Documenting the Coming Singularity

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Boiling the Frog: Our Transition to Singularity

You've all heard the metaphor, right? Boiling a frog? Gradually increasing the temperature of the water so the frog gets used to it until it's hot enough to boil? Yes, that one. Apart from the sad conclusion of the analogy, the idea of gradual change not being very noticeable fits the way that accelerating technological change will be accepted by humans.

When you first hear the predictions that the singularity postulates, you are tempted to scoff. Human minds uploaded into a computer? Conscious machines blowing past human-levels of intelligence? Nanotech-augmented humans living indefinitely? Poppycock!

But consider how you would have responded 50 years ago to the idea of a global Internet connecting everyone instantly. Tivo. Google. iPods. You might have been tempted to scoff then, too. (Although society was a lot less jaded and a lot more credulous back then.)

My point is that we do not notice change when it happens gradually. And we should understand that the predictions of the singularity, although fast by today's standards, will arrive gradually, piece by piece, degree by degree, until we are happily boiling away in a delicious stew of transhumanism and computation. Let's look at a few examples.

Robotics: Rather than picture a world of intelligent androids a la I, Robot or Commander Data, think instead of robots being deployed in jobs that are too dangerous, difficult, unhealthy or boring for humans. That's already happening. Robots that drive carts around a Pittsburgh hospital, freeing up nurses to do more important things. Robots in Iraq that check out suspicious-looking objects that might be roadside bombs. We should see the development of robots doing mining operations and meat-packing. By taking on these jobs, robots improve the quality of human lives and make us more productive. As Rodney Brooks, Director of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab and CTO of iRobot, adds:
So, it's not going to take any jobs away from people who want them.

Brain surgery. These surgeons are now doing surgeries they wouldn't have contemplated before because they have much better tools of knowing where everything is and being able to know what's happening.

It's like, you know, computers didn't replace office workers or accountants. They have changed the nature of the work they did, increased their reality meter says that it's much more a symbiosis, working together and the robots doing the easy cases of the easy tasks, etc.
What about fully-autonomous cars. Will we feel comfortable giving up control of a vehicle traveling a busy highway at 70 mph?
I think that willingness to give up control is going to be slow. The car companies aren't saying, 'let's build an autonomous car right now.' They're saying, 'let's build aids.' I think gradually over time people would become more accustomed to this and we'll see gradual shifts. The high-end Lexus self-parking, automatic lane changing, staying at a fixed distance from another car. That's going to continue, because these are safety issues, and the Japanese car manufacturers in particular and the Germans want safety.
Augmented Brains: This will also happen gradually, beginning with neural prosthetics, at first being medical in nature. Cochlear implants for people with no hearing, artificial retinas for the sightless. There will be memory implants for people who have lost memory-creation and -storage function in the hippocampus. But when these implants become less expensive and require less-invasive procedures, they will be offered commercially as enhancements to functioning brains as well.

Uploaded (Instantiated) Minds: A team of researchers at Stanford is working at designing computer chips that mimic the human brain:
The team is also in the process of developing other neuromorphic chips. Its latest project--and the most ambitious neuromorphic effort anywhere to date--is a model of the cortex, the most recently evolved part of our brain. The intricate structure of the cortex allows us to perform complex computational feats, such as understanding language, recognizing faces, and planning for the future. The model's first-generation design will consist of a circuit board with 16 chips, each containing a 256-by-256 array of silicon neurons.
As these designs begin to approximate the functioning of the brain, it is not difficult to imagine researchers uploading patterns gleaned from high-resolution scans of animal brains and then human brains into these computer substrates.

These are just a few examples of how gradually these developments will take place, so gradually that we don't notice. Unless we stay tuned.

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