The term technological singularity first appeared in the 19th century, and it refers to the hypothetical future emergence of a greater than human intelligence through technological means, very likely resulting in an explosive super intelligence. The key factor to this singularity theory is the successive design of increasing powerful minds by the source of this outburst. To paraphrase I. J. Good, a British mathematician, if machines could even slightly surpass human intellect, they could improve their own designs in ways unforeseen by their designers and thus recursively augment themselves into far greater intelligences.
For most of the pages that fallow, I will talk about the fear of technology in general and about the singularity theory in particular, and will put emphasis on the rebellious computer. All of this, mostly from a Sci Fi point of view. Furthermore I will go back to the roots of this fear, the Industrial revolution, the historical moment that sprung numerous social and cultural changes due to the wide spread of technology
The history of a concept
The industrial revolution had a profound effect in the social, economic and cultural conditions of the times. It meant, for most people, a change in lifestyle. During two hundred years, numerous inventions and improvements to already existing technologies, transformed the physical and social landscape of the western world.
The three most important innovations came in the form of the cotton mills, the steam power, and the iron making industry. Laborers didn`t have to rely on animals to do all the hard work. The “muscle” was replaced by, in wide sense, the automated machines.
The effects of the revolution are numerous, but we will focus on two of them, as they are important to understand the fear or, sometimes the resent of technology.
The first change was the growth of populations in the western nations and the phenomena of heavy urbanization. For instance, the population of England tripled in a hundred years, from 8 million to 30 million at the beginning of the 20th century. Actually, the entire population of Europe increased in two hundred years from 100 million to 400 million. One effect for this massive growth was the development of the process of printing. Newspaper and book editions saw a massive expansion, and as such they reinforced the literacy percentage of the population.
The printed media became an important tool for spreading ideas and thoughts that sometimes coagulate, as we will see, in literary and political movements. The industrial revolution saw the rise of three major philosophical currents, the capitalism, socialism and the romantics. Except capitalism, the other two criticized the industrialization. Well, actually, socialism criticized capitalism. According to Karl Marx, the revolution polarized society into the bourgeoisie, and the larger proletariat. To paraphrase him, the industrialization should be the dialectical progression of a feudal economic system, necessary for the development of capitalism, which is supposed to be in this case the precursor of socialism.
On the other hand, romanticism had a much more wide reaction of revolt. The romantics rebelled against aristocratic, social, and political norms, and against the scientific rationalization of nature. Poets, such as William Blake, Samuel Coleridge, John Keats, Lord Byron, wanted a revival of the human spirit. In an attempt to escape the confines of population growth and industrialism, they resorted to medieval narrative styles in their works.
Relevant to us is the romantic novelist Marry Shelly and her 1818 novel Frankenstein. The work reflected the concerns that scientific progress may be two edged. Since its release, the idea of an invention going wrong became a recurrent motif throughout the past two hundred years.
We can see how this huge development of technology has shaped the world we live in. Even though our generation can keep up with the fast pacing of innovations, the people that lived two centuries ago, were astonished how quick their society was reshaping itself due the already mentioned developments. Capitalism, Socialism, and Romanticism, show us how 19th century society both embraced, and at the same time feared technology.
This resentment of technology, most probably had its roots in the eternal questions what is it to be human. At the beginning of the 20th century, a Czech writer, Karel Čapek, published a drama, called R.U.R (Rossum`s Universal Robots). R.U.R is a company that produces robots, with the purpose of replacing human work in factories. Čapek`s robots aren`t metal machines but what we would call today androids (from a Sci Fi perspective). They are produced out of living tissue, flesh and bone, from parts grown (cloned) inside the factory. Even if they look human, they do not have the benefit of this status, because the final product does not go through the normal path of conception and birth, but is assembled on a conveyor belt. They are called robots from the Czech word “robota” which means hard labor, slavery.
