Thursday, June 24, 2010

Churches of the Singularity - is Horgan truly an unbeliever?

Once upon a time if you put two phone handsets together, speaker to microphone, you get a massive burst of positive feedback. Each handset amplified the other’s signal. This acoustic eruption was a form of acoustic singularity.

You have to be of a certain age to remember that. Modern systems cut the feedback.

The ”Technologica Singularity” is positive feedback in the realm of technological innovation. New tools makes new tool creation faster and easier. Data storage units that costs millions and filled a room cost 50 cents to make and are the size of a small fingernail. Technology that makes things smart makes things smarter.

It’s the “smart things” bit that’s the problem. We know how to make human level intelligence; we make billions of ‘em. There’s obviously no chemistry barrier to creating artificial intelligences at least as smart as the smartest possible human. These entities will then will create their smarter descendants and so on. (Unless they are smart enough to know that’s a very, very, bad idea. They will then kill us so we don’t make any more of them.)

The “explosive intelligence” form of the technological singularity dates back to about 1960, but it’s been a feature of science fiction since the 1980s. It’s most often associated with the seriously fun writings of Vernor Vinge, but many of my favorite writers have taken a whack at it. Over the past 10 years it’s become an obsession for geeks who, through great leaps of hopeful imagination, have come to believe that “the rapture of the nerds” will make them immortal.

Now we have the Churches of the Singularity. The Vingeans (sorry Vernor) believe we can’t avoid Strong AI and that this may be a good think or a very bad thing. (Bad for humans and dogs anyway, whales might be delighted.) Vingeans usually put the date for Strong AI between 2040 and 2200.

The Kurzweilians and Moravians believe that humans will integrate with Strong AIs, and that this will occur soon enough that they will, personally, become immortal. Their date predictions are always within their personal life expectancies.

The Heretics suspect that the Programmer and the Player have excluded Strong AI from the Program. The Denialists believe that something will prevent Strong AI, but they rarely say what. They have an uneasy relationship with the Heretics.

I have mostly of the Vingean faith, but I’m tempted to Heresy.

It’s pretty easy to put most people in one of these churches. Sometimes, however, one of the Faithful will deny their roots. For example, Scientific American’s John Horgan considers himself an unbeliever. In a recent critique of the Faith he wrote

Cross-check by John Horgan: Singularity Schtick: Hi-tech moguls and The New York Times may buy it, but you shouldn't

The New York Times Sunday business section recently ran an enormous puff piece on Ray Kurzweil and the "Singularity" cult (my term, not the Times's)…

… Believers squabble over how exactly the Singularity will go down. Will we just genetically soup ourselves up? Become human–machine cyborgs? Totally synthetic robots? Digitize our psyches and download them into cyberspace? All the predictions entail superintelligence and immortality…

… Bill Gates has blurbed Kurzweil's books. Other admirers include Peter Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal, and Peter Diamandis, who heads the X PRIZE Foundation, which promotes space travel. … Sergey Brin and Larry Page, co-founders of Google, helped Kurzweil establish a "Singularity University" at NASA Ames Research Center in California…

…When I debated Kurzweil at the 2008 Singularity Summit, a revival meeting for the faithful, he seemed all too sincere. But his Singularity schtick is so out of sync with reality that I'm beginning to wonder if even he takes it seriously…

Methings he doth protest too much. Horgan is conflating the Kurzweilians with the greater Church. I am certain he knows better. He never claims Strong AI is not possible, he only says it’s unlikely to happen soon. He is clearly a Vingean in denial. Welcome to the Faith John.

See also:
and more about the strong AI answer to the Fermi Paradox (Church of Vinge, Fermi schism)

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