Saturday, June 21, 2008

IEEE Spectrum issue on the Singularity

I finally spent some time reading through the IEEE Spectrum special issue on the Singularity. I won’t attempt to define the Singularity and the many different versions of it, Wikipedia has some good background if you’re interested. Here are some initial thoughts about the articles in the IEEE special issue.

My first impression was that there was a great deal of skepticism and criticism about the concept of the Singularity among many of the authors. But they tended to focus their scorn on the issues of immortality, uploading your mind to a computer, and uncontrollable runaway artificial intelligence. I’ve concluded that these topics are just emotional distractions of some of the real key issues.

I prefer to define the singularity as “that future period beyond which you cannot make any accurate predictions about what society will be like because the technological and social changes will have become so profound”. Looking at the explosive rate in computer and biological technology, and the profound changes that peak oil/water/resources will usher in, it is indeed impractical to make any predictions about what society will be like beyond about 2050. This fits in well with Ray Kurzwiel’s 2045 date for the Singularity.

Although I consider the IPCC reports on climate change to be some of the most significant and well researched scientific documents of our time, I sometimes wonder if their climate predictions for 2100 are essentially meaningless. Yes, they state that these are predictions of what will happen if nothing changes (or if change follows certain scenarios). And yes, it’s important that they try to make the case for the importance of the long term impact of climate change. However, there will be such profound technological and social changes in the next 2 to 4 decades that trying to project what will really happen beyond about 2050 has so much uncertainty as to be almost meaningless. I suspect that many of the scientist involved had the same concerns, but couldn’t think of any alternative approach that still illustrated the long term dangers of climate change.

The article that I found most fascinating was the “Economics of the Singularity” by Robin Hanson, in part because I was unfamiliar with this take on the singularity issues. More on that one later…

1 comment:

Robin Hanson said...

I for one look forward to that next post. :)