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When Will the Technological Singularity Happen?

Updated on January 25, 2016

Rapidly changing times

As we look forward to the next 30 years, many futurists predict a coming "singularity", wherein the pace of change of technology and tech improvements will be so rapid that nobody with an unaugmented human brain will be able to understand the innovations, and nobody will be able to predict the outcome or direction of the technology itself. I believe this phenomenon may be a lot closer than most people think.

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Our brains are already augmented

One of the main tenets of the technological singularity espoused by guys like Ray Kurzweil is that unaugmented human brains won't be able to keep up with the rapid pace of change when this singularity occurs. Consider how much we already rely on not only our smartphones, but also on "the cloud"- a mythical place where our memories and thoughts are stored.

For starters, I don't think I know a single phone number any more other than my own. I remember a time when I had to memorize at least my ten closest friends' phone numbers, along with my parents' house, a few restaurants or movie theaters, and so on. Now that information is stored in my cell phone, which is an Android device, which means the info is ultimately stored in "the cloud" somewhere (so that if my phone is destroyed, I won't lose any of those numbers).

Likewise, I have written many articles that outline my opinions on any number of issues, from the singularity to being in a punk rock band, to how to have fun with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Many of these articles lay out arguments I'll use when discussing a topic, but don't always remember the very best way to frame the discussion. That piece of my memory is now stored online. The same argument can be made for pictures and video, which are crystal clear memory fragments of a particular moment in my life, which I can remember with clarity as though I was there thanks to "the cloud."

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Being "left behind"

When I have discussions with friends who don't have smartphones and insist on not using social media like Facebook, I find it increasingly difficult to have everyday discussions with them. It's almost as though we are no longer speaking the same language, because I'm able to process information far more rapidly than they are with my "augmented brain", whether it's via looking something up by talking into my phone (via Google), or crowdsourcing an answer by posting on Facebook or Twitter, whereby I get an answer within literal seconds.

Remember how we used to have debates about the first movie appearance of a particular actor, or what year a book came out? I used to argue about this with my friends all the time when growing up (and well into my early 20s), and we'd have debates based on logic in order to determine- very tenuously- who was right. This paradigm is kaput, because now we just look it up on the web and find out definitively in a matter of seconds. Those who lack the ability to research the correct answer instantly are going to be at a serious disadvantage as far as debating goes, because if you're arguing a fact with me and you're wrong, I'm going to know for sure that you're wrong within a few seconds if I just take the time to look it up.


Intelligent augmentation?

We're already seeing the next generation of intelligent augmentation, too, as Google Glass and the like begins to gain popularity (although, to be honest, we won't see this take off with any kind of real popularity until the price drops- and it will, very soon- and contacts are introduced, which seems to be likely within 2 years). Instead of stopping to look something up by getting out your phone (assuming it isn't already out, like an extra appendage, which is increasingly the case), we'll just be able to talk to our "glass" or "lens" and read on our heads up display.

Ultimately, this connectivity will result in a far more intelligent, more informed world. Opinions and new thought paradigms will spread far more rapidly, and antiquated notions of paranoid dogmas will come crashing to a timely end. In fact, this is already happening today, as many oppressive government regimes that once seemed invulnerable are now starting to show cracks in their defenses. Some (including Mikhail Gorbachev) believe that the advent of the Internet and the subsequent spread of knowledge contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union, arguably one of the greatest empires in modern history. Egypt's recent revolution is also sometimes referred to as "the Facebook revolution."

Bet you never thought you'd hear those words in that combination a few years ago!

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We are borg

Join the movement forward. "We are borg. You will be assimilated. Resistance is futile."

This may sound like something worth fighting against due to dystopian sci-fi fantasies about the future (and there are plenty of them, from The Matrix to 2001 to Transcendence), but in fact, technology is exactly what makes us human. We've been harnessing tools with our opposable thumbs for millions of years and evolving into the beautiful species you see today, and that process isn't stopping, it's accelerating. The possibilities of the human race over the coming decades will far surpass the accomplishments of the last 2000 years, beyond the unaugmented brain's wildest dreams. This is happening now. Become a part of it, and let's see what we can accomplish together!

