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In my previous post on the technological singularity, I alluded to Ray Kurzweil's "argument from hardware".

The essence of the argument goes as follows: When Moore's Law gets us up to a number of switching elements that is comparable to the number of synapses in the human brain (about 1014 for between 1010 and 1011 neurons), a sea change in automated reasoning, learning, and representation capability will be enabled, because our brains "make do" with this amount of computing power.

Now, there are several criticisms of this argument, most notably:

  • 1. Moore's Law as demonstrated through current microprocessor fabrication may not last that long. Silicon semiconductor manufacturing will not. (Counterarguments include pointing out that parallel processing is starting to reach the consumer market and scale up on the desktop, optimistic hand-waving about optical computing, and speculative hand-waving about quantum computing.)

  • 2. What does "human-level" hardware buy us in terms of actually being able to develop the substrate for the Singularity, or, what about that software? (This is perhaps more cogently formulated as a question about knowledge representation, automated reasoning, and machine learning in intelligent systems.)

  • 3. If you build it, will they come? Saying that "it will just happen because machines will be able to design better versions of themselves by that point" without qualification or an evidential basis for the claim is tantamount to saying that 1014 switching elements, arrayed in tandem, will summon a living spirit from afar to come and animate the silicon with the Breath of Life. (I really have yet to see a compelling counterargument by way of a well-stated scientific hypothesis, as opposed to "ensemble thinking" about emergent properties.)

A note on the title: The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's hit single "Will The Circle Be Unbroken" features the refrain Will the circle be unbroken / Bye and bye Lord bye and bye / There's a better home a waiting / In the sky Lord in the sky. Those lyrics remind me of the "inevitability" of the Singularity as envisioned by the optimists, and of the "pie in the sky" critique that has been leveled at them.



( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 23rd, 2008 07:38 pm (UTC)
It's bizarre to me that you bring this up not 24 hours after I first read about this concept. Before last night, I'd have no idea what you're talking about. As a result of my casual poking into Posthumanism last night, I browsed across an article about Technological Singularity.

I still don't have a really strong grasp of what it is or what it means, but I'm not completely clueless.

I don't really have much to add, other than a remark as to the timing of things.
Nov. 26th, 2008 01:00 pm (UTC)
Technoserendipity: tessier_ashpool and singularity_now
Well, it's one of my favorite topics, so the timing isn't all that unlikely. :-)

It just happens that I haven't posted about it in banazir itself but once before. The tag "technological singularity" exists, though.

Have you seen the LJ communities tessier_ashpool and singularity_now?

Nov. 29th, 2008 02:23 am (UTC)
It's just a few weeks ago that I intentionally dropped thinking about Moore's Law almost entirely. I've been rather obsessing over it as an indicator for several years, and I do absolutely believe that it will continue roughly its current trend with astonishing consequences. The odd thing about a Singularity, though, is that any particular astonishingly astonishing thing is probably not the most astonishing thing immediately to hand. And it seems to me now that processor speeds have outpaced other limiting factors in the transformation of the role and power of computers in our lives, to the point where I have begun to feel that processor speed will not be the bottleneck for anything meaningful in the short term.

The indicator which I am looking at most closely now is the floor price of a general purpose computer. I think OLPC had it right that $100 is a crucial milestone, but I think that $50 and $20 will be even more important and transformative. The $20 computer will naturally establish for itself an entirely different role in developed countries, as computers move from an appliance into a commodity, and the change will be even more profound in developing countries, where the vast majority of the human population will suddenly be connected for the first time. The floor price results from a tremendous number of factors (the costs of all the different technologies: batteries, displays, wireless antennas, etc) so I'm not capable of making any predictions about how it will play out. But that's what I'm watching; the existence of a computer vs a noncomputer is a far more potent shift than just people buying another appliance-like computer that goes faster.

In my opinion talking about passing the threshold of human-level processing power is interesting only as a mind-twister. If you don't yet believe it's possible, you need Kurzweil et al to cram it into your head that it's inevitable. But the point of absolute inevitability-- brain scanners of sufficient resolution to produce a detailed model of the brain, and computers fast enough to simply simulate that model-- is of course a worst case for when the final steep ramp-up begins. I expect it a number of decades earlier, in fact I believe we are already experiencing some serious steepening.

Superhuman minds have existed for all of human history, in the form of multiple humans in tight coordination and communication. Our ability to think collectively is what makes us as intelligent as we are; no human ever thought of but tiny scraps to contribute to the greater collective whole. Changes in coordination and communication, which we now experience on the internet more and more regularly, are in my opinion even more essential and potentially transformative than the changes to individual humans.

The amount of human attention and activity now directed towards intentionally instigating the Singularity is still vanishingly small as a percentage of all human action. If anything happened that caused the great mass of the people to wake up in the morning thinking "how will I accelerate the Singularity today", I believe we would move at once from steepness into 3 2 1 ignition liftoff. I'm not particularly instigating the Singularity myself! I'm not sure we're ready to handle any of this! But the roar of the Kurzweilian babyboomers demanding that they not be the last generation to die will be deafening.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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