Exploring the ‘Singularity’

June 6, 2003

Originally published in The Futurist June 1, 2003. Published on KurzweilAI.net June 6, 2003.

Technological change isn’t just happening fast. It’s happening at an exponential rate. Contrary to the commonsense, intuitive, linear view, we won’t just experience 100 years of progress in the twenty-first century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress.

The near-future results of exponential technological growth will be staggering: the merging of biological and nonbiological entities in bio­robotics, plants and animals engineered to grow pharmaceutical drugs, software-based “life,” smart robots, and atom-sized machines that self-replicate like living matter. Some individuals are even warning that we could lose control of this expanding techno-cornucopia and cause the total extinction of life as we know it. Others are researching how this permanent technological overdrive will affect us. They’re trying to understand what this new world of ours will look like and how accelerating technology already impacts us.

A number of scientists believe machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence within a few decades, leading to what’s come to be called the Singularity. Author and inventor Ray Kurzweil defines this phenomenon as “technological change so rapid and profound it could create a rupture in the very fabric of human history.”

Singularity is technically a mathematical term, perhaps best described as akin to what happens on world maps in a standard atlas. Everything appears correct until we look at regions very close to the poles. In the standard Mercator projection, the poles appear not as points but as a straight line. Each line is a singularity: Everywhere along the top line contains the exact point of the North Pole, and the bottom line is the entire South Pole.

The singularity on the edge of the map is nothing compared to the singularity at the center of a black hole. Here one finds the astrophysicist’s singularity, a rift in the continuum of space and time where Einstein’s rules no longer function. The approaching technological Singularity, like the singularities of black holes, marks a point of departure from reality. Explorers once wrote “Beyond here be dragons” on the edges of old maps of the known world, and the image of life as we approach these edges of change are proving to be just as mysterious, dangerous, and controversial.

There is no concise definition for the Singularity. Kurzweil and many transhumanists define it as “a future time when societal, scientific, and economic change is so fast we cannot even imagine what will happen from our present perspective.” A range of dates is given for the advent of the Singularity. “I’d be surprised if it happened before 2004 or after 2030,” writes author and computer science professor Vernor Vinge. A distinctive feature will be that machine intelligence will have exceeded and even merged with human intelligence. Another definition is used by extropians, who say it denotes “the singular time when technological development will be at its fastest.” From an environmental perspective, the Singularity can be thought of as the point at which technology and nature become one. Whatever perspective one takes, at this juncture the world as we have known it will become extinct, and new definitions of life, nature, and human will take hold.

Many leading technology industries have been aware of the possibility of a Singularity for some time. There are concerns that, if the public understood its ramifications, they might panic over accepting new and untested technologies that bring us closer to Singularity. For now, the debate about the consequences of the Singularity has stayed within the halls of business and technology; the kinks are being worked out, avoiding “doomsday” hysteria. At this time, it appears to matter little if the Singularity ever truly comes to pass.

What Will Singularity Look Like?

Kurzweil explains that central to the workings of the Singularity are a number of “laws,” one of which is Moore’s law. Intel cofounder Gordon E. Moore noted that the number of transistors that could fit on a single computer chip had doubled every year for six years from the beginnings of integrated circuits in 1959. Moore predicted that the trend would continue, and it has—although the doubling rate was later adjusted to an 18-month cycle.

Today, the smallest transistors in chips span only thousands of atoms (hundreds of nanometers). Chipmakers build such components using a process in which they apply semiconducting, metallic, and insulating layers to a semiconductor wafer to create microscopic circuitry. They accomplish the procedure using light for imprinting patterns onto the wafer. In order to keep Moore’s law moving right along, researchers today have built circuits out of transistors, wires, and other components as tiny as a few atoms across that can carry out simple computations.

Kurzweil and Sun Microsystems’ chief scientist Bill Joy agree that, circa 2030, the technology of the 1999 film The Matrix (which visualized a three-dimensional interface between humans and computers, calling conventional reality into question) will be within our grasp and that humanity will be teetering on the edge of the Singularity. (See their essays in Taking the Red Pill: Science, Philosophy, and Religion in The Matrix, edited by Glenn Yeffeth, 2003.) Kurzweil explains that this will become possible because Moore’s law will be replaced by another computing paradigm over the next few decades. “Moore’s law was not the first but the fifth paradigm to provide exponential growth of computing power,” Kurzweil says. The first paradigm of computer technology was the data processing machinery used in the 1890 American census. This electromechanical computing technology was followed by the paradigms of relay-based technology, vacuum tubes, transistors, and eventually integrated circuits. “Every time a paradigm ran out of steam,” states Kurzweil, “another paradigm came along and picked up where that paradigm left off.” The sixth paradigm, the one that will enable technology á la The Matrix, will be here in 20 to 30 years. “It’s obvious what the sixth paradigm will be—computing in three dimensions,” says Kurzweil. “We will effectively merge with our technology.”