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    • AnneCReed profile image

      Anne Campagnet-Reed 2 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area

      I wasn't sure whether you were being earnest or somewhat sarcastic when you said, "Become a part of [the metaphorical Borg] and let's see what we can accomplish together." I think what you laid out very clearly in the rest of the article is that we are allowing our brains to atrophy by non-use (e.g. not having to remember phone numbers, not engaging in one-on-one debates because of reliance on "the answer" stored somewhere else). One of the wonderful things about using the brains we already have, and cultivating and conditioning them through logical, esthetic, and interpersonal training, is that we can be self-reliant and come up with original solutions to problems. The brain that doesn't learn (through empirical experience, trial, failure, and correction) dies. I'm not so sure I worship the Technology God that so many believe will save us. It's sexy and glamorous, but what do we have to give up of ourselves in order to "assimilate?" For example, did you learn Ju-Jitsu Neo-style, from a download to your brain, or did you learn it the old-fashioned way? Would you rather live in the Matrix or in Zion? I think we need to be careful in our reliance on the infallibility of our creations and syntheses, when there are so many other ways to commuicate, cooperate, and sustain what we already have. I don't blame humans for using their ingenuity to make tools that help them. The question is, do we want our tools to live our lives for us?

    • goatfury profile image
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      Andrew Smith 2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Anne, I disagree with a few points.

      First, of course I learned jiu jitsu the old fashioned way, but given the opportunity to have 10 years worth of additional knowledge right now, I'd take it in a heartbeat. It gets more fun the more you know.

      Second, I also value the learning process (this may contradict what I said above, but for me it is more about *knowing* than learning per se), but I think I'd rather live in the matrix, provided the matrix allowed me to live for thousands of years.

      Finally, memorizing phone numbers is not a critical thinking skill. It is useless tedium that bogged down a tiny portion of my brain, along with many, many other things that kept me from thinking about more deep, important issues. The sooner we get rid of the trivial stuff, the sooner we can start solving humanity's real problems.

      As always, thanks for the perspective! Keep the conversation going.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Nowadays, we use our opposable thumbs to text. Except I don't text and I don't have a smart phone. I have to draw the line against the invasion of technology somewhere. I think you are right, tho. We are all Cyborgs now.

    • goatfury profile image
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      Andrew Smith 2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Catherine! Any thoughts on where your personal line would be?

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      I drew the line at smartphones.

    • goatfury profile image
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      Andrew Smith 2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Oh wow. I think my line is drawn much, much, MUCH further down. Heh.

      I'd like very much to reap the benefits of technology that will involve sub-microscopic computers swimming through my bloodstream to annihilate potential cancer cells well in advance of me becoming ill, thus extending my liefspan by decades, and my quality of life indefinitely.

    • CatherineGiordano profile image

      Catherine Giordano 2 years ago from Orlando Florida

      Well that sounds OK. The killing of the cancer cells won't require any effort on my part.

    • goatfury profile image
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      Andrew Smith 2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Haha... technology means less effort, not more!

      Wait, at least I hope so!

    • AnneCReed profile image

      Anne Campagnet-Reed 2 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area

      I guess the point I was trying to make is that, while memorizing phone numbers may not be the most itellectually rewarding exercise, it does keep memory skills active, just like crossword puzzles, Sudoku, or some of the mental gym programs companies have been pushing. As a high school teacher, I have watched with my own eyes a decline in reasoning and research skills over the past decade. Kids come into the 9th grade not able to read fluently or put together a grammatically correct sentence. And these are not the dumb ones. Their deficiency extends beyond rote memorization to the ablity to think and reason logically. Kids are relying on Wikipedia and Google to do their reports. There is an incumbent laziness and the attitude that "it's already been done, why should I bother to go through the steps to research it?" What I'm saying is that if we rely on the "cloud" (which really isn't anything as mystical as it sounds; it's essentially just a bunch of hard drives located off of your computer), we tend to get mushy in our ability to reason and think. There is more to human endeavor than just doing things more quickly and efficiently. We still need training and practice in not just basic, but advanced thinking skills, human relations, and an appreciation of the power of debate, which you brought up earlier, the arts (which can't currently be quantified in algorithms). I guess, from a kid's point of view, it's almost impossible to resist the idea that there's no need to do the groundwork; someone else has already done it. But what if the information they encounter is wrong? Do they have the motivation or faculty to research and triangulate different sources to arrive at a logical postulation (leading to the type of advanced reasoning in Luke Muehlhauser's convergent outcomes model)? An over-reliance on thinking from "the cloud" comes with a price in individual intellectual development. By the way, I really appreciate your thoughtfuly chosen video clips.

    • goatfury profile image
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      Andrew Smith 2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Anne, you are spot on with the observation that critical thinking is the thing that absolutely must stay. In one very real sense, those kids are 100% right in thinking that, if the work has already been done, they don't need to do it again. After all, this is precisely the "standing on the shoulders of giants" process that has led to all human progress. If Einstein had to invent Euclid's geometry before he started thinking about spacetime, well... he never would have thought about spacetime. Similarly, technology progresses based on exactly the same preceding paradigms.

