Is humanity really going to go through a "Technological Singularity"?

Technological Singularity is the idea that in the near future there will be technological developments with such a profound transformative effects on human life that what comes after is completely imponderable. From the TVTropes page on “Singularity”:

But, are any of the cutting-edge technologies on the horizon actually going to do all of that?

The history of hope and speculation in technology is littered with gosh-wow inventions that, for one reason or another, do not actually work when built. Such appear on the cover of Popular Mechanics and similar zines on a regular basis. (Try skimming through David Szondy’s Tales of Future Past website for examples.)

Nanotechnology looks like a singularity-grade change agent on paper, but it does not exist yet, and it might well never exist – at least, not in a form that can make you immortal, or make it possible to use diamond as a building material.

The prospect of computers-smarter-than-humans depends on Strong Artificial Intelligence – which is one of those technologies that seems always to be ten years away; it might well prove impossible.

Genetic engineering, as far as application to humans is concerned, might never be used for anything more radical than eliminating hereditary diseases and picking the color of a baby’s eyes. The more complex things, like the relation of gene-code to general intelligence, are only poorly understood and might not be any better understood in our lifetimes.

Uploading human personalities/memories to computers, mechanically assisted telepathy, virtual reality subjectively indistinguishable from meatspace reality, all depend on a strong Brain-Computer Interface, which up to now has been made useful only for rather gross manipulation of prostheses and making words appear on computer screens; more expansive applications, again, might prove to be impossible.

Even such old-hat ideas as jetpacks and Iron Man armor depend on portable fuel/power sources better than anything yet devised. Jetpacks work, all right, but they can only carry enough fuel for a few minutes’ flight. And Iron Man cannot go into battle trailing an extension cord, and no storage battery yet invented will substitute. (A gasoline-powered backpack generator might, but that’s awfully bulky for the purpose, and simply does not pass the Rule of Cool test.)

So, is there going to be a Rapture of the Nerds? Or is the future of technological change going to be just a matter of boring, marginal improvements to the godlike-to-our-ancestors technology we’ve got now?

I’d say it’s more like a technological event horizon, personally. I’m sure ‘Technological Singularity’ sounds better, though it seems less precise.


I always thought the technological singularity was the point where machines are able to make machines more intelligent than themselves? Thus creating an exponential curve?

Which might be impossible. We still can’t make machines even nearly as intelligent as ourselves, and perhaps we never will, no matter how much money and brainpower is put into R&D. It might be like perpetual motion – awesome if you can make it work, but you can’t.

Or more aptly, achieving the speed of light; the faster you go, the more energy it takes. Reaching the technological singularity requires an infinite amount of technological advancement.

I consider such a “singularity” a near inevitability. Nor is it a new idea; I recall old articles by Heinlein and various other old sci-fi authors pointing out that the technological curve goes vertical if you plot it ahead enough. The real unanswerable question in my eyes is “when”.

Thing is, that’s an example of an “extraordinary claim requiring extraordinary evidence”. It’s basically postulating some sort of mystical soul that technology can’t duplicate. Basically; we know AI is possible, because the existence of natural intelligence. Just as birds demonstrated that heavier than air flight was possible.

Not necessarily; a scan of a frozen brain might work better than an interface for example.

Well, there’s the recently invented liquid semiconductor based nuclear battery; a bigger version might suffice for powered armor, and definitely passes the Rule for Cool test. Although they really need to modify it so that it explodes in a fireball under the right circumstances to truly be Cool.:smiley:

No. Perpetual motion is physically impossible, not simply difficult; we can’t do it, nature can’t do it. Intelligence already exists.

And again, claiming that AI is impossible is pretty much mysticism.

I can’t be impossible. We were ultimately made by much less intelligent creatures than ourselves, without even consciously trying.

On the other hand, the technological event horizon is something that’s so abstract that I have a hard time even imagining when we could ever be in the position to cross it. So I vote: not impossible, but very likely not soon (like, in the next 300 years or so), and we might decide we don’t actually want to go near it even if we get the chance (though I doubt that), or wipe ourselves off the face of the earth before we get there (which IMHO would be an argument for crossing over ASAP).

