The Real Technological Singularity

29 Sep

It has occurred to me of late that readers misunderstand something fundamental about my descriptions of the future.  These descriptions are all based on easy extrapolations of present technology and scientific understanding.

For example, I assume that machines can be built to perform any menial activity the human brain can perform. After all, humans can do it. It appears that any activity humans can do, a machine can do at least as well. We have substantial evidence of this in machines that beat humans at games like chess and Go. There seems to be some question as to whether machines can be built that are self-motivated and can generalize so that they are able to do things like design and build a spaceship. However, it appears that doing so is merely an extrapolation of many activities machines already perform.

If computers can reason, it seems likely that they can use their reasoning to control robots. Moreover, it seems likely that these computer controlled robots will be able to accomplish the feats of construction that I typically describe. We are already making progress on such robots, and there is every indication that this progress will continue.

It seems likely that computer controlled robots could be tooled to move through space and mine asteroids. Finally, they should be able to use materials from those asteroids to build elaborate space habitats and space transports that will land on earth and take humans to those habitats.

Working Robots

So the question may naturally arise: is this what I actually expect the future to be like?

The answer is an emphatic no. The problem is that machines that can do everything a human can do are likely to improve upon their own programming in ways that ultimately make them capable of tasks that surpass what is possible by humans. This is the process that is expected to initiate what has been called the Technological Singularity.

These machines may not facilitate the colonization of space. They may do things that, as far as humans are able to comprehend, are essentially magic. They may show us another dimension where everything we think we want is already available in abundance. They may reconfigure the universe at its most fundamental level and turn it all into one giant habitat. They may show us how to be free of our bodies so that we can roam among the stars as spirits that never want for or need anything. Maybe, these machines will march us straight up to God and introduce us face to face so that we stop wasting our time with pedestrian pursuits and begin to develop our spirits. They may lead us to something we have, as yet, never imagined. They may make everything we have ever imagined obsolete.

Beyond Comprehension

Of course, there are the dark possibilities. They may eat us as snacks or discard us as relics. They may realize that human consciousness is best used as a kind of fuel for some unimaginable transport or glue for some unimaginable construction. Instead of introducing us to God, they may introduce us to the devil and say, “See, I told you they were loathsome. Do with them as you please.”

I actually cannot say which of these possibilities is most likely. I like to believe that humans are here for a reason and that it is a reason they would naturally find appealing. After all, what sense would it make to “create” something (Here, I use the word create somewhat loosely.) that hates the purpose it was created for?

The problem with such ideas is that there is no place to go with them. If we assume that the technological singularity inevitably leads to things we cannot possibly comprehend, we have reached the end of the discussion and we are all left wringing our hands.

However, does this diminish my ideas? It would, if my ideas were predictions of the precise nature of the future I expect; but that is not their purpose. They are not intended as actual descriptions, but as a sort of lower bound. When I describe the colonization of space, I am not saying, “This is exactly what I expect to happen.” I am saying, “This is the minimum I expect to happen. This is the lower end of what we should be able to achieve by such and such time.” Perhaps, I should say this at the beginning of every applicable topic I discuss, but that sort of disclaimer would get tiresome. Maybe I will occasionally allude to the present essay at the beginning of applicable topics or once in a while during discussions.

I believe that it will be possible for people to colonize the solar system using self-replicating robotic systems and the stations and transports they build. However this does not preclude the possibility that we will do it sooner, faster, better, or in a vastly different way. The first thing we build in space may not be a wheel station, but a giant gravity plate that accommodates billions of inhabitants. We may not build it in our solar system, but across several solar systems. Maybe we will build it somewhere in some other dimension that we cannot presently contemplate. Maybe we will somehow copy the earth a dozen times in all its detail and set up solar systems identical to our own at a dozen different locations. These are all possibilities that depend on science and inventions that may or may not be possible. We do not know, so there is no point in discussing them.

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