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The Singularity … will it happen in our lifetime?

Posted by Mark Harrison on January 8, 2011

“The Singularity” is a term bandied about to talk about a point, maybe as soon as the mid 21st Century, when the combination of increases in computing power, and brain-computer interfacing will mean that “hybrid human-machine” intelligences will emerge that, among other things, lead to a massive surge forward in the development of… machine/human hybrid intelligences.
A question I answered on Quora today asked whether it was going to happen in our lifetime.
My answer:
Firstly, there is much argument over exactly what is meant by “The Singularity”, since it is used as a convergence term.

Secondly, there is a question of what “in our lifetime” actually means.

Finally, there is much concern about whether social / political factors will retard its progress.

So, let us consider the parts one at a time:

1: What bits of the singularity are coming / here:

Will the technology be developed to enhance humans bodies? – answer, yes: glasses, walking sticks, hip replacements, pacemakers, hearing aids… or on another level, cars (which let us move faster), lifts (which let us climb faster), drills (which let us make holes faster.) I think that the results are in, and that humans will accept things that enhance their physical capabilities.

Will the technology be developed to replace failing parts of the brain? answer, yes: Deep brain stimulation with electrodes as a partial alleviation of Parkinson’s has been in use since the late 90s. According to Meditronic (the largest maker of such), in a press release, some 80,000 of these had been installed by September 2010.

Is there a demand from people for brain implants? answer, not a mass market one, but a niche exists. Enough people have indicated a willingness to have such things that it’s hard to believe that it won’t happen.

Will a mix of human and machine-assisted technology lead to an increase in the mental capabilities of (some) humans, at some point in the next 100 years? Answer: probably. Combining the human strengths in aggregation and conceptualisation of dissimilar pieces of information, with the mass-analysis and rapid-retrieval capabilities of machines already underpins the Western and Asian  economies. It is hard to believe that there won’t be some people willing to trial brain implants for “rapid information retrieval” when they become available. Likewise, it seems likely that a disproportionate number of such people will be from a “geek” background, and a self-selecting group of those interested in the development of such technology. Such people are likely to use part of this capability to develop faster, cheaper, better, versions thereof.

Will it happen as fast as people like Ray Kurzweil predict? Answer: maybe… but the question was about whether it would happen in our lifetime, which brings me to…

2: How long will “our generation” live:

How long will “our generation” live? Answer: I’ve seen mainstream reports that some medics are now predicting that 25% of those currently aged 40 (my age!) in the UK will reach 100. Because I sing at a local church, I have a reasonable grasp of funerals booked! Someone dying in their 60s is now seen as surprisingly young, and in their 50s a tragedy. Most funerals I sing for are now for people  who died in their 90s, with 100+ the second most common cohort.

What are the main causes of death, and how quickly will they be treated? According to the World Health Organisation, 58m people died in 2005, and the main causes were: 1: Cariovascular (29%, of which myocardial ischaemia is 12% and strokes 10%), 2: Infectious / parasitic diseases (23%, of which respiratory diseases 7% and HIV/AIDs 5%), 3: Cancer (12%)…. all three are undergoing massive  research in Western/Asian nations, and 2010 saw the first substantiated report of a patient fully cured of AIDS (albeit in a risky way, relating to a treatment for Leukaemia with a 30% death rate, which in the patient’s case not only succeeded, but cured his AIDS!) So it seems likely that, in Western/Asian nations at least, that the trajectory of life expectancy will increase as the major causes are eroded.

3: Will politics stop it?

Will US legislation / public opinion stop it in gaining mass appeal in the US? Probably, however… short of travel bans, there will be numerous opportunities, such as already exist for “Medical Tourism”. In 2007, forexample, an estimated 1,800 US citizens, 1,200 UK citizens, and 400 Canadians also sought treatment in Jordan, and the World Bank ranked it as number 5 internationally as a destination for such.

Will US legislation stop it? answer, in my view, no! Quite apart from the likelihood that there will be / is development in this space in Asia, one of the first implants of a computer chip into a human was that of Professor Kevin Warwick, of Reading University in the UK, whose autobiography contains confirmation that he denied that he was intending to do so when helping the (US) manufacturer gain their export approval, but then did so, legally under UK law, once he’d received it.

Will any legislation / government activity be able to suppress it? Answer no – wikileaks has demonstrated that information tends to be leaky. Even were the majority of the world’s nations to agree that such things should be suppressed, the nature of such technology would lend itself to “off grid” research, and underground collaboration.

So, overall, I can’t help feel that the singularity might happen in my lifetime… and I’m interested to see what the impact will really be!

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