Accelerating Change 2005. September 16-18, Stanford University. Artificial Intelligence and Intelligence Amplification. Transforming Technology, Empowering Humanity

What is the "Technological Singularity" Hypothesis?

The "technological singularity" is a phrase used by lay futurists and technology scholars since Vernor Vinge's essay, "The Coming Technological Singularity," 1993, to describe hypothetical scenarios for the emergence of greater-than-human computational intelligence in the foreseeable future.

In science, a singularity is a type of phase change, a special physical environment where new physical properties and capacities emerge, with dynamics described by new types of laws that can't be fully understood from a pre-singularity perspective. The emergence of human consciousness was one such (human culture) singularity: note that the laws, perceptions, and ethics that accompany human culture cannot be directly understood from the perspective of non-human animal species. The gradual emergence of self-aware computers in coming decades may create another such (technological) singularity, bringing entirely new forms of intelligence and interdependence into the world. To what extent are we presently facilitating the emergence of this new singularity? To what extent are we "changing ourselves" as we participate in it? Perhaps most importantly, as our technologies continue to develop, how can we best ensure that they follow appropriate paths and serve human ends?

Earth's electronic systems have been self-organizing at the speed of light since Faraday's time. By one measure, the speed of electricity versus the speed an action potential and synaptic diffusion in a human brain, this generalized rate of electronic evolutionary development (perhaps a generalized "rate of learning") is roughly seven million times faster than the speed of higher human thought.

In a socially-empowering yet also astonishing state of affairs, we have seen each new generation of our computing systems become increasingly miniaturized, increasingly resource efficient (per standard computation, however defined), increasingly autonomous (in the maintenance and replication of its complexity, again however defined) and increasingly biologically-inspired (having features of evolutionary development or organization increasingly similar to our own) than the last.

Accelerating computational capacity and efficiency trends, when generally defined, have held for centuries. When defined more narrowly, as in price-performance measures, we have been able to plot them now for over a century as our computing systems have become increasingly miniaturized and resource efficient. More curiously, physicists today see no near-term limit to the continuance of these trends, other than the Planck-scale limit of fundamental universal structure itself. Unlike the modest annual efficiency increases we observe at the human scale, stunning efficiency increases in physical and computational transformations—ranging from one to six orders of magnitude per new discovery—have been the consistent story of the physics of the microcosm during the entire 20th century. Computing systems are increasingly able to guide their own self-improvement as they incorporate more biological "life-like" architectures. We have come to observe them as increasingly intimately connected, "electronic extensions" of the human society they serve. As Brian Arthur observes, technology is becoming organic, and nature is becoming technologic.

Should such trends continue, some 20 to 140 years from now—depending on which evolutionary theorist, systems theorist, computer scientist, technology studies scholar, or futurist you happen to agree with—the ever-increasing rate of higher computational change in our local environment may undergo a "singularity," becoming human-surpassing and, from our perspective, effectively instantaneous in both the rate and significance of its self-improvement.

As a result, the continued acceleration of local technological intelligence in our environment is very likely to be the central driver and determinant of the modern era. Hesitantly at first, and quickly now, these increasingly fast and microscopic physical extensions of our humanity may soon learn (encode, predict, and understand) both the physical and abstract nature of all the slow and macroscopic systems in our local environment—our biological selves included.

While the human animal is scarcely different with each new generation, our "houses" are becoming exponentially smarter, as well as increasingly natural extensions of our biological selves. In this fascinating process, technology and humanity are becoming ever more seamlessly interconnected and interdependent.

Even our minds, values, and intentions, in a process that William Sims Bainbridge calls "personality capture," are being incrementally encoded into our technological infrastructure, so that it may better anticipate our needs, and serve us with increasing responsiveness and effectiveness with each passing year. If information technology continues to accelerate, and continues to be our greatest lever for solving human problems, we can expect increasingly powerful examples of this human-machine symbiosis in the decades ahead.

Ultimately, "What is the singularity?" may not be the most important question to ask, from the human perspective. Relatively soon in time, if this event happens, in a broad phase transition for planetary intelligence, the singularity will be us.

Assuming today's impressive technological acceleration continues, how can we most consciously and humanely guide this process? Perhaps the first steps are to acknowledge the trends and evidence, to determine ways to better monitor and manage this change, to discover the uses and limits of today's technology to solve current problems, and to responsibly and sustainably develop more helpful technology to provide solutions tomorrow.

The truth or falsity of the technological singularity hypothesis is not likely to be determined in the near term, yet valuable evidence can be collected both for and against it, year by year. Such evidence will only improve the quality of our actions today.

Join us at Accelerating Change, where a multidisciplinary community of leaders in science, technology, business, and social domains will ask each other how to best use technology to make a better, safer, more empowering world.

Key Questions
How does computation affect our environment?
What is accelerating technological change?
Why is accelerating change important?
What is the universal story of accelerating change?
What is the "technological singularity" hypothesis?
Where might accelerating change take us in the 21st century?
What are our main benefits and risks with regard to accelerating change?
How do we improve the study of accelerating change?


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