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Weekly Column

Surviving Immortality: Just getting to the Singularity is the hard part.

Status: [CLOSED] comments (174)
By Robert X. Cringely

I've been thinking about the Technological Singularity, which to proper geeks is that point where computers become smarter than humans and supposedly all bets are off as technological development races forward faster than we can catch it and you and I are either left eating bonbons or are put to death by computers no longer amused by serving us. Life post-Singularity will, of course, be somewhere in between those two eventualities. Zits may be abolished but youth will still be anguished. Computers may be designing warp drives but I'll still be paying my mortgage. Rather than a technological Hell or Utopia, the Singularity is likely to leave us still in our sitcom just with different props. What's fascinating about the Singularity is not so much guessing what life will be like then as looking at our very approach to the concept and some likely side effects we'll bump into along the way.

Some very smart people are getting really worked up about the Singularity. Artificial Intelligence pioneer Ray Kurzweil, who makes his living from explaining and describing the Singularity, thinks it is generally good, that the Singularity will transform our culture in mostly positive ways and allow us to become effectively immortal. Bill Joy has a darker view, seeing really smart machines as a threat that might enslave us and certainly expose us as a culture to unexpected risks. To me the Singularity feels a lot like Y2K and the anticipation people had as the millennium approached, testing the capability of our computers to keep streetlights running and not make airliners crash. In Y2K the people most upset about the concept, those folks who sold their homes and moved to the mountains, were also the ones most excited by it. As much as they were scared by the concept of Y2K, I saw that they really wanted it to happen in the same sense that members of an apocalyptic cult might find that very apocalypse to be reaffirming, even if it means we'll all be vaporized or shipped directly to Hell.

There are many unanswered questions about the Singularity. Will it take place? How will it take place? When will it take place? What will be the effects of it taking place? If the effects of the Singularity are negative is there anything we can do about them? Can we shape the Singularity to our advantage? But what I find most fascinating is wondering what will happen between now and the Singularity as we anticipate and prepare for what I am expecting to actually be an anticlimactic event.

While I don't want to dwell too much on Ray Kurzweil, I think he is also worried more about what's between here and there. Ray believes the Singularity will bring immortality, so it has become very important to him to take care of himself in anticipation of that eventuality. Where some of us might think that a coming cure for obesity, for example, would be a great excuse for eating more chocolate, Ray is taking a much more pragmatic approach. He is trying very hard to live long enough to live forever.

This reminds me of an evening several years ago when I sat at a technology awards dinner next to a guy who happened to have a Nobel Prize in medicine. Just a little drunk, he explained to my wife and me that his work in genetics would allow our children to live forever.

"What about us?" I asked.

"You're screwed," he replied.

Someone always has to be the last person to die of a disease that is being conquered. And if you take a very positive view of the Singularity that means someone has to be the last person to die, period. Ray is just determined that person isn't going to be him, and I wish him all the best in that quest. Now pass me the chocolates, please.

It occurs to me that I haven't yet made the point that I believe the Singularity WILL occur. Oh it's coming all right, despite the spectacular under-performance of artificial intelligence over the years. But like every other rite of passage, this one will be both more and less than we expect it to be. Our troubles won't go away, they'll just become different troubles.

For example, the Singularity is phenomenon with both technological and economic components. Moore's Law works the same way. The underlying concept of both is the level of technological development we can reach AT A CERTAIN PRICE. The most powerful supercomputers can cost tens of millions of dollars and it is logical to assume that something on the order of a supercomputer would be the first machine to reach Singularity status. That's fine and would undoubtedly result in the creation of knowledge that would have an impact on all of us simply through the existence of that knowledge and its subsequent use by people and machines who may not have yet grown to Singularity, but what will really change everything is when the price of Singularity drops low enough to apply to the computer on our desks or on our wrists.

When will $1000 buy a machine that is 10,000 times smarter than the average human? Ray pins that at 2029, 22 years from today. I'll be 76 years old if I make it. My youngest child will be 23 and just embarking on an adult life that can't help but be transformed by technology. My planning for the Singularity will be a lot easier than his. And whether we've broken the speed of light, created immortality or not, I imagine I'll still be hoping he joins a boy band and supports his old man.

