Singularity draft review (crossposted at CT)

My draft review of Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity is below. Comments much appreciated, and thanks to commenters on an earlier post.

Update Lots of great comments here and at Crooked Timber. This will improve the final version a lot, and is one of the ways in which blogging works really well for me.

I’ve finally received my copy of Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity, which was posted to me by its American publisher six weeks ago …

The title refers to the claim that the process of technological change, notably in relation to computing, biotechnology and nanotechnology is accelerating to the point where it will produce a fundamental, and almost instantaneous, change in what it means to be human, arising from the combination of artificial intelligence and the use of biotechnology to re-engineer our bodies and minds.

The term Singularity, used to describe this event, apparently arose  in discussions between the mathematicians Stanislaw Ulam and John von Neumann. The idea of the Singularity was popularised in the 1980s and 1990s by mathematician and science fiction writer Vernor Vinge, and later by  Kurzweil, a prominent technologist and innovator.

Kurzweil’s argument has two main components. The first is the claim that continuing progress in microelectronics and computer software will, over the next few decades, realise the ultimate ambitions of the artificial intelligence (AI) program, producing computers that first equal, and then dramatically outstrip, the reasoning capacities of the human mind.

The key to all this Moore’s Law. This is the observation, first made by Intel CEO Gordon Moore in the mid-1960s, that computer processing power, roughly measured by the number of transistors on an integrated circuit, doubles every eighteen months to two years. Over the intervening forty years, the number of transistors on a typical integrated circuit has gone from less than a thousand to hundreds of millions.

No exponential trend can continue indefinitely, and the end of the expansion described in Moore’s Law has been predicted on many occasions, often with reference to seemingly unavoidable constraints dictated by the laws of physics. The constraint most commonly cited at present relates to the size of components. On present trends, transistors will be smaller than atoms within 15 years or so; this does not appear to be feasible, and current industry plans only extend to two or three more generations of progress, enough for perhaps a 100-fold increase in computing power.

Not surprisingly, Kurzweil dismisses such talk, arguing that just as transistors displaced vacuum tubes and integrated circuits displaced discrete transistors, new computing paradigms based on quantum effects will allow continued progress along the lines of Moores Law right through this century, and well past the point at which computers are powerful enough to permit functional emulation of human brains.

The second part of Kurzwei’s argument is based on three overlapping revolutions in genetics, nanotechnology and robotics. These revolutions are presented as being in full swing today but iin any case it is assumed that AI will smooth out any rough spots. Between them, Kurzweil argues, developments  in these three fields will transform medicine, science, finance and the economy.  Although all sorts of miracles are promised, the most dramatic is human immortality, achieved first through dramatic extensions in lifespans delivered by nanorobots in our bloodstreams and, more completely, by the ability to upload ourselves into infinitely-lived computers.

Not surprisingly, Kurzweil has attracted a passionate support from a small group of people and derision from a much larger group, particularly within the blogosphere which might have been expected to sympathise more with techno-utopianism. The wittiest critique was probably that of Daniel Davies at the Crooked Timber blog (disclosure: I’m also a blogger there) who modified Arthur C Clarke’s observation about technology and magic to produce the crushing ‘Any sufficiently advanced punditry is indistinguishable from bollocks’. Riffing off a link from Tyler Cowen on the expected value of extreme forecasts, and a trope popularised by Belle Waring, Davies outbid Kurzweil by predicting not only that all the Singularity predictions would come true, but that everyone would have a pony (“ Not just any old pony by the way, but a super technonanopony!”).

Before beginning my own critical appraisal of the Singularity idea, I’ll observe that the fact that I’ve been waiting so long for the book is significant in itself. If my great-grandfather had wanted to read a book newly-published in the US, he would have had to wait six weeks or so for the steamship to deliver the book. A century later, nothing has changed, unless I’m willing to shell out the price of the book again in air freight. On the other hand, whereas international communication for great-grandad consisted of the telegraph, anyone with an Internet connection can now download shelves full of books from all around the world in a matter of minutes and at a cost measured in cents rather than dollars.

This is part of a more general paradox, only partially recognised by the prophets of the Singularity. Those of us whose lives are centred on computers and the Internet have experienced recent decades as periods of unprecedently rapid technological advance. Yet outside this narrow sector the pace of technological change has slowed to a crawl, in some cases failing even to keep pace with growth in population. The average American spends more time in the car, just to cover the basic tasks of shopping and getting to work, than was needed a generation ago, and in many cases, travels more slowly.

The advocates of the Singularity tend either to ignore these facts or to brush them aside. If there has been limited progress in transport, this doesn’t matter, since advances in nanotech, biotechn and infotech will make existing technological limits irrelevant. Taking transport as an example, if we can upload our brains into computers and transmit them at the speed of light, it doesn’t matter that cars are still slow. Similarly, transport of goods will be irrelevant since we can assemble whatever we want, wherever we want it, from raw atoms.

