The Singularity, Infomania, and Programmed Reality (cont.)
By Jim Elvidge
Figure 1 is a recreated chart from the data presented by Ray Kurzweil in his book The Singularity is Near. It demonstrates the exponentially accelerating page of change in human evolution. By plotting on log-log paper, exponential trends appear as a straight line. The trend shown in this particular chart is the time between successive significant evolutionary events, both biological and technological. Ostensibly, each successive event is equivalently significant in terms of evolution or technical advancement compared to the previous one. Therefore, it shows how evolutionary events and technology are accelerating and will reach a point of singularity. In an article in Washington Monthly, the same year that Kurzweil’s book was published, Steve Benen notes that if you extrapolate the graph for a few more orders of magnitude, it “indicates that major, paradigm-busting inventions should be spaced about a week apart these days.”
I’ve shown that segment of the graph in grey. Kurzweil has correctly pointed out that you can’t project a log-log graph into the future, but nevertheless, this graph seems to be implying that we are on a trend to a Singularity in the current year. If it were not the case, the trend would be diverging to the right.
Another way of looking at it is to redraw the graph with the x-axis being “Time before 2045” instead of “Time Before Present.” Figure 2 shows such a graph using the same events. If the Singularity were really to happen at 2045 and the events are indeed chosen correctly, they should fall on the straight line. However, they do not.
As can be seen, the paradigm-shifting events are diverging toward the current day. What’s going on? One possibility is that the events chosen are wrong. Perhaps, the technological advance from the computer to the PC, for example, is not as significant as the evolution between Homo Erectus and Home Sapiens. Certainly, the choice of significant events is somewhat arbitrary. Unfortunately, we are looking at the problem through the lens of present day biases.
Even so, it does seem that the PC and the World Wide Web have been the two most significant technological paradigm shifts in recent years. The time between the Computer and the PC was 38 years. The time between the PC and WWW was 13 years. If progress was truly exponential, the next major invention should have occurred in 2001. What was it? It seems to me that we might be looking at a couple possible significant events in our near future:
- A computer passes the Turing Test (true AI)
- Artificial Life is created
- Brain-Computer Interfaces
In the recent Loebner Prize competition at the University of Reading, one computer system came within 5% of fooling enough judges into thinking it was human during a natural language conversation. Given that, one might suspect that we will get AI within a few years.
A year ago, Craig Venter announced that he was on the brink of creating artificial life.
And, although Brain-Computer Interfaces are a technology at its infancy, it certainly has begun, with 60-pixel bionic eyes a reality, and recent successful experiments in determining sensory stimuli merely by analyzing brain waves.
So, it seems that the next paradigm-shifting event may occur about 17 years after the last (WWW), give or take. But the most recent one occurred about 13 years after the previous one (PC). So, by that rationale, the pace of exponential technological evolution is slowing down.
- Lanier, Jaron “One-Half of a Manifesto,” Wired, December 2000. http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/8.12/lanier.html?pg=1
- Nathan Zeldes, David Sward, and Sigal Louchheim,
“Infomania: Why we can’t afford to ignore it any longer,” First
- Kurzweil, Ray, “The Singularity is Near,” Viking Penguin, 2005.
- Benen, Steve, “The Singularity,” Washington Monthly 21 September 2005, http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2005_09/007172.php.
- Williams, Ian, “Artificial intelligence gets a step closer,” vrunet.com, 13 October 2008, http://www.vnunet.com/vnunet/news/2228123/ai-gets-step-closer
- Pilkington, Ed, “I am creating artificial life, declares US gene pioneer,” The Guardian, 6 October, 2007., http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2007/oct/06/genetics.climatechange