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September 2, 2010

The Singularity, Google and the new civilisation

Imagine, if you will, Arthur C. Clarke’s third law that states: “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” and that Harry Potter’s “magic” will soon be realised through advanced technologies that are nearing a “Singularity”, the dawn of a new civilisation.

For over three decades, futurist Ray Kurzweil has been one of the most respected advocates of the role of technology in defining our intelligence. He presents the concept of technological change in which computers will surpass human intelligence in an inexorable evolutionary transformation, where man and machine will be merged.

Extrapolated exponentially into the 21st century, he foretells of the growth of intelligence that will become “increasingly non-biological” and “trillions of times more powerful” than it is today. This is the essence of the Singularity.

This technological Singularity is a hypothetical event whereby technological progress is due to become exponential due to positive feedback. In this brave new world, the distinction between reality and virtual reality, or human and machine, by means of nanotechnology, will be indistinguishable. Kurzweil argues that human ageing and illness will be reversed, pollution will be stopped and world hunger and poverty will be solved.

Vernor Vinge proposes that the creation of smarter-than-human intelligence would represent a breakdown in humans’ ability to model their future, while IJ Good’s “intelligence explosion”, talks of the increasing power of computers’ nano- and bio-technologies, through the amplification of artificial intelligence, that will one day re-write our source code so that we become far more intelligent than we are today.

Novelist William Gibson opined on Google’s role in this process: “In Google, we are at once the surveilled and the individual retinal cells of the surveillant, however many millions of us, constantly if unconsciously participatory. We are part of a post-geographical, post-national superstate, one that handily says no to China. Or yes, depending on profit considerations and strategy. But we do not participate in Google on that level. We’re citizens, but without rights.”

To back up these hypotheses, without being too Timothy Learyesque, scientists have created the first two-terminal memory chips using silicon to generate nanocrystal wires far smaller than circuitry in even the most advanced computers, which extends the limits of miniaturisation subject to Moore’s Law which describes the long-term trend in the number of transistors that can be placed on an integrated circuit doubling approximately every eighteen months.

In a review of “The Singularity Is Near”: “We never imagined that artificial intelligence would be like this. We imagined discrete entities. Genies. We also seldom imagined that emergent technologies would leave legislation in the dust, yet they do. In a world characterised by technologically-driven change, we necessarily legislate after the fact, perpetually scrambling to catch up, while the core architectures of the future, increasingly, are erected by entities like Google.”

To further Google’s cause, William Gibson maintains: “We have yet to take Google’s measure. We’ve seen nothing like it before, and we already perceive much of our world through it. We would all very much like to be sagely and reliably advised by our own private genie; we would like the genie to make the world more transparent, more easily navigable. Google does that for us: it makes everything in the world accessible to everyone, and everyone accessible to the world. But we see everyone looking in, and blame Google.”

Much of the discussions on Google centre on young people who expose their private lives via social networking. Apparently, Google is: “letting societal chips fall where they may, to be tidied by lawmakers and legislation as best they can, while the erection of new world architecture continues apace and that those who are indiscreet on the web will continue to have to make the best of it, while sharper cookies slouch toward an ever more Googleable future, one in which Google, to some even greater extent than it does now, helps us decide what we’ll do next.”

Kurzweil’s book envisions the world of the Singularity — a fusion of symbiotic advances in genetics, robotics and nanotechnology — where mankind’s technological knowledge is snowballing at an exponential rate in which a zero-energy-consuming computer with a memory of about a thousand trillion trillion bits and a processing capacity about ten trillion times more powerful than all human brains on Earth.

In 2009 the LA Times published a report that Ray Kurzweil and Google, as sponsor, were behind the move to form the Singularity University, which brought together the world’s top graduate and postgraduate students in ten diverse disciplines, such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, medicine and law, designed to provide future leaders with an understanding of what is possible today as well as an understanding of where the real opportunities exist for innovation that might spring from converging technologies.

Earlier, published in 2005, The New York Times wrote: “We are fast approaching a time when humankind melds with technology to produce mind-boggling advances in intelligence. We will be able to play quidditch as Harry Potter does; we will control the ageing process; and we will be smarter by a factor of trillions.”

Maybe one day we will be so smart that we can actually understand what Ray Kurzweil is telling us.

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