The technological singularity is a theoretical future point of unprecedented technological progress—typically associated with advancements in computer hardware or the ability of machines to improve themselves using artificial intelligence.
Statistician I. J. Good first wrote of an "intelligence explosion", suggesting that if machines could even slightly surpass human intellect, they could improve their own designs in ways unforeseen by their designers, and thus recursively augment themselves into far greater intelligences. The first such improvements might be small, but as the machine became more intelligent it would become better at becoming more intelligent, which could lead to an exponential and quite sudden growth in intelligence.
Vernor Vinge later called this event "the Singularity" as an analogy between the breakdown of modern physics near a gravitational singularity and the drastic change in society he argues would occur following an intelligence explosion. In the 1980s, Vinge popularized the singularity in lectures, essays, and science fiction. More recently, some prominent technologists such as Bill Joy, founder of Sun Microsystems, voiced concern over the potential dangers of Vinge's singularity (Joy 2000). Following its introduction in Vinge's stories, particularly Marooned in Realtime and A Fire Upon the Deep, the singularity has also become a common plot element in science fiction.
Others, most prominently Ray Kurzweil, define the singularity as a period of extremely rapid technological progress. Kurzweil argues such an event is implied by a long-term pattern of accelerating change that generalizes Moore's Law to technologies predating the integrated circuit and which he argues will continue to other technologies not yet invented. Critics of Kurzweil's interpretation consider it an example of static analysis, citing particular failures of the predictions of Moore's Law.
Robin Hanson proposes that multiple "singularities" have occurred throughout history, dramatically affecting the growth rate of the economy. Like the agricultural and industrial revolutions of the past, the technological singularity would increase economic growth between 60 and 250 times. An innovation that allowed for replacement of virtually all human labor could trigger this singularity.
Critics allege that the singularity concept does not take into account increased energy resource usage by the new technologies, or the current physical (atomic) limits in electronic components miniaturization. However, by its nature, the theory implies the creation of currently unknown technologies and relies on the concept of improvements in one field affecting another — an event paralleled in the industrial revolution.
Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.
Mathematician and author Vernor Vinge greatly popularized Good’s notion of an intelligence explosion in the 1980s, calling the creation of the first ultraintelligent machine the Singularity. Vinge first addressed the topic in print in the January 1983 issue of Omni magazine. Vinge (1993) contains the oft-quoted statement, "Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly thereafter, the human era will be ended." Vinge refines his estimate of the time scales involved, adding, "I'll be surprised if this event occurs before 2005 or after 2030."
Vinge continues by predicting that superhuman intelligences, however created, will be able to enhance their own minds faster than the humans that created them. "When greater-than-human intelligence drives progress," Vinge writes, "that progress will be much more rapid." This feedback loop of self-improving intelligence, he predicts, will cause large amounts of technological progress within a short period of time.
Most proposed methods for creating smarter-than-human or transhuman minds fall into one of two categories: intelligence amplification of human brains and artificial intelligence. The means speculated to produce intelligence augmentation are numerous, and include bio- and genetic engineering, nootropic drugs, AI assistants, direct brain-computer interfaces, and mind transfer.
Despite the numerous speculated means for amplifying human intelligence, non-human artificial intelligence (specifically seed AI) is the most popular option for organizations trying to advance the singularity, a choice addressed by Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence (2002). Hanson (1998) is also skeptical of human intelligence augmentation, writing that once one has exhausted the "low-hanging fruit" of easy methods for increasing human intelligence, further improvements will become increasingly difficult to find.
It is difficult to directly compare silicon-based hardware with neurons. But Berglas (2008) notes that computer speech recognition is approaching human capabilities, and that this capability seems to require 0.01% of the volume of the brain. This analogy suggests that modern computer hardware is within a few orders of magnitude as powerful as the human brain.
One other factor potentially hastening the singularity is the ongoing expansion of the community working on it, resulting from the increase in scientific research within developing countries.
