Documenting the Coming Singularity

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

The Singularity Hits Congress

What's a singularity? "Singularity" is a term invented in the field of physics, adopted in the field of cosmology, and adapted, in this context, to refer to the point in time when the rapidly accelerating pace of technological progress changes society in a radical way, to the point where it is very difficult to see beyond this point. Ray Kurzweil has estimated this point in time to be approximately 2045. Advances in three fields will participate in bringing about the singularity. Genetics; Nanotechnology; and Robotics, or GNR.

Amazingly, a report [PDF] has been published by Representative Jim Saxon (R-NJ), Ranking Member of the Joint Economic Committee, United States Congress, authored by Dr. Joseph Kennedy, Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University, titled Nanotechnology: The Future is Coming Sooner than you Think. Looks like someone in Congress gets it. Some excerpts from the report:
Enhanced abilities to understand and manipulate matter at the molecular and atomic levels promise a wave of significant new technologies over the next five decades. Dramatic breakthroughs will occur in diverse areas such as medicine, communications, computing, energy, and robotics. These changes will generate large amounts of wealth and force wrenching changes in existing markets and institutions.

In 1970 Alvin Toffler, noted technologist and futurist, argued that the acceleration of technological and social change was likely to challenge the capacity of both individuals and institutions to understand and to adapt to it. Although the world has changed a great deal since then, few would argue that the pace of change has had the discontinuous effects that Toffler predicted. However, rapid advances in a number of fields, collectively known as nanotechnology, make it possible that Mr. Toffler’s future has merely been delayed. In fact, some futurists now talk about an unspecified date sometime around the middle of this century when, because of the accelerating pace of technology, life will be radically different than at any prior time.

Every exponential curve eventually reaches a point where the growth rate becomes almost infinite. This point is often called the Singularity. If technology continues to advance at exponential rates, what happens after 2020? Technology is likely to continue, but at this stage some observers forecast a period at which scientific advances aggressively assume their own momentum and accelerate at unprecedented levels, enabling products that today seem like science fiction. Beyond the Singularity, human society is incomparably different from what it is today. Several assumptions seem to drive predictions of a Singularity. The first is that continued material demands and competitive pressures will continue to drive technology forward. Second, at some point artificial intelligence advances to a point where computers enhance and accelerate scientific discovery and technological change. In other words, intelligent machines start to produce discoveries that are too complex for humans. Finally, there is an assumption that solutions to most of today’s problems including material scarcity, human health, and environmental degradation can be solved by technology, if not by us, then by the computers we eventually develop.

The concept of the coming singularity may seem far fetched and difficult to grasp. But I believe that those of us who take the time to understand it and its implications for our lives will be better able to adapt and take advantage of what is to come. I hope you'll accompany me on this journey.

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