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
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 nowdepending on which evolutionary theorist,
systems theorist, computer scientist, technology studies scholar,
or futurist you happen to agree withthe 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 environmentour biological
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?
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