Thursday, June 18, 2009

Stumbling Into Singularity

This is the first of an ongoing series of posts expanding previous tweets. It's pretty common that lines for Twitter posts pop into my mind without any immediately detectable source, so it seems like it should be fun to explore a few of them here. This particular tweet is a bit self-referential in that it is an example of a split within my consciousness (since it came out of nowhere) and alludes to both the complexity and unintegrated nature of the psyche.
Prophets of doom have been predicting the end of the-world-as-we-know-it for thousands of years. Despite a .000 batting average so far, many people still believe that the Rapture, the Mayan End of Time, Nostradamus' predictions or some other cataclysm is lurking around the corner.

A relatively recent crop of soothsayers has shifted the predictive focus from the physical to the psychological and instead describes the end of humans-as-we-know-them. The revolutionary change they envision is called The Singularity, a time when technology creates intelligent entities who are so far advanced that unaugmented Homo sapiens won't be able to comprehend them. Depending on the pundit, these beings may either be cyborgs (a mix of human machine) or a purely computer intelligence that gains self-consciousness.

Although I'm pretty skeptical of such a chasm, it's possible there are some historic precedents. Bicameralists hypothesize that ancient humans left- and right-brains weren't as integrated as they are today. This theory explains ancient myths as being the left brain's externalization of right brain imagery. Marshall McLuhan thought that higher levels of human reasoning were only established in humans after the phonetic alphabet emerged to transcend the constraints of oral culture.

Despite the possibility of some relatively rapid and profound shifts of consciousness in human history, I tend to doubt the advent of some sort of technologically-induced Singularity that throws us over a chasm. Here are a couple of reasons:
  • Giving humans access to almost unlimited information hasn't made them any smarter so far. In fact, I could argue that the ability to almost instantly find information online has atrophied the average human's intelligence. For instance, why bother to develop memorization skill when you can ask your cellphone for the answer? How many people do you know who don't even know their friends' phone numbers because they always speed dial. Sure, humans are adapting to a new technological environment, but what happens if some sort of catastrophe turns the power off for a week, a month or even years? The ability to rapidly access information is great for a small subset of human endeavor, but has no impact on the core of human existence which is centered around interpersonal relationships, personal expression, creativity, etc.
  • Access to information + Faster processing =/= Wisdom. Sure, you can have a better handle on probabilities. You might even be able to discern patterns in information that were not otherwise knowable. But facts and meaning are two different animals. For every important matter of human interest there are very intelligent people with conflicting views. Harry Truman's "There are three types of lies: Lies, Damn Lies and Statistics" is quite applicable to the question of truth/wisdom versus information.
It seems to me that the verdict is still out on whether technology is going to dumb humanity down or catapult it to unimaginable heights. Time will tell.


Play or Prey will continue next week with background on our lovely suspect's childhood and a peak behind the scenes into the Olympic Garden dressing room.

Image by Okedem
under Creative Commons attribution license


Dale Innis said...

The most plausible Singularity story isn't that access to lots of information will suddenly make humans get unthinkable wise and different; it's more that if we make intelligent entities that are (roughly) able to tinker with and directly improve their own intelligence / wisdom (whether or not those entities are human in any particular sense), the process is immediately exponential, and before very long at all it goes off the charts to where us pre-sing ppls won't be able to understand it. Or something like that. :)

Shockwave Plasma said...

Bicameralism is simple to discredit as people such as Australian Aboriginals or Amazonians show no such tenancies.

Unknown said...

Like Dale says - the design doesnt even have to be very intelligent. Like the development of intelligent life, AI might need thousands or millions of attempts before anyone of them succeeds, but when that one succeeds it will probably spawn thousands of new, and slightly better attempts and so on ad infinitum.

Thanks for a nice blog btw :)

samantha said...

Hilarious. We are communicating over an idea one of us had that was easily made accessible to the world and that can easily be commented on. We can share everything and anything we wish with people all over the world without even breaking a sweat. Huge amounts of knowledge that would take our forbears lifetimes searching libraries are available to us in an afternoon with a search engine. Huge amounts of automation are available to make our tasks much easier. At the expression of a wish information will continually come to us that seems likely to be what we are looking for. Our individual brains may not be more capable but the network, the interconnection between them and all the knowledge of the world has grown immense, very fast and capable and is increasing rapidly.

And most of that happened without even aiming for increasing human intelligence per se!