Drifting Towards the Singularity

The tag-line on this blog is ‘drifting towards the Singularity’. This post is intended to give a flavor of what the Singularity might mean by providing pointers for further reading. But, it also will help to expand on the aim of this blog.

Singularity

The Singularity refers to a time where the rate of change of technology is so great that the way we will interact with the world will be so much different than today. This concept was originally proposed by Vernor Vinge in an article titled, ‘The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era’. The title polarizes one potential outcome of the singularity. Ray Kurzweil in ‘The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology’ goes into greater detail and highlights ongoing trends in technology: genetics, robotics and nanotechnology. Based on their estimations the Singularity should occur sometime between 2030 and 2045. Almost right around the corner, but not a certainty.

The common theme in Singularity discussions is that the exponential increase in technology capabilities enables new capabilities. This has been true for vehicles, CPUs, disk drives, memory, and many other areas. This exponential trend can also be seen in DNA sequencing, and microscopes. Computer simulations are reaching the point where material scientists can search for new materials based on the laws of chemistry and physics. Microscopes are able to image with finer and finer resolutions. Microscopes can now capture images at femtosecond rates, a millionth of a billionth of a second, to observe chemical reactions in real time. Analysis of brain functions is also increasing at an exponential rate, and recent tests showed a monkey in the United States controlling a robot in Japan with thought.

Exponential growth

The following charts should help to put the notion of exponential growth into perspective. This chart gives a rough approximation of the growth in the number of transistors residing in a computer’s CPU. The chart isn’t based on real processor data, just provided to show the effects of exponential growth. From the chart, it is only as we reach the late 2080s before it starts to look like any change is happening, this is just a trick of the scale. Even with what is visible, the magnitude of change looks impressive: going from 20 thousand billion billion to nearly 120 thousand billion billion.

Exponential growth curve

The second curve puts this in perspective by showing the same chart logarithmically. Here the growth looks linear, but for approximately every two years, the value doubles. Assuming this doubling is maintainable then going from today’s CPU with almost a billion transistors to one in 2090 with over 100 thousand billion billion transistors is pretty humbling. Whether this exponential trend will be maintainable is an open question, but every year billions and billions of dollars go into maintain this exponential growth (Moore’s Law).

Exponential growth curve shown logarithmic

As Kurzweil displays in ‘The Singularity is Near’ technology advances typically follow a S-curve as displayed below. The technology improves exponentially until some point where the rate of advance nearly flattens. With computer technology this has happened many times, but as one development method reaches its limits, another comes along to continue the push.

S-curve showing exponentially growth slowing

While exponential growth of a single technology is impressive. The rate between new major advances coming along is increasing. That is newer technologies are being developed faster and faster with fewer years in between. This increasing trend is known as the Law of Accelerating Returns.

Acceleration examples

In Darpa’s 2007 Urban Grand Challenge six of the robotic cars drove themselves around a city like environment with traffic for sixty miles. While traffic lights and pedestrians were not present, the environment was complex. Even with the complexity driverless vehicles completed the coarse, with only a few accidents. This is much better than the first 2004 Grand Challenge in the desert where no vehicle completed the course. The 2005 Grand Challenge completed with five vehicles finishing the over 130 mile course through the desert. Toyota has already released a self-parking option in Japan. GM has announced that they are researching driverless vehicles. The other major automakers will likely follow.

Biology also shows rapid progress. Recently two firms, 23andMe and deCode ME, released personal DNA sequencing programs. While knowing the DNA sequence will not change your life much yet, over time as more is learned about the genes the sequences could aid in custom medical treatments. Understandings of the cells, and how they work is advancing. More and more diseases are beginning to be understood. The rate at which discoveries are being made will continue to increase.

Moving forward

These examples just show a few of the areas were increased ability to manipulate information will result in changes to our lives. The topic of the singularity is one that we will return tofrequently over the coming months. Instead of focusing on grand dreams of what the future will be like as a result of all these potential changes, we will be concentrating in this blog on where we would like to be today.

We all use technology in our daily lives from computers, cell phones, GPS, cameras, and so much more. In your daily life where do you see the gadgets you have in hand today needing to be a little bit better? What types of problems do you have today where software or gadgets could make your life a little bit easier? Do you have devices that don’t work well together but should, or should be combined into one gadget? These are the types of discussions I look forward to having with you all as this blog matures.

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