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The ‘Singularity’ – how far are we from a world of autonomous robots?

Inspired by a headline on the latest cover of Fortune Magazine, which they’ve dubbed ‘The Future Issue’, I endeavored to explore what has been referred to as ‘The Rise of the Machines’ or the Singularity.

Movies like the The Terminator, iRobot and The Matrix have long been giving us a taste of what we would be in for should our helpless (for now) helpers break free from the shackles of subservience and begin to run our world without our instruction.  In many ways the Singularity is already here, with blue collar jobs already axed in favour of more efficient, lunch break-skipping machines with no union rights or holiday pay.

So what exactly is the ‘Singularity’?

An article on i09.com refers to the work of science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, who made the idea popular in his 1993 essay “Technological Singularity”.  Vinge describes this as a point in time when “our old models must be discarded and a new reality rules”.  This ‘new reality’ has been understood as the overtaking of the human way of life and the dominance of artificial intelligence. According to Vinge, AI will eventually become so powerful that it rivals our own.  Hollywood often depicts this point in a negative light, with physically and intellectually-superior robots choosing their own destinies, rewriting their own code with the tools we’ve given them and deciding they don’t need us.  In this theory, machines will develop an evolutionary arc that eventually results in them acquiring consciousness and independence, and if filmmakers are right – our demise.

Another school of thought is that the Singularity will come about more due to developments in nanotechnology, which is thought will eventually lead to unprecedented biological engineering, control of the human genome and the manufacture of self-replicating machines or nanobots. Once we are able to manipulate matter at an atomic level, our control over our universe will increase and the machines we build will have greater intelligence and eventually autonomy. Newscientist.com explores the idea that “we are on the cusp of understanding the human brain and mind” and because of this new information we have at our disposal, sentient AI’s “will be inevitable.”  They are also quick to tackle the idea of consciousness, stating that “greater intelligence, and more intelligent algorithms may help create better brain simulations, but none of this equals consciousness.”

Perhaps the idea of consciousness will need to change once, or if, the Singularity ever comes into being.  Nanotechnology will greatly increase the human lifespan and allow us to ‘repair’ ourselves with microchips and sophisticated prosthesis.  Does this diminish our humanity?  We may, in theory even be able to download our memories and thoughts.  New Scientist takes the stance that the idea of a Singularity is outdated, no matter how intelligent machines come to be, essentially they simply “amplify our traits.”

I can’t say that I’m terribly worried about a superior robotic race overthrowing humans in a bloody fight to death in some not-so-distant dystopian nightmare, but I am concerned about human use of nanotechnology, and all technology really, ending life as we know it and replacing it with something far eerier.

 

 

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