I am here tonight to ask the question, whatever happened to the technology singularity? I ask this question because we don’t seem to be getting any closer to being dragged into its event horizon. The singularity’s supercharged revolution of society is something I desperately want to experience. Rather than just writing about the singularity, I want to live it.
I can remember my excitement when I first read Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation, where he told us of the wonders of nanotechnology. He told us of a future where nanobots - nano-scale robots - can manufacture everything, molecule by molecule. Many Star Trek fans would have immediately imagined that replicators would soon be churning out all the burgers and beer we could ever consume, for free.
My excitement about the future I would live in super nova-ed when I read Damien Broderick’s The Spike. He wrote of a convergence of technologies that would create a spike in human development, a period of massive change, where a combination of artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and nanotechnology would turn us into super-humans. We were destined to become technological gods.
While impatiently waiting to become a god, I read Ray Kurzweil’s The Singularity is Near. He speculated that artificial intelligence, genetic engineering and nanotechnology would lead to humans, like you and me, creating our own starship Enterprise and leaving the planet. You and I were going to the stars. And humanity would eventually saturate the universe.
But, here’s the reality for those of us dreaming of the technological singularity. Engines of Creation was written three decades ago, while The Spike hit the bookstores nearly two decades ago. And The Singularity is Near came out over a decade ago.
So how near is near?
Are we ever going to live lives of leisure and creativity while AI’s run everything for us? Are we ever going to genetically engineer our bodies so we can live for millennia? Are we ever going to use swarms of nanobots to strip carbon atoms from carbon dioxide molecules in the atmosphere and stop global warming?
What have scientists been doing to ensure the singularity even occurs?
Well, at the molecular level a few of them got together and used a scanning tunnelling microscope to move 35 atoms around so they spelt IBM, thus creating the world’s smallest logo in 1990. While scientists at Cornell University busied themselves constructing a molecular scale nano-guitar, which has strings that can be strummed, but we aren't able to hear it. But other scientists seem more intent on creating something useful. Nature magazine says scientists have created many nano-scale motors and propellers. But these very simple machines are a long way from the complexity needed to make Drexler’s replicators, his engines of creation.
But then 3D printers suddenly materialised, like the Tardis, out of nowhere. We suddenly had a very primitive Star Trek replicator. Many of you would’ve seen stories about 3D printers, like their ability to print guns, single shot pistols that tend to explode. Just as well 3D printers can also print replacement artificial hands.
One or two of you might already have spent the few hundred dollars for a 3D printer. I envisage that in a few years, every household will have one, using them to print replacement screens for dropped mobile phones or to make a missing Lego block needed to finish a model of Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon.
Think what you could print if you had an industrial scale 3D printer, like the ones used to print houses in China. NASA has also used them to print out 75 percent of the parts for a working rocket engine. In the future, you might be able to print a full-scale Millennium Falcon, that actually flies.
What about genetic engineering? Seemingly endless trials continue to reaffirm the safety of genetically modified foods. The US Food and Drug Administration says diabetics have been using genetically engineered insulin for decades. And many animals have been cloned including cows, sheep, horses, dogs and cats. But no one has successfully cloned a human, at least not officially.
One form of genetic engineering that seems to always be in the news is stem cell research. Harvard university scientists have used stem cells to regenerate human heart tissue. They hope a fully functioning human heart will be created using stem cells in several years. There are also many reports of stem cells healing paraplegics. The University of California reported using them to help a car-crash victim regain the use of his hands and legs. While in Japan, the RIKEN laboratory for Retinal Regeneration used stem cells to stop the muscular degeneration of an 80-year-old’s eyesight.
What have the computer scientists been up to? We’re still yet to see an operating system become self-aware like Samantha in the movie Her, but machine learning is taking off. As many of you know, machine learning is where a computer learns to do things using algorithms, rather than being programed to do those things. Such algorithms allow driverless cars, like Google’s, to react to all the new situations the car encounters on roads. Data scientist Jeremy Howard, runs a company involved in machine learning, and he says deep-learning algorithms have enabled a computer to be better than humans at recognising the content of images. Not only that, the deep-learning algorithms enabled the computer to write accurate descriptions of the images. Howard claims that machine learning will enable computers to soon do most service jobs that involve writing, reading, listening and data analysis. And they will do these tasks much faster than humans.
Kurzweil says artificial intelligence is the key to the singularity. Once computers get smarter than you and me they will not only design smarter computers, but they will be able to speed up the development of nanotechnology, 3D printing, and genetic engineering. For those of us counting on fully experiencing the singularity, we can hope that an algorithm is currently being written that will soon turn computers into smarter than human AIs. We can hope such an algorithm will be announced next week, seemingly materialise from nowhere, like 3D printers did.
If a full on artificial intelligence enabling algorithm is created soon, many of us here tonight could experience the wonders of the technological singularity and a post-human universe. A universe where the only limitation to our massively extended lives is our imaginations.
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