The famous inventor and computer scientist Ray Kurzweil has made some very bold predictions about the pace at which human technology is advancing toward the ultimate threshold. That threshold is known as “The Singularity.” That epithet is a metaphor borrowed from physics terminology to express the point at which information technology—specifically artificial intelligence—becomes sufficiently advanced as to irreversibly alter the course of history on earth. While The Singularity may be a familiar cautionary tale told by renowned thinkers such as Bill Gates, Carl Sagan, and Stephen Hawking, and artistically explored through the famous sci-trope of sentient robots, e.g. Blade Runner and Terminator, according to Kurzweil, it doesn’t necessarily mark doomsday for humanity. But that depends on how you choose to define doom, specifically.
The Evolution of Tools: Rock, Paper, Scissors … Robot …
Kurzweil is the inventor of the first machine that could read printed text for the blind. The invention was a very advanced breakthrough for its day. Seen through his own human eyes, Kurzweil says information technology can be thought of as nothing more than a collection of glorified sticks that modern humans use in the same way our ancestors used their rudimentary tools — to extend our reach up to the next tier. The applications we decide for our latest stick and the subsequent sticks that evolve from that, have not yet been determined, so he remains optimistic. Optimism is nice enough, but its indeterminacy that makes the term ‘singularity’ so apropos. Because it’s a threshold that can be tracked, plotted, graphed, and projected using the sum of human history as look back data, the occasional mathematical model, and theories like Moore’s Law—precisely what Kurzweil has been doing for the last 30 years. But beyond that threshold, the chart becomes irrelevant. We know it will change the world, but we don’t know precisely how, or what sort of narrative arc civilization will advance along from that point forward. And that unknowable is the source of the anxiety, mystique, fascination, optimism, and sometimes outright paranoia.
In his book The Age of Intelligent Machines, written between 1986 and 1989, Kurzweil predicted that the decentralized nature of mobile communication technology would destabilize authoritarian regimes like the Soviet Union and ultimately topple them. He also predicted the explosive growth of the internet, WiFi, and that AI would be capable of defeating a chess grandmaster by the year 2000, which happened in 1997. His record is not perfect, but so far Kurzweil’s prediction batting average is about .860.
Today, flash storage technology has given rise to big data which promises to optimize the ROI of every level of business processes. While many of us are considering the spark vs mapreduce debate in erecting data processing architecture, the year 2019 draws closer. And 2019 is one of Kurzweil’s major markers in his prediction timeline. Recent news shows us that self-driving cars are on the verge of becoming somewhat commonplace. Kurzweil predicted they would dominate our roads by 2019. The Internet of Things (IoT) is promising to enhance our mundane daily lives by embedding computers into every object in our environment; another 2019 prediction. Also by then the total processing power of all computers will supposedly equal the total brainpower of all humans. But, that won’t mark the singularity.
The Singularity Happens in the year 2045
Kurzweil’s model predicts that by 2029 technological advancement will be occurring at such a rapid and explosive rate that humans will not be able to keep up without merging symbiotically with machines. He imagines future humans as a hybrid of biological and nonbiological intelligences that will become increasingly dominated by the non-biological components. And by 2045, AI is predicted to surpass human beings as the most intelligent and capable beings on the planet. Not everyone shared Kurzweil’s optimism about this. Thinking in terms of evolutionary biology, it is very unlikely for a species to survive once it encounters a superior competing species. That’s what Gates, Hawking, and Sagan have been worried about. That dilemma was the same one that drove the famous 21st Century Luddite, Ted Kaczynski, to become the Unabomber.
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