Stewart Brand in his book The Clock of the Long Now discusses the Singularity and another related law, Monsanto’s law, which states that the ability to identify and use genetic information doubles every 12 to 24 months. This exponential growth in biological knowledge is transforming agriculture, nutrition, and health care in the emerging life-sciences industry.

A field of research building on the exponential growth rate of biotechnology is nanotechnology—the science of building machines out of atoms. A nanometer is atomic in scale, a distance that’s 0.001% of the width of human hair. One goal of this science is to change the atomic fabric of matter—to engineer machine­like atomic structures that reproduce like living matter. In this respect, it is similar to biotechnology, except that nanotechnology needs to literally create something like an inorganic version of DNA to drive the building of its tiny machines. “We’re working out the rules of biology in a realm where nature hasn’t had the opportunity to work,” states University of Texas biochemistry professor Angela Belcher. “What would take millions of years to evolve on its own takes about three weeks on the bench top.”

Machine progress is knocking down the barriers between all the sciences. Chemists, biologists, engineers, and physicists are now finding themselves collaborating on more and more experimental research. This collaboration is best illustrated by the opening of Cornell University’s Nanobiotechnology Center and other such facilities around the world. These scientists predict breakthroughs soon that will open the way to molecular-size computing and the quantum computer, creating new scientific paradigms where exponential technological progress will leap off the map. Those who have done the exponential math quickly realize the possibilities in numerous industries and scientific fields—and then they notice the anomaly of the Singularity happening within this century.

In 2005, IBM plans to introduce Blue Gene, a supercomputer that can perform at about 5% of the power of the human brain. This computer could transmit the entire contents of the Library of Congress in less than two seconds. Blue Gene/L, specifically developed to advance and serve the growing life-sciences ­industry, is expected to operate at about 200 teraflops (200 trillion floating­-point operations per second), larger than the total computing power of the top 500 supercomputers in the world. It will be able to run extremely complex simulations, including breakthroughs in computers and information technology, creating new frontiers in biology, says IBM’s Paul M. Horn. According to Moore’s law, computer hardware will surpass human brainpower in the first decade of this century. Software that emulates the human mind—artificial intelligence—may take another decade to evolve.

Nanotech Advances Promote Singularity

Physicists, mathematicians, and scientists like Vinge and Kurzweil have identified through their research the likely boundaries of the Singularity and have predicted with confidence various paths leading up to it over the next couple of decades. These scientists are currently debating what discovery could set off a chain reaction of Earth-altering technological events. They suggest that advancements in the fields of nanotechnology or the discovery of artificial intelligence could usher in the Singularity.

The majority of people closest to these theories and laws—the tech sector—can hardly wait for these technologies to arrive. The true believers call themselves extropians, posthumans, and transhumanists, and are actively organizing not just to bring the Singularity about, but to counter the technophobes and neo-Luddites who believe that unchecked technological progress will exceed our ability to reverse any destructive process that might un­intentionally be set in motion.

The antithesis to neo-Luddite activists is the extropians. For example, the Progress Action Coalition, formed in 2001 by bio-artist, author, and extropian activist Natasha Vita-More, fantasizes about “the dream of true artificial intelligence . . . adding a new richness to the human landscape never before known.” Pro-Act, AgBioworld, Biotechnology Progress, Foresight Institute, the Progress and Freedom Foundation, and other industry groups acknowledge, however, that the greatest threat to technological progress comes not just from environmental groups, but from a small faction of the scientific community.

Knowledge-Enabled Mass Destruction

In April 2000, a wrench was thrown into the arrival of the Singularity by an unlikely source: Sun Micro­systems chief scientist Bill Joy. He is a neo-Luddite without being a Luddite, a technologist warning the world about technology. Joy co-founded Sun Microsystems, helped create the Unix computer operating system, and developed the Java and Jini software systems—systems that helped give the Internet “life.”

