Against the Singularity

Ray Kurzweil popularized the idea of a “Technological Singularity”, originally proposed by Vernor Vinge, based on ideas from I. J. Good, where the advances in technology and, particularly machine intelligence, will render the future unpredictable. The amusing thing to me is that they then go on to make predictions, usually having humans merging with artificial intelligences, or having AI take over the world, sometimes not leaving a place for common humans. A bit like the Terminator or Matrix scenarios but usually a bit less violent. I first became aware of this in Vernor Vinge’s novel Marooned in Realtime, which was a sequel to The Peace War, which I enjoyed quite a bit back in 1984.

Greg Bear also said at a Science Fiction convention in the late 1980s that people who think humanity will look the same in a generation are all wrong. I met him at NolaCon II in 1988 and argued with him about this. We did not change each others’ minds. He thought that advances in genetic engineering would lead to people altering either themselves or their children to be different in whatever arbitrary way made a good story. ;-)

Many times, these speculations are combined.

Although these speculations can make good stories about the Human Condition, my argument against all this is:

  • Machine intelligence is proving to be a lot harder than people thought back in the day. Computers are better than we are at certain things, like doing numerical calculations accurately, and they can do many things faster than we can, like scanning star patterns for comets and such, but they don’t do the latter better than we do, and we are far better than they are at many other things. I don’t believe that in principle a computer can’t mimic a human mind, or something like one, but that point is a lot farther off than the AI folks like to admit.
  • I think Vinge, Kurzweil, and others are confusing the rate of technological change in certain fields in the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries with a natural law. There is no real reason to assume that the development curve isn’t some sort of sigmoid curve and that we will soon approach the leveling off point.

    As for Greg Bear, the Human Genome Project has rendered some of his more fanciful speculations problematic, in that we appear to have a lot fewer genes than earlier geneticists thought. Actually constructing a gene to make, say, a second thumb on a hand, will likely prove a lot more difficult than he thought it would in New Orleans in 1988.

  • My final point concerns attitudes towards the human form.

    I think that humans in general are more reluctant to fiddle around with their general appearance and faculties than a few body modification people would tend to suggest. People who do change their bodies are looked on as freaks by a large majority of the world, if not Americans. And even in North America and Europe, this is not common behavior.

    I don’t think we’ll see people making large changes in large numbers to their forms anytime soon, if ever.

One Comment

  1. Ron Burk says:

    Yikes, no Preview button!

    a) Kurzweil has addressed the slow progress in machine intelligence effectively, by arguing that you can ignore most past AI (including his own) and just pay attention to the rate of advancement in simply reverse-engineering the human brain directly. That idea itself can be criticized, but the difficulties of non-neural-emulating AI to date are not really relevant to criticizing his prediction of oncoming sentience. This part of his singularity argument is on the firmest ground, IMHO, as it relies on predictions, not of breakthroughs to previously intractable problems, but of the continued relentless brute force improvements in size and speed of our neural reverse-engineering toolset.

    b) Kurzweil’s (and others) vision of the medical fruits of a nano-tech future is the part that’s on the weakest ground. His grasp of the complexity and bite-back potential of human biochemistry is nearly nil, AFAICT, and he would quickly be shed of it if he spent a few years trying to cure most any of the many chronic diseases that have easily bested the most intense research. The discovery of DNA and the mechanics of genes has lured a great many people (including many biologists) into imagining genes act in a deterministic fashion that simply is verifiably far from how they actually act. David Moore (“The Dependent Gene”) makes a fascinating argument that this divided is rooted in the schism between geneticists and embryologists, when a large branch of science said “Aha, it’s the genes — let’s just go tinker with them in fruit flies”, while embryologists said “Aha, look at all the ways the same gene behaves differently in different situations — lets go tinker with them in amphibians” ending up with essentially two branches of science studying the same problems, reaching different conclusions, and not talking to each other. Anybody envisioning a future where we freely tinker with our genes to get predictable results just hasn’t understood what’s already known about the nuts and bolts of how genes work.

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