Wavy shape

The singularity is nigh

The technological singularity point when the distinctions between man and machine will disappear is approaching, insists E&T.

‘The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology’ is a best-selling book published in 2005 by Raymond Kurzweil. The book remained at the top of the charts in science and technology for many months, and Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates wrote: “Ray Kurzweil is the best person I know at predicting the future of artificial intelligence. His intriguing new book envisions a future in which information technologies have advanced so far and fast that they enable humanity to transcend its biological limitations −transforming our lives in ways we can’t yet imagine.”

Kurzweil graduated in 1970 with an engineering degree in computer science and literature from MIT. Since then, he has become a prolific inventor and futurist writer. He was one of the pioneers in optical character recognition (OCR), text-to-speech synthesis, speech recognition technology and electronic keyboard instruments. He has received two dozen honorary doctorates and honours from three US presidents, was the recipient of the $500,000 MIT-Lemelson Prize, the world’s largest prize for innovation, and was awarded the National Medal of Technology from President Bill Clinton in a White House ceremony. In 2002, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame, established by the US Patent Office.

More recently, in November 2009, he received the Economist’s Innovation Award in the category of Computing and Telecommunication for his optical character recognition and speech recognition technology. These awards celebrate individual innovators whose work has had the greatest impact on business and society.

Thus, Kurzweil’s past credentials are very impressive, but what does he think about the future? In particular, what does he say about a supposedly technological singularity, and what is it exactly?

The Singularity point

The technological singularity is the theoretical future point that takes place during a period of accelerating change sometime after the creation of a super intelligence. Mathematician, computer scientist and science-fiction writer Vernor Vinge famously called this event the ‘Singularity’ as an analogy between the breakdown of modern physics near a gravitational singularity and the drastic change in society that,  he argues, would occur following an intelligence explosion. In the 1980s, Vinge popularised the singularity in lectures, essays and science fiction. More recently, some prominent technologists such as Bill Joy, co-founder of Sun Microsystems, voiced concern over the potential dangers of Vinge’s singularity.

Kurzweil argues that the inevitability of a technological singularity is implied by a long-term pattern of accelerating change that generalises Moore’s Law to technologies predating the integrated circuit, and which, he argues, will continue to other technologies not yet invented. According to him, artificial intelligence should be able to pass the Turing Test (a test for the presence of intelligence in putatively-minded entities) by 2029, and the technological singularity should occur by 2045. It is estimated that $1,000 will then buy a computer a billion times more powerful than the human brain. This means that average - and even low-end - computers will be hugely smarter than even highly intelligent, unenhanced humans.

The singularity will be an extremely disruptive, world- altering event that will change forever the course of human history. The extermination of humanity by violent machines is unlikely (though not impossible) because sharp distinctions between man and machine will no longer exist thanks to the cybernetically enhanced and uploaded humans. In fact, Kurzweil strongly believes that humans will enhance themselves by merging with the machines.

A university is born

In January 2007, while trekking in Chile, Peter Diamandis was reading ‘The Singularity is Near’, and was inspired to use those ideas to create a new university in order to improve the future of humankind. Diamandis graduated as an aerospace engineer from MIT and later as a medical doctor from Harvard Medical School.

In 1987, he co-founded the successful International Space University and served as its first managing director and CEO, while Sir Arthur C Clarke became its first chancellor. Since then, the International Space University has been training astronauts and cosmonauts, spacecraft engineers, scientists, managers and experts in space law and policy from its current permanent campus near Strasbourg in France.

Diamandis is considered a key figure in the development of the personal spaceflight industry, having created many space-related businesses or organisations. He is the founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation, an educational non-profit prize organisation whose mission is to create radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity. Diamandis is also CEO and co-founder of Zero Gravity Corporation, which offers parabolic weightless flights to the general public. He also co-founded Space Adventures, which has flown four private citizens on Soyuz to the International Space Station.

According to Diamandis, the interdisciplinary, international and intercultural principles, originally pioneered by the International Space University, could also be applied to create Singularity University. The concept of the Singularity University was originally proposed by Diamandis to Kurzweil in mid-2007; an exploratory meeting was held in November 2007, followed by a Founding Meeting in September 2008 at Nasa Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

In February 2009, Diamandis and Kurzweil announced publicly the creation of Singularity University in the annual Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) conference in California. In just three months, the university received close to 1,200 applications for the 40 places of the inaugural summer class. Thus started the first GSP (Graduate Studies Program) class at Singularity University at the new campus at Nasa Ames.

Evidently, Singularity University derives its name from Kurzweil’s book ‘The Singularity is Near’. Here again, the term ‘singularity’ refers to the theoretical future point of unprecedented advancement caused by the accelerating development of various technologies including biotechnology, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, robotics and genetics. However, Singularity University makes no predictions about the exact effects of these technologies on humanity; rather, its mission is to facilitate the understanding and development of these technologies and how they can best be harnessed to solve the grand challenges faced by humanity.

Preparing for the change

Singularity University is an interdisciplinary institution whose mission is to assemble, educate and inspire a cadre of leaders who strive to understand and facilitate the development of exponentially advancing technologies and apply, focus and guide these tools to address humanity’s grand challenges. Salim Ismail, former Yahoo manager and the executive director of Singularity University, emphasises their important role to “prepare humanity for accelerating technological change”, as the motto of the new university reads.

A number of exponentially growing technologies (biotechnology, nanotechnology, infotechnology, artificial intelligence, etc.) will massively increase human intelligence and capability and will fundamentally reshape our future. This concept, known as the technological singularity, as advanced by Kurzweil, warrants the creation of an academic institution whose students and faculty will study these technologies, with an emphasis on their interactions, and help to guide the process for the benefit of humanity and its environment. The inaugural 2009 summer programme was divided into ten academic tracks: from future studies and forecasting to policy, law and ethics. According to Bruce Klein, vice-president for University Relations, Singularity University wants to “prepare the next generation of intellectual and entrepreneurial leaders for humanity.”

Academically, the new university has 10 major scholastic tracks, with an interdisciplinary emphasis on scientific and technological issues:

  1. Futures Studies and Forecasting;
  2. Policy, Law and Ethics;
  3. Finance and Entrepreneurship;
  4. Networks and Computing Systems;
  5. Biotechnology and Bioinformatics;
  6. Nanotechnology;
  7. Medicine, Neuroscience and Human Enhancement;
  8. Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Cognitive Computing;
  9. Energy and Ecological Systems;
  10. Space and Physical Sciences.

Singularity University counts on support of many important sponsors like Google, ePlanet Ventures, 23andMe, Canon and other top companies. The faculty includes, besides Kurzweil and Diamandis, personalities like “father of Internet” Vint Cerf, George Smoot (2006 Nobel Prize in Physics), Pete Worden (director of Nasa Ames), Dan Barry (three times Nasa astronaut and president of Denbar Robotics), “father of Ethernet” Bob Metcalfe, James Canton (CEO and chairman of the Institute for Global Futures), Aubrey de Grey (chair and CSO of the Methuselah Foundation), among many other prominent engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs.

Jose Cordeiro is director of the Venezuela Node of The Millennium Project and Teaching Fellow at Singularity University

Further information

Singularity University: http://singularityu.org/

The Singularity is Near (book): http://singularity.com/

The Singularity is Near (movie): http://singularity.com/themovie/



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