ETA: I studied AI in college in the early 90s, and I’ve not yet seen any significant break through regarding “real” intelligence in the period leading up to that time or since. Game/strategy: yes. Language and vision processing: ok. But all of those are either pretty much inherent or very abstract in humans. As far as I can tell, nobody even knows what “intelligence” really is.

But strong AI isn’t anything like achieving light speed or perpetual motion. Those are ruled out by the laws of physics, and are impossible no matter what. Building a computer as smart as a human brain is not, it only takes 9 months of unskilled labor to manufacture a computer exactly as smart as a human brain.

A more useful comparison is to fusion power, which is always 20 years away. We know fusion is possible, we see it happen every day. But we may never build a cost-effective fusion generator.

The “technological singularity” idea is a bit overblown. The part that makes sense is what was quoted in the OP–that the big questions and struggles of the 23rd century would be as confusing to us as our big questions and struggles would be to someone from the 14th century. It’s a singularity not because technological advances will be infinite, but rather because it’s pointless for us to speculate about it because we don’t even know what questions to ask.

Even in the 60s while many people predicted that computers would transform our lives, nobody really predicted exactly how our lives would be transformed.

So we can imagine technologies and events of the future that have the potential to transform our lives–genetics, nanotech, fabrication, materials science, fusion power, space travel, contact with alien life, strong AI, and so on. How will contact with aliens transoform society though? Science fiction authors used to take this for granted, now it seems more and more unlikely. So since we can’t predict whether we’ll encounter aliens, much less what those aliens will be like, predictions about how aliens will transform our society are kind of pointless.

If we’re going to include “as unintelligible to us as the Microsoft Anti-Trust Suit would be to Joan of Arc” as an example of passing through a technological singularity (and I don’t reject doing so), then I’m pretty confident that we will on multiple occasions pass through these singularities. It isn’t even that profound a statement, I imagine many inventions have led to shifts in society and problems that would have been extremely difficult to predict before the related technology exists (highway speed limit requirements, cellular phone etiquette, etc). It has happened many times before and likely will happen many times again.

But the quote above is much broader than that, and I’m not sure this has ever happened in human society. I don’t believe the motivations and desires of my ancient ancestors thousands of years ago would be incomprehensible to me. When you strip away a lot of the details I honestly don’t believe my motivations and desires would be that incomprehensible to a caveman either. Sure, they’re built around a far more complicated technological society, but I still like to eat well and socialize with friends and loved ones. A lot of the basics are the same, and I don’t believe “the nature of human life and even the concept of intellect” have changed dramatically.

That isn’t to say that it will never happen. I’m not really prepared to commit either way - I believe the sort of mini singularities I first mentioned will collude against making a reasonable prediction about the existence of this giant singularity!

I’m not at all convinced this will ever happen. Technological advances are always incremental, though they look like a cliff from a distance. Also, acceptance is limited by what the market will allow.

In fact, we can argue that we have already been through a singularity. Read a mystery from the '50s or '60s. Consider how many of the situations in that book no longer apply. The bad guy ripping out the phone lines? Get on your mobile. The police scouring the papers or records for information? google it. Lost in the woods? Use your GPS. When my daughter was in Germany last year she was far better connected to us 5,000 miles away or so than I was to my parents when I was in college, only 200 miles away.
Not so singular when you move into the future one day per day.

Actually your analogy would be more apt if your perpetual motion machine produced ever increasing amounts of energy, so…doubly impossible.

“The less hopeful works point out the dangers. Environmental exhaustion. Our extinction by an uncontrollable creation, intelligent or not. There is the question of who inherits the wonders of acceleration: us or our posthuman descendants? Can we coexist? Charles Stross sometimes envisages a singularity runaway as enjoyable as unchaining Cthulhu on a bad day. The Black Goat knows the answer to Fermi’s question. Agent Smith does not like you.”

