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Chapter 4: The Internet as a Chaotic Attractor (continued)

Technological Singularity

"The universe may not only be stranger than we suppose;
it may be stranger than we can suppose."
J.B.S. Haldane

     In mathematics and science, a singularity is a point at which a function takes an infinite value and thus loses meaning in normal terms. For example, as you divide the number "one" by an infinitesimally small decimal number the answer approaches infinity. The point at which you attempt to divide the number "one" by "zero" is the point of singularity. To greatly understate the concept of a singularity, one could simply say that strange things happen there.

     In 1993, mathematics professor and award-winning writer Vernor Vinge presented a paper titled "Technological Singularity" at the VISION-21 Symposium sponsored by NASA's Lewis Research Center and the Ohio Aerospace Institute. In Vinge's view, a technological singularity will soon occur because of the advent of computers possessing a level of intelligence that exceeds the level of human intelligence. With startling directness, Vinge began his paper by saying:

Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly after, the human era will be ended.

A few sentences later, he continued:

I argue in this paper that we are on the edge of change comparable to the rise of human life on Earth. The precise cause of this change is the imminent creation by technology of entities with greater than human intelligence. (18)

     It is interesting to note that Vinge uses the phrase "creation by technology." At first, I took this to mean humans were actually in charge of these creative processes through the use of technology. A closer reading causes me to consider the possibility that technology itself may take a hand in the act of creating "entities with greater than human intelligence." If this is the case, Vinge is correct in asserting that the human era may well be nearing its end. In many ways we are already seeing signs that a new era, dominated by some form of human/machine symbiosis, has begun to dawn.

     Vinge went on to propose several alternative ways in which such a technological singularity could come about, which is another reason for having confidence that the event will occur:

There may be developed computers that are awake and superhumanly intelligent. (To date, there has been much controversy as to whether we can create human equivalence in a machine. But if the answer is "yes, we can," then there is little doubt that beings more intelligent can be constructed shortly thereafter.)

Large computer networks (and their associated users) may 'wake up' as a superhumanly intelligent entity.

Computer/human interfaces may become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent.

Biological science may provide the means to improve natural human intellect.

     Before you jump to the conclusion that Vinge is a voice of techno-apocalyptic gloom, you would be well served to read his paper. If you do, you will discover that he closely follows the long-honored traditions of science, which tell us what is possible out of a range of possibilities but does not predict exactly what will happen. The range of possibilities resulting from Vinge's concept of a technological singularity, however, boggles the mind, for by definition a singularity is a point at which conventional analysis breaks down. If scientific knowledge and technological innovation continue to increase at their present rates, approximately doubling over constant periods of time, then, by Vinge's analysis, it may soon be possible to create superhuman intelligence. When/if that point is reached, we will experience the technological singularity of which he writes. This is no small matter; like entering a black hole, what lies beyond such a singularity cannot be known ahead of time.

     While the topic of a technological singularity is not one that has inspired a significant number of texts, it has generated more information on the Web than is possible to read in any reasonable amount of time. Much of this discussion, while extremely fascinating, concerns life in a post-singularity world. Frankly, I don't see that such speculation is a productive use of our time, for by definition we cannot conceive of what takes place beyond the event horizon of a singularity. This is the realm for our best science fiction writers to explore. For the current discussion, we will focus our attention on some of the possibilities Vinge sees that may produce this technological singularity.

Thinking Machines

     In his "Technological Singularity" paper, Vinge speculates that computers might be developed that are awake and are more intelligent than humans. This statement, of course, opens up the Pandora's Box of "Artificial Intelligence," or AI, which has been the subject of serious debate ever since computers became widely available. Obviously, a full discussion of AI is beyond the scope of this book. In fact, the field is so large, so important, and so controversial that I considered not even including a brief reference to it here. Yet the possibility that we can build a computer that possesses superhuman intelligence has become so realistic it simply cannot be ignored. Keep in mind, we live in a probabilistic universe. Even if the probability of superhuman machine intelligence is very low, it remains a possibility that may actually be realized within the lifetimes of most of the readers of this book.

