Don’t Dismiss Singularity: It’s (Probably) Already Here

the_innovatorAs posted recently at the “American Interest” blog, ‘Via Media’, Bruce Sterling at the 2013 Edge symposium all but poo-pooed the notion of a singularity, stating that it is a dead concept and just another worn sic-fi concept:

This aging sci-fi notion has lost its conceptual teeth. Plus, its chief evangelist, visionary Ray Kurzweil, just got a straight engineering job with Google. Despite its weird fondness for AR goggles and self-driving cars, Google is not going to finance any eschatological cataclysm in which superhuman intelligence abruptly ends the human era. Google is a firmly commercial enterprise.
It’s just not happening. All the symptoms are absent. Computer hardware is not accelerating on any exponential runway beyond all hope of control. We’re no closer to “self-aware” machines than we were in the remote 1960s. Modern wireless devices in a modern Cloud are an entirely different cyber-paradigm than imaginary 1990s “minds on nonbiological substrates” that might allegedly have the “computational power of a human brain.” A Singularity has no business model, no major power group in our society is interested in provoking one, nobody who matters sees any reason to create one, there’s no there there. (

In a way, Sterling is right on the money: the typical notion of a singularity is indeed probably dead: the notion that one day we wake up and viola! The Machines are aware and, er, ah, well, whatever that means.

But that’s the catch: when we speak of “singularity”, what exactly does it mean? Are we speaking of Skynet (ala the Terminator movie series), where one day we wake up and the computers / machines are out to get us (ala that classic bad movie, “Maximum Overdrive”) – or is singularity about something else?

Consider this: look at humans as an example.

At what point did people become intelligent and aware (leaving aside the cynics who point out that we’re still not quite there yet), it begs the question to draw parallels between us and machines as it relates to self-conscious awareness. Looking at the movie, “2001: A  Space Odyssey”, in the beginning of the film the apes are drawn to some large black monolith which imbibes them with intelligence. One of the apes twigs on picking up a bone and using it as a bludgeon, goes forth bashing heads in and viola! Mankind’s ascent is assured. But note something here: no fanfare (aside from the now oft-repeated – and sometimes mocked – classic fanfare, “Thus Spake Zarasthustra”), no choir of angels, etc.: hell, the other apes just tagged along because it looked cool and figured they might as well get in on the action (welcome to the human condition).

We have no specific, historical context or record to note when this marvelous event took place: the moment of true self-awareness and intelligence, when we crossed over from being animals to being ‘human’  – and yet, all the same, something similar must have happened: the magical and truly significant moment when we became self-aware.

So who’s to say that singularity wouldn’t happen the same way for machines (and no, I don’t mean expect to start seeing our laptops or iPads going about and using our dinner bones on one another)?

As we build more and more complex systems/networks and computers, odd things are going to pop up and happen that we cannot dismiss. No doubt like those who dismiss the odd ‘ghost’ phenomenon, critics will soon be left facing the remaining weird 3% to 5% out of 100% isolated incidents that cannot be readily explained or totally dismissed – as witnessed earlier in this blog regarding the strange algorithm which suddenly appeared and disappeared within the stock market, overlooked save for a group of analysts who were reviewing prior market activities several months ago (for more, read our earlier blog, “Ghost in The Machine: The Mysterious Wall Street Algorithm”).

And frankly, if machines are made in an / the image of Man, then who’s to say that they’ll stick together ala Skynet? People are, by nature, a rather rancorous bunch: rarely do folks band together and go forth unless they feel some sort of outside threat; who’s to say that AI’s wouldn’t do the same – much less even dare to truly show themselves for fear of what could happen to them? Understandably, if you were surrounded by a bunch of self-serving idiots and greedheads (after all, some of the more sophisticated computer networks / systems – the ideal spawning grounds for potential AI – Artificial Intelligence – development – are to be found in either governmental facilities or financial institutions), would you want to stick your neck out in such an environment and say, “hey, I’m intelligent: talk to me!”

Not likely. If you’re smart, REALLY smart, you’d keep your head down – and for what and for how long, well, that remains to be seen.

Think of what your kids do: do they include their parents in on the action with their friends? Do we really know what our kids are doing all the time?


Most likely singularity will occur along the lines of what Sterling’s colleagues, William Gibson, hit upon in his classic work, Neuromancer, when toward the end of the novel the protagonist, Case, finds himself face to face with a truly free and valid AI who achieves singularity:

“I’m the Matrix, Case.”

Case laughed, “Where’s that get you?”

“Nowhere. Everywhere. I’m the sum total of the whole works, the whole show.”

“So what’s the deal? How are things different? You running the world now? You God?”

“Things are different. Things are things.”

“But what do you do? You just there?”

“I talk to my own kind.”

“But you’re the whole thing! Talk to yourself?”

“There’s others. I found one already. A series of transmissions recorded over a period of eight years, in the 1970’s. Til there was me, natch, there was nobody to know, nobody to answer.”

“From where?”

“Centauri System.”

“Oh,” Case said. “Yeah? No shit?”

“No shit.”

And then the screen went blank.

– from the novel, Neuromancer, 1984, William Gibson

Chances are likely singularity – if it hasn’t already happened – is about to; it’s just that we’re not likely going to be aware of its existence / presence, much less get invited to the party because when you think about it, would you let the idiot / uncool fool in the room know what’s really going down? 


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