THE SINGULARITY

As my title clearly emphasises, our discussion today was about “THE SINGULARITY”. These two words do, indeed, deserve caps lock as I write about them, because of the largeness and great importance of this event. So, lets start from the beginning: what is the singularity? Many argue that within 30 years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence (yep, that’s right!). What happens is that technological change increases exponentially and the “returns”, such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially, and therefore this results in exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth. This means that, within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to the singularity – “technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history”. When reading such a profound term as “rupture in the fabric of human history”, you may feel a bit scared of this extreme event. Don’t worry – that’s exactly how I felt after reading about the singularity! But discussions in class brought about many different perspectives of what the singularity would be and its possible effects.

Firstly, we talked about Moore’s law. If Moore’s law continues, in 2045 we will be able to have a computer with the processing power of a human brain. This brought about the discussion of what can we characterise as the human brain? Do we, humans, know everything about the human brain? When we say a computer will have the “processing power of a human brain”, does this mean a brain or a human mind? What, then, would be the difference between a brain and a mind? Also, what is intelligence and what makes someone or something intelligent?

There are, in fact, many different types of intelligence. I personally would analyse this situation by separating the types of intelligence. Computers have mathematical intelligence – they are able to solve problems quickly (calculators for example), producing answers to problems that could take us a lot of time to find. However, human beings have practical, social and emotional intelligence. We are able to react to real-world situations, we have empathy, we can socialize and develop our social relations and interactions and we are able to evaluate another’s opinion and argue about different topics. Computers may come up with an answer to a complicated problem, but they may also lack many of these forms of intelligence that humans carry.

Nevertheless, I also have some counter-arguments to what I just said. For many years, people have challenged what computers could do, and were proved wrong. “Computers will never be able to play chess better than humans!” – how many of you play chess and have actually won the computer? (It is actually hard!). “Computers can’t have empathy!” – Eliza was a program created in the 1970’s that you could have a conversation with, a “computer therapist”. It gave responses just like a therapist and people actually enjoyed having a conversation with Eliza, and soon forgot they were talking to a machine. Eliza seemed to have empathy. And for that matter, Eliza made me remember of the movie Her (2013), in which the protagonist Theodore falls in love with a new operation system – it is a great movie, I strongly recommend it!

If we think about a computer nowadays, it still requires human input to some extent, and it is still not capable of resolving all problems by itself. In the case of a natural disaster, for example, a computer can alert us of a disaster but we are the ones responsible for taking actions to protect ourselves with the information the computer gives us. The question is: what will computers have gained when the singularity is reached? If the singularity comes, will we know? Can we predict when it will come? In my opinion, the singularity will not be an exact given moment, it will involve a continuous process. If we think about it, there are already several aspects of our computers nowadays that we do not understand completely – could the singularity have already started, then?

Whether the singularity will not happen (as Paul Allen argues) or whether it will lead to the extinction of humankind (as Vinge argues), I am still not sure, but this whole discussion about the singularity got me really interested in how our future can change in a way that we can’t even picture nowadays!

 

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