Sunday, May 24, 2015

Chapter 7: The Future - or - The Coming Singularity

“What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know.
  It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”
       Mark Twain.

"For millions of years mankind lived just like the animals.
 Then Something happened which unleashed the power of our imagination.
 We learned to talk."
       Pink Floyd. Keep Talking. The Division Bell.

Scrofula, a kind of tuberculosis, was in England called the 'King's evil,' and was supposedly curable only by the King's touch. Victims patiently lined up to be touched; the monarch briefly submitted to another burdensome obligation of high office, and - despite no one, it seems, actually being cured - the practice continued for centuries."
       Carl Sagan. The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark.

The Autobiography of Ben and Bob
Chapter 7: The Future - or - The Coming Singularity

Not a whole lot of "autobiography" in this chapter I'm afraid... mostly musings about science.

In the Law of Accelerating Returns, Ray Kurzweil explains how the rate of scientific learning is not linear but rather exponential: “So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate)."

This is not exactly a new idea. Way back in 1982, Buckminster Fuller said the same thing in his book, The Critical Path. He estimated that it took 1500 years for humanity to double its knowledge of the world – as compared to everything we knew back at the beginning of the Christian Era. The next doubling took only 250 years, till about 1750 CE. By 1900, one hundred and fifty years later, knowledge had doubled again. The speed at which science discovers new facts about the universe around us is getting faster and faster – it’s not linear, it’s exponential. The doubling speed is now between one and two years.

Think about it. We know twice as much about the laws of the universe today as we did two years ago - in every aspect of science, be it physics or math or biology or genetics or evolutionary theory or what have you. And two years from now we will know twice as much as we know now. Wow!

This claim may seem hard to believe at first but a few real life examples will convince you of its veracity. Just look at how far we have come in the last few hundred years in terms not just of scientific advancement but also educational, cultural, medical, agricultural, and every other angle you can imagine. Five hundred years ago, we had just figured out how to print books. Four hundred years ago, we still thought the world was flat. Three hundred years ago, the average life expectancy was still in the mid-thirties. Two hundred years ago, we were still hunting witches. A hundred years ago, most people didn't have electricity, let alone telephones, televisions, or even refrigerators. Fifty years ago, most people had not traveled more than a dozen miles from their homes in their lifetimes, nor had they ever stepped on an airplane. Thirty years ago, almost no one had a personal computer. Twenty years ago, most people were not even on the Internet. Ten years ago, most people didn't have a smartphone.

Today, we have computers that can defeat our best human grand masters at chess (Big Blue), computers that can drive cars (Google), computers that answer our questions (Siri), computers that can translate between different human languages in real time (Skype Translator), and computers that are embedded in practically every aspect of our lives (Internet of Things).

We’re no longer even limited by Moore’s law. Yes, of course computing power is doubling once every year and a half – but we’re not limited to programming just one at a time. The symmetric tightly coupled multi-processor supercomputers of the past decades (the ones that I built my career on) have now given way to the cloud – a loosely coupled collection of elastic computing nodes that work together to solve the hardest computational problems. Why be limited to just doubling the speed of a single processor? Harness a hundred or a thousand computers together and you’re now growing your capacity orders of magnitude faster. Our rate of innovation is limited only by the size of our budget and that of our imagination.

If you are skeptical because those examples are just in the field of computer science, then also consider that we can now clone humans, we have doubled our own life expectancy, we have massively increased crop efficiency, we have cured most infectious diseases, we can grow human tissue (sometimes in the oddest places), we can kill millions of people with a single bomb, we know the history of the universe back to a nanosecond after the big bang, and we’re working on colonizing Mars – all advances in the last hundred years and much of it fueled by our increased technological powers.

We are learning faster than ever in every aspect of human knowledge. The singularity is not just a vague idea. It will happen sooner than we think. If you're not familiar with the concept, I recommend the following passionate two minute video by Jason Silva as well as this Q&A with Ray Kurzweil. For a much deeper dive, I highly recommend The Coming Singularity: When Humans Transcend Biology, by Ray Kurzweil.


  1. I am very puzzled by definition of singularity in physics. According to mathematicians the very center ( original point) is singularity. Imagine a circle with 0.0 radius. If this theory is true then we do not have a time dimension as if we live inside a black hole. This to me seems a very sad form of existence with no past or future and trapped in an infinite loop.
    Please do not make me to prove that I am not a robot in the future.

  2. Don't get too hung up about the name and its relation to mathematical singularity. Do you agree with the principle?

    Also, don't assume that such a future would be dystopian or that you will turn into a robot. We have shown remarkable restraint so far any time we've come even close to the ethical issues involved.

    Yes, we can clone humans but noone is doing so. Why not envision, instead, a world in which we augment and improve our existence with robotics and nano-technology and computers?