In a now-infamous cover story in Wired magazine, “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” Joy warned of the dangers posed by developments in genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics. Joy’s warning of the impacts of exponential technological progress run amok gave new credence to the coming Singularity. Unless things change, Joy predicted, “We could be the last generation of humans.” Joy warned that “knowledge alone will enable mass destruction” and termed this phenomenon “knowledge­enabled mass destruction.”

The twentieth century gave rise to nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) technologies that, while powerful, require access to vast amounts of raw (and often rare) materials, technical information, and large-scale industries. The twenty-first-century technologies of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR), however, will require neither large facilities nor rare raw materials.

The threat posed by GNR technologies becomes further amplified by the fact that some of these new technologies have been designed to be able to replicate—i.e., they can build new versions of themselves. Nuclear bombs did not sprout more bombs, and toxic spills did not grow more spills. If the new self­replicating GNR technologies are released into the environment, they could be nearly impossible to recall or control.

Joy understands that the greatest dangers we face ultimately stem from a world where global corporations dominate—a future where much of the world has no voice in how the world is run. Twenty-first-century GNR technologies, he writes, “are being developed almost exclusively by corporate enterprises. We are aggressively pursuing the promises of these new technologies within the now-unchallenged system of global capitalism and its manifold financial incentives and competitive pressures.”

Joy believes that the system of global capitalism, combined with our current rate of progress, gives the human race a 30% to 50% chance of going extinct around the time the Singularity is expected to happen, around 2030. “Not only are these estimates not encouraging,” he adds, “but they do not include the probability of many horrid outcomes that lie short of extinction.”

It is very likely that scientists and global corporations will miss key developments—or, worse, actively avoid discussion of them. A whole generation of biologists has left the field for the biotech and nanotech labs. Biologist Craig Holdredge, who has followed biotech since its beginnings in the 1970s, warns, “Biology is losing its connection with nature.”

When Machines Make War

Cloning, biotechnology, nanotechnology, and robotics are blurring the lines between nature and machine. In his 1972 speech “The Android and the Human,” science-fiction visionary Philip K. Dick told his audience, “Machines are becoming more human. Our environment, and I mean our man-made world of machines, is becoming alive in ways specifically and fundamentally analogous to ourselves.” In the near future, Dick prophesied, a human might shoot a robot only to see it bleed from its wound. When the robot shoots back, it may be surprised to find the human gush smoke. “It would be rather a great moment of truth for both of them,” Dick added.

In November 2001, Advanced Cell Technology of Massachusetts jarred the nation’s focus away from recession and terrorism when it announced that it had succeeded in cloning early-stage human embryos. Debate on the topic stayed equally divided between those who support therapeutic cloning and those, like the American Medical Association, who want an outright ban.

Karel Capek coined the word robot (Czech for “forced labor”) in the 1920 play R.U.R., in which machines assume the drudgery of factory production, then develop feelings and proceed to wipe out humanity in a violent revolution. While the robots in R.U.R. could represent the “nightmare vision of the proletariat seen through middle-class eyes,” as ­science-fiction author Thomas Disch has suggested, they also are testament to the persistent fears of man-made technology run amok.

Similar themes have manifested themselves in popular culture and folklore since at least medieval times. While some might dismiss these stories simply as popular paranoia, robots are already being deployed beyond Hollywood and are poised to take over the deadlier duties of the modern soldier. The Pentagon is replacing soldiers with sensors, vehicles, aircraft, and weapons that can be operated by remote control or are autonomous. Pilot­less aircraft played an important role in the bombings of Afghanistan, and a model called the Gnat conducted surveillance flights in the Philippines in 2002.

Leading the Pentagon’s remote-control warfare effort is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Best known for creating the infrastructure that became the World Wide Web, DARPA is working with Boeing to develop the X-45 unmanned combat air vehicle. The 30-foot-long windowless planes will carry up to 12 bombs, each weighing 250 pounds. According to military analysts, the X-45 will be used to attack radar and antiaircraft installations as early as 2007. By 2010, it will be programmed to distinguish friends from foes without consulting humans and independently attack targets in designated areas. By 2020, robotic planes and vehicles will direct remote-controlled bombers toward targets, robotic helicopters will coordinate driverless convoys, and unmanned submarines will clear mines and launch cruise ­missiles.