      On the other hand, and to your very valid point, there is tremendous value in rediscovering certain facets of nature, for instance, or how certain discoveries were made. The series of articles I've written here ("Thought Experiments to Help You Sleep at Night", shameless plug) is actually all about my own personal discovery of the thought processes behind great fundamental discoveries of physics. I clearly do believe there's a great deal of value in studying how certain discoveries were made, and how we know certain things.

      Having said that, I firmly believe that there is going to be no way whatsoever that we can follow all of the logical trains out there. We already have technological devices that are incredibly difficult to understand just how they work. Take my smartphone, for instance! I need to have at least a working understanding of:

      -Relativity

      -Quantum mechanics

      -Binary logic

      -Artificial intelligence and the various paradigms that led to this

      -The Internet

      -The telephone network

      -SMS

      Pick any of the above topics necessary to understand how a modern cell phone operates, and you could literally devote your entire life to trying to understand just ONE of these in full detail, and you'd still fall short. There are people who try to fail, and not a single person on planet earth today understands everything there is to understand about these physical laws or technological innovations.

      Where we're headed is that, in order to understand any one piece of technology, or any cutting edge physics discovery, you'll need to have some form of brain augmentation, pure and simple. Those who choose not to have their brains augmented, will simply be left behind.

      My point in all this is just that the topic is many times more complicated than it perhaps looks on the surface, as I continue to discover every day. It is a wonderful time to be alive, and I feel fortunate to be a part of this unique time of discovery for human beings.

    • AnneCReed profile image

      Anne Campagnet-Reed 2 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area

      Einstein didn't have to reinvent Euclidian geometry, but he at least had to have the ability to study and understand it, before he could take it further.

      It's true I don't need to know how to build a phone in order to use it, or how to build a car in order to drive it. But if we are talking about creating systems that are going to be making decisions for us (which to some extent is already happening), I agree with Muehlhauser that we need to come to some sort of human consensus as to our ethical goals, so that AI will be working for us instead of just passing us over and allowing us to perish. Our first goal is to rally together as "unenhanced" humans to figure out how to get along and help one another, now and in the future.

    • goatfury profile image
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      Andrew Smith 2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Good points, once again. I agree that we need to see eye to eye as much as possible, but I disagree that AI can't help us achieve that objective. In fact, I believe very, very strongly that connectivity is the very essence of getting along. Innovations like Google's Project Loon that aim to connect "the other four billion people" are the best thing that can happen to the world right now. Maybe this is another conversation for another day (or we should move this over to my "connectivity" Hub), but I do think it's pertinent here as well.

      Consider how much more rapidly attitudes on racism, sexism, and homophobia are changing now that everyone is connected to the web. Homophobia is now a derogatory term, whereas ten years ago it was just used by the most liberal 1% of Americans. This is clearly a product of ideas spreading far more rapidly than before.

      I view connectivity to the cloud as the next step. We need this level of connection in order to communicate our ideas more effectively and efficiently, and in order to really get along.

    • AnneCReed profile image

      Anne Campagnet-Reed 2 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area

      You may be right ... let's hope so.

    • goatfury profile image
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      Andrew Smith 2 years ago from Richmond, VA

      Anne, I think it's up to us! Let's make sure things head in the right direction. Keep thinking about this stuff- not nearly enough intelligent people are doing so, and conversations like this need to happen.

    • AnneCReed profile image

      Anne Campagnet-Reed 2 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area

      I like your optimism.

    • dobermanmacleod profile image

      dobermanmacleod 2 years ago from Minneapolis, Minnesota

      The reason I picked "in the next ten years" is because that will be when strong AI emerges, which no human mind could compete with. There is a caveat though - people will continue to ask questions and perform research, it is just the "big picture" which we will need artificial minds to grasp. BTW, I think experts are generally wrong when it comes to when ASI emerges - which I predict will be in the next ten years, when we will have strong AI streaming from smartphones, and those mobile units will have environmental awareness. Even now we can do much better than Siris or Cordovan, but it would freak out the squares and the privacy hounds too much to be commercially viable (once again our society and culture is slowing down technology).

    • TimArends profile image

      Timothy Arends 22 months ago from Chicago Region

      I think the singularity is already here in the sense that the pace of change of technology is so rapid that I already can't keep up with it. I can't keep up with the rapidly changing Internet, communications and technology terms that are constantly coming along and then being superseded by new ones. I have dozens of apps on my iPhone and iPad that looked great when I downloaded them but I still haven't gotten around to trying out yet because I simply can't find the time for it! So in that sense, yes, the singularity is already here.

    • goatfury profile image
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      Andrew Smith 22 months ago from Richmond, VA

      Tim, that's exactly what I meant when I wrote the article. Thanks for taking the time to drop in! Looking forward to seeing how quickly things change in the next five years.

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