What is Technological Singularity? Is it good or bad?

Technological singularity

What is singularity?

Merriam Webster dictionary defines singularity  as, “a point at which the derivative of a given function of a complex variable does not exist but every neighborhood of which contains points for which the derivative does exist”(Nope, I too have no idea what it means) and “a point or region of infinite mass density at which space and time are infinitely distorted by gravitational forces and which is held to be the final state of matter falling into a black hole”(Not any closer to the definition we are looking for).

Wikipedia as usual comes to our rescue and defines singularity as, “The technological singularity (also, simply, the singularity) is the hypothesis that the invention of artificial super intelligence will abruptly trigger runaway technological growth, resulting in unfathomable changes to human civilization”.

JBS Haldane in a Wikiquote from his Possible Worlds and Other Papers (1927), is said to have observed the following. ” I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” (By the way, queer means strange in this context).

Though he did not write this in the context of Technological singularity, what he said about the universe seems to be apt for the coming technological singularity.

Before looking at whether the phenomenon is good or bad, let us look at its origins of the concept and whether it is likely or not?


 The term singularity, in this context was coined first by John von Neumann. Subsequently, science fiction author Vernor Vinge seems to have popularized the term and the concept.

This Wikipedia article traces the origin thus.

“John von Neumann first used the term “singularity” (c. 1950s), in the context of technological progress causing accelerating change: “The accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, give the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, cannot continue”. Subsequent authors have echoed this viewpoint.

I.J. Good’s “intelligence explosion”, predicted that a future super intelligence would trigger a singularity.

Science fiction author Vernor Vinge said in his 1993 essay The Coming Technological Singularity that this would signal the end of the human era, as the new super intelligence would continue to upgrade itself and would advance technologically at an incomprehensible rate.”

Singularity is likely:

Ray Kurzweil, one of the most vocal proponents of the phenomenon, in his article Reinventing Humanity: The Future of Machine–Human Intelligence in the Futurist argues that,

“From my perspective, the Singularity is a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so fast and far-reaching that human existence on this planet will be irreversibly altered. We will combine our brain power—the knowledge, skills, and personality quirks that make us human—with our computer power in order to think, reason, communicate, and create in ways we can scarcely even contemplate today.

This merger of man and machine, coupled with the sudden explosion in machine intelligence and rapid innovation in gene research and nanotechnology, will result in a world where there is no distinction between the biological and the mechanical, or between physical and virtual reality.”

Critics of Singularity:

There are as many critics of singularity as there are proponents of it. Theodore Modis, futurist, physicist, and international consultant is one among them. Though, Ray Kurzweil has used Modis’ work partly, to bolster his thesis, Modis has distanced himself from the argument and has in fact been a vehement critic of Technological singularity.  In his article the Singularity Myth  Modis claims,

“What I want to say is that Kurzweil and the singularitarians are indulging in some sort of para-science, which differs from real science in matters of methodology and rigor. They tend to overlook rigorous scientific practices such as focusing on natural laws, giving precise definitions, verifying the data meticulously, and estimating the uncertainties.”

Another critic is Steven Pinker professor of psychology at Harvard. In an article Tech Luminaries Address Singularity he has been quoted as saying,

“There is not the slightest reason to believe in a coming singularity. The fact that you can visualize a future in your imagination is not evidence that it is likely or even possible. Look at domed cities, jet-pack commuting, underwater cities, mile-high buildings, and nuclear-powered automobiles–all staples of futuristic fantasies when I was a child that have never arrived. Sheer processing power is not a pixie dust that magically solves all your problems.”

In fact there are a whole host of tech personalities, who are critics of technological singularity. You can get a complete picture of them in the Criticism section of the article on Technological Singularity in Wikipedia.

The good and the bad:

For a minute, let’s forget whether technological singularity is likely or not. Assume that it is inevitable. Will it be good or bad for humanity?

I came across 2 articles in the site singularityweblog.com, which gives us 10 reasons we should and should not fear technological singularity.

Among other things, the article on the good of singularity claims that the gift of immortality, absolute freedom and utopia – a possible heaven on earth, to be top 3 reasons why we should embrace and prepare for singularity. On the other hand, the other article on why we should fear singularity claims that the possibility of human extinction, human slavery to machines  and a World War III scenario between the humans and the machines to be the top 3 reasons for doing so.

Either way, the jury is out on that one. The beauty of singularity according to its proponents is that it would be lead to a super intelligence, which would be beyond human comprehension that trying to predict how it will all pan out is not only impossible but also futile. In the face of such a daunting prospect, our best weapon of choice….. Would be to keep our fingers crossed and hope for the best!

So much for the future of technology. I assure all technovices out there that we will dive right into the early days of information technology and trace its evolution to make sense of the technology today. Only, you will have to wait another week to read it. Watch this space for more.

Disclaimer: This is curated blog post containing content curated from sources on the internet, to make technology less intimidating and more interesting.

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