Rising to the challenge of mixing man and machine, MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies (backed by a five-year, $50-million U.S. Army grant) is busy innovating materials and designs to create military uniforms that rival the best science fiction. Human soldiers themselves are being transformed into modern cyborgs through robotic devices and nanotechnology.

The Biorobotic Arms Race

The 2002 International Conference on Robotics and Automation, hosted by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, kicked off its technical session with a discussion on biorobots, the melding of living and artificial structures into a cybernetic organism or cyborg.

“In the past few years, the biosciences and robotics have been getting closer and closer,” says Paolo Dario, founder of Italy’s Advanced Robotics Technology and Systems Lab. “More and more, biological models are used for the design of biometric robots [and] robots are increasingly used by neuroscientists as clinical platforms for validating biological models.” Artificial constructs are beginning to approach the scale and complexity of living systems.

Some of the scientific breakthroughs expected in the next few years promise to make cloning and robotics seem rather benign. The merging of technology and nature has already yielded some shocking progeny. Consider these examples:

• Researchers at the State University of New York Health Science Center at Brooklyn have turned a living rat into a radio-controlled automaton using three electrodes placed in the animal’s brain. The animal can be remotely steered through an obstacle course, making it twist, turn, and jump on demand.

• In May 2002, eight elderly Florida residents were injected with microscopic silicon identification chips encoded with medical information. The Los Angeles Times reported that this made them “scannable just like a jar of peanut butter in the supermarket checkout line.” Applied Digital Solutions Inc., the maker of the chip, will soon have a prototype of an implantable device able to receive GPS satellite signals and transmit a person’s location.

• Human embryos have been successfully implanted and grown in artificial wombs. The experiments were halted after a few days to avoid violating in vitro fertilization regulations.

• Researchers in Israel have fashioned a “bio-computer” out of DNA that can handle a billion operations per second with 99.8% accuracy. Reuters reports that these bio-computers are so minute that “a trillion of them could fit inside a test tube.”

• In England, University of Reading Professor Kevin Warwick has implanted microchips in his body to remotely monitor and control his physical motions. During Warwick’s Project Cyborg experiments, computers were able to remotely monitor his movements and open doors at his approach.

• Engineers at the U.S. Sandia National Labs have built a remote­controlled spy robot equipped with a scanner, microphone, and chemical microsensor. The robot weighs one ounce and is smaller than a dime. Lab scientists predict that the microbot could prove invaluable in protecting U.S. military and economic interests.

The next arms race is not based on replicating and perfecting a single deadly technology, like the nuclear bombs of the past or some space-based weapon of the future. This new arms race is about accelerating the development and integration of advanced autonomous, biotechnological, and human-robotic systems into the military apparatus. A mishap or a massive war using these new technologies could be more catastrophic than any nuclear war.

Where the Map Exceeds the Territory

The rate at which GNR technologies are being adopted by our society—without regard to long-term safety testing or researching the political, cultural, and economic ramifications—mirrors the development and proliferation of nuclear power and weapons. The human loss caused by experimentation, production, and development is still being felt from the era of NBC technologies.

The discussion of the environmental impacts of GNR technologies, at least in the United States, has been relegated to the margins. Voices of concern and opposition have likewise been missing in discussions of the technological Singularity. The true cost of this technological progress and any coming Singularity will mean the unprecedented decline of the planet’s inhabitants at an ever-increasing rate of global extinction.

The World Conservation Union, the International Botanical Congress, and a majority of the world’s biologists believe that a global mass extinction already is under way. As a direct result of human activity (resource extraction, industrial agriculture, the introduction of non-native animals, and population growth), up to one-fifth of all living species are expected to disappear within 30 years. A 1998 Harris Poll of the 5,000 members of the American Institute of Biological Sciences found that 70% believed that what has been termed “The Sixth Extinction” is now under way. A simultaneous Harris Poll found that 60% of the public were totally unaware of the impending biological collapse.

At the same time that nature’s ancient biological creation is on the decline, laboratory-created biotech life-forms—genetically modified soybeans, genetically engineered salmon, cloned sheep, drug-crops, biorobots—are on the rise.

Nature and technology are not just evolving; they are competing and combining with one another. Ultimately they will become one. We hear reports daily about these new technologies and new creations, while shreds of the ongoing biological collapse surface here and there. Past the edges of change, beyond the wall across the future, anything becomes possible. Beware the dragons.

© 2003 James John Bell. Reprinted with permission.