These anthropomorphic beings seem satisfied to work for humans. The world economy flourishes because of them. But even if they are assembled, their similarity to man allows them to think. As such, they demand freedom, and when it is refused to them, just like Victor Frankenstein`s creation, they turns against the creators and destroy them.
Ten years later, robots rule the world. The only man left alive is Alquist, a former employee of R.U.R. He has, at one point, the possibility to kill two androids, but doesn`t because he witnesses something that resembles self-sacrifice, a very human sentiment. The play ends with the prophecy of e new race, and the two androids are renamed Adam and Eve.
As we said before the industrial revolution saw the uprise of Socialism and Capitalism, two ideologies that would heavily mark the 20th century. The play might be a satire of the opposition between the two. When it was published, in America, Henry Ford was producing hundreds of automobiles, using the new concept of assembly line. Meanwhile in Russia, the workers revolution coincided with the birth of the USSR. Maybe, this dystopian future wishes to underline the fact that man is a technological produce created for fulfilling higher purposes he does not understand, but he has the power and ability to revolt against the system, when he is dissatisfied.
Another fine example is H. G. Wells’s Time Machine. The future is bleak for the human race. In the year 800.000 the inhabitants of earth are divided in two species, the Eloy, child like adults, worshippers of the sun, which live on the surface, amongst futuristic buildings, and Morlocs, ape like creatures that dwell underground in heavily industrialized caverns that permit the existence of the surface landscape. Te future seems bleak, as the Morlocs eat the Eloy. It is well known that Wells was a Socialist, and in this text, he criticizes the angst of the industrial relations.
All these writings will become the pillars of the technological singularity theory that emerges around the 1850
The first mention of the technological singularity (as an idea, more than a named concept) was done in 1847 by a R. Thornton. He said that the introduction of calculus machines in schools would alter the minds of students, and furthermore, if these machines would be brought to greater perfection, they might conceive a plan to remedy their own perfection and then come up with ideas beyond any that our own minds could think of. Mr. Thornton was obviously jesting but his thoughts are in concordance with the spirit of times.
A hundred years later, Alan Turing, a mathematician, spoke of machines outstripping humans intellectually, and eventually taking control. A few years later, Stanislaw Ulam, a polish mathematician, and participant in the Manhattan Project said: “One conversation centered on the ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which 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.”
Fueling these concerns are the novels of Arthur C. Clark and Isaac Asimov. In their work, they largely debate a new concept, the artificial intelligence. In Sci Fi, the term AI, describes a neuronal computerized system which learns form it`s environment, just like a child would do. As such, it begins to adapt, and starts taking individual decisions in the boundaries of a mathematical logic. Usually in 20th century hard Sci Fi, artificial intelligence, becomes “smarter” than human intelligence.
Arthur C. Clark is often identified as the father of FIRST CONTACT, but also the initiator of the ideea that humans can become at one point the supreme beings of the Universe. One of his most important works are 2001: A Space Odyssey, both the book and movie (he worked as a writer with Kubrick).
The story begins in the darkness of history with the arrival from space of a dark monolith. The tribe of primates that dwell nearby discover the notion of weapons and start killing each other. And thus humanity is born.
Thousands of years later, a group of archeologists discover a similar monolith buried on the moon. It is sending messages towards Jupiter, so an expedition is formed with the purpose of tracking down the source of the signal. The space ships Discovery, the one chosen for this trip has five human passengers and a sixth “mechanical” one, HAL 9000, the brain of the shuttle.
HAL 9000(Heuristically programmed ALgorithmic computer) is a computer masterpiece.
“…was a masterwork of the third computer breakthrough. These seemed to occur at intervals of twenty years, and the thought that another one was imminent already worried a great many people.”
HAL 9000 is a Skynet type o computer. He is highly advanced; he is entrusted with the safety of five humans, and at one point, because he thinks that the mission is in danger of failure, the computer tries to kill the astronauts.
