Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Singularity is Near - When Humans Transcend Biology

Okay so the economy graphs and going up and down recently a bit like a fairground rollercoaster or the preffered sea patterns of surfers but there is one graph that has only been on the increase since 1900.

It's the tech curve graph.

Recently I was browsing in a book store and increasingly I gravitate to the easy read science section while my girlfriend stalks the psychology and brain related materials. One book stuck out literally and semantically for me - it was the big black one called The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (Viking Penguin, ISBN 0-670-03384-7) by Raymond Kurzweil. Within seconds of looking at the index I knew I was going to buy it. Kurzweil is a futurist who has been involved in numerous fields including speech recognition, text to speech synthesis, AI and also developed electronic keyboards (aka the Kurzweil synth series). He has distilled the learnings he has learned and created this book which tries to predict where we are going while backing it up with a serious amount of empirical data. I learned today that the book is also going to be a movie.

I'm half way through but even when the book isn't in front of me it's in the back of my mind.

In the first quarter of the book data is aggregated on all the facets of technology which are experiencing exponential growth. The most famous of these is something known to many which is the Moores Law concerning the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit. This has increased exponentially, doubling approximately every two years.

Moore's Law The Fifth Paradigm, Calculations per Second per $1,000, Logarithmic Plot

Be sure to keep in mind that these are log plots, so a straight line is really an exponential curve - like the ones shown below i.e. screaming off the charts and through the ceiling.

The book goes on to illustate the point that technology is exploding on all fronts with expoential plots of other technologies experiencing exponential changes

  • Dynamic RAM size (smallest feature sizes decreasing exponentially)
  • Dynamic RAM price performance (improving exponentially)
  • Average Transistor price (decreasing exponentially)
  • Transistor Manufacturing costs (decreasing exponentially)
  • Microprocessor clock speeds (increasing exponentially)
  • Microprocessor costs (decreasing exponentially)
  • Transistors per microprocessor (increasing exponentially)
  • Processor performance (increasing exponentially)
  • DNA sequencing costs per base pair (decreasing exponentially)
  • Random Access Memory bits per dollar (increasing exponentially)
  • Magnetic data storage bits per dollar (increasing exponentially)
  • Wireless Internet and phone services price performance (increasing exponentially)
  • Number of Internet hosts (increasing exponentially)
  • Bytes of Internet traffic (increasing exponentially)
  • Internet backbone bandwidth (increasing in a very terraced, quasi-exponential manner)
  • Mechanical device sizes (decreasing exponentially)
  • Number of scientific citations for nanotechnology research (increasing exponentially)
  • Number of U.S. nanotech patents (increasing exponentially)

All the graphs for this book are online : http://singularity.com/charts/

Reading through each of these sections and seeing the actual data leaves you in no doubt that we are in a period of cataclysmic transformation. You may have had a hunch that computers are bigger and more powerful and may someday replicate human thinking but Kurzweil shows you that its nigh on inevitable.

There are four key themes in his book:

  1. That a technological-evolutionary point known as "the singularity" exists as an achievable goal for humanity (the exact nature of the point is an arbitrarily high level of technology).
  2. That through a law of accelerating returns, technology is progressing toward the singularity at an exponential rate.
  3. That the functionality of the human brain is quantifiable in terms of technology that we can build in the near future.
  4. That medical advancements could keep a significant number of his generation (Baby Boomers) alive long enough for the exponential growth of technology to intersect and surpass the processing of the human brain.

The date he gives for the Singularity is 2045 - I hope I'm around then.

Here are some delicious predications from the book :

2010 (coming right up)

  • Supercomputers will have the same raw power as human brains (although not yet the equivalently flexible software).
  • Computers will disappear as distinct physical objects, meaning many will have nontraditional shapes and/or will be embedded in clothing and everyday objects.
  • Full-immersion audio-visual virtual reality will exist.
  • Advertisements will utilize a new technology whereby two ultrasonic beams can be targeted to intersect at a specific point, delivering a localized sound message that only a single person can hear. This was demonstrated in the films Minority Report and Back to the Future 2.

2014 :

Automatic house cleaning robots will have become common (this feels like miles away from my view).

2018: 1013 bits of computer memory--roughly the equivalent of the memory space in a single human brain--will cost $1000. (In reality, many cognitive scientists believe the human capacity for long term memory has no theoretical limit caused by the physical structures of the brain.)

2020 : Personal computers will have the same processing power as human brains.


  • The most likely year for the debut of advanced nanotechnology.
  • Some military UAVs and land vehicles will be 100% computer-controlled.

  • Mind uploading becomes possible.
  • Nanomachines could be directly inserted into the brain and could interact with brain cells to totally control incoming and outgoing signals. As a result, truly full-immersion virtual reality could be
    generated without the need for any external equipment. Afferent nerve pathways could be blocked, totally canceling out the "real" world and leaving the user with only the desired virtual experience.
  • Using brain nanobots, recorded or real-time brain transmissions of a person's daily life known as "experience beamers" will be available for other people to remotely experience. This is very similar to how the characters in Being John Malkovich were able to enter the mind of Malkovich and see the world through his eyes.
  • Recreational uses aside, nanomachines in peoples' brains will allow them to greatly expand their cognitive, memory and sensory capabilities, to directly interface with computers, and to
    "telepathically" communicate with other, similarly augmented humans via wireless networks.
  • The same nanotechnology should also allow people to alter the neural connections within their brains, changing the underlying basis for the person's intelligence, memories and personality.
  • Human body 3.0 (as Kurzweil calls it) comes into existence. It lacks a fixed, corporeal form and can alter its shape and external appearance at will via foglet-like nanotechnology. Organs are also
    replaced by superior cybernetic implants.
  • People spend most of their time in full-immersion virtual reality (Kurzweil has cited The Matrix as a good example of what the advanced virtual worlds will be like, without the dystopian twist).

2045: The Singularity

Post-2045: "Waking up" the Universe
Buy the book and watch the movie- you're already going on the ride.

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