It’s the ultimate sci-fi concept. Those infernal machines keep getting steadily smarter and smarter until, one day, shazaam, they surpass human intelligence and we arrive at “the singularity”—a point in time beyond which, almost by definition, the future is unknowable.
The idea has been popularized by science-fiction writers like Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil, who rightly point out that such an event would be more than a little disruptive to existing social and economic conditions. Certainly we’ve seen that kind of disruption already with the effects of the digital revolution on nearly every industry out there. It may have begun with music, but can you think of any industry now which has not been at least bent out of its former shape, if not turned on its proverbial ear, by the advent of digital technology, whether it be publishing, journalism, travel, entertainment or war?
Scott McIntyre, the CEO of Douglas McIntyre Publishers, the largest independent Canadian publishing house, tried to put the pressure on his industry into perspective during an interview broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on July 21 of 2012. He repeated the publishing bromide which states that the first book Johannes Guttenberg published, after inventing the printing press, was The Bible. The second book he published was “a screed on the death of the publishing industry.” A little perspective on any problem is always a good thing. Sadly however, proper perspective or not, Douglas McIntyre filed for bankruptcy on October 22 of 2012.
Kurzweil suggests, in his 2005 book The Singularity Is Near, a scenario of “accelerating returns” on computer technology, whereby computers progressively design new and better computers along an exponential growth curve. Like humans, computers become self-replicating. It’s an evolutionary path which, Kurzweil believes, is inevitable.
It all relates back to “Moore’s Law,” the oft-cited axiom which states that the processing power of computer chips doubles every two years. Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore provided the basis for the Law back in 1965, and his prediction has proven to be almost supernaturally accurate to date. It’s interesting to note, however, that Intel itself has predicted that the trajectory may finally end as soon as 2013. Moore has added that, “It can’t continue forever. The nature of exponentials is that you push them out and eventually disaster happens.”
Computers, I am told, are very near reaching the human brain’s capacity for language recognition. Can we safely predict from there that, as many have suggested, a computer will nonetheless never be capable of writing, say, King Lear? I recall a university professor of mine, back in the day, who cast withering aspersion on the prediction that, by the day he was speaking to us, the chess champion of the world would be a computer, reminding us that Boris Spassky currently occupied that seat. As we all know, the good Professor would be in no position for such easy defamation today, as not only is a computer chess champion of the world, IBM’s ‘Watson’ triumphed over the very best players of the TV quiz show Jeopardy in 2011.
Kurzweil’s version of the Singularity is more than the ultimate sci-fi premise; it also represents the ultimate faith in technology. Kurzweil believes that we will soon be able to achieve immortality via an upload of our bio-techno-enhanced consciousness, that we will be able to revive the dead, so long as we have stored enough information about them before they physically disappeared. Optimistic seems an inadequate descriptor for this view. Others have suggested that as computers exceed our intelligence and go on, at the same exponential rate, to become super beings far eclipsing our powers in every capacity, they will come to regard humans as utterly inconsequential, much the way we regard mosquitos—periodically irritating, but a problem easily remedied with a decisive swat.
1) Change is the only constant, and 2) prognosticators of the future are like baseball players at the plate: the very best of them get it right only about a third of the time. These are the only two axioms that occur to me as reliable when it comes to considering the future.
The digital revolution has far more in common with the industrial than it does the Gutenberg revolution. Like the industrial revolution, it has a profound upside, and a profound downside. It remains for us to collectively attempt to benefit from its upside, and protect ourselves from its downside. (The demise of independent Canadian publishing is no small loss.) On an individual level, it’s the very same challenge.