Dramatic changes in the rate of economic growth have occurred in the past because of some technological advancement. Based on population growth, the economy doubled every 250,000 years from the Paleolithic era until the Neolithic Revolution. This new agricultural economy began to double every 900 years, a remarkable increase. In the current era, beginning with the Industrial Revolution, the world’s economic output doubles every fifteen years, sixty times faster than in the agricultural era. If the rise of superhuman intelligences causes a similar revolution, one would expect the economy to double at least quarterly and possibly on a weekly basis.
Machines capable of performing most mental and physical tasks as well as humans would cause a rise in wages for the jobs at which humans can still outperform machines. However, a sudden proliferation of humanlike machines would likely cause a net drop in wages, as humans compete with robots for jobs. Also, the wealth of the technological singularity may be concentrated in the hands of only a few. These wealthy few would be those who own the means of mass producing the intelligent robot workforce.
Superhuman intelligences may have goals inconsistent with human survival and prosperity. AI researcher Hugo de Garis suggests AIs may simply eliminate the human race, and humans would be powerless to stop them.
Berglas (2008) argues that unlike man, a computer based intelligence is not tied to any particular body, which would give it a radically different world view. In particular, a software intelligence would essentially be immortal and so have no need to produce independent children that live on after it dies. It would thus have no evolutionary need for love.
Other oft-cited dangers include those commonly associated with molecular nanotechnology and genetic engineering. These threats are major issues for both singularity advocates and critics, and were the subject of Bill Joy's Wired magazine article "Why the future doesn't need us" (Joy 2000).
Moravec (1992) argues that although superintelligence in the form of machines may make humans in some sense obsolete as the top intelligence, there will still be room in the ecology for humans.
When we create the first superintelligent entity, we might make a mistake and give it goals that lead it to annihilate humankind, assuming its enormous intellectual advantage gives it the power to do so. For example, we could mistakenly elevate a subgoal to the status of a supergoal. We tell it to solve a mathematical problem, and it complies by turning all the matter in the solar system into a giant calculating device, in the process killing the person who asked the question.
Eliezer Yudkowsky proposed that research be undertaken to produce friendly artificial intelligence in order to address the dangers. He noted that if the first real AI was friendly it would have a head start on self-improvement and thus might prevent other unfriendly AIs from developing. The Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence is dedicated to this cause. Bill Hibbard also addresses issues of AI safety and morality in his book Super-Intelligent Machines. However, Berglas (2008) notes that there is no direct evolutionary motivation for an AI to be friendly to man.
Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics are one of the earliest examples of proposed safety measures for AI. The laws are intended to prevent artificially intelligent robots from harming humans. In Asimov’s stories, any perceived problems with the laws tend to arise as a result of a misunderstanding on the part of some human operator; the robots themselves are merely acting to their best interpretation of their rules. In the 2004 film I, Robot, a possibility is explored in which AI take complete control over humanity for the purpose of protecting humanity from itself. (The movie was based loosely on Asimov's stories; the aspect of machines taking over bears closer resemblance to Capek's R.U.R., the first novel ever to use the term robot.) In 2004, the Singularity Institute launched an Internet campaign called 3 Laws Unsafe to raise awareness of AI safety issues and the inadequacy of Asimov’s laws in particular (Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence 2004).
Many Singularitarians consider nanotechnology to be one of the greatest dangers facing humanity. For this reason, they often believe seed AI (an AI capable of making itself smarter) should precede nanotechnology. Others, such as the Foresight Institute, advocate efforts to create molecular nanotechnology, claiming nanotechnology can be made safe for pre-singularity use or can expedite the arrival of a beneficial singularity.
Some singularity proponents argue its inevitability through extrapolation of past trends, especially those pertaining to shortening gaps between improvements to technology. In one of the first uses of the term "singularity" in the context of technological progress, Ulam (1958) tells of a conversation with John von Neumann about accelerating change:
One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue.
Hawkins (1983) writes that "mindsteps", dramatic and irreversible changes to paradigms or world views, are accelerating in frequency as quantified in his mindstep equation. He cites the inventions of writing, mathematics, and the computer as examples of such changes.
Ray Kurzweil's analysis of history concludes that technological progress follows a pattern of exponential growth, following what he calls The Law of Accelerating Returns. He generalizes Moore's Law, which describes geometric growth in integrated semiconductor complexity, to include technologies from far before the integrated circuit.
