Monday, June 02, 2008

Why talk about The Singularity?

Well, for me it has the hypnotic ghastliness of a train wreck seen from a moderate distance, or the horror and wonder of a supernova seen from a very great distance*. Hard not to talk about those things.

On the other hand, I don't think that humanity can do anything about the Singularity one way or the other, so I wrote of the IEEE Singularity issue

..I'll read the articles and make note of anything novel, but I'd be surprised to find any new insights. This topic has been well discussed in geek circles. Now all we can do is wait and see what happens...

In his IEEE epilogue, Vinge replies to similar comments, making the case that under some circumstances there might be a role that an informed public could play ...

IEEE Spectrum: Signs of the Singularity

...Both Horgan and Nordmann express indignation that singularity speculation distracts from the many serious, real problems facing society. This is a reasonable position for anyone who considers the singularity to be bogus, but some form of the point should also be considered by less skeptical persons: if the singularity happens, the world passes beyond human ken. So isn't all our singularity chatter a waste of breath? There are reasons, some minor, some perhaps very important, for interest in the singularity. The topic has the same appeal as other great events in natural history (though I am more comfortable with such changes when they are at a paleontological remove). More practically, the notion of the singularity is simply a view of progress that we can use—along with other, competing, views—to interpret ongoing events and revise our local planning. And finally: if we are in a soft takeoff, then powerful components of superintelligence will be available well before any complete entity. Human planning and guidance could help avoid ghastliness, or even help create a world that is too good for us naturals to comprehend...

So if we have a 10-20 years notice that we're going to build artificial minds far more capable than the crude models in our heads, then maybe we could try to design the 1st generation to be both kindly (to us) and sentimental.  Doing that would require a lot of worldwide trust and cooperation, so it might help to think about the problem for a decade or two first.

Heck, it's worth a try.

I did laugh though at the thought that Singularity speculation is going to impede progress on, say, global warming. I suspect on the list of significant distractions this one is pretty far down  -- more's the pity.

* It's rarely mentioned that when those suckers go off they probably sterilize a zone 25-200 light years across. If life is as common as we think it is, the light of a mature galaxy supernova carries very grim news. (Immature galaxies need Supernovae to produce the elements that allow planets like ours to form. Supernovae giveth and taketh.)

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