The Singularity

Before it became the province of futurists, the word singularity had significance in both mathematics and the physical sciences. A mathematical singularity is a point at which a function is not "well behaved." According to, it "blows up or becomes degenerate" -- that is, it stops working in a predictable way.

In cosmology, the word singularity is used to describe the event horizons created by physical processes so fabulous that essentially no information can be transmitted from them. Among these are black holes, whose gravities do not permit light to escape, and the big bang, before which nothing is knowable.

In either case, these technical uses of the word have human connotations of uniqueness, incomprehensibility and danger. So it is perhaps not surprising that technofuturists and transhumanists see humanity and possibly all of creation hurtling toward something they call the Singularity.



The idea was popularized by San Diego State University mathematician Verner Vinge in the 1990s and given renewed attention in 2005 by the storied inventor Ray Kurzweil with the publication of his book The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (Viking Adult).

In a precursor article, "The Law of Accelerating Returns," published in 2001, Kurzweil wrote: "Within a few decades, machine intelligence will surpass human intelligence, leading to The Singularity -- technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. The implications include the merger of biological and non-biological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultrahigh levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light."

This millenarian vision of a positive feedback loop of ever-expanding intelligence and organization creates what might be called anti-entropy. When mankind reaches the Singularity, the universe will no longer be dominated by entropy. On the Web, there are sites for supporters of this philosophy, who identify themselves as extropians.

This change has also been viewed more ambiguously. For example, Vinge wrote of machine intelligence in a paper in 1993: "Within 30 years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended."

Although Vinge does not specify whether this is a good or bad thing, the comment echoes another famous quote that the Polish mathematician Stanislaw Ulam attributed to John von Neumann in a 1958 conversation: "The ever-accelerating progess of technology ... gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs as we know them could not continue." The Ulam/von Neumann reference may be the first use of the word singularity in this context.

Kurzweil's understanding of the Singularity, in contrast, is an unclouded one in which machine intelligence and human brains fuse for a future in which human/ machine hybrids invent ever-smarter machines and hybrids, and do this at ever- accelerating rates. They achieve a kind of immortality.

Kurzweil envisions the possibility of downloading brains and reconstituting them, thereby successfully propagating one person's consciousness, bringing a whole new perspective to Alan Turing's take on the question of whether machines can be said to think. (The Turing Test suggests that the important question for artificial intelligence is whether a human judge can discriminate between the responses of another human and those of a machine.)

Even biological immortality is possible, according to Kurzweil, because of what he calls the three overlapping revolutions of GNR -- genetics, nanotechnology and robotics. The superhuman intelligences of the coming decades will know which genes to turn on and off in order to prolong life indefinitely. Nanotechnology will enable the infusion of human bodies with robotic servants to repair biological tissues and aid in the downloading of brains.

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