology, they'll really be able to wrestle with the vastly complex, systemic problems associated with aging in humans. Alternatively, by then we'll be able to transfer our minds to sturdier vessels such as computers and robots. He and many other Singularitarians take seriously the proposition that many people who are alive today will wind up being functionally immortal.
Grossman also discusses some of the objections to Kurzweil's vision, but one which he doesn't mention and which would seem to be a strong possibility is that when growth of anything - population, global temperature, speed - goes "hockey stick" (i.e. the graph looks like a hockey stick laying on its spine with the blade pointed up), some constraining factor always gets activated which causes the growth to stop or collapse. I don't know what the constraints might be on exponentially increasing computing power, or at what point they would kick in, but I wouldn't be surprised if it doesn't turn out that there are such limits on how powerful a computer can get.

Anyway, what is just as interesting about Grossman's article is his discussion of how telomerase is being used to slow or reverse the aging process. You'll have to read the article to see what that's all about.

More Questions about Egypt

A few more miscellaneous thoughts about the situation in Egypt:

1. During the Iraq war many in the media were saying that the Iraqi people were unaccustomed and ill-suited for democracy. During the Egyptian upheaval no one was saying that the Egyptian people were unaccustomed and ill-suited for democracy. What's the difference?

2. What effect did our willingness to throw Mubarak under the bus have on other despots in the region who have cooperated with the United States because they trusted us to stand by them in a crisis? I don't say that we should have propped Mubarak up, but I don't think either that we will know the ramifications of our willingness to see him go for a long time. Meanwhile, leaders looking for a more reliable ally might be looking eastward toward Tehran or Beijing for friends less punctilious than we are about authoritarianism. Debkafile reports that Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah is outraged at the Obama administration and has already moved to strengthen ties to Iran.

3. Has there ever before been a military coup that the Left was excited about? What makes the coup in Egypt different from others for the Left?

4. The other day the people on MSNBC's Morning Joe interviewed Harvard historian Niall Ferguson who has a cover story in this week's Newsweek titled How Obama Blew it. The MSNBC folks are all supporters of the President so their guest's thesis wrankled, but by the end of his interview they seemed to have little to say. ?

One thing to notice as you watch the video - which really is worth watching even if you don't think the Obama administration actually "blew it" - is how the hosts simply assume that since things appear to have gone well in Egypt, at least so far, that therefore it must be a result of the President's policies. It never occurs to them that the Egyptians may have been completely oblivious, indifferent, or even angry with the President's actions during this crisis.

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Aren't those Brits enviably adroit thinkers and speakers? They always amaze me.