Between now and the Singularity a lot of things will change and one of the most frustrating aspects of that change for many people is how hard it is to be specific about it. One of those monthly science magazines, for example -- the kind that likes to have cover pictures of flying cars -- asked me not long ago to describe the personal computer of 10 years from now. It's simple to do a few numbers and calculate CPU performance, memory capacity, storage and such, but harder to say that we'll even still be using PCs, though I'm guessing we will. And the magazine was especially frustrated that I could say we'll have umpteen terabytes of storage, for example, but couldn't say exactly what storage technology would allow that. Holographic? Quantum? Some technology from behind Door Number Three? Nobody can say for sure. Or at least I can't. But I feel confident of the number, if not the way that number will be achieved.

What we have working here is the Law of Accelerating Returns, the best example of which is the Human Genome Project, which set out on a 15-year quest to map the human genome and, nine years into the project had only mapped about one percent. To linear thinkers this appeared to be a failure. But completing one percent of the map wasn't the same as completing one percent of the TASK, which included developing the technology for efficient genome mapping. The project was actually completed ahead of schedule and under budget. We're going to see a lot of that kind of thing in the near future with massive effects long before the Singularity.

I spoke recently with folks from BitTorrent, for example. This peer-to-peer data distribution technology has dominant market share and is poised to do some very interesting things in coming months, but at its core P2P is really just a coping strategy, a way of making today's bandwidth enough for tomorrow's applications. But with Internet backbone bandwidth doubling every year for the foreseeable future, there will come a time when we'll have enough bandwidth to not need something like BitTorrent. For the backbones that time looks to be around 2013 and for our home connections to catch up will take until 2016. How is this going to happen? Beats me, but I know it will, barring nuclear war or alien invasion. So the market opportunity for P2P technologies like BitTorrent AS WE ARE CURRENTLY USING THEM will really last for only another six to nine years.

That may not seem very long but it is enough time to build and sell a good business, so this is not in any sense a negative statement about BitTorrent or P2P. It's just the way the world works. And we might well find that technology advances eliminate the need for many servers putting us right back to using P2P, though for somewhat different purposes and in somewhat different ways.

There are half a dozen technology families that have been in parallel development for the last 30 years. Processing power, memory, storage, displays, communication, and manufacturing technologies have been on parallel paths leading to a synchronistic convergence. Remember how in Back to the Future Doc Brown's time-traveling De Lorean went from requiring lightning strikes or stolen fissionable material as a power source to running on recycled garbage? THAT's an accelerated return and exactly the kind of effect we can look forward to.

The real peril in all this is that our social, cultural, and political technologies probably won't keep pace, meaning we'll have whole new ways to hurt ourselves and others along with the same old ways to keep ourselves from doing so. The Singularity may well bring with it the end of death, but I am 100 percent certain that taxes will survive.

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (174)

Actually I think it's important to underline that 'the singularity' won't be a point in time. Rather I expect it to be a process, comparable to the uptake of the Internet worldwide (and actually, thinking about it, probably with similar geographic distribution patterns).

Food for more thought...

Erwin | Aug 29, 2007 | 3:20AM

Singularity is surely the wrong word for the instant that computers bcome faster than we do. A far better word, surely, would be "event horizon"?

Singularity is used to describe the centre of a black hole (space is pinched to a singular point); by analogy, it would make more sense if it referred to some kind of asymptote, such as one that might occur if computers got twice as powerful in every step, with each step taking half the time of the previous one. In two lots of the first step, they would (theoretically) become infinitely powerful. More likely, their nature would radically change.

Pragmatically speaking, wake me up when computers can play the oriental game of Go with any real competence.

Tim Wesson | Aug 29, 2007 | 7:39AM

Kurtzwil (sp) was also on TV again talking about "copying" the "structures" of the human brain and then uploading that information to a computer system (and thereby making someone immortal). What the idiot fails to see is the fact that the uploading information of our brain is simply a COPY of who we are. A copy isn't you...It's simply a copy of you. In other words, the actual "you" will die--and your copies will live on. But who here really gives a rip that their copies will be able to live on forever while they get a permanent dirt nap? Let's just remember that who we are is determined by 1) the particles that make up our brain and 2) the way in which these particles are organized (the structure). Just because you can copy something doesn't mean the orginal will still persist. It's like saying we're going to destroy you after we just made a perfect matching clone. I can just hear the pleading from the "orginal" person---"Don't kill me! I'm the original!!"

Zak | Aug 30, 2007 | 10:23AM