Whenever technology approaches a barrier, Kurzweil writes, new technologies will cross it. He predicts paradigm shifts will become increasingly common, leading to "technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history" (Kurzweil 2001). Kurzweil believes that the singularity will occur before the end of the 21st century, setting the date at 2045 (Kurzweil 2005). His predictions differ from Vinge’s in that he predicts a gradual ascent to the singularity, rather than Vinge’s rapidly self-improving superhuman intelligence.
This leads to the conclusion that an artificial intelligence that is capable of improving on its own design is also faced with a singularity. This idea is explored by Dan Simmons in his novel Hyperion, where a collection of artificial intelligences debate whether or not to make themselves obsolete by creating a new generation of "ultimate" intelligence.
The Acceleration Studies Foundation, an educational non-profit foundation founded by John Smart, engages in outreach, education, research and advocacy concerning accelerating change (Acceleration Studies Foundation 2007). It produces the Accelerating Change conference at Stanford University, and maintains the educational site Acceleration Watch.
Presumably, a technological singularity would lead to a rapid development of a Kardashev Type I civilization where a Kardashev Type I civilization has achieved mastery of the resources of its home planet, Type II of its planetary system, and Type III of its galaxy. Given the fact that, depending on the calculations used, humans on Earth will reach 0.7 on the Kardashev scale by 2040 or sooner, a technological singularity between now and then would push us rapidly over that limit.
Some critics assert that no computer or machine will ever achieve human intelligence while others do not rule out the possibility. Theodore Modis and Jonathan Huebner argue that the rate of technological innovation has not only ceased to rise, but is actually now declining. John Smart criticizes Huebner's analysis. Some evidence for this decline is that the rise in computer clock speeds is slowing, even while Moore's prediction of exponentially increasing circuit density continues to hold. Although clock speeds in the past were advertised as the main source of speed from a processor, that's no longer true. Today's processors use the circuits for different, more efficient purposes than pushing raw clock speed. For instance, a Core i7 at 2 GHz is far more powerful than a Pentium 4 at 4 GHz.
Others propose that other "singularities" can be found through analysis of trends in world population, world GDP, and other indices. Andrey Korotayev and others argue that historical hyperbolic growth curves can be attributed to feedback loops that ceased to affect global trends in the 1970s, and thus hyperbolic growth should not be expected in the future.
In The Progress of Computing, William Nordhaus argued that, prior to 1940, computers followed the much slower growth of a traditional industrial economy, thus rejecting extrapolations of Moore's Law to 19th-century computers. Schmidhuber (2006) suggests differences in memory of recent and distant events create an illusion of accelerating change, and that such phenomena may be responsible for past apocalyptic predictions.
A recent study of patents per thousand persons shows that human creativity does not show accelerating returns, but in fact—as suggested by Joseph Tainter in his seminal The Collapse of Complex Societies—a law of diminishing returns. The number of patents per thousand peaked in the period from 1850–1900, and has been declining since. The growth of complexity eventually becomes self-limiting, and leads to a wide spread "general systems collapse". Thomas Homer Dixon in The Upside of Down: Catastrophe, Creativity and the Renewal of Civilization shows that the declining energy returns on investment has led to the collapse of civilizations. Jared Diamond in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed also shows that cultures self-limit when they exceed the sustainable carrying capacity of their environment, and the consumption of strategic resources (frequently timber, soils or water) creates a deleterious positive feedback loop that leads eventually to social collapse and technological retrogression.
