Previous: What Singularity?

Yesterday I took issue with Alfred Nordmann’s IEEE post in which he claimed that technological progress was slowing down instead of accelerating. I claimed instead that it was being distorted by the needs of the next rungs of the Maslow hierarchy, and that a huge portion of society’s energy was going into something that no one had predicted: giving the Eloi the illusion that they are doing something that matters.  Just for fun, let’s give this theory a name: ESP, for Eloi Save the Planet.

So, what was the definition of the Singularity again?  Progress of a kind that couldn’t be predicted?  I did say earlier that we were essentially in the middle of the Singularity, on any historical perspective.

What are the great concerns of the Singularitarians? That we will create a great machine that will take over because it is more intelligent than humans. How is a mere mind going to take over?  By fooling us.

I claim that if you look carefully enough, we have in fact already done this. What is a corporation or government but a program, a huge piece of software. The fact that the primitives in the programming language are human acts allows it to be written at a level of abstraction as yet unavailable to programs for electronic computers, but not for long. The essence of a program is a set of instructions telling some agent what to do.

Look at your Form 1040 sometime. It could have been written in COBOL instead of English with virtually no semantic change. What’s the processor it runs on? You are. You’re just a substrate. So is Obama.

It would be a mistake to identify the Singleton, to use Bostrom’s term, with just the government, or just the corporations, or the legal or the financial sectors, or even the Internet.  It’s a mistake to anthropomorphize it. It’s the self-organizing system consisting of all of them.  And it is quickly, not slowly, changing substrate from humans following rules on paper to computers running programs in RAM. Just consider how much of the economy happens over the Internet now than 20 years ago. Think of automatic teller machines. Think of combat robots and UAVs.

The process of turning the world over to the machines is happening from the bottom up — the tellers are replaced first, the bank presidents last — so it’s not so obvious or dramatic as if it were happening the other way. In fact, it may never happen completely; there will probably always be human figureheads even when the machines do all the work and make all the decisions. Indeed, ESP strongly predicts that there will be lots of figureheads who firmly believe they are really in charge and responsible for what their machines are doing.

How, then, should we expect the rest of the Singularity to unfold? Remember that the Singularity, in Vinge’s original sense, was purely a phenomenon of machine intelligence.  It doesn’t particularly matter if we have flying cars, or cruise-spaceships to the rings of Saturn.  It doesn’t matter if we cure cancer or aging.  It doesn’t matter if we have robot butlers and maids, although that’s a more likely side effect.  What matters is that there will be smarter-than-human AIs making the decisions that do matter.

The fact is that the ESP pressures that are slowing down all the other kinds of progress are, willy-nilly, accelerating progress in computers and software. Look on Sourceforge or the iPhone App Store to get a feeling for just how much technical creativity is being poured into software today. Computing today is one of the very few fields where tinkering leads theory, in the normal historical configuration of a progressive technical growth mode.  Given my own personal proclivities, for example, I might equally as well be tinkering on a flying car or working on AI. The existing configuration of pressures, incentives, and roadblocks pushes me to the latter.

So, far from slowing down, technological advance has kicked into historically unprecedented growth rates in the one area that leads most strongly to the AI and the machine takeover.  (Actually, there are several areas, such as neuroscience, that are contributory; and they’re all seeing rapid progress.)

What will the world be like after the substrate shift of the Singleton? Not much difference, at least initially. Machines will assume the real decision-making power, piecemeal, as they are able to do the job at as well as people (or in some cases, just “well enough”). The “system” will actually work a little better overall. ESP tells us that there will be lots of human-level (and human-shaped) robots for people to order around and to need and appreciate us.

Will the system as a whole ever get beyond ESP, the need to let humanity live a scary but fulfilling lie? That remains impossible to predict.

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