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Paul Allen: The Singularity Isn't Near

• Technology Review
The Singularity Summit approaches this weekend in New York. But the Microsoft cofounder and a colleague say the singularity itself is a long way off. 
 
Futurists like Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil have argued that the world is rapidly approaching a tipping point, where the accelerating pace of smarter and smarter machines will soon outrun all human capabilities. They call this tipping point the singularity, because they believe it is impossible to predict how the human future might unfold after this point. Once these machines exist, Kurzweil and Vinge claim, they'll possess a superhuman intelligence that is so incomprehensible to us that we cannot even rationally guess how our life experiences would be altered. Vinge asks us to ponder the role of humans in a world where machines are as much smarter than us as we are smarter than our pet dogs and cats. Kurzweil, who is a bit more optimistic, envisions a future in which developments in medical nanotechnology will allow us to download a copy of our individual brains into these superhuman machines, leave our bodies behind, and, in a sense, live forever. It's heady stuff.

While we suppose this kind of singularity might one day occur, we don't think it is near. In fact, we think it will be a very long time coming. Kurzweil disagrees, based on his extrapolations about the rate of relevant scientific and technical progress. He reasons that the rate of progress toward the singularity isn't just a progression of steadily increasing capability, but is in fact exponentially accelerating—what Kurzweil calls the "Law of Accelerating Returns." He writes that:

So we won't experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century—it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today's rate). The "returns," such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially. There's even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth. Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to The Singularity ... [1]

By working through a set of models and historical data, Kurzweil famously calculates that the singularity will arrive around 2045.

This prediction seems to us quite far-fetched. Of course, we are aware that the history of science and technology is littered with people who confidently assert that some event can't happen, only to be later proven wrong—often in spectacular fashion. We acknowledge that it is possible but highly unlikely that Kurzweil will eventually be vindicated. An adult brain is a finite thing, so its basic workings can ultimately be known through sustained human effort. But if the singularity is to arrive by 2045, it will take unforeseeable and fundamentally unpredictable breakthroughs, and not because the Law of Accelerating Returns made it the inevitable result of a specific exponential rate of progress.

 

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