Much of this is unconvincing. Kurzweil lost me on biotech, for example, when he revealed that he had invented his own cure for middle age, involving the daily consumption of a vast range of pills and supplements, supposedly keeping his biological age at 40 for the last 15 years (the photo on the dustjacket is that of a man in his early 50s). In any case, nothing coming out of biotech in the last few decades has been remotely comparable to penicillin and the Pill for medical and social impact (a case could be made that ELISA screening of blood samples, was crucial in limiting the death toll from AIDS, but old-fashioned public health probably had a bigger impact.

As for nanotech, so far there has been a lot of hype but little real progress. This is masked by the fact that, now that the size of features in integrated circuits is measured in tens of nanometers, the term “nanotech” can be applied to what is, in essence, standard electronics, though pushed to extremes that would have been unimaginable a few decades ago.

Purists would confine the term “nanotechnology” to the kind of atomic-level engineering promoted by visionaries like Eric Drexler and earnestly discussed by journals like Wired. Two decades after Drexler wrote his influential PhD thesis, any products of such nanotechnology are about as visible to the naked eye as their subatomic components.

Only Kurzweil’s appeal to Moore’s Law seems worth taking seriously. There’s no sign that the rate of progress in computer technology is slowing down noticeably. A doubling time of two years for chip speed, memory capacity and so on implies a thousand-fold increase over twenty years. There are two very different things this could mean. One is that computers in twenty years time will do mostly the same things as at present, but very fast and at almost zero cost. The other is that digital technologies will displace analog for a steadily growing proportion of productive activity, in both the economy and the household sector, as has already happened with communications, photography, music and so on. Once that transition is made these sectors share the rapid growth of the computer sector.

In the first case, the contribution of computer technology to economic growth gradually declines to zero, as computing services become an effectively free good, and the rest of the economy continues as usual. Since productivity growth outside the sectors affected by computers has been slowing down for decades, the likely outcome is something close to a stationary equilibrium for the economy as a whole.

But in the second case, the rate of growth for a steadily expanding proportion of the economy accelerates to the pace dictated by Moore’s Law.  Again, communications provides an illustration – after decades of steady productivity growth at 4 or 5 per cent a year, the rate of technical progress jumped to 70 per cent a year around 1990, at least for those types of communication that can be digitized (the move from 2400-baud modems to megabit broadband in the space of 15 years illustrates this).  A generalized Moore’s law might not exactly produce Kurzweil’s singularity, but a few years of growth at 70 per cent a year would make most current economic calculations irrelevant.

One way of expressing this dichotomy is in terms of the aggregate elasticity of demand for computation. If it’s greater than one, the share of computing in the economy, expressed in value terms, rises steadily as computing gets cheaper. If it’s less than one, the share falls. It’s only if the elasticity is very close to one that we continue on the path of the last couple of decades, with continuing growth at a rate of around 3 per cent.

This kind of result, where only a single value of a key parameter is consistent with stable growth, is sometimes called a knife-edge. Reasoning like this can be tricky – maybe there are good reasons why the elasticity of demand for computation should be very close to one. One reason this might be so is if most problems eventually reach a point, similar to that of weather forecasting, where linear improvements in performance require exponential growth in computation (such problems are said to be polynomial in complexity).

If the solution to a problem involves components that are polynomial (or worse) in complexity, initial progress may be rapid as non-polynomial components of the problem are solved, but progress with the polynomial component will at best be linear, even if the cost of computation falls exponentially.

So far it seems as if the elasticity of demand for computation is a bit greater than one, but not a lot. The share of IT in total investment has risen significantly, but the share of the economy driven primarily by IT remains small. In addition, non-economic activity like blogging has expanded rapidly, but also remains small. The whole thing could easily bog down in an economy-wide version of ‘Intel giveth and Microsoft taketh away’.

In summary, I’m unconvinced that the Singularity is near. But unlike the majority of critics of Kurzweil’s argument, I’m not prepared to rule out the possibility that information technology will spread through large sectors of the economy, producing unprecedently rapid economic growth. Even a small probability of such an outcome would make a big difference to the expected returns to investments, and would be worth planning for. So it’s certainly worthwhile reading Kurzweil’s book and taking the time to consider his argument.

At this stage, though, the Singularity is still best considered as science fiction. If you really want to get a feel for the ideas that drive discussion of the Singularity, read Ian McDonald’s River of Gods or, better still, Charles Stross’ Accelerando.

8 thoughts on “Singularity draft review (crossposted at CT)

  1. Nice review.

    Couple of nits: you’ve claimed a couple of times here recently that chip speed is still doubling along the lines of Moore’s law. At least in terms of raw frequency improvement, that’s no longer true. The chip makers have pretty much hit a thermal brick wall at 4GHz – any faster and the chips melt.

    There’s nothing fundamental in the physics that says we can go no faster, it is just that with silicon technology of today the leakage currents in the transistors are so great that the chip produces huge amounts of heat. However density (transistor size) is still following Moore’s law so the chip companies are now getting their performance improvements by packing more CPU cores onto a single chip. This is not as good as an equivalent frequency improvement because not all code can exploit the parallel processing of the multiple cores.

