Connecting to the Singularity: A Call for Action

Or: Be nice to computers, they’ll need you soon

Prologue and concept

The world is rapidly changing all around us, while we are, unfortunately, mostly preoccupied with our day to day routine. It is regrettable that very few people pay attention to the long term consequences of current trends. Most people tend to “live” in the present or the near, immediate, future. They do not see, or have not been appropriately exposed to the dramatic fashion in which people’s everyday life will be changed in the next few decades. A notable exception to this rule is the issue of global warming, which has been, correctly, widely debated and has infiltrated our everyday lives. However, many of the technological changes which are set to occur during the next couple of decades are of no lesser magnitude than such environmental changes, but receive precious little attention. This remains caught in the realm of enthusiasts, caught between current and future science and the imagination of science fiction. What has been made abundantly clear is that looking into the future and seeing what awaits us on the horizon is equally important if we are to guarantee our future, and the future of the next generations. [1]

When considering technological developments, people see mobile phones. They see Google. They see HDTV and Playstations. This routine, “present”, view of the world must be challenged and people exposed to the fact that the world we live in now, the place most of us know, with our daily work routine, grocery shopping, TV and Internet – is going to change much quicker, and to much greater extents than most imagine. And not centuries hence; rather during the next 30-50 years – a time when many people reading this article will still be around.

Once the public realizes that each individual, each family, the entire fabric of our society is going to change tremendously in a few short decades, there will be hope that people will begin addressing these important issues and actively participating in shaping the future.

Few people, notably leaders of what is called the “futurist” or “transhuman” movement actively pontificate about this subject (online at website such as www.imminst.com,www.wta.com and others; at conferences such as Transivion, The Singularity Summit and others). More people fantasize about the future, what it holds, and dream up a great many visions of the future – some more reasonable, some less, some look further into the future and some nearer.

This paper is focused at assessing the world in 20-30 years hence, specifically the technological changes that will affect humankind and what it becomes. It is based on commonly accepted current trends and facts, many of which have already been published online (see www.kurzweilai.net as a good source) or in books (“The Age of Spiritual Machines” or “The Singularity is Near” by Ray Kurzweil), but have not yet been sufficiently exposed to mainstream culture. Not until these issues are addressed by government, academia (a notable, and encouraging start is Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute headed by Nick Bostrom) and nonprofit organizations (such as the LifeBoat foundation: www.lifeboat.com) will these crucial issues be adequately addressed. More such institutions, and a much greater public awareness, are urgently needed.

A few basic terms to introduce the subject: the advancement of computing power is increasing at a constant pace. The technological advancement stemming from this ever increasing computing capacity feeds yet more advances in computing and in addition feeds acceleration in the advancement of additional science and technology fields. Considering this rate of change, a point in which a change in computers’ profile as mere passive machines carrying out instructions set by human programmers will change forever: computers will themselves attain the ability to alter, and improve, their programming. The (significant) assumption made here, of course, is disregarding the chances of a cataclysm occurring prior to that which will destroy current civilization and as a result also this vision, whether by human misdeeds or a catastrophe occurring due to non-human causes).

The moment at which computers will achieve better-than-human intelligence will create an “evolutionary” loop: computers rapidly creating successively improved versions of themselves, which in turn improve the next generation more rapidly and efficiently. This will foster change at a rate which we cannot imagine, ultimately leading to the emergence of superhuman intelligence within the “machine” (being no longer be confined to this, now irrelevant, terminology), an event which will be of monumental importance in the history of life on this planet, equal to the initial rise of the earliest forms of life on earth.

Humanity will no longer exist, as it does now. Transhumanity, in whichever form, will come to be. This change for humanity may be the result of:

a. A superintelligent hardware-based consciousness deciding that humans are redundant and wiping us out (i.e. Terminator’s “SkyNet”),or simply considering us unimportant and irrelevant to the future and leaving us to trudge slowly on: thus, transhumanity will be composed of the creations of the children of humanity – conscious entities descended from our computers;

b.The merging of human and machine consciousnesses: a combination of human-networked-superconsciousness along with computer-superintelligence, merged together to form an unfathomable dual, but united, whole.