     Although the specter of super-intelligent machines may not be something everyone wants to think about, the fact remains that a lot of brilliant women and men are hard at work trying to evolve just such machines. It seems to me that all of humanity has a right to take part in discussions about how these unimaginably powerful devices will be used. This is not the time to sit on the sidelines and let only our scientists and engineers consider the implications of deep and rapid technological advances. These are times when the entire chorus of human consciousness is called upon to raise our voices in discussions about technology that will have profound implications on the future of our species. There are many newsgroups and electronic mailing lists dealing with issues surrounding machine intelligence. Perhaps it is time to add your voice to these conversations.

     My personal view is that if advanced machine intelligence can be realized, we will see this development well before the end of the 21st century. If you are interested in looking deeper into this subject I recommend you begin with Erik Davis' book, Techgnosis, and with Ray Kurzweil's book, The Age of Spiritual Machines.

Networks Awaken

     Another possible catalyst for a technological singularity, as suggested by Vinge, is that "large computer networks (and their associated users) may 'wake up' as a superhumanly intelligent entity." It is important to keep in mind here that Vinge's singularity paper was written in 1993, before widespread use of the World Wide Web began. The prospect of the Internet awakening appears to me to coincide nicely with speculations about a technological singularity. The big question, of course, is what is meant when it is said that the network and its associated users collectively wake up. In the final chapter of this book, I will explore some possible ways in which the Internet/noosphere combination may experience such a waking up singularity.

Computer / Human Symbiosis

     One of the less controversial paths to a technological singularity postulated by Vinge is one where "computer/ human interfaces become so intimate that users may reasonably be considered superhumanly intelligent." We already can see advances in this area taking place. For example, in his book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, Ray Kurzweil describes an experiment in which an electrode was inserted into the brain of a paralyzed stroke victim allowing him to control the cursor on a personal computer with his thoughts alone. In a recent article, Kurzweil says, "In the 2020s, these neural implants will not be just for people with disabilities, but will be used to improve our perception, memory, and logical thinking, and even create virtual sensory experiences." (19) It appears to me that this is precisely what Vinge means by "intelligence amplification," another phrase he uses to describe advanced human/computer symbiosis.

     One pioneer in cyborg research, Kevin Warwick, has already tested an implant in his arm that sent information about his physical location to his building's computer. After having the chip implanted in his arm, Warwick's laboratory building would greet him when he arrived in the morning and unlock the door as he approached. But this is only the tip of Warwick's research iceberg. His current project calls for a more advanced device to be directly coupled to his nervous system. Once his new device is in place, he plans to conduct a wide range of experiments to determine how well the human brain can process sensory input from non-human interfaces. In an article for Wired magazine, he wrote:

. . . we can't normally process signals like ultraviolet, X-rays, or ultrasound. Infrared detects visible heat given off by a warm body, though our eyes can't see light in this part of the spectrum. But what if we fed infrared signals into the nervous system, bypassing the eyes? Would I be able to learn how to perceive them? Would I feel or even "see" the warmth? Or would my brain simply be unable to cope? We don't have any idea-yet. (20)

     Neural implants are no longer the stuff of science fiction. They are a part of today's version of reality. All around the world, researchers, software developers, experimenters, benign hackers, (21) and other scientists continue to blur the boundaries between human and machine mind. As our interfaces to the Internet become ever more biological in nature, we also see the Net moving deeper into wireless transmission. It is certainly within the range of probabilities that one day soon there will be neural implants, which allow us to tap into the total body of human knowledge stored on the Internet simply by executing mental commands. Perhaps the day will arrive when we reach a critical mass of such highly connected individuals, and the resulting resonance of this group mind will precipitate the technological singularity that Vernor Vinge foresees.

Ubiquitous Computing

     While widespread use of neural implants may still be many years away, ubiquitous, or immersive computing is now upon us. Already we are swimming in an ever-thickening soup of electronic data as wireless transmissions begin to saturate the radio frequency energy spectrum. You may think that by electing to not own a cell phone, pager, or other wireless communication device, you can avoid becoming caught up in this growing web of instantaneous communications. The rising tide of technology, however, will eventually float your consciousness onto this vast sea of information without your even realizing it.

