Re: Singularity in the newspapers

From: Damien Broderick (
Date: Tue Feb 08 2000 - 07:04:42 MST

At 01:22 PM 8/02/00 +0000, Charlie Stross wrote:

>Mentions Vernor Vinge, the singularity, Rudy Rucker, Hans Moravec --
>the author's done their homework properly.

Well, let's see:

Chris Watkins writes (if that's the verb I'm looking for):


                        Soon, according to some
                               futurists, the rate of change will
                               become so quick that we will be
                               totally unable to guess what
                               tomorrow will bring - as if there
                               were an opaque wall drawn
                               across the future, confounding
                               our most diligent attempts at

                               This concept is known as the
                               Singularity, a term borrowed
                               from mathematics describing a
                               point at which the rules fail,
                               quantities become infinite, and
                               the curve rips right through the
                               graph paper and heads off into
                               uncharted territory. The catalyst
                               for this spectacular event,
                               according to Professor Vernor
                               Vinge of San Diego State
                               University, is - you guessed it -
                               the computer. Vinge presented a
                               paper on the Singularity at the
                               VISION-21 symposium back in
                               1993, sponsored by Nasa's Lewis
                               Research Centre and the Ohio
                               Aerospace Institute. "We are on
                               the edge of change," he
                               announced, "comparable to the
                               rise of human life on Earth."

                               Computer technology over the
                               past fifty years has been
                               following a curve very much like
                               that described above -
                               representing exponential
                               growth. Computers double in
                               power roughly every 18 months,
                               a fact noted by Gordon Moore,
                               one of the founders of Intel, in
                               1965. This doubling period has
                               held remarkably steady for the
                               past 30 years, and "Moore's
                               Law" appears to suggest that
                               early in this century computers
                               will reach, and quickly surpass,
                               the capacity of the human brain.

                               "When greater-than-human
                               intelligence drives progress, that
                               progress will be much more
                               rapid," observed Vinge. "In fact,
                               there seems no reason why
                               progress itself would not involve
                               the creation of still more
                               intelligent entities, on a still
                               shorter timescale."

                               For all their impressive abilities,
                               today's best computers are
                               rivalled in power by the tiny
                               brains of insects. Nevertheless,
                               IBM's Deep Blue managed to
                               defeat Garry Kasparov by
                               channelling all that power into a
                               single task, namely playing a
                               mean game of chess. It is the
                               arrival of computers with
                               human-like intelligence - able to
                               concentrate all that immense
                               power on to a single problem,
                               such as building an even better
                               computer - that triggers the
                               Singularity. Smarter machines
                               lead to yet smarter machines,
                               trailing explosive technological
                               advances in their wake.


Compare with some passages from THE SPIKE (not readily available in the UK,
I gather):

< That is the edge of a technological Singularity, the place when the
future starts to go completely opaque. Once a human-level machine takes
charge of its own development, with its storage and internal connections
and speed doubling every eighteen months, you get a superhuman-level
machine in (historically speaking) the blink of an eye. >
< The trends were going asymptotic, he pointed out. An asymptote, you'll
recall, is a curve that rises sharply until it is heading almost straight
up the page, and gets closer and closer to the purely vertical in a shorter
and shorter time. At the limit, which is reached quite quickly (disproving
Zeno's ancient paradox about the tortoise beating the hare if it has a
head-start), the curve goes to infinity. It rips through the top of the
graph and is never seen again. >

< The core notion in these forecasts was first described metaphorically as
a technological Singularity by Professor Vernor Vinge, a computer scientist
in the Department of Mathematical Sciences, San Diego State University. A
singularity is a mathematical point where analysis breaks down, where
infinities enter an equation. And at that point, mathematics packs it in.
 A black hole in space is a kind of spacetime example of this rather
abstract pathology. Hence, cosmic black holes are also known as
`singularities'. >

< While Vinge first advanced his insight in works of imaginative fiction,
he has featured it more rigorously in such formal papers as his address to
the VISION-21 Symposium, sponsored by NASA Lewis Research Center and the
Ohio Aerospace Institute, March 30-31, 1993. Professor Vinge opened that
paper with the following characteristic statement, which can serve as a
fair summary of my own starting point:
                `The acceleration of technological progress has been the central feature
of this century. I argue in this paper that 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.' >

Is it barely possible that *I* did the author's homework for him? (If so, I
don't see a cheque in the mailbox...) Obviously we are both deeply indebted
to Vernor and others, but I do recognise some of my little babies... that
curve ripping through the top of the graph paper, for example.


Damien Broderick

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