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Ray Kurzweil's Singularity


© January 2006 Anthony Lawrence

Ray Kurzweil has been interviewed on NPR recently talking about his ideas about the "singularity" coming in the merger of biology and technology. He's been saying the same thing for years: https://www.kurzweilai.net/articles/art0134.html?printable=1.

I disagree with Kurzweil on a number of points. We don't part company on the idea that his singularity is coming; it surely is. It just won't be here as quickly as he thinks it will.

Kurzweil thinks that we have seen exponential growth in technology. He says:

The first technological steps-sharp edges, fire, the wheel--took
tens of thousands of years. For people living in this era, there
was little noticeable technological change in even a thousand years.
By 1000 A.D., progress was much faster and a paradigm shift required
only a century or two. In the nineteenth century, we saw more
technological change than in the nine centuries preceding it. Then
in the first twenty years of the twentieth century, we saw more
advancement than in all of the nineteenth century. 
 

I don't think so.

Current computers are simply refinements of technology that's actually quite old, and even the electronics that drives them is not particularly new. Growth in this area has been much slower than what Kurzweil paints, and although we may be dazzled by promises of quantum computers, in fact the entire technology is based on very crude underpinnings that hasn't really changed in many, many decades. The first electromagnetic switch was the precursor of all of this, and it has taken us a long, long time to get from there to here. Modern computers are simply rounder and more frictionless wheels, or oxygenated fire: tech refinement, not innovation.

Kurzweil says:

Now, paradigm shifts occur in only a few years time. The World Wide
Web did not exist in anything like its present form just a few
years ago; it didn't exist at all a decade ago.
 

I see the Web as nothing more than tire tread: the base is still switching electrons, and tire tread just surrounds a wheel. Nothing really new; just building on the real innovation that was taming electricity.

Of course I may be as guilty of undervaluing advancements as Kurzweil is overly enthusiastic about the amount of innovation. So let's say Kurzweil is at least partially right, that there will be more rapid change. I don't utterly disagree with that, but his singularity is still a long ways off, and will be kept delayed by the same things that have always delayed progress: religion, greed, and fear.

If you look at where the Greeks and Romans were technologically just before Christianity, it's at least mildly surprising that we didn't advance more in the intervening time. It's those darn Dark Ages, isn't it? War, religious suppression of science, illiteracy, greed: they all played their parts in retarding progress, and they still do today. We have the religious trying to push "Intelligent Design" into our schools, governments restricting biological research because of threats to religious beliefs, corporate greed suppressing innovation with restrictive patents and so on. I don't say that these things will stop us, but they do slow us down and sometimes even drive us backward briefly.

I think Ray Kurzweil needs to believe. I can understand that: people reading this at the time it is written may very well be among the last few generations of humans plagued by disease, aging, and the limitations of our biology. There's a great tragedy here for those of us who are close enough to see what is probably coming but are unlikely to live long enough to benefit from it. I think it is that tragedy that makes Ray need to believe that his singularity is rocketing toward us.


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Tue Jan 3 16:53:11 2006: 1470   BigDumbDinosaur


I think Kurzweil's rosy look at the future is the combined result of overbelief in Moore's law and the use of flawed logic. Moore's law postulates that semiconductor performance will approximately double at 18 month intervals. Equally important is what it doesn't say: doubling or even trebling of semiconductor performance will not automatically double or treble the rate of progress in everything else.

For example, to draw upon a field with which I have more than a little experience, today's machine tools are heavily dependent on digital logic to do what they do. Yet, the basic aspects of cutting and shaping metal have not changed at all, excepting the introduction of some new cutting technologies using lasers or high velocity water jets. The average machine tool today produces finished work at about the same rate and quality as its less digital predecessors. The progress has come mostly in setup time: digital logic makes machine setup a less complex and error-prone task. So although some progress has been achieved in applying digital electronics to metalworking, no paradigm shift (a greatly overworked phrase in Kurzweil's writings) has occurred.

Also, as Tony points out, the fundamentals have been with us for a long time. Younger readers may not know that computers (to use the word generically to describe any contrivance that can process information) have existed in actuality for more than 100 years and in principle for far longer (the earliest known mechanical computation device, the abacus, has existed since Biblical times). During World War II, one of the reasons U.S. Naval gunfire was so deadly was that warships were equipped with ballistics computers that could accept many input variables (range, target speed, wind velocity, roll and pitch of the ship, etc.) and quickly work out how to aim the guns to fire over great distances (up to 24 miles in the case of an Iowa class battleship) with astonishing accuracy. The computer's output was directly linked to the mechanisms that controlled the gun turrets, resulting in realtime updating of the gun position as conditions changed. This capability substantially anticipated today's digital control of everything from machine tools to automobile engines and microwave ovens.

However, there was no paradigm shift. The principles on which those World War II computers operated were worked out by a British fellow during World War I, and his work drew heavily on 19th century ballistics tables that were widely used by ground artillery. As I said, there was no paradigm shift, just a refinement of prior art.

Let's face it: for every three steps we take forward in the guise of progress, the aforementioned factors of politics, religious nonsense (sorry for being redundant), greed, fear and just plain ignorance will cause us to stumble back two. Also, just because Kurzweil thinks he will eventually encounter his hypothetical "singularity" (which term he probably "borrowed" from Stephen Hawking) doesn't mean the majority of the human population will follow. The fact is that there are many who have not, and may not ever, intertwined their lives with technology. For them, the "singularity" will never happen.



Tue Jan 3 20:02:09 2006: 1472   TonyLawrence

gravatar
Another area where I think Kurzweil is off base is in the supposed ease of 3D circuitry. Building the mechanical circuits is difficult enough, but the programming - the circuit design - is already getting very difficult. I do agree that we will eventually be able to model human intelligence in circuits, but I think that's much farther away: it's just too damn complicated. Probably our best chance is software modeling using evolutionary algorithms - in other words, let the thing "design" itself. That is, after all, a model that has worked, although it took a heck of a long time. We can speed that process up, but where in the process do our morals come into play? In other words, we speed up the process by ruthless elimination of traits we don't like, but eventually we'll be eliminating conscious beings. I think it will be a long long time before ethicists need worry about that, but it will come to that someday.

But the biological stuff that Kurzweil projects will start happening long before that time. Technogenetics is apparently a corporate name now, but I bet it will fall into ordinary usage in a few decades..






Fri Jun 13 09:17:01 2008: 4334   anonymous


The fact that computers are still built on electronic switches that existed half a century ago, doesn't mean that the gradual development has changed fundamentally how they are used. Half a century ago, SOME research centers could afford to have one. Nowadays everyone has one at home. And one in his pocket (cell phone).

Similarly radio <-> cell phone. Radio is pretty old. But cell phones means you are much more "online" and "available for communication" to the rest of the world than before.

Similarly, having the internet, an easily reachable and searchable information resource close at hand, some knowledge is no longer useful to store in your brain. Just look it up whenever you need it.

However, extrapolations that in the future new technology will be implemented before they are invented are of course bogus. Of course there are people who are stuck without cell phone and internet NOW. They might feel left out (I doubt it), or we might feel that they are left out. But changes always require "most" of us to tag along. And that only happens so fast.

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