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On the Singularity

Will technology enable humans to transcend biology? Is the future crazier and closer than we think? The Singularity raises some mind boggling questions. Read the article below to find out more.
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For decades now, strategic planners have used predictive models to assess the direction of technological change. One such example is Moore’s Law, which states that semi-conductor capacity doubles roughly every two years, resulting in significantly improved performance in parallel with falling costs. Since Gordon Moore, the co-founder of Intel and Fairchild Semiconductor, coined the concept in 1965, this has been one of the best-performing predictions of all time. Now what if a phenomenon like Moore’s Law was happening in fields other than just semiconductors? And what if these fields were converging? This is the central idea behind the “Singularity”; a theory and predictive framework proposed by the futurist Ray Kurzweil.

In a series of books he has steadily published since 1990, Kurzweil argues that (exponentially) increasing returns in disparate technology areas are leading towards what he calls a Technological Singularity by the year 2045. Unlike Moore’s Law, Kurzweil’s main thesis discusses a variety of fields and human endeavors that are currently undergoing this rapid progression. At the point of the Singularity, he predicts that this convergence across fields will be so rapid that most humans will not know what hit them. Some of these areas include computing, robotics, artificial intelligence, as well as areas like nanotechnology, biology and genetics.

Kurzweil illustrates this rapid progress through a thought experiment. Based on some rough calculations, he proposes that $1,000 will buy computing power equal to the power of a single human brain around the year 2020. Although this is incredible in its own right, staggeringly by 2045 the same amount of money will buy one billion times more power than all human brains combined today. Assuming today’s global population is roughly 7 billion, this means that computing power would increase by 718 in twenty-five years.

These predictions are particularly interesting because Kurzweil is one of the first thinkers to explicitly link advances in disparate technologies to their impact on human life itself, i.e. the biology of life. Kurzweil has gained some level of notoriety by popularizing the idea that if most of us can find a way to live for another decade, we would have “lived long enough to live forever”. Needless to say, there is an entire sub-field of philosophy now dedicated to the question of prolonged human lifespans, with no significant reduction in quality of life. What will be the demographic, social, and cultural effects of such a possibility? These momentous possibilities (even if only partly achieved) lead to some interesting avenues. For example, what will the average human look like in 2045? Will we be entirely human, or a combination of man and machine, possessing some “post-human” or “superhuman” attributes and capabilities. These could range from advanced vision, the ability to detect and correct genetic flaws, and stretching the boundaries of our dependence on materials and natural resources. Current technological advancements give us a glimpse. For example, Oscar Pistorius, Olympic athlete with two leg prosthetics, was at the center of a strong debate regarding the competitive advantage of highly engineered prosthetics in able-body running events a few years ago. And through research at MIT, self-programmable material (material robotic but without robots) promises to drastically increase the efficiency and delivery of our natural resources.

Kurzweil’s thesis on Singularity raises important questions for individuals, societies, and in fact humanity itself. We have only scratched the surface as far as the potential impact on ethics, individual and social liberties, and broader political and geodemographic implications are concerned. By the time we reach the Singularity, hopefully we humans will have a better grasp of the new realities that await us, as well as potential methods to manage the exponential change.

Bharat Rao is an Associate Professor of Technology Management and Innovation at New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering. His research focuses on the diffusion of emerging technologies, business model evolution, the role of technology in development, and global innovation strategy.

Elizabeth Matias is currently a project manager at Con Edison of New York, one of the largest investor owned energy companies in the US. She is a graduate of New York University Polytechnic School of Engineering with an MS degree in Technology Management. Her interests include emerging technologies, technology adoption, user feedback loops, and data analytics. 



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22 February 2021

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