The Age of the Machine

Let’s rewind to 1985 for a moment. Marty McFly accidentally travels back in time to 1955. While he’s there he bumps into his future parents. He finds out his dad is a huge nerd and his mother thinks he’s “dreamy”. It’s 2020 and we still don’t have time travel or flying cars which Back to the Future had us expecting. However, we do have some other equally as impressive innovations and inventions. Devices that give us endless functionality and fit in our pocket. It’s called a smartphone. There’s an entity that gives us answers to just about any questions on our minds. If you hadn’t guessed this is Google’s search engine. And there’s a social network that allows us to stay connected to friends and family from all corners of the planet. This is, of course, Facebook. And finally, there’s an online store that sells just about anything. This is none other than Amazon’s online marketplace. In the last 5 years things have become even more interesting. As more humans and machines begin to collaboratively work on projects we are witnessing a whole new explosion of technological growth from autonomous vehicles, vacuums and drones. The latest sci fi like projects include SpaceX’s Starlink and space tourism. These collaborations developments guarantee to impact our not so distant future and many generations to come. But what is on the horizon will have the greatest impact. You probably already have a form of it in your home. While exciting for some it terrifying for others. It’s called singularity.

The End of the Human Era

Singularity has become a popular catchphrase these days among technologists and geeks, but most everyone else has probably never heard of it, and don’t care to. In a decade from now it will be much more well known. Your aunt or next door neighbour probably will be talking about it. Singularity is something that will effect everyone. History is full of cases in which a new and groundbreaking technology, or a collection of such technologies, completely changes people’s lives. Think about the smartphone. The change is often so dramatic that people who’ve lived before the technological leap find it difficult understanding future generations. The new generations may as well be aliens in their way of thinking and seeing the world. These kinds of dramatic shifts in thinking are singularity, a phrase that was originally derived from mathematics, describing a point which we are incapable of deciphering its exact properties. It’s a place where the equations basically go nuts and no longer make any sense.[1] Vernor Vinge, an author and professor, introduced the term singularity in his fictional novel, “Marooned in Realtime,” describing it as a time in which humans achieve the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly thereafter the human era ends. In the words of Marty McFly, “This is heavy.”

The Dawn of a New Era

Imagine a world when humans no longer have control of what is next. They can no longer mess things up, slow them down or even guess what is next. Singularity is a point in the future, an event horizon of sorts, where humans no longer have control of technology. Technology reaches a point where it becomes incomprehensible, not because we don’t understand it, but because it is now in control of another entity: super artificial intelligence. Ray Kurzweil, an inventor and futurist, makes the analogy that singularity is akin to the event horizon of a black hole where modern physics break down. In other words, humankind will no longer possess the ability to predict what will happen after the development of superintelligence. Superintelligence abilities will be far beyond that of human comprehension.[2] Kurweil believes machine power will surpass brain power equivalent to that of all human brains combined by 2045. Something of that level of intelligence could theoretically conceive ideas that no human has previously thought about. It will invent technological tools that will be more sophisticated and advanced than anything we have ever seen.[3] It will be the beginning of a new era.

Singularity is a point in the future, an event horizon of sorts, where humans no longer have control of technology. Technology reaches a point where it becomes incomprehensible, not because we don’t understand it, but because it is now in control of another entity: super artificial intelligence.

Smarter than Einstein

A few of the most widely regarded scientists, thinkers and inventors, like Elon Musk and Steven Hawking, have expressed their concerns how super intelligent AI could escape our control and eventually turn on us. Musk once compared work on AI to, “summoning the demon”. We see glimpses just how horrifying a world with super intelligent AI could be in sci-fi films like the Terminator, Eagle Eye or I, Robot. The worst case scenario, AI would decide we are an existential risk to humanity, and make the decision to eliminate humanity or a very large portion of the global population. Others like, Kurzeil see unfathomable opportunities that superintelligence could hold for humanity. If kept on a tight leash, superintelligence could analyze and expose many of the wonders of the world for us. If AI were to be as intelligent or more than Einstein, a remarkable genius who has revolutionized our understanding of physics, wouldn’t humanity benefit tremendously? The world would certainly change if thousands or millions of ‘Einsteins’ were introduced to analyze every problem. Let’s not forget, Einstein was a key contributor to the creation of the atom bomb and nuclear energy, something many of us loathe.

An Unstoppable Force

Nick Bostrom, a philosopher and professor at the University of Oxford, argues that once artificial intelligence reaches human-level intelligence, sometime in the next 100 years a superintelligent system that “greatly exceeds the cognitive performance of humans in virtually all domains of interest” would, most likely, follow surprisingly quickly. Such superintelligence would be incredibly difficult to control or restrain. Its intelligence won’t stop or slow, but would exponentially increase.[4] Since one of the roles of this AI would be to improve itself and perform better, it seems pretty obvious that once we have superintelligent AI, it will be able to create a better version of itself. The new generation of AI would then improve itself even further. This kind of race would lead to an intelligence explosion that would leave biological beings, like ourselves, far behind.[5] And we would be helpless to stop it.

But There Could Be Many Benefits

Now all this talk about humans creating something that would lead to our demise, hopefully won’t be the case. Musk suggests AI should follow a set of regulations as required for transportation, drugs and foods. Bostrom suggests instilling within the superintelligence, goals that are compatible with human survival and wellbeing. Solving the control problem won’t be easy as most goals, when translated into machine-implementable code, lead to unforeseen and undesirable consequences.[6] If we can achieve this, we can expect to experience a surge in technology, wealth and well-being as never seen before. With superintelligence humanity could solve some of its most challenging issues. Problems we have made little or no progress on. Imagine ending world hunger, curing all infectious diseases, extending life, restoring our rivers and oceans, ending all wars or reversing climate change. A utopian society that was made possible through superintelligence.

Horizons (by Robert McCall, 1983)

If You Can’t Beat Them

After his defeat in chess by the computer “Deep Blue” in 1997, Gary Kasparov created a new kind of chess contest. A contest in which humanoid and computerized players collaborate, and together reach greater successes and accomplishments than they could have on their own. In this sort of a collaboration, the computer provides rapid computations of possible moves, and suggests several to the human player. Its human compatriot needs to pick the best option, to understand their opponents and to throw them off balance. Some will resist the rise of AI, while others will realize the only way forward is to unite with artificial intelligence and collaborate with them, a type of singularity all in itself.[7] Those who do will be able to achieve far greater things than ever before, ushering in a new and prosperous era for humanity.

References

  1. Singularity: Explain It to Me Like I’m 5-Years-Old. Futurism. March 3, 2017.
  2. What is Singularity?. Technopedia.
  3. Singularity: Explain It to Me Like I’m 5-Years-Old. Futurism. March 3, 2017.
  4. Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, Nick Bostrom. Oxford University Press, 2014.
  5. Singularity: Explain It to Me Like I’m 5-Years-Old. Futurism. March 3, 2017.
  6. Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, Nick Bostrom. Oxford University Press, 2014.
  7. Singularity: Explain It to Me Like I’m 5-Years-Old. Futurism. March 3, 2017.

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