THOUGHTS CONCERNING THE SINGULARITY.
It has been a while since I talked about the technical Singularity, so I thought I might return to this topic. There is a question I wish to explore, namely: Why should anyone believe in the Singularity?
Consider the eye. It is a well-established fact that, since the eye does not possess limitless capabilities, it cannot reveal to us the whole of the visible universe. Indeed, the portion of the visible universe that we can see is but an infinitesimally small window and we are simply blind to most of the universe. There are things too far away to be seen by the naked eye, or too small. There are objects and phenomenon that can only be detected by instruments that pick up wavelengths the eye is unable to detect.
I see little reason to suppose that similar limitations do not apply to the brain. The ‘universe’ of imagination, knowledge, inspiration, intuition, etc that we perceive is not the universe entire, but merely that tiny portion that the naked brain is capable of perceiving.
Returning to the eye, there is an obvious way around its limitations, one we have been applying for centuries. That is, the use of technology to augment the eye’s capabilities. With microscopes we can examine that which is normally too small to see. With telescopes we can see further than was previously possible. With instruments designed to detect radio waves or infrared light or gamma rays we unveil or at least infer the existence of phenomenon like cosmic background radiation, dark energy, dark matter, or black holes. A reasonably well-educated child could probably rattle off dozens of cosmic phenomenon and objects that Gallileo never heard or dreamed of. Thanks to technology, our visible universe is immeasurably bigger, more complex, and full of questions than the universe we understood before technology augmented the naked eye.
Obviously, then, the aforementioned technologies do not merely augment the eye. They, supported by other advances that refine the scientific method, expand our knowledge. It can also, I would argue, expand intelligence. It seems to me that refuting the singularity hypothesis entails establishing at least one of two things:
1. The human brain is, or close to, the absolute best ‘engine’ of general intelligence there can ever be.
2. While it is possible in principle for something to be capable of general intelligence surpassing that of the human brain, the creation of such a thing lies beyond the powers of the human brain.
I do not think either possibility is true. Throughout history, it has been the case that what was once beyond the realm of possibility for one generation was technically possible for future generations. We are quite capable of constructing machines or concepts that are beyond the intelligence of any one person. Could an individual possibly design and build the Large Hadron Collider without help in its conception and construction? Of course, not, the very idea is ridiculous. Neither could any one person, working in isolation, establish the ideas in theoretical physics that required us to build the LHC in the first place. Newton’s point that one needs to stand on the shoulders of giants (in other words, you cannot work alone but need the support of other experts present and past) is just as true today as it ever was.
OK so obviously the human race itself is capable of more than an individual. But is the human race capable of more than the human race? That sounds impossible, but we should not be hasty in declaring it so. After all, isn’t it true that the human race today is capable of feats that were beyond our ancestors? We can attribute this capability to scientific progress, which Michael Shermer defined as:
“the cumulative growth of a system of knowledge over time, in which useful features are retained and nonuseful features are abandoned, based on rejection or confirmation of testable knowledge”.
It seems to me to take this growing system of knowledge and apply it to that which is the driving force behind it, so that we may better understand it. In other words, we can use science and other systems of knowledge like philosophy, in order to answer questions such as ‘how does the mind work’? We may then set about using our growing system of knowledge and expanding technological capabilities in order to create brains whose intellect surpass our own, or form collaborations between collective human intelligence and machine intelligence until there is effectively a super organism with an intelligence surpassing the human race. More and more I am reading about technologies surpassing human intelligence in some narrow field:
“Most [astrophysical] data and data constructs, and patterns in them, cannot be comprehended by humans directly….This requires the use or development of novel data mining or knowledge discovery in databases and data understanding technologies, hyper-dimensional visualization etc. The use of AI/machine-assisted discovery may become a standard scientific practice”- S.G Djorgovski and R. Williams, “Virtual Observatory: From Concept to Implimentation”.
“Sophisticated models derived computationally from big data- and consequently tuned by feeding results back in- might produce reliable results from processes too complex for the human brain. We would have knowledge but no understanding”- David Weinberger, Scientific American: The Machine That Would Predict The Future.
Both these quotes inform us that it is not beyond the realm of possibility to assemble systems of technology that can possess a comprehension above and beyond the human mind, indeed, all human minds. None of the scientists quoted throw up their hands and cry in despair, “well we have all this data and patterns within them, but we cannot understand it and nor can we ever have the technology to help us make sense of it”. No, they talk soberly about methods of data-intensive scientific discovery relying on processes too complex for the human brain.
In other words, that window into the abstract universe of knowledge is expanding and is now beginning to allow the embryonic human-technology super organism to access knowledge that is beyond human comprehension, at least in narrow fields like astrophysics. Is this the Singularity? Perhaps not. But I would argue that it is an intermediary step towards it. I would not be at all surprised if future generations are not only capable of answering questions that are fundamentally too hard for us to solve, but also capable of asking questions we are not capable of asking or understanding (unless, of course, we can sufficiently augment our natural abilities using their technology). Because I believe that, I have to believe in the possibility of a technological Singularity.