Technological Singularity: Is such a thing possible?

No doubt all of you have come across people who think not, but what does it actually mean to say technological singularities are impossible?

Well, what do we mean by the term? A technological singularity is defined as ‘the creation, by technology, of greater-than-human intelligence’. Technology works in close collaboration with science, in that the latter creates increasingly fine-tuned explanations of natural phenomena, which are exploited by appropriate combinations of matter and energy in order to harness these natural phenomena in order to do useful work for individuals, groups, societies and civilization. Among other things, technologies include instruments for yet finer observations of natural phenomenon, leading to yet-more powerful technology.

A technological Singularity is based on the premise that general intelligence is an example of a natural phenomenon that can be studied, and understood sufficiently well for technologies to be built that can amplify it beyond the levels reached by natural selection of biological brains. To say it is impossible can mean one of two things. One is that the human brain is optimal. No artificial brain can ever improve upon it, or if it can be improved the advantage is not noticable enough to qualify. The other is that, yes, forms of general intelligence above and beyond human levels do exist conceptually, but we shall never achieve a level of science and technology required to harness this natural phenomenon and perform useful work with it.

It is worth remembering that the technological singularity need not be a nearterm event. Although it is often talked about as being something we should expect within decades, it could happen in a million year’s time, or a fact, at any time from now until when the universe can no longer perform information processing (about 10^117 years from now). It might well be the case that we have not created a singularity within a few decades, but is it really plausible that greater-than-human intelligence will remain forever a fantasy? It seems likely that computers will exceed the computational and memory capacity of the human brain, and projects like Blue Brain and Ted Berger’s hippocampus chip are providing proofs of concept that brainlike computers and software can be built (although when a fully brainlike computer will be completed is not something I would like to estimate). Taken together, these suggest that ‘the singularity is impossible’ is an absurdly unlikely suggestion.

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  1. The human brain, like everything else in our body, is only “optimal” for our ecological niche 🙂 Natural selection is tough, it leaves you with just the best of the best of the best — for your niche.

    I guess that the problem with “intelligence” is that it’s a quality we all recognise instinctively, but are not always able to define what it is. So a “more intelligent person” is, according to our perceptions, one that has better memory, better learning skills, better logical ability, better abstract and conceptual thinking, more insights, and so forth… we can definitely improve all those areas, some on our own (e.g. memory can be improved), some using drugs or other enhancements. We can also speculate things like projecting “how intelligent a person can become”, before hitting physiological limits. A typical question is “how much memory do we have” (and if it is finite or infinite) or “how fast can we read” (since neuronal activity takes about 0.2 secs. to trigger an impulse, and there is a limit to how much that can be enhanced via drugs).

    If our memory is finite, then we should be able to tag a number to it (e.g. one terazillion of memes 🙂 ), and we could reasonably assume that external banks of memory accessed from a computer would be a considerable enhancement to our memory. Similarly, if our reading speed is directly tied to how fast our neurons can fire, moving part of that into silicone and nanosecond response time (as opposed to 0.2 secs.) should definitely improve our reading ability. But of course things are not so easy and straightforward; for instance, there are techniques allowing you to do parallel reading, and this means you can read a whole A4 page in, say, a few seconds — and commit it all to memory (at least short-term memory). This is a skill apparently learnable. If we replicate it on a computer, then we might also get “page scanning abilities” in nanoseconds — but that wouldn’t help us much when reading books, since there is a limit to how fast we can physically turn pages 🙂 And so forth…

    My point here is that it’s hard to say what “superhuman intelligence” exactly is, and how much of it is just tied to “making it all go faster” or “larger memory storage”…

  2. Pingback: Is a Singularity Plausible (ref – Extropia DaSilva) ? « Khannea Suntzu's Nymious Mess

  3. >My point here is that it’s hard to say what “superhuman intelligence” exactly is, and how much of it is just tied to “making it all go faster” or “larger memory storage”<

    I do not think it is the case that these things *are* superhuman intelligence. It is more a case that they are the building blocks of something that could become such a thing. Of course, what is also important is that we connect the building blocks in the right way. That is what brain-reverse engineering is all about: studying how one example of matter and energy organized to achieve general intelligence is structured, learning the salient details of operation, and then applying those principles to future generations of computers.

    But this should also just be considered the building blocks of something that might go on to develop a superhuman general intelligence capability. Is it enough that this mind can remember billions of facts and keep track of billions of associations? If not, what are the missing ingredients. I wish I knew:)

  4. Serendipity Seraph says:

    Intelligence is largely about pattern recognition, a bit of memory and successful prediction and problem solving. Better is recognizing patterns more correctly and rapidly, retaining what is learned/experienced more accurately and completely (within the bounds of usefulness) and more successful and rapidly prediction and problem solving.

    Clearly there are human beings that are better/faster at these thing, especially in some domains, than others. But all human intelligence falls within a range that there is good reason to believe is bounded by human brain architecture. So how the human brain manages general intelligence is interesting but not a bound on how intelligence can be achieved. Only emulating a human brain but with much faster components would give you a functionally smarter human on the speed access. But would that speedy human think differently or only faster? If you only reach the same conclusion and understanding that you would formerly after five years of dedicated study in a matter of seconds, it would still be wondrous. But only if you came to different understanding and conclusions that were “better” than before would change beyond mere speed have occurred. If you added much more dependable memory and multiple conscious processing threads to the mind then you would begin to leave the realm of human like thinking at any speed entirely.

    One thing humans are really not at all good at is running sophisticated logic and especially running it on more than a few variables. But many things can only be understand and really evaluated and appreciated beyond those limits.

    Our brains seem to work on mushy associational logic. It is the source of our flexibility and creativity and of many of our limitations as well. How this can be made less mushy and achieve the same desirable things except much more so is a great question.

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