Cthulhu with PMS. Thats always been how I’ve envisioned the future…

I can pull out my Droid, 2.5" by 4.5", use audio search, and immediately have access to terabytes of information. I can get a view from space of nearly every place on earth - not real time, yet, but it will be. Not quite omnipotent, but pretty omniscient. My wife’s retina surgeon tied a band around the back of her eye and lasered her retina back on - the latter in his office. Maybe not omnipotent, but pretty miraculous. And predictions are never impossible - they just won’t be correct. I’ve got about 5,000 sf magazines testifying to this very fact.

If we ever make contact with intelligent aliens, all bets are off. If they’re friendly, our technology will advance beyond anything we can imagine. If not…well, it won’t matter for very long, unless they choose to farm us for food. Which may eventually prove unwise…

Neither. Over the next 20-40 years, someone’ll find the ideal membrane with which to construct small, powerful, reliable fuel cells, and someone’ll find the optimal dye combination with which to dope cheap organic photcells, maybe fusion power’ll even put in a commercial appearance. Nanotech will substantially founder on the laws of thermodynamics, while genetic engineers will begin to learn the depth with which a chemical reaction with minimally 35,000 catalyzed steps can respond to externally applied forces.

However, who knows, there might be a real game changer. Some dude at LHC may figure out a way to generate intense, collimated Higgs Boson beams. Cheap acess to space would then be as simple as mounting a "HASER’ on the surface of the moon, and literally sucking spaceships off the surface of the earth with its gravitational powers.

The Singularity isn’t *dependent *on nanotech, genegineering or BCI. Just advanced computing.

Personally, while I believe strong AI is very possible (within say 100 years), I’m a bit leery of the odds of experiencing Singularity within my lifetime, I think global depression brought on by a combo of climate change and overpopulation will happen first, and act as a limiter on growth of all sorts.

I think assuming an infinite technology increase is pretty naive. Even the universe itself has a pixel size and speed limit, so clearly tech can’t increase infinitely.

If we’re discussing a “soft” singularity, like what the original post suggests being that the next generation of tech will be “incomprehensible” to users of the current generation, I’m not exactly skeptical, but I don’t think it’s likely. We’re not even in a particularly large upswing now compared to previous tech surges, according to some measurements. Anyone from 10 years ago could have made decent predictions about the current trend in tech. I would have been pretty much right on the money myself. Even from 20 years ago, an informed guess would have made meaningful predictions about our current tech. In fact, if you asked someone 20 years ago to predict our current tech, he probably would have made guesses even more fantastic than what actually happened. Singularity? Phooey.

It doesn’t need to. It just needs to increase to the point that society becomes something that we humans are not capable of understanding. A society composed of people (ex-human or otherwise) all with beyond human intelligence, speed of thought, perceptions and communications for example. A society and species that is to us what we are to mice is not an example of infinite advancement; but it would be well beyond what we can understand.

Actually, a Singularity scenario isn’t likely to result in infinite advancement; like you, I don’t think such a thing is possible. What it does imply is that when the critical point of runaway advancement is reached, we or our creations will reach that apex of possible technology very rapidly; not in centuries.

The Microsoft Antitrust suit may have been incomprehensible to Joan of Arc, although it is that too to many people living today, and I don’t see why it shouldn’t have been possible to have it explained to Joan in terms she could relate to, and in any case the Microsoft Antitrust suit is also pretty much unimportant. Who here wake up in the morning worrying about the Microsoft Antitrust suit? I wake up in the morning thinking about sex, food, what clothes to wear, what to eat & drink, the people I love, the pain in my knee and other bodily issues, the weather, etc. pretty much exactly the same things that would have preoccupied the life of Joan and people since the stone age. Nothing much of importance has changed. I doubt it will. Technology has changed. We have stayed the same.

If humanity is defined by our consciousness, the ideal human would eventually develop beyond the need for a vulnerable and short-lived physical form in order to continue its existence