Thursday, September 6, 2012

Bionic Man | Technological Singularity

Kyle Reese: He's not a man - a machine. A Terminator. A Cyberdyne Systems Model 101.
Sarah Connor: A machine? Like a robot?
Kyle Reese: Not a robot. A cyborg. A cybernetic organism.

-- The Terminator (1984)

[From the increasing use of pacemakers to keep heart beating on time to the rise of Olympian runner Oscar Pistorius (a.k.a. "Blade Runner"), a double-amputee who uses two prosthetic lower legs called "blades," the merging of human and machine continues apace. In this month's series, "Bionic Man," 13.7 takes a broad look at the history, evolution, ethics and impact of prosthetic and bionic engineering, nanotechnology, cybernetics and technological singularity.]

Tron. The Terminator. The Matrix. Minority Report. Battlestar Galatica. These are just a few of the many sci-fi films and TV shows that deal with a concept that some scientists and futurists believe will one day become a reality: Technological singularity.

Popularized by sci-fi writer Vernor Vinge, the concept was defined in his widely distributed 1993 paper, "The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era," which was presented at the "Vision-21: Interdisciplinary Science and Engineering in the Era of Cyberspace" symposium sponsored by the NASA Lewis Research Center and the Ohio Aerospace Institute.

Vinge writes:

"The acceleration of technological progress has been the central feature of this century. We are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth. The precise cause of this change is the imminent creation by technology of entities with greater-than-human intelligence. Science may achieve this breakthrough by several means (and this is another reason for having confidence that the event will occur):

Computers that are 'awake' and superhumanly intelligent may be developed. (To date, there has been much controversy as to whether we can create human equivalence in a machine. But if the answer is 'yes,' then there is little doubt that more intelligent beings can be constructed shortly thereafter.)

Large computer networks (and their associated users) may 'wake up' as superhumanly intelligent entities.

Computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent.

Biological science may provide means to improve natural human intellect."

In a 2009 TED Talk, futurist Ray Kurzweil explained the exponential growth of information technology using his own experience: "When I was a student at MIT, we all shared one computer, it took up a whole building. The computer in your cell phone today is one million times cheaper, one million times smaller, a thousand times more powerful. That's a one-billion-fold increase in capability per dollar that we actually experienced since I was a student. And we're going to do it again in the next 25 years."


In his 1999 book, The Singularity is Near (updated in 2005), Kurzweil describes singularity as "a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed."

In fact, he says that we are experiencing the early stages of this transformation now, and in a few decades (the year 2050 has been suggested as a tipping point), our reality will be totally different.

"The Singularity will represent the culmination of the merger of our biological thinking and existence with our technology, resulting in a world that is still human but that transcends our biological roots," writes Kurzweil. "There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine nor between physical and virtual reality. If you wonder what will remain unequivocally human in such a world, it's simply this quality: ours is the species that inherently seeks to extend its physical and mental reach beyond current limitations."

Kurzweil was an innovator in text-to-speech technology. Fittingly perhaps, I used speech-to-text technology to write this post. It certainly feels less mechanical and a lot more organic than pressing keys on a keyboard. The experience is suggestive of Vinge's intimate computer/human interface—and gives credence to Kurzweil's contention that we are currently in the early stages of singularity.

But there is a potential dark side. Many of the science fiction scenarios about singularity describe various serious threats that could be realized along with the technology. When super-intelligent machines gain autonomy, who really knows what they will be capable of—or what they will desire. Could the master-slave dichotomy flip?

In the excellent Battlestar Galactica TV series, the human-made "cylons"—built to be slave workers—were intelligent and autonomous enough to want something very dear to our own human hearts: freedom. And really, who could blame them?

image: Arnold Schwarzenegger in the iconic role of the Terminator.

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