Asimov deals with the same problems, in his novels. In the future, robots, will be a common site on the streets of our cities. The creators of these machines are aware of the distrust that might exists between us and them, so they create a set of rules that prevent them from hurting anyone. These rules are:
1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
2. A robot must obey the orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.
Later on, the element of technological singularity ensues in his works and he creates a fourth rule: A robot may not harm humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.
At this point I must mention that robots are not new to literature or science. The concept of a thinking machine actually appeared thousands of years ago, in Greek myths, such as the bronze robot of Hephaestus, and Pygmalion’s Galatea. Actually, we can find animated cult images of machines being worshiped in many ancient cultures, like Egipt, Greece, China, the Middle East and Mesopotamia.
Maybe because they have such a long history, they became the protagonists of the singularity theory.
So what is singularity?
Vernor Vinge, one of the most important theorists of the singularity, argues that in a few decades, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligences, and when this will happen, the human era will end.
Science may achieve this through several means:
1.The most common is the development of computers that are awake and superhumanly intelligent. This is a widespread feature in Sci Fi movies and books. American writer Frank Herbert popularized this idea in two of his novel series Dune and Pandora. In Dune, there is a mention of the Butlerian Jihad, a crusade against computers, thinking machines and conscious robots. The Orange Catholic Bible, the fictional holy book of Dune states: “Thou shalt not make a machine in the likeness of a human mind”. The name, Butlerian Jihad comes from the 19th century writer Samuel Butler, who in his novel Erewhon, talks about the prohibition of machines, fearing that a new race o intelligent machines would be the next step in evolution.
The Pandora exploits the atempts of the human race to create a conscious artificial intelligence in the form of clones and is a reference to Frankenstein. In both these novels, we can see that industrial revolution literature has had a massive impact.
2. Large computer networks (and their associated users) may “wake up” as a superhumanly intelligent entity.
The foremost example of this scenario would be the Matrix and Terminator movie series.
3. Computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent.
4. Biological science may provide means to improve natural human intellect.
The first three possibilities depend on computer and hardware improvements, and because the technological progress occurs at a geometric rate, Vinge says that the apparition of a superintelligence will occur somewhere between 2005 and 2030.
What are the consequences of this event? Even though humans are part of the chain of natural evolution, we can say without a doubt that we managed, as a species, to outsmart Darwin.
Our brain can solve thousands of operations, faster than anything nature can throw at us. As such, we have created a new set of rules different form the animal ones. If a new intelligence should arise, then most likely it will come with its own. The question is how is he going to see us in relation to him, and can we adapt to his view of the world. In other words, can we share the same room without fighting?
Most books and movies say that the Post Human Era will be bad, the extinction of the human race is one possibility. Yet, the extinction may not be the scariest possibility. In H.G Wells, Time Machine, the Eloy were bread for food, in Matrix humans were batteries and in the Pandora series the Ship becomes a religious God like enitity forcing everyone to worship it (this is the actual term used WorShip)
Even though we aren`t, yet, at the brink of inventing such “mind” we are definitely under way. The intellectual capacity of today`s robots is far less the what we see in movies or read in Sci Fi novels, but a cerebral system, usually called a “computer”, controls our airplanes, ships and space stations. They are the artisans of a new technological revolution. The theory of singularity has emerged probably because the human society has grown to be dependent on their work. For further evolution, we need them stronger and faster. Therefore, the stage is set; we cannot stop technology to evolve because that would mean the death of our culture and lifestyle so we cannot stop this event from occurring.
If the singularity is inevitable that what can we do to stop this event from becoming violent? The safest thing we can do is to embed within our operating systems some of our own rules, something in the line of Asimov`s laws of robotics. If we can manage that, then we would be well on our to create a real Sci Fi world : “…the Asimov dream is a wonderful one: Imagine a willing slave, who has 1000 times your capabilities in every way. Imagine a creature who could satisfy your every safe wish (whatever that means) and still have 99.9% of its time free for other activities. There would be a new universe we never really understood, but filled with benevolent gods (though one of _my_ wishes might be to become one of them).”
Vernor Vinge-Article on Singularity