Are we entering a technological singularity?
Feb. 4, 2013
by Mark Ollig

We need only to go back to yesterday to see technology once considered science fiction now becoming science fact.

In the 1960s television series “Star Trek” a powerful light called a “tractor beam” was used to hold onto or bring an object closer to the USS Enterprise.

I recently read, scientists have created a working, smaller version of a tractor beam; it’s called a microscopic beam.

It uses a beam of light which attracts microscopic particles toward it.

This new light beam technology will be first used for medical purposes.

Regularly, we hear about technologies once thought of as “futuristic” being created into present-day working devices to be used for the betterment of us all.

I recall one device which attracted much anticipation six years ago.

There was wonderment and awe on the faces of the many people watching as the first iPhone was presented by Steve Jobs.

It was Jan. 9, 2007 when Jobs walked out on stage, and delivered the keynote address during the MacWorld Conference and Expo.

“Every once and a while, a revolutionary product comes along that changes everything,” Jobs said in his opening statement.

He then spoke about a revolutionary new device.

You could feel the excitement being given off from the audience, as they would applaud and cheer every time Jobs disclosed another morsel of magical “futuristic technology” featured on the iPhone, which had not been seen on any other mobile phone of the time.

A video of this presentation is at http://tinyurl.com/62e9sbe.

In speculating what the future of technology will be, sometimes, we need to look to the past.

Of course, you knew I would bring up “Star Trek,” and, hopefully, we can agree the series came up with some amazing futuristic devices.

One person’s unnerving essay (in my humble opinion) on the future impact of artificially created “superhuman intelligence” and its impact on humans has been the subject of many discussions during the last 20 years.

Vernor Vinge, a San Diego State University professor of mathematics, computer scientist, and author, wrote an essay titled “The Coming Technological Singularity.”

His essay was presented during the NASA-sponsored VISION-21 Symposium in March 1993.

“We are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth. The precise cause of this change is the imminent creation by technology of entities with greater-than-human intelligence,” Vinge wrote.

A few of the future events Vinge foresaw:

• Computers become “awake” and contain superhuman intelligence.

• Computer networks may also “wake up” as superhumanly intelligent entities.

• Computer/human interfaces become so entwined, they may be considered superhumanly intelligent.

This link, http://tinyurl.com/27p8sk contains the complete essay.

Vinge stated he felt these events would happen before 2030.

Results of these events by 2030, according to Vinge, would cause developments previously thought to take place maybe in a million years, likely happening in the next hundred years.

I listened to a recent audio cast on the Internet where Vernor Vinge talked about technological singularity.

In it, he gave this description of technological singularity; “In the relatively near future . . . human-kind will, using technology, either create or become, creatures of super-human intelligence.”

Vinge reasoned the word “singularity” is a good metaphor in this instance, because it involves a technological change that is qualitatively different from the changes we have achieved in the past.

He gave an example.

Say a journalist from today could, by some magical way, interview the famous author Mark Twain.

The journalist would describe to him what our era is like, and what was happening in our time.

Vinge said Mr. Twain would understand what was being said, and might even be very enthusiastic about it.

He said you could discuss our present era with another person even further back in time, and they would understand what was being said – as a commonly understood language was being spoken.

The person from the past might not believe what they were being told about the future, because the changes would be considered so great, so fantastic, and so unpredictable, Vinge added.

Vinge emphasized future events could be explained to a person from the past, because the person would be able to understand what was being said to them.

“If you tried to do the same explanatory exercise with a goldfish, you probably would not be successful,” he explained.

“That is the difference, in terms of talking about and explaining things post-singularity compared to now,” Vinge said.

“Thinking about things [computers] that might be smarter than us is a topic you can get nervous about if you expect it is to happen soon. It is also, overall, an optimistic view of progress,” he said.

I, too, would become a bit nervous thinking about computers that are awake, self-aware, and considerably more intelligent than the rest of us.

In the early 1960s, Irving John Good, a British mathematician who worked with Alan Turning deciphering German code during WWII, wrote “Speculations Concerning the First Ultraintelligent Machine.”

In it, Good made this wise statement, “Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.”

Stanley Kubrick, director of the movie, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” consulted Good about the movie’s supercomputer named H.A.L. 9000, which contains intelligence, along with emotions – and ends up turning against the human astronauts it accompanies to Jupiter.

“The Ultimate Computer” was a “Star Trek” episode broadcast in 1968. In it, Mr. Spock says, “Computers make excellent and efficient servants, but I have no wish to serve under them.”

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