Assuming humanity survives the next decades and reaches the singularity, these are the two main paths that human history is moving towards.

Technological developments for the future

Current computing power is growing at a rate by which it is forecast to parallel human thinking by the third decade of this century (“The Singularity”). As mentioned above, this acceleration is feeding into other fields, allowing an increased rate of technological development. Important advances in this regard are communications technology (bandwidth); bio-engineering and advanced medicine (including understanding the intricacies of the body and immune system as well as brain imaging and reverse-engineering). The internet, which will lay the foundation to the combination of human intelligence and knowledge with computers, as well as to the linking together of humanity at large, is also developing rapidly: the much (over) used nomenclature of “web 1.0, 2.0, 3.0” et cetera, while artificial terms describing an-ever evolving technology and utilization thereof, are demonstrative of the fact that the internet as we knew it several years ago is very different than the one we see today, and extremely different from the one we’ll see in ten years.

Hopefully, and likely, by the end of the next decade one of the major class of obstacles to human-computer merging, that of the current input methods (namely, keyboards and mice) and output devices (2-dimensional screens) will have been supplanted by a next generation of technology. Amazingly, these input methods have been around for decades and have not developed significantly. Notable current developments to this field include large touchscreen display systems (“Microsoft Surface” or the iPhone), combinations of holographic displays, 3D-sensing gloves and devices (such as the Nintendo Wii remote), as well as face- and body-sensing technology(allowing electronic appliances to directly understand what we want according to our gestures and expressions). The next generations will be comprised of advanced VR goggles (much maligned previously, future models of this technology will be lightweight, as unobtrusive as normal glasses, and provide superb and realistic resolution). The culminating technology in this field will be a direct mind-computer interface, already researched today using fMRI, electrode implants, and electrocorticography, among others.

By the time mind-computer interface technology will have developed sufficiently, the internet will have reached a new and much more developed stage. In this phase massive ultra-broadband connections between computing units will be in place, while the latter will have shrunk considerably and become ubiquitous: people will carry their computing unit with them at all time and will be connected to the net at all time, but will likely still be limited (with no direct brain interface achieved) in their interaction with, and productivity using, these units due to relatively cumbersome interface devices. In many respects, a lot more of what we humans do will be “online” – the internet will evolve to mirror the real world a lot closer than it does now, and the decision whether to spend in the real world or in the virtual world will be a tough one for many, especially for those of us who already spend a lot of time online.

The threat of runaway machine intelligence – the unknown

All the while these parallel developments are being pursued in the fields of human/machine interface and computer/computer interface, another related field which is of crucial importance to the future of humanity is AI research. As noted above, machine intelligence is increasing daily and will eclipse human intelligence in decades. Once they have reached the threshold of self-awareness and self-improvement, the computing capacity, and thereby intelligence of these conscious computers will skyrocket, resigning humans to be the evolutionary have-beens, as bacteria are relative to us.

The threat of uncontrolled, rapidly recursive increasing machine intelligence has been brought to light in several works of popular culture. The main problem with this development is, of course, the essence of the term “Singularity” – it is the event beyond which no one knows what will occur. It is naive to think that things will not change, or that we can always revert to the way things were – clearly our dependency on computers is so absolute at present, that the only option would be to revert to pre-industrial period, with all associated dire implications.

Thus, it can be suggested that the only way to ensure the continued relevance and involvement of humanity in the development of intelligence on Earth in via ultimate integration with the developing machine intelligence. We must place a great emphasis on creating a technologically feasible interface between humans and computers as soon as possible. Once this is done we will become inseparable from the growing, next generation intelligence and will be catapulted forward along with this rapidly expanding mind. The developing consciousness of this new intelligent organism, along with the developing human pan-consciousness, will allow the human race to reach its new evolutionary stage. If this does not happen, we will become redundant. Join the computers, or lose.

[1] A good place to start is the Millenium Project’s “State of the future’:  http://www.millennium-project.org/millennium/issues.html