Definition

Singularity (the)

Part of the Nanotechnology glossary:

The Singularity is the hypothetical future creation of superintelligent machines. Superintelligence is defined as a technologically-created cognitive capacity far beyond that possible for humans. Should the Singularity occur, technology will advance beyond our ability to foresee or control its outcomes and the world will be transformed beyond recognition by the application of superintelligence to humans and/or human problems, including poverty, disease and mortality.

Revolutions in genetics, nanotechnology and robotics (GNR) in the first half of the 21st century are expected to lay the foundation for the Singularity. According to Singularity theory, superintelligence will be developed by self-directed computers and will increase exponentially rather than incrementally.

Lev Grossman explains the prospective exponential gains in capacity enabled by superintelligent machines in an article in Time:

“Their rate of development would also continue to increase, because they would take over their own development from their slower-thinking human creators. Imagine a computer scientist that was itself a super-intelligent computer. It would work incredibly quickly. It could draw on huge amounts of data effortlessly. It wouldn't even take breaks to play Farmville.”

Proposed mechanisms for adding superintelligence to humans include brain-computer interfaces, biological alteration of the brain, artificial intelligence (AI) brain implants and genetic engineering. Post-singularity, humanity and the world would be quite different.  A human could potentially scan his consciousness into a computer and live eternally in virtual reality or as a sentient robot. Futurists such as Ray Kurzweil (author of The Singularity is Near) have predicted that in a post-Singularity world, humans would typically live much of the time in virtual reality -- which would be virtually indistinguishable from normal reality. Kurzweil predicts, based on mathematical calculations of exponential technological development, that the Singularity will come to pass by 2045.

Most arguments against the possibility of the Singularity involve doubts that computers can ever become intelligent in the human sense. The human brain and cognitive processes may simply be more complex than a computer could be. Furthermore, because the human brain is analog, with theoretically infinite values for any process, some believe that it cannot ever be replicated in a digital format. Some theorists also point out that the Singularity may not even be desirable from a human perspective because there is no reason to assume that a superintelligence would see value in, for example, the continued existence or well-being of humans.

Science-fiction writer Vernor Vinge first used the term the Singularity in this context in the 1980s, when he used it in reference to the British mathematician I.J. Good’s concept of an “intelligence explosion” brought about by the advent of superintelligent machines. The term is borrowed from physics; in that context a singularity is a point where the known physical laws cease to apply.

 

See also: Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, supercomputer, cyborg, gray goo, IBM’s Watson supercomputer, neural networks


Continue reading about the Singularity: 

> 2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal

> What is the Singularity?

> Wikipedia on the Singularity

> The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era

This was last updated in February 2012
Posted by: Margaret Rouse

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