Documenting the Coming Singularity

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Future Technological Change: Evolutionary or Revolutionary?

Among the individuals making up the scientific community, according to Mike Treder of the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, there are two competing schools of thought concerning the near-term future changes in technology. One group, the majority, believes in a continued gradual slope of change. The other, a much smaller set of scientists, is expecting a discontinuity to occur fairly soon. They anticipate a change so transformative that society will not be the same subsequent to it. This transformation may be the result of advances in on of three possible fields: artificial intelligence, bioengineering, or nanotechnology.

Mike makes a compelling case for the idea that we will see a combination of the two futures. He posits that we are really talking about two different kinds of change: Societal and Technological. Technology often changes society, but not always immediately upon its invention. For example, the Internet was created some years before the World Wide Web made it accessible to most people. So Mike introduces the following graph:

Societal vs. Technological Change

He proposes several possible scenarios that could cause the sudden societal transformation shown in his graph:
  • Significant improvements in software development and sophisticated user interfaces could produce a level of virtual reality that is close to indistinguishable from the real world.
  • A combination of advanced neurotechnology and powerful supercomputing conceivably could enable consciousness uploading, in which a replica of an individual human mind would be recapitulated in cyberspace.
  • Breakthroughs in computer programming could give rise to true artificial intelligence; if one or more such systems are capable of recursive self-improvement, this could lead to a superintelligence far surpassing human comprehension.
  • In nanotechnology, the long anticipated development of exponential general-purpose molecular manufacturing could present tremendous opportunities for societal benefits while simultaneously bringing grave dangers such as economic meltdown, environmental havoc, or an unstable arms race.
Admittedly, there is a chance that none of this will occur. However, I wouldn't bet on it.

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