Is such progress avoidable? If not to be avoided, can events be guided so that we may survive? These questions are investigated. Some possible answers (and some further dangers) are presented.
The acceleration of technological progress has been the central feature of this century. I argue in this paper that 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. There are several means by which science may achieve this breakthrough (and this is another reason for having confidence that the event will occur):
- There may be developed computers that are "awake" and superhumanly intelligent. (To date, there has been much controversy as to whether we can create human equivalence in a machine. But if the answer is "yes, we can", then there is little doubt that beings more intelligent can be constructed shortly thereafter.)
- Large computer networks (and their associated users) may "wake up" as a superhumanly intelligent entity.
- Computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent.
- Biological science may provide means to improve natural human intellect.
What are the consequences of this event? When greater-than-human intelligence drives progress, that progress will be much more rapid. In fact, there seems no reason why progress itself would not involve the creation of still more intelligent entities -- on a still-shorter time scale. The best analogy that I see is with the evolutionary past: Animals can adapt to problems and make inventions, but often no faster than natural selection can do its work -- the world acts as its own simulator in the case of natural selection. We humans have the ability to internalize the world and conduct "what if's" in our heads; we can solve many problems thousands of times faster than natural selection. Now, by creating the means to execute those simulations at much higher speeds, we are entering a regime as radically different from our human past as we humans are from the lower animals.
From the human point of view this change will be a throwing away of all the previous rules, perhaps in the blink of an eye, an exponential runaway beyond any hope of control. Developments that before were thought might only happen in "a million years" (if ever) will likely happen in the next century.
I think it's fair to call this event a singularity ("the Singularity" for the purposes of this paper). It is a point where our old models must be discarded and a new reality rules. As we move closer to this point, it will loom vaster and vaster over human affairs till the notion becomes a commonplace. Yet when it finally happens it may still be a great surprise and a greater unknown. In the 1950s there were very few who saw it: Stan Ulam paraphrased John von Neumann as saying:
One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.
Von Neumann even uses the term singularity, though it appears he is thinking of normal progress, not the creation of superhuman intellect. (For me, the superhumanity is the essence of the Singularity. Without that we would get a glut of technical riches, never properly absorbed.)
In the 1960s there was recognition of some of the implications of superhuman intelligence. I. J. Good wrote:
Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any 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, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control. ... It is more probable than not that, within the twentieth century, an ultraintelligent machine will be built and that it will be the last invention that man need make.
Good has captured the essence of the runaway, but does not pursue its most disturbing consequences. Any intelligent machine of the sort he describes would not be humankind's "tool" -- any more than humans are the tools of rabbits or robins or chimpanzees.
Through the '60s and '70s and '80s, recognition of the cataclysm spread. Perhaps it was the science-fiction writers who felt the first concrete impact. After all, the "hard" science-fiction writers are the ones who try to write specific stories about all that technology may do for us. More and more, these writers felt an opaque wall across the future. Once, they could put such fantasies millions of years in the future. Now they saw that their most diligent extrapolations resulted in the unknowable ... soon. Once, galactic empires might have seemed a Post-Human domain. Now, sadly, even interplanetary ones are.
What about the '90s and the '00s and the '10s, as we slide toward the edge? How will the approach of the Singularity spread across the human world view? For a while yet, the general critics of machine sapience will have good press. After all, till we have hardware as powerful as a human brain it is probably foolish to think we'll be able to create human equivalent (or greater) intelligence. (There is the far-fetched possibility that we could make a human equivalent out of less powerful hardware, if we were willing to give up speed, if we were willing to settle for an artificial being who was literally slow. But it's much more likely that devising the software will be a tricky process, involving lots of false starts and experimentation. If so, then the arrival of self-aware machines will not happen till after the development of hardware that is substantially more powerful than humans' natural equipment.)
But as time passes, we should see more symptoms. The dilemma felt by science fiction writers will be perceived in other creative endeavors. (I have heard thoughtful comic book writers worry about how to have spectacular effects when everything visible can be produced by the technologically commonplace.) We will see automation replacing higher and higher level jobs. We have tools right now (symbolic math programs, cad/cam) that release us from most low-level drudgery. Or put another way: The work that is truly productive is the domain of a steadily smaller and more elite fraction of humanity. In the coming of the Singularity, we are seeing the predictions of _true_ technological unemployment finally come true.
Another symptom of progress toward the Singularity: ideas themselves should spread ever faster, and even the most radical will quickly become commonplace. When I began writing science fiction in the middle '60s, it seemed very easy to find ideas that took decades to percolate into the cultural consciousness; now the lead time seems more like eighteen months. (Of course, this could just be me losing my imagination as I get old, but I see the effect in others too.) Like the shock in a compressible flow, the Singularity moves closer as we accelerate through the critical speed.
And what of the arrival of the Singularity itself? What can be said of its actual appearance? Since it involves an intellectual runaway, it will probably occur faster than any technical revolution seen so far. The precipitating event will likely be unexpected -- perhaps even to the researchers involved. ("But all our previous models were catatonic! We were just tweaking some parameters....") If networking is widespread enough (into ubiquitous embedded systems), it may seem as if our artifacts as a whole had suddenly wakened.
And what happens a month or two (or a day or two) after that? I have only analogies to point to: The rise of humankind. We will be in the Post-Human era. And for all my rampant technological optimism, sometimes I think I'd be more comfortable if I were regarding these transcendental events from one thousand years remove ... instead of twenty.