Saturday, December 20, 2008

Notes on the Singularity

One of my students, Jason (who happens to be George Herman "Babe" Ruth's grand nephew), gave me an interesting 1993 article by Vernor Vinge entitled "The Coming Technological Singularity". Vinge believes with Ray Kurzweil and others that computer technology will become self-aware and will supplant human intelligence, so that all heck will break loose. They call this the singularity. Vinge writes:

"...we are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth. The precise cause of this change is the imminent creation by technology of entities with greater than human intelligence...The development of computers that are 'awake' and superhumanly intelligent...Large computer networks may 'wake up'...Computer/human interface may become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent..."

Vinge calls this occurrence "the singularity" because "a new reality rules". The outcome of this singularity would be the transcendence of the human race by a new conscious entity, what I may call computerkind, that would view humankind as a lower order life form.

This is very theoretical. I do not believe it will happen. I am skeptical of Vinge's assumption (that is characteristic of this literature, including Ray Kurzweil) to assume that intelligence is pure rationality. Vinge is a mathematician and so overrates that kind of intelligence. Rather, I would argue that intelligence is adaptation to environment, and mathematics is a reflection of adaptive evolution, important but incapable of independent existence. Pure rationality is not capable of grasping real world problems because parameters change too frequently and therefore assumptions about the world are anemic. Information specific to time and place is far more important to creative processes than deductive logic. That is why most mathematicians are poor.

Here's a test: If this signularity doesn't occur by 2030 (which Vinge predicts) will Vinge (a) push the year to 2050 or (b) admit that he was mistaken? If (a), might his ideas be more theoretical real world?

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