As one of the most prolific inventors of the 20th century, Ray Kurzweil has made a career out of creating the future. As an author, inventor and futurist, much of Kurzweil’s most recent work has focused on the concept of Singularity. Understood as the time in which information technology exceeds the powers of the human brain, Kurzweil posits that machines will surpass the mental capacity of humans by the year 2030.
Founded upon the Law of Accelerated Returns, many of Kurzweil’s predictions revolve around the idea that technology has been increasing exponentially since the beginning of time. One needs to look no further than the evolution of the iPod, to recall the phenomena that’s occurred only within the past decade. Introduced to the public in 2001, the first generation iPod cost $399 and was marketed with the slogan, “1,000 songs in your pocket,” which spoke to the 5 gigabytes of storage available on the device. Today, the latest version of the iPod sells for $249 and holds 160 gigabytes of storage. This phenomena is what Kurzweil refers to when speaking about the exponential growth of information technology,
“When I was an undergraduate  we all shared a computer at MIT that took up half a building. The computer in your cell phone today is a million times cheaper, and a thousand times more powerful. That’s a billion fold increase in price performing of computing since I was an undergraduate.”
Although much of the Singularity debate revolves around the fusion of human and machine, Kurzweil also believes that Singularity will spur the conversion of more physical objects into information files. “[In the future] I will be able to email you a toaster or toast or a blouse or a solar panel or a module to build housing or transportation. What we now consider physical products will become information files—email attachments.”
Under the theory of Singularity, human beings will for the first time be able to transcend the limitations of their biological bodies and brains. Highlighting the rise in Singularity as a massive increase in intelligence, rather than technology, Kurzweil envisions a point in time where it will be possible to build a machine that is more intelligent than humanity.
So where does this leave the human race? If indeed, artificial intelligence will surpass the intelligence of humanity, what will be our purpose on earth? The answer is to be determined, although Kurzweil believes that the approaching Singularity may create a slippery slope of dependency that leaves humans reliant upon machines.
“If the machines are permitted to make all their own decisions, we can’t make any conjectures as to the results, because it is impossible to guess how such machines might behave. We only point out that the fate of the human race would be at the mercy of the machines. It might be argued that the human race would never be foolish enough to hand over all the power to the machines. But we are suggesting neither that the human race would voluntarily turn power over to the machines nor that the machines would willfully seize power. What we do suggest is that the human race might easily permit itself to drift into a position of such dependence on the machines that it would have no practical choice but to accept all of the machines’ decisions.”
In many ways, Kurzweil’s scenario has already begun to play out when considering our current relationship with technology today. Many adults need only ask themselves how many hours they spent on the computer today, or how far away their cell phone is to understand the growing union between man and machine. For Kurzweil the impending challenges for humanity will create an unprecedented reliance on machinery that will phase out the need for human intelligence at an exponential rate.
“As society and the problems that face it become more and more complex and machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more of their decisions for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better results than man-made ones. Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won’t be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide.”
While confident in his vision of the future, Ray Kurzweil was not the first to envision a future led by artificial intelligence. In fact, professor Vernor Vinge was the first to use the term “Singularity” back in 1983, when he hypothesized that superhuman intelligence would represent a breakdown in the ability of humans to model the future thereafter. The outcome of such a transformation has yet to be realized, although mathematician Irving John Good envisioned the future even further back in 1965. In Good’s scenario the necessity of human intelligence is almost negated completely in the face of the coming Singularity.
“Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.”
So the question remains, what effects will singularity have on the human race? Kurzweil paints a seemingly utopian picture, envisioning a world where the human mind functions harmoniously with the artificial intelligence of machines. In Kurzweil’s world, there will be no distinction between real people and “virtual” people, “By the 2030s, virtual reality is going to be as real and as compelling as “real” reality, and we’ll be doing it from within the nervous system.” States Kurzweil. “You’ll go to move your hand and it’ll move your virtual hand. You’ll have a virtual body, but your virtual body doesn’t have to be the same as your real body. It can be different for every environment.”
Some may be frightened by this impending future as vast risks and rewards characterize the rise of Singularity. But while the future of humanity will lie in our hands, whose hands in particular it will lie in is a far more important question to consider. Highlighting the contrasting characteristics of technology from past centuries, computer scientist Bill Joy sees humanity’s advancement through technology as an essential concept to comprehend, especially when concerning the potential of these powers to be used for destruction. Comparing 20th century technologies to that of the 21st, Joy sees the rise of Singularity as an equalizer of sorts, democratizing technological power across a wider population of society.
“The 21st-century technologies, genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR) are so powerful that they can spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses. Most dangerously, for the first time, these accidents and abuses are widely within the reach of individuals or small groups. They will not require large facilities or rare raw materials. Knowledge alone will enable the use of them.”
Conversely, if these capabilities are harnessed by the right people, Singularity may bring an unprecedented improvement to our quality of life. Kurzweil predicts a future where
we will be able to transcend the limitations of our biological bodies through artificial intelligence. Issues of health and disease may be eradicated once we learn to simulate the biological processes of the brain. So while the capabilities that lie before us will prove to grow in immensity, the question remains, what will we do with such power?
In my personal opinion, since the Industrial Revolution, Western societies have made a push towards efficiency and convenience which has led to a greater dependency on technology. In the face of Kurzweil’s inevitable Singularity it seems as though an even greater responsibility will be placed in the hands of the individual as technology will revolutionize life as we know it. But in Kurzweil’s eyes we shouldn’t worry, as the future will be ours to define. “Singularity won’t destroy us,” says Kurzweil. “Instead, it will immortalize us.”
This entry was posted on April 5, 2011 at 9:52 pm and is filed under Uncategorized with tags author, Inventor, singularity. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.