Accelerating Change 2004 :: Physical Space, Virtual Space, and Interface
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What is the "Technological Singularity"?

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

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. Self-aware computers may very likely create another such (technological) singularity, bringing entirely new forms of intelligence and interdependence into the world. To what extent are we facilitating the emergence of this singularity? To what extent will we change ourselves to participate in it? Perhaps most importantly, as technology continues to accelerate, how do we best ensure today that it serves human ends?

Earth's electronic systems have been self-organizing at the speed of light since Faraday's time. This generalized rate of electronic evolutionary development is at least seven million times faster than biological information processing (the speed of an action potential and synaptic diffusion in a human brain). In an utterly surprising state of affairs, each new generation of computing system has been, without exception, increasingly miniaturized, increasingly resource efficient (per standard computation, however defined), increasingly human autonomous (in the 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.

These accelerating computational capacity and efficiency trends have held for centuries, and physicists today see no near term limit to their continuance, other than the Planck-scale limit of fundamental universal structure itself. 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 technological change in our local environment will 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 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 biological ourselves. In a fascinating process, technology and humanity are becoming ever more seamlessly interconnected and interdependent. As Brian Arthur describes, technology is becoming organic, and nature is becoming technologic. Even our minds and intentions, in a process that William Bainbridge calls "personality capture," are becoming incrementally encoded into our increasingly intelligent technological infrastructure, so that it may better anticipate our needs, and serve us with increasing responsiveness and effectiveness with each passing year.

Ultimately, "What is the singularity?" may not be the most important question to ask, from the human perspective. Relatively soon in time, in a broad phase transition for planetary intelligence, the singularity will be us. How do we most consciously and humanely guide this process?

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


Key Questions
What is accelerating change?
Why is accelerating change important?
What are the historical drivers of accelerating change?
What is the "technological singularity"?
Where will accelerating change take us in the 21st century?
What are our major benefits and risks with regard to accelerating change?

Analysis • Forecasting • Action

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