Re: Singularity - Clarifying Timing Claims

Hal Finney (
Mon, 7 Sep 1998 18:00:49 -0700

Robin Hanson, <>, writes:
> Max More and I both took issue with Vinge's timing claim, but Vinge
> just refers Max More to his reply to Nick Bostrom, which is:
> [...]
> o We humans now are developing devices which can run simulations
> faster than our internal, biological "hardware" can do. I think
> it's plausible that the accompanying speedup will have the
> appearance of "Verticality" over the human phase.

I would add to this that the simulations are not only faster, but potentially larger, more complex, more detailed, and more realistic than the level of modelling which can be done by a human mind. Consider Deep Blue, capable of looking at billions of chess positions with perfect accuracy.

> Before this discussion can proceed further, I think we need to get clear
> on what exactly Vinge is claiming in these two passages. I'd be most
> interested in how others translate these, but my reading is:
> "Progress" rates increase with the speed of the processors involved.

I find that this phrasing invites the assumption of a simple relationship between the two, which is probably not what Vinge has in mind. What I take him to be saying is that this new resource will be able to greatly increase the rate of progress by facilitating simulations at an unprecedented level. However there is presumably a threshold effect, where primitive simulation tools do not play a significant role.

> Now it's not clear what "progress" metrics are valid here, but if
> economists' usual measures are valid, such as growth rate in world
> product, there are two immediate problems with this theory:
> 1) Progress rates increased greatly over the last hundred thousand
> years until a century ago without any change in the cycle speed of
> the processors involved.

No doubt there are many factors influencing the rate of progress. It is still possible that adding powerful computers to the mix will make a difference.

> 2) Computer processor speeds have increased greatly over the last
> century without much increase in rates of progress.

It could be that the amount of computer power available is still too small to make a significant contribution.

One metric sometimes used is total brainpower vs total computer power. If we assume that the latter continues to grow as the product of Moore's law and economic growth rates then the total human+computer power can be expected to be dominated by computers in a few decades. If computers can be given problem-solving heuristics comparable in power to those used by humans, and if their total computational power becomes thousands, then millions, then billions of times greater than that of humanity, then it is plausible that problem-solving abilities will increase by a similar factor.

It may be that economic growth rates won't be the most appropriate metric for progress. The large installed base of existing technologies and natural human conservatism may put us into a new kind of economy. New ideas will be coming out of the labs far faster than they can be incorporated into society as a whole. We might see a form of "social shear" where some people are pushing forward as fast as they can while others are hanging back, and still others are trying to hold society together. (Unfortunately shear strain often resolves itself catastrophically.)