This is not a singularity you find in black holes or at the origin of the universe – this is a metaphorical singularity entailing the breakthrough of artificial intelligence (AI) to transcend humanity. And prophecy is an apt term, because there are people who believe in this with near-religious conviction. As
Wilson da Silva is the editor of COSMOS, an excellent Australian science magazine I’ve subscribed to since its inception. The current April/May 2009 edition has essay length contributions on this topic from robotics expert, Rodney Brooks, economist, Robin Hanson, and science journalist, John Horgan, along with sound bites from people like Douglas Hofstadter and Steven Pinker (amongst others).
Where to start? I’d like to start with Rodney Brooks, an ex-pat Aussie, who is now Professor of Robotics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He’s also been Director of the same institute’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, and founder of Heartland Robotics Inc. and co-founder of iRobot Corp. Brooks brings a healthy tone of reality to this discussion after da Silva’s deliberately provocative introduction of the ‘Singularity’ as ‘Rapture’. (In a footnote, da Silva reassures us that he ‘does not expect to still be around to upload his consciousness to a computer.’)
So maybe I’ll backtrack slightly, and mention Raymond Kurzweil (also the referenced starting point for Brooks) who does want to upload (or download?) his consciousness into a computer before he dies, apparently (refer Addendum 2 below). It reminds me of a television discussion I saw in the 60s or 70s (in the days of black & white TV) of someone seriously considering cryogenically freezing their brain for future resurrection, when technology would catch up with their ambition for immortality. And let’s be honest: that’s what this is all about, at least as far as Kurzweil and his fellow proponents are concerned.
Steven Pinker makes the point that many of the science fiction fantasies of his childhood, like ‘jet-pack commuting’ or ‘underwater cities’, never came to fruition, and he would put this in the same bag. To quote: ‘Sheer processing power is not a pixie dust that magically solves all your problems.’
Back to Rodney Brooks, who is one of the best qualified to comment on this, and provides a healthy dose of scepticism, as well as perspective. For a start, Brooks points out how robotics hasn’t delivered on its early promises, including his own ambitions. Brooks expounds that current computer technology still can’t deliver the following childlike abilities: ‘object recognition of a 2 year-old; language capabilities of a 4 year-old; manual dexterity of a 6 year-old; and the social understanding of an 8 year-old.’ To quote: ‘[basic machine capability] may take 10 years or it may take 100. I really don’t know.’
Brooks states at the outset that he sees biological organisms, and therefore the brain, as a ‘machine’. But the analogy for interpretation has changed over time, depending on the technology of the age. During the 17th Century (Descartes’ time), the model was hydrodynamics, and in the 20th century it has gone from a telephone exchange, to a logic circuit, to a digital computer to even the world wide web (Brooks’ exposition in brief).
Brooks believes the singularity will be an evolutionary process, not a ‘big bang’ event. He sees the singularity as the gradual evolvement of machine intelligence till it becomes virtually identical to our own, including consciousness. Hofstadter expresses a similar belief, but he ‘…doubt[s] it will happen in the next couple of centuries.’ I have to admit that this is where I differ, as I don’t see machine intelligence becoming sentient, even though my view is in the minority. I provide an argument in an earlier post (The Ghost in the Machine, April 08) where I discuss Henry Markram’s ‘Blue Brain’ project, with a truckload dose of scepticism.
Robin Hanson is author of The Economics of the Singularity, and is Associate Professor of Economics at
For a start, all these disciples of the extreme version of the Singularity seem to forget how the other half live, or, more significantly, simply ignore the fact that the majority of the world’s population doesn’t live in a Western society. In fact, for the entire world to enjoy ‘Our’ standard of living would require 4 planet earths (ref: E.O. Wilson, amongst others). But I won’t go there, not on this post. Except to point out that many of the world’s people struggle to get a healthy water supply, and that is going to get worse before it gets better; just to provide a modicum of perspective for all the ‘rapture geeks’.
I’ve left John Horgan’s contribution to last, just as COSMOS does, because he provides the best realism check you could ask for. I’ve read all of Horgan’s books, but The End of Science is his best read, even though, once again, I disagree with his overall thesis. It’s a treasure because he interviews some of the best minds of the latter 20th Century, some of whom are no longer with us.
I was surprised and impressed by the depth of knowledge Horgan reveals on this subject. In particular, the limitations of our understanding of neurobiology and the inherent problems in creating direct neuron-machine interfaces. One of the most pertinent aspects, he discusses, is the sheer plasticity of the brain in its functionality. Just to give you a snippet: ‘…synaptic connections constantly form, strengthen, weaken and dissolve. Old neurons die and – evidence is overturning decades of dogma – new ones are born.’
