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The Singularity, sometimes referred to as “the technological singularity”, is a hypothetical future event in which technological progress will supposedly begin to occur at a near vertical rate. It is often associated with the “intelligence explosion” event, which would result in artificial intelligence systems improving recursively until they become superhuman intelligent beings.
Many of the theories revolve around Moore’s law, a postulate that describes a trend in computing hardware history in which the number of transistors on an integrated circuit double approximately every two years. Based on this exponential rate of progression in hardware capacity, some theorize the same breakthrough will happen in areas like artificial intelligence.
The earliest known use of the word “singularity” in the context of rapid technological change can be attributed to Polish mathematician Stanislaw Ulam, who wrote about his conversation with Hungarian-American mathematician John von Neumann in May of 1958.
“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.”
The idea of an “intelligence explosion” in which machines would be able to improve themselves over-and-over was first written by British mathematician Irving John Good in 1965.
“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 ultra-intelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an “intelligence explosion,” and the intelligence of man would be left far behind.”
The term “singularity” was popularized on the Internet with science fiction writer Vernon Vinge’s 1993 article “The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in Post-Human Era”, which was published on his faculty page on the San Diego State University website.
There are a number of sites devoted to the singularity and related topics like transhumanism. The Singularity Institute, which conducts research related to the singularity, was founded in 2000. The website hosts an online forum, events calendar, published research section and blog. The Internet humor site Something Awful published a post which joked about various futurist theories titled “The Lie of the Technological Singularity” on December 28th, 2007.
On January 29th, 2008, The /r/singularity subreddit was created for topics related to the singularity including artificial intelligence and human enhancement. On July 6th, the domain was registered for the science news blog Singularity Hub, which reports on a variety of topics including longevity, robotics and transhumanism. On October 30th, the website Future Timeline was launched to chronicle predictions of various events that may take place in the future. On May 6th, 2009, the Singularity Symposium website was launched, which features a blog, profiles of notable figures, video uploads and a podcast. On May 10th, 2010, the Gawker science fiction blog io9 published an introductory article about the singularity including descriptions of potential future breakthroughs like nanotechnology and advancements in genetic engineering.
On February 10th, 2011, Time Magazine published an article titled “2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal”, which described select theories related to the singularity and predictions by job title Ray Kurzweil to section at the bottom. On March 6th, 2011, a thread was posted on 4chan(shown below) discussing the future of transhumanism. A Facebook page for “The Singularity” has 2,932 likes as of March 1st, 2012.
In Popular Culture
The Singularity has been a common theme for science fiction books and films since the 1950s. It first gained popularity in Isaac Asimov’s collection of short stories titled I, Robot (the source for the 2004 film of the same name), and from the Terminator (shown left) and The Matrix films (shown right), both of which depict post-singularity Earth as dystopian and machines as friends-turned-enemies who ultimately end up enslaving humans after becoming self-aware. Transhumanism is often seen in many science fiction works and video games including the Half-Life series in which the Combine soldiers are portrayed as transhuman.
American author Ray Kurzweil has written several book related to the singularity and longevity. KurzweilAI.net, a blog about Ray Kurzweil’s theories regarding accelerating intelligence, was launched in 2001. In his 2005 book The Singularity is Near, he argues that the Singularity is an achievable goal through the development of nanotechnology, genetics and robotics. He also makes a number of postulates and predictions, most notably asserting that the Singularity will occur by 2045. In February of 2005, Kurzweil gave a TED talk (shown left) to present his predictions regarding the singularity. In September of 2008, the Kurzweil cofounded the Singularity University, an academic institution dedicated to advancement of technology. In 2009, a documentary was released about Kurzweil and his theories called Transcendent Man, which received critical acclaim (shown right).
Aubrey de Grey
Aubrey de Grey is a gerontologist and Chief Science Officer at the SENS Foundation, a non-profit organization supporting rejuvenation (anti-aging) research. In July of 2005, de Grey gave a TED talk titled “Why we age and how we can avoid it” (shown left) in which he calls aging a “disease” that can eventually be cured. In October of 2009, de Grey gave a talk at TED Med (shown right) identifying metabolism as the main cause of aging referring to it as “damage.” The term “Methuselarity” was coined by de Grey in 2010 to indicate the point in time when medicine will improve fast enough to increase the expected human lifespan by more than one year per year.
Jason Silva is a Venezuelan-American fillmmaker, journalist and former host on the television network Current TV. Silva released the short documentary film The Immortalists (shown left) with scientists and philosophers, including Ray Kurzweil, discussing various topics related to transhumanism on May 1st, 2010. Silva decided to expand the short film into the feature length documentary Turning into Gods (shown right) with plans to release the film online sometime in 2012.
- See Also: Q&A with Jason Silva – The KnowYourMeme Blog, published March 16, 2012
Some critics have likened singularity enthusiasts to religious cult members that believe technology will grant them immortality, including science fiction writer Ken MacLeod who called the singularity “rapture for nerds.” Others critics point out that the slow but steady advancements in technology during the Industrial Revolution was due to the increasing exploitation of coal as a dense fuel source, and that the recent boom in computing power is due to the increasing exploitation of oil/petroleum as an even denser fuel source. According to “peak oil” theory, once oil resources are exhausted, technological advancement will slow down.
On June 8th, 2008, ieee.org published a post with several technology experts’ views on the singularity including cognitive science professor Steven Pinker who dismissed the idea as being irrational:
”There is not the slightest reason to believe in a coming singularity. The fact that you can visualize a future in your imagination is not evidence that it is likely or even possible. Look at domed cities, jet-pack commuting, underwater cities, mile-high buildings, and nuclear-powered automobiles--all staples of futuristic fantasies when I was a child that have never arrived. Sheer processing power is not a pixie dust that magically solves all your problems.”
On February 9th, 2009, American biology professor PZ Meyers published a blog post titled “Singularly silly singularity” criticizing Kurzweil’s predictions calling it “kookery.”
Search interest in the Singularity has been generally increasing since 2005, with a peak coinciding with the release of The Singularity is Near and another large peak in July 2010 with the release of the video game The Singularity.
Accelerating Future – Speculations Concerning the First Ultra Intelligent Machine
Rohan Academic Computing – The Coming Technological Singularity
How to Survive in the Post-Human Era
Singularity Institute – "":http://singinst.org