We may not be beaming people down from starships yet, but we’re certainly lightyears away from rubbing two sticks together to create fire. As a species, humans have seen explosions of technological growth over the centuries, beginning with things as simple as developing writing implements all the way up to using biotechnology to create genetically modified organisms. Lately, mankind’s own biological intelligence hasn’t been sufficient to quench the thirst for knowledge and invention. With giant leaps forward regarding artificial intelligence and the race to generate a computer that functions as, and better than, man, it’s time to talk about the predicted “technological singularity.” What might once have been deemed science-fiction now looms ominously like a hypothetical future.
Defining the Technological Singularity
It’s all about the “runaway reaction.” Imagine designing a computer that can think for itself and process like a human brain- better than a human brain. Imagine then that that computer designs a new computer that is even more advanced than itself. What would that second computer do? Design a third. And the third a fourth. And so on, and faster, until an “intelligence explosion” occurs that would result in an artificial superintelligence that would far surpass both man and the machine man first created. Would man continue to exist in a world dominated by artificial intelligence? Would we be made extinct by our very own creation, which far exceeds ourselves and our contemporaries?
This theory’s popularization is primarily attributed to Vernor Vinge, a science-fiction author who claimed that the artificial superintelligence would continue to advance at an inconceivable rate once achieved, and therefore cause the “singularity.” However, the first mention of a technological singularity was made by John von Neumann in 1958, and shortly afterwards by Stanislaw Ulam as well in the same year. The concept has been echoed in plenty of literature and media on into the current day, with movies like I, Robot expressing humanity’s concern with robotic intelligence. The creation of an artificial superintelligence, effectively, erases the need for human intelligence, which would be far inferior. Thus, the deepening concern for humanity’s own continued relevance in the universe- especially since the general estimate for the singularity is for 2040, not too many decades away.
What We Can Expect
There is, of course, plenty of work written to combat the hypothesis and claim its irrelevance and unlikeliness. Regardless, a technological singularity still speaks to a very real and a very human concern: artificial intelligence exceeding man’s. It’s not so crazy. When was the last time you pulled out a calculator to do a mathematical problem you couldn’t do yourself? Think of your phone. Think of your computer. These may be only tools, but true artificial intelligence does already exist in the world that you live in. Is it smarter than you and me? Is it smarter than its creator? Will it one day rewrite itself to be even more efficient, even more intelligent? Perhaps these aren’t the questions that we should be focusing on. Perhaps, instead of deciding whether or not we will one day need to respond, we should decide now what our response will be when, if, we do.