There is a sense that the brain makes up neural codes as it goes along - my interpretation, not Horgan's - but he cites Steven Rose, neurobiologist at Britain's Open University, based in Milton Keyes: 'To interpret the neural activity corresponding to any moment ...scientists would need "access to [someone's] entire neural and hormonal life history" as well as to all [their] corresponding experiences.'
It’s really worth reading Horgan’s entire essay – I can’t do it justice in this space – he covers the whole subject and puts it into a perspective the ‘rapture geeks’ have yet to realise.
I happened to be re-reading John Searle’s Mind when I received this magazine, and I have to say that Searle’s book is still the best I’ve read on this subject. He calls it ‘an introduction’, even on the cover, and reiterates that point more than once during his detailed exposition. In effect, he’s trying to tell us how much we still don’t know.
I haven’t read Dennett’s Consciousness Explained, but I probably should. In the same issue of COSMOS, Paul Davies references Dennett’s book, along with Hofstadter’s Godel, Escher, Bach, as 2 of the 4 most influential books he’s read, and that’s high praise indeed. Davies says that while Dennett’s book ‘may not live up to its claim… it definitely set the agenda for how we should think about thinking.’ But he also adds, in parenthesis, that ‘some people say Dennett explained consciousness away’. I think Searle would agree.
Dennett is a formidable philosopher by anyone’s standards, and I’m certainly not qualified, academically or otherwise, to challenge him, but I obviously have a different philosophical perspective on consciousness to him. In a very insightful interview over 2 issues of Philosophy Now, Dennett elaborated on his influences, as well as his ideas. He made the statement that ‘a thermostat thinks’, which is a well known conjecture originally attributed to David Chalmers (according to Searle): it thinks it’s too hot, or it thinks it’s too cold, or it thinks the temperature is just right.
Searle attacks this proposition thus: ‘Consciousness is not spread out like jam on a piece of bread… If the thermostat is conscious, how about parts of the thermostat? Is there a separate consciousness to each screw? Each molecule? If so, how does their consciousness relate to the consciousness of the whole thermostat?’
The corollary to this interpretation and Dennett’s, is that consciousness is just a concept with no connection to anything real. If consciousness is an emergent property, an idea that Searle seems to avoid, then it may well be ‘spread out like jam on a piece of bread’.
To be fair to Searle (I don't want to misrepresent him when I know he'll never read this) he does see consciousness being on a different level to neuron activity (like Hofstadter) and he acknowledges that this is one of the factors that makes consciousness so misunderstood by both philosophers and others.
But I’m getting off the track. The most important contribution Searle makes, that is relevant to this whole discussion, is that consciousness has a ‘first person ontology’ yet we attempt to understand it solely as a ‘third person ontology’. Even the Dalai Lama makes this point, albeit in more prosaic language, in his book on science and religion, The Universe in a Single Atom. Personally, I find it hard to imagine that AI will ever make the transition from third person to first person ontology. But I may be wrong. To quote my own favourite saying: 'Only future generations can tell us how ignorant the current generation is'.
There are 2 aspects to the Singularity prophecy: we will become more like machines, and they will become more like us. This is something I’ve explored in my own fiction, and I will probably continue to do so in the future. But I think that machine intelligence will complement human intelligence rather than replace it. As we are already witnessing, computers are brilliant at the things we do badly and vice versa. I do see a convergence, but I also see no reason why the complementary nature of machine intelligence will not only continue, but actually improve. AI will get better at what it does best, and we will do the same. There is no reason, based on developments to date, to assume that we will become indistinguishable, Turing tests notwithstanding. In other words, I think there will always remain attributes uniquely human, as AI continues to dazzle us with abilities that are already beyond us.
P.S. I review Douglas Hofstadter's brilliant book, Godel, Escher, Bach: an Internal Golden Braid in a post I published in Feb.09: Artificial Intelligence & Consciousness.Addendum: I'm led to believe that at least 2 of the essays cited above were originally published in IEEE Spectrum Magazine prior to COSMOS (ref: the authors themselves).
Addendum 2: I watched the VBS.TV Video on Raymond Kurzweil, provided by a contributor below (Rory), and it seems his quest for longevity is via 'nanobots' rather than by 'computer-downloading his mind' as I implied above.