     My grandparents came into a world without electricity and indoor plumbing. My parents came into a world without television. My children came into a world without personal computers. In the span of a single century, those of us fortunate enough to live in a technologically developed country have evolved our expectations of everyday reality from that of life on a farm, with no electricity or plumbing, to the point where it would seem strange indeed if we could not view live broadcasts of newsworthy events coming from any place in the world, or where we could not pick up a telephone and speak with our friends, no matter where they might be at the time. This dramatic change in world view has come about in a single century. Just imagine what a "normal" world view will mean to children born at the beginning of this century, as they look back over their life when the 22nd century is about to dawn.

     Long before this century is one-half over, even what is now called the third world will be immersed in an unseen web of interconnected computing devices. Sooner than most people think, many of the things we manufacture will be tagged with invisible sensors. Containers will know when their contents are getting low. Refrigerators will automatically prepare grocery lists as items are removed. Over time, cyberspace will hold a mirror image of our physical world, and the distinctions between Virtual Reality and every day consensus reality will begin to blur. Our living environments will be saturated with technology. Many objects will recognize us as we come near them. Things we now think of as inanimate will seem almost alive as they respond to our movements and even to our moods. (22)

     "STOP!" some say. "This is a nightmare scenario. We must not let this happen."

     I suspect my great grandparents would have said the same thing when their children were born, had they been able to visualize our 21st century world. Yet most of our children and grandchildren would probably not want to live in a world without cell phones, pagers, and the Internet. To stop the exponential growth of ubiquitous computing is not only impossible, it would be unwise. What is called for is for each and every one of us to become personally involved in debates about the ethical considerations and human issues that will shape the future of technological growth on this planet in the century that lies before us.

     As with everything else in this universe, technology embodies both positive and negative elements. If we want, we can simply throw up our hands and say these issues are too big for us to deal with and let others decide how these invasive devices will be deployed. Or we can become involved. The dark side promises an Orwellian future, with Big Brother knowing everything about us from movements to thoughts. The alternative is for us to build into this technology the basic human right of privacy-the right to be left alone as long as we are not causing harm to others or to the planet. The future is, quite literally, in our hands.

The Chaotic Attraction of the Internet

     The sheer magnitude of new theories, scientific discoveries, and futuristic experiments that are taking place every day, coupled with our ever-growing body of knowledge about ancient cultures, is enough to overwhelm even the most well grounded mind. While this rush of events is driving some of our neighbors back to the deceptive security of fundamentalist religions, our most forward-looking and fearless minds are being drawn ever more deeply into the chaotic embrace of the Internet. In times like these, when the old world view of Newtonian physics is being supplanted by one of quantum reality, it becomes increasingly important that we remain both open to and skeptical of radical new ideas. This is certainly not the time to bury our heads in the sands of old thinking. Instead we would be wise to firmly plant our minds in the silicon of cyberspace and see what new ideas begin to grow.

      As much as some people fear the incredible change that is about to sweep over our societies, there simply is no longer any way to stop it. A technological tsunami, the size of which has never before been experienced on this planet, is about to engulf our entire globe. Even many of the less technically developed countries have begun to feel its approach. The wireless communications revolution, with the ever expanding network of networks we call the Internet playing a significant role, is already underway in almost every nation on Earth. The technological revolution this new century promises is about to change our world forever.

      Whether such unprecedented change will have a positive effect upon this planet remains to be seen. In the chapter ahead titled "Your Future in Cyberspace," I will point out some steps you can take to make your voice heard in the ongoing discussions of issues that will directly affect the social direction ubiquitous computing and its nervous system, the Internet, will take for the next decade or so. It is my hope that by the time you finish reading this book you will share my optimism that we are heading to higher ground. First, however, we will take a look at a few of the potential detours that might be encountered along the road to an Internet that is readily available to anyone in the world who wants to use it, without having to submit to government or corporate censorship. A delicate balance between free speech and social responsibility must be maintained if our utopian dreams of a free global exchange of ideas, which are the genes of consciousness, is to become a reality.


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