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Technological Singularity: Utopia or Annihilation?

By Sonia Arrison
Oct 31, 2008 4:00 AM PT

It's been called the "rapture of the nerds," but such derision didn't stop an estimated 500 enthusiasts from showing up to the Singularity Institute's conference in San Jose, Calif., last weekend to discuss the possibility of artificial intelligence overtaking that of humans.

Technological Singularity: Utopia or Annihilation?

That's the concept of technological singularity, popularized by author and inventor Ray Kurzweil. Talking about something that might happen, will be world-changing and can't be predicted is quite the task. Yet some speakers gladly took it on.

"It's hard to understand why a rational singularist would come to this conference," economist James Miller told the crowd. "You don't want to die [en route to the conference] and miss out on utopia."

End of Time?

From an economist's point of view, Miller said, people who believe in the singularity will save less because they will expect computers eventually to fix everything, including financial problems. Of course, that assumes one lives long enough to see the singularity, and one might need to save in order to live long enough to make it there. Such radically futuristic conversations brought up questions of a religious nature.

When asked how a belief in the singularity differs from a belief in the end of time for Christians, Miller said they were essentially the same. "A singularist shouldn't drive to conferences, and a Christian shouldn't commit adultery," he said.

Yet not all the speakers were so off the cuff in dealing with the core issue of accelerating change.

Intel CTO Justin Rattner, obviously trying to distance himself from whipped-up ideas of utopia, said he felt a bit "like an accidental tourist" at the conference. He then proceeded to give one of the best talks of the day, showcasing technology that might actually lead to the place many singularists want to go.

Silicon photonics, intelligent digital radios, silicon biosensors, and programmable matter are all projects that Intel, a profitable company, is investigating.

For those interested in personalized medicine, Rattner said that for the last five years, Intel has been working on specially designed transistors whose properties are controlled by the chemical structure of a molecule. What that can translate into eventually is the ability for doctors to conduct routine gene sequencing in their offices. Such a tool would be a powerful and positive step toward better health.

Savior or Threat?

Another leading speaker, Dharmendra Modha, manager of cognitive computing at IBM's Almaden Research Center, reminded the audience that "there is no computer today that can even remotely mimic the abilities of the human mind." Yet his team at IBM has set out to do just that.

"Our group has a modest goal -- that is, to understand and build a brain as quickly and cheaply as possible," he joked.

For three reasons, according to Modha, the time is now right to reverse-engineer the brain:

  • Neuroscience has matured, and it is possible to trace neurons in the brain;
  • Supercomputing is ready to take it on (Modha has already simulated a rat brain): and
  • Nanotechnology is moving quickly.

By 2018, someone using an IBM supercomputer may be able to simulate a human brain in real time, Modha estimated. That's not exactly the singularity, but surely a step on the way.

There may very well be a day when humans create a machine with strong intelligence -- both Modha and Rattner give credence to that idea. When that happens, that machine will perhaps be able to figure out how to make itself smarter on its own.

We are still a long way away from an all-powerful computer that could either save or threaten humanity, but given the accelerating nature of technology, it doesn't hurt to start pondering that possible future now.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is senior fellow in technology studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

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