Preparing For The Singularity - Does The Future Have A Future?
Arnie Peskin posted on May 15, 2014 |
Last month marked the 50th Anniversary of the opening of the 1964 World’s Fair, and the 75th A...

Last month marked the 50th Anniversary of the opening of the 1964 World's Fair, and the 75th Anniversary of the 1939 Fair. So it was a time for retrospection; how had the predictions of the future made at those events worked out.

Did everyone have his or her own private helicopter by the year 2000? No. Did everyone have their personal ash trays connected to a centralized ash bin? Hardly. Was there world peace and harmony through understanding? Apparently we have fallen somewhat short of the mark on that score as well. Does the world have a large and increasing reliance on automation and technology? That we have, and in ways more intense than the futurists might have imagined.


The Singularity
As we learn in mathematics, a singularity is a point on an analytic function that is unruly, not analytic, such as an infinity. THE singularity is a term coined for perhaps the unruliest point of all, a point in time when machine intelligence begins to exceed that of human beings. The term was apparently first used in this way by the great mathematician John Von Neumann, and taken up most notably by inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil. The singularity and its consequences have been more recently discussed in a popular book by the physicist Michio Kaku , The Future of the Mind.  

Ray Kurzweil

Michio Kaku

Predictions differ as to when the Singularity will occur and how sudden a transition its form will take, but most agree that it will happen in this century and it will be profound for humanity. There are certainly many skeptics whose logic centers around qualities that are considered uniquely human, consciousness, emotion, morality and the like. But most agree that the brain is a device and that eventually the physical device can be physically duplicated sometime in the near future. As for the information in our heads, that can be downloaded from a suitable, yet-to-be-designed interface and all our knowledge can end up on the lab bench. Not just the facts we know, but opinions, beliefs, prejudices, morals, ethics and appreciations get uploaded as well. Or so the argument goes.

Research into building a circuit that emulates the brain has two primary thrusts. The first is through analysis of living and autopsied brains, trying to capture the system layout from structural observation. The second is a reverse-engineering approach wherein engineers attempt to construct circuitry that can mimic brain functions from behavioral data. Researchers for both approaches are optimistic about eventual success, although they are continually amazed at the complexity of their task. The human brain is getting more respect every day. 


What Can Go Right?
Such imaginative thinking about the future has been a staple of science fiction writing since the time of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, and it always goes bad for humans. We are threatened and enslaved, and we have to destroy the automatons to free ourselves. It is very much 'us' versus 'them' struggle. But does it need to be that way?

Less dramatic but far more comforting is the prospect of a partnership of the sort that we have often had with our creations. Each does what they do best. If the machines can truly think, they may think along the same co-operative lines. And if they are really that smart, they will find a way to do it. They may feel a fraternal kinship with the intelligences from whence the sprung. Who knows – they may teach us better ways to get along.

The responsibilities of the engineer in this brave new world are huge. It is the tech sector and no one else that will be responsible for the way events unfold until the Singularity and even beyond. The ethics we learned at home and school will be more important than they have ever been. And if and when we are uploaded, just exactly which is us and which is them?

There are not likely to be many more World's Fairs. We are already quite connected to the world on a daily basis, and events are outstripping our imagination faster than a pavilion can be built. But perhaps our creations will enjoy a night out every now and then just as we do. Then something like a World Exposition might be in their future and ours. Until then, let us just try not to make any enemies among our good friends, the machines.

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