While discussing the singularity's growing recognition, Vinge (1993) writes that "it was the science-fiction writers who felt the first concrete impact." In addition to his own short story "Bookworm, Run!", whose protagonist is a chimpanzee with intelligence augmented by a government experiment, he cites Greg Bear's novel Blood Music (1983) as an example of the singularity in fiction. In William Gibson's 1984 novel Neuromancer, AIs capable of improving their own programs are strictly regulated by special "Turing police" to ensure they never exceed a certain level of intelligence, and the plot centers on the efforts of one such AI to circumvent their control. The 1994 novel The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect features an AI that augments itself so quickly as to gain low-level control of all matter in the Universe in a matter of hours. A more malevolent AI achieves similar levels of omnipotence in Harlan Ellison's short story I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream (1967). William Thomas Quick's novels Dreams of Flesh and Sand (1988), Dreams of Gods and Men (1989), and Singularities (1990) present an account of the transition through the singularity; in the latter novel, one of the characters states that it is necessary for Mankind's survival that they achieve an integration with the emerging machine intelligences, or it will be crushed under the dominance of the machines – the greatest risk to the survival of a species reaching this point (and alluding to large numbers of other species that either survived or failed this test, although no actual contact with alien species occurs in the novels).
The singularity is sometimes addressed in fictional works to explain the event's absence. Neal Asher's Gridlinked series features a future where humans living in the Polity are governed by AIs and while some are resentful, most believe that they are far better governors than any human. In the fourth novel, Polity Agent, it is mentioned that the singularity is far overdue yet most AIs have decided not to partake in it for reasons that only they know. A flashback character in Ken MacLeod's 1998 novel The Cassini Division dismissively refers to the singularity as "the Rapture for nerds", though the singularity goes on to happen anyway.
Popular movies in which computers become intelligent and overpower the human race include Colossus: The Forbin Project, the Terminator series, I, Robot, and The Matrix series. The television series Battlestar Galactica also explores these themes.
Isaac Asimov expressed ideas similar to a post-Kurzweilian singularity in his short story The Last Question. Asimov's future envisions a reality where a combination of strong artificial intelligence and post-humans consume the cosmos, during a time Kurzweil describes as when "the universe wakes up", the last of his six stages of cosmic evolution as described in The Singularity is Near. Post-human entities throughout various time periods of the story inquire of the artificial intelligence within the story as to how entropy death will be avoided. The AI responds that it lacks sufficient information to come to a conclusion, until the end of the story when the AI does indeed arrive at a solution, and demonstrates it by re-creating the universe, in godlike speech and fashion, from scratch. Notably, it does so in order to fulfill its duty to answer the humans' question.
St. Edward's University chemist Eamonn Healy discusses accelerating change in the film Waking Life. He divides history into increasingly shorter periods, estimating "two billion years for life, six million years for the hominid, a hundred-thousand years for mankind as we know it". He proceeds to human cultural evolution, giving time scales of ten thousand years for agriculture, four hundred years for the scientific revolution, and one hundred fifty years for the industrial revolution. Information is emphasized as providing the basis for the new evolutionary paradigm, with artificial intelligence its culmination. He concludes we will eventually create "neohumans" which will usurp humanity’s present role in scientific and technological progress and allow the exponential trend of accelerating change to continue past the limits of human ability.
Accelerating progress features in some science fiction works, and is a central theme in Charles Stross's Accelerando. Other notable authors that address singularity-related issues include Karl Schroeder, Greg Egan, Ken MacLeod, David Brin, Iain M. Banks, Neal Stephenson, Tony Ballantyne, Bruce Sterling, Dan Simmons, Damien Broderick, Fredric Brown, Jacek Dukaj, Nagaru Tanigawa and Cory Doctorow. Another relevant work is Warren Ellis’ ongoing comic book series newuniversal.
In the episode "The Turk" of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, John Connor mentions the singularity. The Terminator franchise is predicated on the concept of a human-designed computer system becoming self-aware and deciding to destroy humankind. It eventually achieves superintelligence.
In the film Screamers—based on Philip K. Dick's short story Second Variety—mankind's own weapons begin to design and assemble themselves. Self replicating machines (here, the screamers) are often considered to be a significant prerequisite "final phase"—almost like a catalyst to the accelerating progress leading to a singularity. Interestingly, screamers develop to a level where they will kill each other and one even professes her love for the human. This idea is common in Dick's stories, that explore beyond the simplistic "man vs machine" scenario in which our creations consider us a threat.
The feature-length documentary film Transcendent Man is based on Ray Kurzweil and his book The Singularity Is Near. The film documents Kurzweil's quest to reveal what he believes to be mankind's destiny.
On his album People of Earth, Dr. Steel has a song by the title of "The Singularity."