Google’s Director of Engineering, Ray Kurzweil, has predicted that we will reach a technological singularity by 2045, and science fiction writer Vernor Vinge is betting on 2029, a date that is ironically on the hundredth anniversary of the greatest stock market collapse in human history.
But where the 1929 crash catapulted us backwards into a more primitive form of human chaos, the singularity promises to catapult us forward into a future form of human enlightenment.
The person who coined the term “singularity” in this context was mathematician John von Neumann. In a 1958 interview, von Neumann described 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, can not continue.”
Since that first cryptic mention half a century ago, people like Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil have begun focusing in on the exponential growth of artificial intelligence, as a Moore’s Law type of advancement, until we develop superintelligent entities with decision-making abilities far beyond our ability to understand them.
Cloaked in this air of malleable mystery, Hollywood has taken license to cast the singularity as everything from the ultimate boogeyman to the penultimate savior of humanity.
Adding to these prophecies are a number of fascinating trend lines that give credence to these predictions. In addition to our ever-growing awareness of the world around us brought on by social media and escalating rates of digital innovations, human intelligence shows a continued rise, every decade, since IQ tests were first invented in the 1930s, a phenomenon known as the Flynn Effect.
We all know intuitively that something is happening. IBM’s Watson just beat the best of the best at their own game, Jeopardy. With computers beginning to generate their own algorithms, and more cameras adding eyes for the Internet to “see,” amazing things are beginning to happen.
Tech writer Robert Cringely predicts, “A decade from now computer vision will be seeing things we can’t even understand, like dogs sniffing cancer today.”
So what happens when we lose our ability to understand what comes next?