    And this I don’t understand:

    If the solution to a problem involves components that are polynomial (or worse) in complexity, initial progress may be rapid as non-polynomial components of the problem are solved, but progress with the polynomial component will at best be linear, even if the cost of computation falls exponentially.

    If the cost of computation falls exponentially (or equivalently, the amount of computation I can by with a dollar grows exponentially), then progress on a “polynomial” problem will be superlinear (no polynomial grows as fast as an exponential). Right?

  2. SJ, Glad you liked it.

    GDP, glad you liked it also

    I’ll check the speed point

    On polynomial/exponential I must have been half-asleep. I’ll fix it.

  3. I liked Pr Q’s review too. I would certainly put myself my self down as a fellow traveller with the techno-futurists – a techno-progressive if you like. Organizing a step-change in the application of bio-medical technology would be just about the best investment that money could buy. An Access Economics study showed that a $1 injection into health R & D returns $5 economic benefit. Thats not too shabby.

    But the techno-futurists are in awful need of a reality check on the politics, economics and technics of their program. Much of it reminds me of the old Steve Martin joke about get rich quick schemes: “You wanna make a million dollars and pay no tax? Easy! First earn a million dollars. Then forget to pay the tax. The judge will understand.”

    They seem to suffer from a kind of political tunnel vision that afflicts a certain type of libertarian. That is, they dont see that distributive equity could be an issue in the kind of changes they propose. This is obviously critical, as genetic modification has the long term potential to convert class disparities into speciation events.

    They appear to ignore the concept of diminishing returns to given investments, which is the antithesis of Kurzweil’s supposed “Law of Accelerating Returns”. Robin Hanson takes Kurzweil to task on this issue. He points out that past fast growth has come from “picking low hanging (technological) fruit” and that future fast growth must somehow make very complicated and expensive technologies applicable accross a diverse range of industries. As Pr Q points out, this is by no means a certainty.

    Finally techno-futurists underestimate the technical problems associated with designing and producing revolutionary technologies and then applying them to humans. Alot of techno-futurists work in info-tech and seem to think that making the transition to bio-tech will be a piece of cake. In fact it looks ball-bustingly difficult, as the problems associated with getting workable cures from genomic and“>stem cell medicine.

    John Searle has flogged Kurzweil for assuming that the brain is just a mushy digital computer. This assumes away the difference between simulating a mind and duplicating one. I am bewildered by the way that Kurzweil, a certified info-tech genius, seems to overlook these problems.

    Ilkka Tuomi has also beaten Kurzweil around the shoulders for his simple minded assumption that Moore’s Law is more than enough to get to trans-humanism. In fact Moore’s Law has a very uneven effect on the productivity of technology, and its future progress may be incremental rather than exponential.

    I do think that Pr Q could give the more moderate techno-progressives a more sympathetic ear. The info-tech revolution has been a pretty big move, just look at the changes to the audio-visual industry. Within a generation every civilised person on earth will have access to every worthwhile word, sound and image ever recorded. Thats really something.

    The bio-tech revolution is also more than just the ever-rolling wave of the future. A South Korean paraplegic just got back some of the use of her legs through stem cell therapy. An Enlishman had his sight restored using similar techniqques. Regeneration of whole organs is not so far away.

    PS Hey, that GDP must be some kind of smart cookie to be telling Pr Q how to suck mathematical eggs!

  4. PS Hey, that GDP must be some kind of smart cookie to be telling Pr Q how to suck mathematical eggs!

    Nah – PrQ has proved P=NP but there’s not enough space in the margin of his notebook to include the proof.

    [that was a very geeky joke. Explanation: “P” stands for all problems that can be solved with “polynomial algorithms” in the sense that PrQ used. Roughly, “NP” stands for the rest, which colloquially but incorrectly are usually referred to as an “exponential” problems (again, in PrQ’s sense). Proving P is not equal to NP is the holy grail of theoretical computer science; if there was a Nobel prize for computer science that would win it for sure. However, if P=NP, then PrQ’s original statement is more or less correct. It was Fermat who wrote of his famous “last theorem” that he had a proof but not sufficient space in the margin of his notebook to write it down (it took 200 years and 20th century mathematics before it was finally proven).]

  5. Hey, if economists really had a talent for mathematics, they would be mathematicians. Many economists come from the ranks of those who started as mathematicians but diverted as their mathematical skills changed into something else, and much economics came out as mere passing asides from young mathematicians like Ramsay.

  6. BTW, I find John Searle’s arguments against digital consciousness entirely unconvincing. They basically boil down to “how can a bunch of bits moving around in a computer be conscious?”. It’s a fair question, but the problem with the argument is that it seems equally devastating to ask “how can a bunch of neurons signalling each other be conscious?”.

    The point is we don’t know how the brain manages to be conscious, so arguing that computers are too different from brains to be conscious is pretty weak.

  7. Does Searle have any arguments other than the ‘Chinese Room’? (which is fatuous in the extreme, but has the virtue of being simple and straightforward, unlike, say, Penrose’s mathematical quantum waffling)

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